Commentary: Shooting 'Suicide' no dead-end job

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Shooting "Suicide": Coming up with something new and different for a student filmmaking assignment isn't easy, but 17-year-old media geek Archie Williams certainly does it in "My Suicide."

The problem is that since Williams, played by Gabriel Sunday, proposes to film his own suicide, his filmmaking career isn't likely to go very far. Actually, there are other problems, too, since some of his high school classmates decide he's got the right idea about committing suicide and set out to imitate him.

"Suicide" is a compelling coming-of-age romantic comedy drama that filmmaker David Lee Miller tells so well it's already been honored at the Berlin Film Festival with the Crystal Bear for best feature in the Generation 14-plus youth film section. Clearly, for Miller, shooting "Suicide" was no dead-end job as it should give his filmmaking career a well-deserved boost. In making their award, the Berlin jurors commented that they were "not only fascinated by the film's gripping content but also the highly original way in which it was made. The protagonist's loneliness and his longing for love are authentic and awe-inspiring."

Miller, who wrote and directed the 1993 horror comedy "Breakfast of Aliens," has written and produced video games for years. He wrote "Suicide" with Eric J. Adams and Gabriel Sunday based on a story by Miller and his son Jordan J. Miller. The Regenerate and Archie Film presentation in association with Interscope and Red Rover Films is produced by Miller, Todd Traina, Adams and Larry Janss. It was executive produced by Harold Ramis, Jimmy Iovine, Polly Anthony, Steven Jay Rubin, Karyn Rachtman, Ken Hertz, Michael McDonough, Karen Dean Fritts and Alana Henry. Starring are Gabriel Sunday, Brooke Nevin, Mariel Hemingway, David Carradine, Joe Mantegna and Nora Dunn.

After enjoying an early look at this very unusual film, which had not yet been shown to distributors, I was happy to catch up recently with Miller. "I have been working with young artists throughout my career," he told me. "One of them was my son, Jordan, who at a very young age started making movies. They were mainly extreme sports films and they took him to Sundance and a number of other places. So for four or five years running he would be on panels at Sundance as the freaky little 13- or 14-year-old digital moviemaker.

"We started a youth group together called Regenerate. He was approached by a concerned parent in our neighborhood in Thousand Oaks (California) about all the car crashes that were happening. They were wondering if he could make movies about teen issues for his peers that would help. So we formed Regenerate to empower youth to make programming for their peers about important teen issues -- and suicide is the number two killer of kids. So Jordan and I would sit around Sundance all excited by independent films and go, 'What movie could we make that would fit the mission of Regenerate, but just be a bad-ass rockin' picture?' And we came up with the concept for this movie."

That was back in 2003. "We also conceived it as something that once we discovered the (actor to play) Archie we could just start shooting and conceivably write on a timeline," Miller said. "Now that changed. If you analyze the film you'll notice that underneath the experimental storytelling there's actually a very traditional three act story structure."

Asked to sum up the film's complex story, he replied, "Ultimately, I see it as a boy's journey from narcissism to connection. It really is about a young man who is ambivalent and over connected and disconnected, whose life changes when he announces he's going to kill himself for his fourth period video production class. Basically, he turns from (being) a nerd to somebody who's got a very high 'q' (popularity score) in his world. It basically becomes a journey to connection and to a discovery that the best things that happen in life are the direct result of giving as opposed to taking."

Nonetheless, Archie's own talk about committing suicide influences some of his classmates to try to emulate him. "He feels legitimate guilt over what happens," Miller said, not wanting to elaborate because "obviously we don't want to give that away. All suicide is characterized by ambivalence. Archie could be suicidal, but was ultimately on an exploratory journey. But the fact of the matter is he's playing with fire there and this is stuff that needs to be taken seriously. And it's so often the case that it's a boy who's quiet and that people don't really anticipate is going to kill himself who does."

In developing the film, he added, to make it as accurate as possible, "We worked really closely with Dr. Edwin Schneidman (who is) the father of (the American Association of) Suicidology (and a leading suicide prevention expert). We consulted with him and Dr. Elaine Leader at Teen Line (a confidential peer hotline for teens) to keep everything really authentic and really on point in terms of the whole mental health side of this."

Miller worked closely with young people to make this movie that's targeted to a young audience. "The editors of this movie (Jordan J. Miller and Gabriel Sunday) both started editing it when they were 20 years old," he said. "They're 22 now. I wrote the story with Jordan and, of course, Gabe wrote the screenplay with us as well as with Eric Adams. That really kept that youth voice authentic so it doesn't come off as a preachy film. It's ultimately a film that kids feel is expressing their emotions."



When I observed that at times during "Suicide" it was hard to believe there was a written screenplay because so much was happening on screen so quickly, Miller replied, "There was a written screenplay although there's a lot of documentary footage, which was always intended that way, as well as improvisational footage. For example, the scene when he goes back to school after being taken away for 72 hours of observation, which is what happens to you -- that is truly a blend of real kids talking, documentary footage, scripted (material) and improvisational footage. You really can't tell what's what.

"We probably wrote very early on in the process like a hundred pages of just Archie rants and then we wrote a treatment, which really has survived in terms of the structure of the story. When we found Gabriel we had looked for four months because we needed a kid who felt comfortable holding a camera on himself and who would join the movie (not only as) an actor but as a filmmaker. Eric Adams discovered him in Petaluma, Calif. We knew he was the guy. In fact, in all the years I've been in the film industry I've never had (like) when I met Gabe (that feeling), 'Who am I meeting here? Robin Williams at 18?' "

Miller and his team started working on the film using the treatment and the Archie rants they'd written early on. "My idea was that we would create the film and write it on a timeline and do it within the non-profit (organization) Regenerate," he said. "What happened was when I started raising money for the film people were like, 'Wow. This is really a commercial idea. And this footage that you've got and these trailers that you've put together, they're really, really strong. We want to invest in the film.' So working with attorneys we put together a structure that enabled both foundations and individual investors to get together in this movie."

Filming took place around Los Angeles as well as in Thousand Oaks, Orange County and northern California. "The principal photography was 20 days, but the additional photography was basically on and off," he said. "I put Gabriel when I moved him here from Petaluma, after he was in my house for a while -- which back in those days was like having Jim Carrey from 'The Mask' living in your house -- into what we called our 'Kato Kaelin bungalow' (Kaelin became famous as an O.J. Simpson house guest) behind the pool house in Thousand Oaks. That's the pool house in the movie, so he lived on the set."

"Suicide" also makes considerable use of animation. "We always conceived that Archie would scribble over his film," Miller explained. "So a lot of the animation was developed after (shooting) from the motivation that Archie animates stuff that's really important to him. And that's why we feel the animation is all motivated. When you cut to animation you don't just go, 'Where did this come from?' It's Archie."

Looking back at the challenges of production, Miller recalled, "One of the biggest was dealing with the sheer amount of footage. We shot a lot of documentary footage (with) experts talking about suicide and suicide prevention and teen suicides and kids talking about their feelings -- not only about suicide, but what they love and what they hate and what the condition of their life is today. Dealing with (all that) footage was a huge, huge issue."

Now with the film finished Miller's working to bring it to audiences. The first step was "Suicide's" world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February. "Beyond some tests here, which went very well, we'd never played it for big audiences before," he said. "And we won the Crystal Bear in the Generation Division. The response to the film was really surreal. We had packed crowds and were sold out at every screening. Nobody left before the Q&A's. They went on until they had to kick us out (of) the theater because the other movie was coming in. People were talking about the movie, of course, and filmmaking, but it also sparked incredible communication about feelings and suicide and life and death. We couldn't have asked for a more shocking and amazing response."

As for getting the film distributed, he told me, "We're just starting to show it to distributors. We're getting a lot of inquiries after winning the Crystal Bear, especially from different foreign distributors. We're just starting to work at getting our producer representation down and trying to find a great domestic deal. But we don't have one yet. We'd love for people to see the movie with a packed crowd of the number one moviegoers in the world, who are 15- to 35-year-olds, who this movie, we've learned, really plays for.

"One of the things in Berlin that really shocked me was kids coming back again and again. By the fifth screening -- we actually showed five times in Berlin because you show one extra time for winning -- I was sitting way back because I'm still tweaking the audio a little bit (and was) making some notes. There was a group of kids who I recognized (and asked), 'How many times have you guys seen this movie now?' And they were on their fourth viewing."

Distributors will be able to get a first look at "Suicide" March 15 when it has its North American premiere in Austin at the South by Southwest Film Festival at 1:45 p.m. at the Paramount Theater. More details about the film are also available on its official Web site, MySuicideTheMovie.com.

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com
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