Bryan Gunnar Cole, Day Zero
It is common for directors to have a background in theater, documentary filmmaking or editing, but Bryan Gunnar Cole is almost unique for having made a mark in all three fields. Cole was one of the founders of the Annex Theatre, a fringe company based in his native Seattle which memorably put on shows like Wonka, a colorful musical version of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He gained a BA in Film at Yale and then an MFA at NYU, where he won a raft of student accolades including the Wasserman Award, the film school’s highest award, for his thesis film, Trim (1998). Since graduation, Cole has established himself as a respected editor, working in feature films (Arctic Son, Rock the Paint) as well as television (The First 48, Texas Ranch House). At the same time, he has also directed a number of documentaries such as Boomtown (2002), about Independence Day on a native American reservation, which aired on PBS as part of the channel’s “P.O.V.” series after playing on the film festival circuit.
Cole made a documentary short, Unfurled, in response to 9/11, and his feature debut as director sees him enter similarly delicate political territory. Day Zero is set in America in the near future at a time when the draft has been reintroduced because of the U.S. Army’s continuing problems in Iraq, and focuses on three old high school friends (Elijah Wood, Chris Klein and Jon Bernthal) who are all drafted. Cole’s film is an exploration of the response, intellectual and emotional, moral and personal, to the trio’s call to arms, and is intended as a starting point for discussion of the broader issues about the direction Bush’s America is going. The directness of Rob Malkani’s overtly political script harks back to the New Hollywood movies of the 1970s, while D.P. Matthew Clark’s envisioning of New York also pays a homage to this era. Indeed Day Zero specifically recalls the work of New Hollywood’s wild child, Hal Ashby (who Cole cites as a big influence), in the way that it tackles prescient political issues by introducing them to audiences through its characters’ personal dramas.
Filmmaker spoke to Cole about real politics, imaginary wars and his disinclination to see the film he calls The Bucket Line.
Filmmaker: You have your roots in theater, I believe, and started the Annex Theatre company.
Cole: I started in theater in college, I had always enjoyed theater. We were just a bunch of folk that wanted to do some shows, so we started a fringe theater instead of diving into the Equity world. We were just like, “Let’s just get a space for ourselves and do our own stuff.” That was twenty-odd year ago, and our company is still thriving in Seattle and is the oldest fringe theater in the Northwest and [has] produced [plays] all over the world. We really modeled ourselves after the Steppenwolf idea.
Filmmaker: So in a way you’ve always had that independent spirit in your work.
Cole: Yeah, I like to say I haven’t had a real job since I was 12 — I’ve been freelance since then!
Filmmaker: What was your job when you were 12?
Cole: [laughs] I had a truck and a pitchfork — you can get a lot done cleaning yards and all that. I was a country boy and cleaned my fair share of horse stalls too. Part of what I think allows me to have good communication with crew and cast and even producers is that I was exposed to that entrepreneurial, independent spirit from a very early age, so it’s easy to communicate with lots of different types of people.
Filmmaker: Were your artistic inclinations supported by your parents while you were growing up?
Cole: They were always pretty supportive. Neither of them is particularly artistic, although my father enjoyed writing. As I kept my grades up and stayed out of trouble, I pretty much had free reign for whatever I wanted to do. [laughs] I did try and cause trouble, but I didn’t get into trouble, if you know what I mean…
Filmmaker: Do you mean cause trouble through your creative pursuits?
Cole: I think part of the fun of doing a film like Day Zero is that you get to stir the pot a bit. I don’t think it’s a film that has a big red bow on it and comes neatly packaged and is digestible as the feel-good war movie of the year. I think that it’s got some heart, it takes you on an emotional journey, and I just tried to stir the pot and get people talking. We wanted to have a film that when you walked out of the theater, some people are going to love it, some people are going to hate it, but I don’t think anybody’s going to [shrug and] be like, “Uhhhh…” I think that it’s going to spark some dialogue.
Filmmaker: It seems like quite an edgy and challenging film to choose for your first film as director.
Cole: I guess so. I’ve cut a lot of political documentary and directed Boomtown, which had a political [angle] to it. I feel very comfortable with that material because all politics are local, so when you really focus in on how a character is feeling about something, you get to an emotional truth which underscores a belief system which then can be challenged or supported throughout the course of the narrative. I think that’s what happens with each of the characters in Day Zero: they may be friends, but they differ in some very significant ways, [like] how they deal with the idea of their friendship when it comes in conflict with how they feel about the choices they’re about to make.
Filmmaker: What initially attracted you to Day Zero?
Cole: I read it and really loved the concept of it, and it reminded me of a Vietnam-era film like Coming Home or The Last Detail or Five Easy Pieces. So we [writer-producer Rob Malkani, producer Anthony Moody and Cole] met and had an immediate discourse because we were all very different politically and yet we all wanted to get this idea out there. Rob and Tony are extremely talented producers and it was wonderful to work with them and to have that kind of support to get this done. My nicknames for them were Time and Money: when one of them showed up [on set] it was like, “Here comes Time!” or “Here comes Money!”
Filmmaker: You’d previously done a short film, Unfurled, which dealt with 9/11, and has similar political themes to this film.
Cole: I was in very close proximity to Ground Zero, and my wife was down there, and so [Unfurled] was [a film] that she and I just needed to do together as kind of experimental, folk-art piece to exorcise this experience that we had. At the same time, I think not bringing too much politics into anything — especially in political subject matter — is good. I think the artist’s job is to provoke and ask questions and to learn throughout that process and present your findings, rather than to say, “Hey, I know everything.” I think being a know-it-all and being an artist are kind of counterintuitive to each other. [Making Day Zero] was a really exciting process of discovery about what I would do, what I felt and how to express that in a way that would be entertaining and provocative for the audience.
Filmmaker: You said in a blog post on The Huffington Post that artists have a duty to provoke political discussion.
Cole: I think that part of the reason that the film is striking a chord with audiences is just because of that. There’s a certain tabloid element to it. One reviewer described it as a “ripped-from-the-headlines” type of idea, and there is an element of that — except that that headline’s been going on for a couple of years now. Our president said that we will be in Iraq for at least another 10 years — those are the kinds of things that [make] you start to do the math on our foreign policy and the repercussions that it has socially. I really wanted it to have a timeless feel so that it could be 20 years ago or it could be now, so that there was a sense that history does repeat itself.
Filmmaker: Another recent movie, Southland Tales, also uses a near-future America to comment on the contemporary political climate. In your case, what edge did that give you?
Cole: It’s a narrative and it’s fiction, so the edge it gives you is that it’s an imaginary circumstance and you get to explore truthful emotions within that imaginary circumstance. At the same time, we didn’t have the kind of resources that bigger films have so we had to really concentrate on what our characters were going through rather than the context that they found themselves in. Some films get to explore these kinds of issues in greater imaginary detail; I keep on thinking about Blade Runner — I mean, there’s an imaginary future! [laughs] So I really enjoyed the opportunity to do a gritty, street-y film — it really played to my training and my strengths.
Filmmaker: How much did your documentary background inform the way you approached the film?
Cole: A lot, I would have to say. I’m very comfortable moving quickly, and my editorial expertise also played a big role in the filmmaking process. My coverage was pretty spare, but I think it was effective. We knew what we needed, we knew we didn’t have a lot of time to get it. My director of photography, Matthew Clark (who’s just remarkable), and I have done a number of films together and we have a very easy working relationship, so with that kind of connection you can move very quickly and know what you need to get and when you need to get it. It doesn’t mean we weren’t pressured, because we were. It was an extremely grueling schedule: we had upwards of 170 scenes and 52 distinct locations, and 24 days. But I think the film looks beautiful, so I’m really proud of our crew.
Filmmaker: How much did your own political feelings permeate the film?
Cole: I think that it’s much more in an emotional territory than political territory that I feel connected. I didn’t have a lot of time to worry about what my politics were within the shot, but politics as a discourse on the set was always very dynamic. We had conservatives who would come up to me and say, “I’m so glad you’re making a pro-war movie,” and I would have the progressives on the set come and say, “I’m so glad you’re making an anti-war movie.” [The film] is what you bring to it, and I think that carries over into the audience as well.
Filmmaker: How do you personally view the film?
Cole: It’s funny, I think of it as a film about the personal decision to go to war, not the political one. I look at it as a personal journey in a political landscape. I think it’s pretty obvious I’m a progressive, but I wanted to leave that agenda out of the filmmaking process because I wanted to discover these personal stories. For me, you have to ask yourself those questions, like “What would I do?” My dad is a World War II veteran, and he enlisted. I have other family members that were drafted or enlisted in the military, but I never had to face that so for me it’s fun as an emotional and intellectual exercise to [ask those questions]. It also depends on when the question is asked. After September 11, I would [have said], “I wanna go get revenge,” but in the run-up to the Iraq war I was an active anti-war advocate.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you burst into tears on set?
Cole: Oh my gosh, I burst into tears on set once towards the end of week three. I was running out of time, Time and Money showed up and said we had to move on and I couldn’t get part of the scene that I thought would be very important to the movie. [laughs] I think at that point I was like “Noooooooooo!” At the end of the day, it was better that we moved on than stick around and compromise our day, but at the time it was life and death! [laughs] When someone says you can’t do it, you feel like you’re five years old and at the playground and you don’t wanna go, you wanna play Monster.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Cole: The first film I ever saw was Bambi at the Lynnwood Theater on Bainbridge Island, which was my hometown.
Filmmaker: And finally, which actor would you pay to see in anything?
Cole: I love so many actors, but I am a huge Jack Nicholson fan. His career is so remarkable and I think I have probably paid to see every Jack Nicholson movie. It goes all the way back to The King of Marvin Gardens, a great film. The only one I might not see is the new Bucket movie, [laughs] The Bucket Line or whatever. But I might. It’s one of those ones where you go, “Ooh, Jack Nicholson’s in it, but nah…”