As early as Vincent Grashaw can recall, he was no fan of bullies. In elementary school, he can remember lending a hand to a classmate he saw being picked on and realizing that putting an end to the fight meant the start of something else entirely.
“I met one of my best friends because he was getting bullied and I stopped it,” recalls Grashaw, who has gone on to show a different kind of muscle as a director of the harrowing teen boot camp drama “Coldwater” and now the thoughtful school shooting drama “And Then I Go.” “And I know this kid still to this day, so I think everyone can do their part.”
In bringing Jim Shepard’s novel “Project X” to the screen from a script by the writer and “I’ll See You in My Dreams” director Brett Haley, Grashaw has made a complex and intricate film up to the task of depicting how a young mind can be bent towards becoming a killer, and equally crucial, the many fissures in the system that allows such kids to fall through the cracks with great sensitivity and compassion. Yet Grashaw isn’t making a PSA with “And Then I Go,” but rather a heartrending drama about a pair of young men, Edwin (Arman Darbo) and Flake (Sawyer Barth), whose longtime friendship starts to fray as the latter begins to think about resorting to his father’s gun cabinet to resolve the ongoing beatings the two face at school. While Flake’s circumstances are more severe, finding about as much love at home as he does on the playground, Edwin is confronted with a situation that is no less fraught, even if less apparent as his well-meaning parents (Justin Long and Melanie Lynskey) are distracted from giving him their full attention and struggle to find the right way to get through to him even when they are fully attuned.
Grashaw has no such problems getting on the same wavelength as his young leads, channelling with great sophistication how Edwin and Flake try to make sense of the world around them. It’s heartbreaking to see the two lose their innocence as they begin to look towards the adults in their lives and realize they don’t have all the answers, and don’t yet have the faculties to come to more nuanced conclusions than acting out. Told with a light touch and considerable soul, “And Then I Go” nonetheless burrows in deep, and while the ongoing spectre of gun violence in schools would make the film timely no matter when it arrived following the book’s publication in 2005, its release now in the wake of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the subsequent movement for change seems to be particularly fortuitous as a much needed illustration of the systemic roots of the issue that gives flesh and blood to all involved. As the film becomes available on demand following its premiere last summer at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Grashaw spoke about taking on such difficult subject matter and disarming audiences enough to take it in, as well as discovering his two strong lead actors and the technical details that make it such an emotionally enveloping experience.
I understand the producers came to you with this – what grabbed you about it?
They came to me a couple months before we had to be in Kentucky for pre-production, so I knew things were going to be moving very, very quickly. I wasn’t on a project at the time, so I was open to reading it, but they told me it involved a topic of a school shooting, so I was a little reluctant at first, just because I thought it’s been done before with “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and “Elephant.” But when I read the novel, it had this perspective that was more important than any other perspective that had been tackled [the subject], which lies within the actual kids that are doing and thinking these things – it did it in a way that humanized them quite honestly, and in a way that relates to things that all kids can relate to almost. This movie is important because these can be anybody’s kids. It can be anybody. And it’s obviously a hot button right now.
Is it a coincidence that between this and “Coldwater,” you’ve taken up this subject of neglected youth or is it of ongoing interest?
It’s funny because it’s a total contrast to my life. I have incredible parents. I had a great upbringing and I have two sisters and a huge dynamic family – a lot of cousins that felt like my brothers and sisters growing up, so I wasn’t able to relate to that sort of neglect, but for me, what “Coldwater” and “And Then I Go” are about at its core, even when [they] deal with these socially conscious topics is friendship. This is a very powerful age because it’s the most awkward, you’re figuring out who you are, your voice is changing, your hormones are…everything’s happening. And both of these films, and even “Bellflower,” which I produced, focus on the power and dynamic of friendship. That’s what drew me to it because I could relate, not necessarily the feeling of being depressed or having anxiety myself, but the falling out of a friendship. I had a falling out with one of my best friends in high school for trivial shit. To this day, it doesn’t make sense, but I think we were growing apart anyway and grasping at straws to keep this together. With Edwin and Blake [in “And Then I Go,”] there’s a lot of that going on. Edwin knows what’s right and wrong and [he and Blake have] been friends since they were five years old, but you’re hitting this awkward age where you’re on these different paths. Edwin’s got all of these opportunities. He’s talented and these girls like him and he could have all that, but veering down that path would probably include losing touch with his best friend, so that says a lot and was definitely a factor in how I could relate to this.
How did you find these wonderful young actors and cast them against each other to get that interesting dynamic you speak of?
In terms of finding them, they auditioned just like everyone else. I like to be very involved in casting sessions and I watch all of the reels that are submitted. Tapes were being sent from all around North America, including Canada. Arman auditioned in L.A. and he was definitely a different look than what I expected to cast for this role because he was this good-looking, angelic kid, but it made me think by casting him, it strips away another element of like these kids are nerdy, which there’s an element of in the book, so I found it more interesting to cast a kid who you wouldn’t think would be that way. And Arman brings a lot of the qualities that Edwin has. He’s quiet and introverted in a way, because he’s traveled the world. He’s lived in so many different places and he speaks four languages, which I saw as something where [I wondered] how many friends, how many deep relationships can you have at 14 years old if you’ve lived in France for two years, China for four years, and Costa Rica for a year? So [I thought] he’s bringing something here that is raw and real and he can tap into those emotions and it’s not acting. It’s just him.
Sawyer is completely different. He’s been around acting for a little while now and he’s got this confidence and this demeanor that’s like, “Oh, I got this.” He has a very strong opinion on his choices and when you put those two together, they were just Edwin and Blake completely. [They’re] two kids who I don’t think necessarily would’ve been friends in real life, but it was interesting for them to work together because they brought so much and this movie lives and dies by their performances. It was one of the things we were really concerned about, but all those concerns went to the wayside once we found them.
The film is weighty, but has a very light touch, in part it feels because you might’ve cast actors known as much for their comedic chops as they are for drama. Was that something you were looking for?
One of the things about the book and the script that was important to me was the humor and levity because I did not want to make a movie that was just an hour-and-a-half of just depression. It needed that life to it that we can all relate to – the chaotic dinner table stuff that you go through as a kid with your parents – but it was never like, “Oh, let’s cast comedians to play against type.” We went on what relationships do we have with certain actors and Laura, one of the producers, was friends with Tony Hale and had worked with him, so it was a matter of just [asking], “Does he fit the [role of the] vice principal? Let’s get him the script and see what he thinks.” And Justin [Long], I don’t think he’d ever played a father before, and he brought a lot of humor to this character. He’s a frustrated dad who can’t connect with his son, so I think there’s truth in that. It’s not like [Edwin’s] dad is a bully at all. He wants to connect and thinks, “Oh, boys will be boys, and five years from now, he’ll figure it out. He’s going to be okay.” But then seeing how it’s getting worse and worse and not being equipped with what he needs to say to get through to his son, so you should see that humor, but also frustration on his part.
It was the same with the mother [played by Melanie Lynskey], who’s a little more aware of where Edwin’s at and concerned, but even when you try and you hug your kid and tell him you love him – then boom, just by saying that, it can trigger a kid to escalate even more because he’s [thinks] “Of course, I can handle this shit. You don’t even know why I’m so angry. You don’t know anything.” So it’s a tough, complex thing and all of [the actors] brought elements that we were looking for and I think they all had their own reasons for why they came onboard. Nobody got rich on this one at all.
Visually, the film feels airy, but you’ve said you had pretty rigid rules about staying within Edwin’s perspective in terms of how you moved the camera. How did you figure out POV in this?
It’s funny because all the DPs that I typically work with weren’t available and it was kind of stressful because I was being submitted DPs’ reels. I saw Pat’s and he’s just so talented, but one of the things that really got me hooked to hire him was he came with a very strong belief with how we should shoot this and we had a lot of conversations just about how to put you in that headspace of the kid because the book, that’s what it is. You have sprinkles of the parents and the teachers. There are all these other adults in his life, but you feel like you’re in his mind [the whole time] so we always wanted to have the camera pretty much around Edwin when he’s talking to parents and any time it was on his parents, it was always from his perspective. We just felt that that was really going to do it, as well as focusing on his closeups a lot because Arman has these mannerisms where you just look at him [and you can tell] what he’s thinking. He’s not a stone-faced and the way we shot this film, everything was on him, so if it wasn’t coming across, we could be in a lot of trouble.
Heather McIntosh’s score is also quite extraordinary, using the strings both as a way to be playful and give this considerable gravitas. What was it like working with her?
She was incredible. I have a heavy hand as to my own process in pre-production and immediately once I got the job, I started listening to score and composers of other films. It puts me in that creative mood, so I was listening to a lot and a lot of it happened to be [Heather’s], which was really interesting. I didn’t know her and the only film I knew she did at that time was “Compliance,” which had a lot of cello. Initially, I had a lot of temp score that I knew I was going to place in the film and where, even before we shot it. That’s just something I do, and typically, I like to bring in a composer in pre-production so they can really start creating ambiances and atmospheric stuff while you’re shooting, so you can have that to place in as temp score instead of using other composers.
There’s a thing called “temp love,” [because] when you use temp score, you fall in love with it, so if you’re not careful as a filmmaker, you’re just going to want your composer to copy that, and when Heather came on in post, she was going off of a lot of temp score I had in there, but she had this whole other dynamic – a lot of the strings and other elements that I didn’t expect – that she brought to the table that I was just in love with. She’s somebody who goes far above and beyond what you’re looking for – and [with] the time you should be allotted to have with them. I’m just grateful for that because we spent a lot of hours making that score.
What is it like to be putting this movie out at this time? Has it been tricky to get out there?
Obviously since Parkland, there’s been a shift in the consciousness [and] people are just more willing to hear and discuss [school shootings]. And we as a movie want to be part of that conversation. This [release] was planned before that shooting even happened, and it’s three days before the Columbine anniversary and the National Walkout, but we have a film that we feel doesn’t take a political approach, but we’re coming at it with how does this film help the conversation because that’s why we made it. When we did make this, several school shootings had already happened, and in March of this year, there’s been 17 school shootings, so we know there are going to be more [but we’ve also] seen a shift [in the conversation] and we just want people to see this movie and to take something away from it, whether it be you’re a parent and finding a different way to communicate [to your children] or being a parent that owns guns and hopefully you have them locked up and separated from ammunition without easy access. Everyone has to do their part or else this is going to keep happening.