Sun, 09/01/2002 - 01:00
Ben Coccio explores the minds of a pair of high school shooters in the drama, "Zero Day," screening at the Boston Film Festival and New Haven Film Festival this month.By Amy Roeder
In "Zero Day," friends Andre Kriegman (Andre Keuck) and Cal Gabriel (Calvin Robertson) declare war on their high school, and start a video diary chronicling their plan for a final act of revenge. The film consists almost entirely of their footage, until the day of the shooting spree, when the perspective changes to the passive eyes of security cameras observing the boys’ deadly path through the school.
By choosing not to show scenes of the boys’ lives at school, writer and director Ben Coccio lets the audience make up their own minds about the boys and the reasons for their actions. Cal and Andre are shown interacting with friends and family with whom they seem to get along well, but never with the people who supposedly drove them to their fatal decision. It’s disturbing to watch them dispassionately plan to kill their classmates, but mixed with these moments of bravado are scenes of their seemingly happy, normal family lives. Watching Calvin get his braces removed and Andre celebrate his birthday with his parents makes it hard simply to dismiss them as monsters. This makes the ultimate question of "Why did they do it?" much more challenging and complex.
Cal and Andre are a fascinating pair of multidimensional characters. According to Coccio, one of the most-debated questions among audiences of the film is which of the two is the leader. Quiet, puppy dog-eyed Cal initially seems to have been dragged into the plan by the more strident Andre, but by the end of the film he seems to be the more deeply disturbed of the pair. After reading a violent poem at an open mike and leaving his prom date to film a suicide "note" with Andre, Cal calmly reveals that while Andre had considered coming out of Zero Day alive, Cal has always known that he would only leave the school "in a plastic bag."
"Zero Day" drew obvious inspiration from the 1999 Columbine High School shootings. Coccio recalled that he was in a pizzeria in Brooklyn on the day it happened. He was surprised to see a helicopter shot of the school on the restaurant’s television, in place of the usual Yankees game. When he heard what had happened, he said, "I remember thinking that I was surprised that it hadn’t happened sooner." He was struck by the fact that "Something about this one was different." In the past, school shootings were usually sloppy crimes of passion, but the Columbine attack was very deliberately planned. "I thought it would make a great movie," he said, "but I didn’t think that it would ever happen." He decided to take on the project himself, eager at the challenge of tackling the story in a non-exploitative way. As for his own high school experience, Coccio described himself as a "happy yet angry" teenager. "I hung out with the punky alterno-type kids," he said. "We had our own clique, but it was definitely not at the top of the food chain." One thing Coccio vividly remembered about high school is "the tension, that feeling that anything could happen at any time."
He has a theory that school shooters are not the students that are most picked on in school. "Like Hitler, they are convinced of their own superiority, and when other people don’t confirm that, it really gets under their skin." The students who are most abused, Coccio adds, usually believe that they are inferior and are more likely to harm themselves.
Coccio’s biggest challenge during the filming of "Zero Day" was finding a school that would allow him to shoot inside. "I went to literally every high school in Connecticut," he said, "and every superintendent said ‘no way.’" He eventually had to settle for a college, and paid to use the interior of a building at SUNY/Purchase. The "appropriately fortress-like" exterior was his old high school in New Milford, Connecticut.
He had much better luck casting the two leads. "I didn’t want annoying New York actor kids," he said, so he inquired at local high school drama departments. Naturals on screen, Keuck and Robertson came from theater backgrounds. Although the film sticks closely to the original script, the two were given some flexibility to improvise. "They were great to work with and really brought a lot to the film," Coccio said.
Coccio is pleased with audiences’ reactions to "Zero Day." "Most people seem to get it," he said. The film premiered to a sold-out crowd on July 24th during the New Filmmakers screening series at the Anthology Film Archives in New York. It will screen at the Boston Film Festival and Film Fest New Haven in September and at the Denver International Film Festival in October. Coccio is especially eager for the audience reaction to the Denver screening, which will take place 20 minutes away from Columbine.
"As a filmmaker, it’s great to have your work elicit a response," Coccio said. Although he knows that fears of litigation will probably make widespread distribution of the film impossible, he says that he will do his best to generate attention for it.
"Zero Day" is his first feature, but Coccio has been making short films and videos since age 12. He studied film at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he received the Murphy Award for his thesis film "Wedding Reception." His short film "5:45 am" has aired on the Independent Film Channel. Recently, he founded Professor Bright Films with friend and fellow filmmaker Dave Shuff. In addition to their dramatic projects, the company has created corporate videos for MTV, IBM and Mattel.
Right now, Coccio is concentrating his efforts on "trying to get ‘Zero Day’ seen and paid for," but he plans to continue taking on challenging work. "I just make them and if anyone sees them then great, but I’ll keep making them," he says.
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