Remember when you were a kid, and all you needed to keep yourself occupied was some friends, some woods, and no parents bothering you?
I Declare War, the latest release from Drafthouse Films, takes place one hot Canadian summer afternoon, where are bunch of pre-teens go off into the woods to play their regular game of war. There are sides and there are rules, but most importantly, there is imagination. In the kids’ hands, a stick becomes a gun, a slingshot is a crossbow, and a paint-filled balloon is a deadly grenade. But unattended kids can always get into trouble, especially when rivals to the unbeatable 12-year-old general PK (Gage Munroe) let real emotions bleed into the game. Co-director Robert Wilson said, “None of the characters can be drawn into good or bad, but PK is more interested in winning than anything else. So it raises the question, is that good or bad?”
In many ways, I Declare War is a throwback movie, from an age when kids in films got muddy and bruised, instead of repetitive strain injuries from too many levels of Candy Crush. There had been other filmmakers interested in writer/director Jason Lapeyre’s script, but Wilson and producer Lewin Webb were the first ones to understand how to balance the childhood realities with the world within the war. When other people saw the script, Wilson said: “They wanted to make this movie, they just didn’t know how to sell it or no one knew get to that next step. We’re stupid, Lewin and I. The first time Lewin read it, he said, ‘Jason, we’re making this movie.’”
Lapeyre described the leafy battleground of I Declare War as “a hermetically sealed world” inhabited solely by the kids. In earlier script drafts, there was a scene where one child imagined his parents within the game, but Webb and Wilson convinced him to stick up the “kids only” sign. He said, “They said, if we’re going to do this, let’s do this all the way,” said Lapeyre.
When it came to the explosions and fight sequences, health and safety ran a tight ship about having kids playing with prop guns: As Wilson recalled, they were more nervous about all those pyrotechnics and squibs so close to the plants and trees. At the same time, the greenery was the production’s friend. The whole film is supposed to take place in one hazy afternoon, and the trees provided the best continuity cover possible. “You can’t track exactly where the sun is, so you don’t have a sense of whether it’s early afternoon or late afternoon,” Lapeyre said. “We tried as best as we could to retain continuity, and if it was off a bit, we could get away with it because of the foliage cover.”
Even if it was disguised, the sun was vital to the film. Wilson said, “We wanted a sense of the hottest day of the year unexpectedly coming on these kids.” Considering they were filming just outside of Scarborough in Toronto, that seemed optimistic. Wilson said, “Hoping for days outdoor with no rain cover in summer in a city that’s not known for L.A.-like weather, you shouldn’t do it. It’s going to get you sooner later.”
They actually got lucky when a mini-heatwave hit the set. Well, less lucky for Munroe, who, as mini-Patton PK, goes into battle in a camouflaged combat jacket. Munroe said, “I went to the audition with that jacket on, just to see what it was like, to see if it helped at all.” That almost turned out to be a terrible idea when he got the part. When he got to set, mid-heatwave, the directors decided they liked the look, and the kid’s coat was in the picture. He said, “I offered up mine, but they needed multiples so they could do splatter. I ended up getting a fairly light jacket, thankfully.”
Keeping the set fun was easy; making the rules of war work on-screen was a little harder. In the game, someone is declared dead when they get hit with a balloon full of paint. That’s not as simple as it sounds, as rubber doesn’t just explode on contact. The crew discovered that spraying balloons with enough shellac to make them brittle solved the problem, but there was a lot of trial and error on the way. “That solution took probably 10 adults and, over the course of three weeks, probably 60 hours of manpower to finally ask the right people what the solution was,” Wilson said. “We were throwing water balloons at people as they drove up in cars, and we were filming it all, too.”
Not even his co-director was exempt from such guinea pigging. Lapeyre recalled: “We were in the middle of the preproduction when we’re trying to solve nine different problems, and it’s, ‘Lapeyre, we need you to wear a garbage bag. We’re going to throw nine kinds of water balloon at you to see which ones break. Go!’ Oh, great, this is part of my job now.”
I Declare War opens this weekend at Alamo Slaughter Lane and is available now on iTunes and VOD. See Film Listings for showtimes and review.
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