Interview: Ben Coccio, Filmmaker

by Joshua Goldfond

Ben Coccio is a 36-year-old screenwriter and film director who has been working in cinema for nearly 15 years. A native of upstate New York and a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, he self-financed his earliest guerrilla film-making projects through credit card debt. He gained his first accolades from his 2003 drama, Zero Day; a film that explores the lead-up to a fictional Columbine High School Massacre-style event. The narrative is told through the lens of found footage left by the two teenaged perpetrators, played by Andrew Keuck and Cal Robertson. The boys’ chilling meticulousness, perverse rationalizations, and unsettling likability all make for a deeply engaging tale that speaks highly to Coccio’s talents as a filmmaker.

Zero Day won Coccio ‘Best Director’ at the Slamdunk Film Festival and earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination. Its critical success gave him the opportunity the to write and direct his second feature, The Beginner. More recently he has collaborated with Derek Cianfrance, director of the Academy Award-nominated 2010 romance/drama Blue Valentine. Their highly anticipated crime/drama, The Place Beyond the Pines, features an all-star cast that includes Ryan Gosling, Rose Byrne, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes and Ray Liotta.

Coccio spoke with me in mid-July of 2012 about his background, career, and future ambitions.

 

How did you get started in film, and what- if any- formal education did you receive in the craft?

My older brother was the original movie maker in the family. He is just one of those people that is so naturally creative that he seems to not need the structure of a medium as a vehicle to express his creativity. Whatever he needed to do to accomplish whatever insane, wonderful thing he thought of, he’d do it. It’s like that old saying, “talent does what it can, genius does what it must.” That omnivorous approach to technique that he had eventually started involving the 8mm camera and the VHS camcorder. I liked working on my brother’s movies at first because I liked to act in them. I then found out that making movies was the most fun thing ever. I loved the collaborative aspect most of all. In high school, we heard of this other kid who liked to make movies, and in seeking him out to collaborate on a school movie project, he and I became best friends and constant collaborators. So throughout high school and beyond, my brother and closest friends and I made movies together almost as a celebration of our friendship. It was something fun to do that left a record of us having hung out together and laughed and enjoyed each others company.

I went on to film school at the Rhode Island School of Design, which I loved and where I got a very unique education in movie making. Many of the professors there had gone to the short-lived MIT film program in the early 70s. The other kids in my classes were all extremely talented people – many of them in the way my brother is talented. That meant that, unlike me, they were not necessarily interested in the more mainstream approach to narrative filmmaking. And I found that extremely exciting and challenging and interesting. That experience really shaped my approach to trying to tell the same old, solid, mythic stories in a new way.

What are some of your major film influences? 

My mom and dad always loved movies and had good taste in them. In the 80s when I was a little kid, we would always go see great movies: all the wonderful late 70s/early 80s blockbusters that were so well-made, so entertaining, so beautifully crafted. After my folks split up when I was 10, I remember a big bonding thing between my mom and I was to rent all the movies by a certain director, like Sergio Leonne or Akira Kurosawa, and watch them all in a row.By the time I was in high school and college, there were just a ton of terrific independent or smaller films in theaters – it was an embarrassment of riches. I like to think of it as spanning from Goodfellas and Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing my freshman year of high school to Wes Anderson’s Rushmore/PT Anderson’s Boogie Nights the year after I graduated college.

That stuff influenced me, no question. But I think the influence of my brother and my friends and my college classmates and professors might have been equal or greater than that of other movies I saw. I really, really, REALLY wanted to impress my brother, my college classmates (who I thought were just much more creative than me) and my professors. That desire, in part, still drives me today. Probably more than the influence of Goodfellas.

I guess what was really the common denominator of all the movies and people that influenced me is that they were all trying to do something with their work. They were all trying to make something you would remember.

Your first film, Zero Day, was produced in 2003 when the Columbine Massacre still weighed very heavily on the national consciousness. Was there a specific reason why you chose this topic? What kind of budget did you have to work with and how long did it take to develop? Why did you opt to go with a “found footage” approach to the story?

On the day Columbine happened, I was at a pizza place in New York. There was a TV on there and it was just showing this shot of a high school from a helicopter. The sound was off, so it was very confusing, but ominous. I went home and found out what had happened. My first thought was that I was surprised this had not happened already. It seemed to make a sick kind of sense. From there, I knew I really wanted to make a movie about this kind of thing. I’m not sure why. Maybe I wanted to make a movie out of it to try and understand it myself. It seemed like a modern expression of an ancient Greek tragedy; fate, blood, catharsis.

At first I thought I wanted to make a movie of the actual Columbine, and it had to be epic in scale and vision; as Terrance Malick or PT Anderson would do it. But 1999 was just a year and a half after graduating college and I realized that was not going to be possible for me. I also remember thinking, ‘who the hell wants to finance the most depressing story ever told?’ I figured, ‘some day.’ Then, I got into a car accident and almost died and I realized I had to just go do it any way I could.

I started researching Columbine and found out that the two kids had video taped their preparations. And this was not long after Blair Witch came out. It just all fell into place for me. The found footage approach seemed to the perfect technique to make this movie cheap and effective. At the time, those home videos were not available to the public, nor would they be until I was long done with my movie, so imagining them for myself became part of the creative play that made the project so exciting.

I started researching and writing in the spring of 2001. I had this temp job where I could accomplish a day’s work in an hour, and then I would spend the rest of my day writing. I moved up to Connecticut in June, the same month I had my auditions. I started shooting on July 4th, 2001 and was almost finished shooting by September 11th. My actors and I had a really interesting view of the suicide attackers from 9/11. We saw them as larger scale, geopolitical Columbine killers. I remember we did the ‘suicide note’ scene after 9/11, and we were very influenced by suicide bomber’s last videos.

There was no budget. I bought a couple cameras, feed two teenagers fast food for a couple of months and paid for gas. The most expensive day by far was the shooting scene, but even that was relatively cheap. I think the shooting budget was like 13k? And perhaps 5k of that was the shooting scene? I put the whole movie on credit cards, of course. Zero Day is actually why I have such a great credit rating to this day.

The transfer to film was by the most expensive part of the movie, not to mention not having a job and living off credit cards while I took the around to film festivals. That was how I got into debt, ultimately, not the production budget.

It seems that one of the central ideas of Zero Day is the motivelessness of film’s climax. Certainly, the protagonists make some Iago-like justifications for the evil they feel compelled to do, but it often seems that their motives are as elusive to them as they are to the people who will inevitably dissect their actions. Do you think that there is a futility in trying the to understand logic behind these sorts of events? Or is there a larger lesson here?

I think the only answer I ever found for something like Columbine was the two kids’ friendship. Their relationship was like a vehicle that takes them to this especially awful place. Maybe they would have gone there by themselves. Certainly, there have been plenty of ‘lone gunmen.’ Either way, from a dramatic perspective, the relationship was fascinating to me. I spent my high school days doing bizarre, inscrutable projects with my brother and close friends; projects that brought us closer together and made our relationships as intense or more intense that some of my high school romances. I guess in that way, I could identify with these guys. But the specifics of their project were so terrifying, so brutal, so cruel, unfeeling and unnecessary. What was the moment where they said, ‘Hey! I got an idea! Let’s massacre innocents together!’ Was there even a moment like that?I really liked the idea that, through the first-person narrative, you get as close as you dare to these kids, you hear them say, ‘we did it because of this or that,’ and still, you have no satisfying answers. There will never be a satisfactory answer to something like Columbine. I don’t buy any of the pat answers peddled by different people after the massacre. What I respect is someone going through their own process to make a sense of what happened; trying to find their own answer, or trying to just find a way to accept it.

Also, I wanted to make people like these characters in spite of what they were going to do. I may have cheated in this aspect; I may have made them too likeable to be capable of what they eventually do or I may not have shown enough clear signs of anger or instability, but it’s a movie, so, bite me. Seriously, though. In real life, I have no doubt that the parents of Dylan Klebold or the parents of Seung-Hui Cho loved them and saw them 100% as victims of their respective massacres. And that’s how I see them too. I wanted to manipulate the audience into feeling the same way, Maybe even mourn these monsters a little.

If you look up Zero Day on tumblr, you find these high school kids who clearly like to watch the movie again and again. I think it’s similar to why I like to watch Goodfellas again and again — these are bad people who do unforgivable things, but still, you really do enjoy hanging out with them.

Can you talk a little bit about your forthcoming movie, “Beyond The Pines”? You seem to have assembled an impressive cast that includes Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Rose Byrne. How did the project get started, and long has it been in the works?

Zero Day brought me some bigger opportunities. I had another script I wanted to direct and my agent and manager shopped it around. No one wanted to do it, but one producer was interested in my writing and directing an adaptation of a short story she had the rights too. I read the short story, hated it, and said, ‘I loved it! Let’s get to work!’ Basically, I used the short story as a flimsy jumping off point to write a script I wanted to do anyway. And I was on my way. This was a real producer with real money and relationships with solid cast possibilities. But I had never written a script in this context before, and never had a relationship with a producer before, and the whole thing started to fall apart slowly and painfully. I did draft after draft for free, but in the end, the producer and I just did not have good chemistry. I could not let go of the opportunity, though. Making movies was all I wanted to do with my life, and as rewarding as Zero Day was, I really did not want to do something the same way again. I wanted to grow. Anyhow, on the down-slope of that situation, my agent told me a client of his was looking for a non-guild writer to write a movie for him. The pay was teeny-tiny, but I figured it would be an opportunity to learn how to write without being emotionally involved in the same way I was for my flailing writer/director project. I decided to meet with this guy at the Donut Pub in New York City. This was Derek Cianfrance, before he made Blue Valentine. To me, he was just some guy in the Donut Pub with tattoos. He had a very simple idea that he wanted me to write. It was simple, but it had epic proportions. I saw it as like a modern equivalent of ‘Giant,’ or something like that. I immediately had a lot of ideas for how to do it, and I set to work. Talk to me again when the movie has come out, and I can get specific about that process. I’ll say this: I suggested that the movie be set in the kind of town I grew up in, Schenectady, New York. He told me his wife was from Schenectady. So, in looking for a title, I found out what ‘Schenectady’ means. It’s a dutch derivation of an Iroquois phrase which means, ‘The Place Beyond the Pines.’

Derek is a person who starts from a place of fluidity first and foremost. I am a person who likes to work from structure. I think because of this, it was a terrific collaboration. It was also a lot of drafts. I did something like 21 drafts. Over three years or so. At the time, I was working at a job which I hated, and paying off my debts from Zero Day. After my writer/director opportunity officially died, there was just nothing. All quiet on the western front. But writing for Derek was very fun, challenging and inspiring, and I decide to make another micro-budget movie, this time on HD. It was a free-form adaptation of the prodigal son called The Beginner, and Cal was my main actor. That project was really more of a free-form voyage of discovery than Zero Day ever was, and working on it while I wrote The Place Beyond the Pines was a great way to see new possibilities in both projects.

Somewhere along the way, Derek directed Blue Valentine, and I started to realize that Hollywood was going to give Derek a very big opportunity to make his next movie. I remember thinking that any day, Derek could be shown a script that he would rather make than ‘Place Beyond the Pines,’ and I had to do all that I could to keep him in love. Paradoxically, I think, the way to do that was too keep the material alive; and not perfectly resolved. Derek’s process involves a LOT of discovery on set. He is the polar opposite of Hitchcock. I had my theories about the story and the plot and characters as I wrote, but what really mattered was how the questions posed by the script motivated Derek to work through the answers on set and in the editing room.

Last summer, Derek and a cast of huge movie stars shot this script that I wrote about my home town in my home town. I only visited set for two days, but it was a surreal experience. If my first impetus was to take this writing job as a way to learn screen-writing without being as emotionally involved as I would be if I were going to direct the script myself, than I was very naive. I even thought that since I was aware of how screenwriters typically feel about what happens to their work, I would be immune to that feeling; especially since I directed my own work and planed on using whatever opportunity came from writing Pines to direct in the future. Again, this was very naive. As a writer, you are convinced the story you so thoughtfully told on the page is nose-diving into corn field.

Once I saw the rough cut of the movie a few months ago, I was very relieved. And I also really learned an important lesson about movies – plot means little to nothing. Story and character are all that matter. No one watches a movie again and again for a plot. People come back to see a story that means something to them and to be with characters they enjoy spending time with.

With the continued rise of the internet, major Hollywood studios are increasingly turning to sequels, reboots, and franchise nostalgia in order to rake in profits and maintain cultural hegemony. Does this paint a bleak future for indie filmmakers, who are generally starved for money and exposure even in the best of economic times? Or, is this an opportunity in disguise for indie film to distinguish itself?

I think that this, too, shall pass. The current blockbuster model is not eternally sustainable. I also think that if it were an eternal state of affairs, then good story tellers could find a way to tell these stories well. I think true indie filmmakers have never had it so easy to actually make their movies. Theoretically, they have never had it so easy to get their work to an audience either. But, it’s probably harder now for an indie movie to become a cultural touchstone or event. I am very curious to see what happens next. Making movies is not like making music, so the way that music has adapted to the internet market place is probably not an accurate model for the way movies will or should adapt.

Do you have any other forthcoming projects that you’d care to mention?

I am working on something I hope to direct, but I can’t talk about it yet. I am working on screenplays for hire, but I also can’t really talk about those either.

 

Day Zero is now available on Netflix as well as Epix.