Delve Into the Ups and Downs of the Online Era with The Suicide Kid: An Exclusive Interview with Director Marcus Sullivan
written by Sarah Cossart, ATLFF Marketing Associate
The Suicide Kid uses an innovative narrative structure that explores the difficulties of growing up in an era when an online presence is crucial. Through video blogging and the ruse of a school film project, the viewer is guided through cringe-worthy social encounters, awkward flirting, drunken confessions, and the overall struggles that represent the first year of college of many students. The Suicide Kid depicts an honesty not often seen in films concerned with the ever present and highly influential world of social media. Here at the Atlanta Film Festival we had the privilege to talk with the filmmaker Marcus Sullivan about his film, which has been selected to be screened in the 2013 Narrative Feature category.
How did this project come about and what inspired the story? It was a concept we had been working on for several years, since my 11th grade, so that would have been around 2008 and it has existed in various forms since then. The idea came about when I was watching a video blogger. I was watching several of his videos in a row and I noticed that it sort of formed a narrative. The next logical leap being a whole feature film consisting of those videos. Once we had that as a form, the plot came more out of our own experience with school and how we’ve seen our friends and peers act on the internet and how we’ve seen the YouTube culture act and react over the years as we’ve been working on it.
The format is really unique, almost in a “mockumentary” style. Can you elaborate on your approach for the film? It was one of those things where we got the form first and then we worked backwards. The narrative later in the timeline, where the leading character Timothy is a famous video blogger and a viral video sensation, came faster than the part beforehand to what leads him to become a viral video star. He is the guy who gets really popular and then through his own means squanders that opportunity, both on YouTube stuff and in real life.
It’s funny you mention the “mockumentary” thing because it’s been difficult trying to explain the concept to some people because it does sort of fall into “mockumentary” or found footage style, but not exactly at the same time. We were aware of a lot of found footage movies that were coming out, which increased as we took years to make the movie. So we had to balance how much of the film consisted as video blogs of the stuff of him in his room alone talking to the camera and how much consisted of him taking the camera out and doing more traditional found footage or faux-documentary style stuff, because too much in either direction would have spoiled the concept. Too much of him just sitting in his room talking would be monotonous and awkward, whereas too much time out on the street filming people and himself, would have felt more like a generic found footage movie. So the key was to balance the elements so that we had something unique.
You guys definitely succeeded in that. You mentioned the plot divide pre-suicide attempt and post-suicide attempt; this affected the narrative in an interesting way, could you talk a little more about that? Alternating between the two time frames was decided when we knew we wanted to go forward with the project because we had two stories, neither of which we felt were interesting enough on their own to carry a movie. We had the story of a blogger who is popular and then ruins his popularity and we had the story of the sad awkward kid in school who has a bad year that leads into a filmed suicide attempt. These frames in isolation felt too generic until we mashed them together, jumping back and forth and juxtaposing them against each other. Once we made that decision they both sort of clicked and fed off one another.
The first year of college is notoriously hard, how did you decide on portraying that? The funny thing about that is because we came up with the concept in high school for the longest time it was going to take place in high school. Even when we were in university planning the movie, we were going to go back to my high school and shooting it there. During this time, I was going through my first year in film school with my friends, making observations on how competitive I felt about certain things - how important it felt for me to establish my group of friends right away, but also to establish myself as, you know, cool amongst that group. This struck me as sort of the same thing that Timothy was trying to do on the internet in his post-suicide attempt personality where he is not only trying to be popular on the internet but trying to find his own voice. So, I thought that ultimately those two elements would play off each other nicely. We also felt that high school was a topic that was a lot more explored than university. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of high school narratives and high school shows. I hadn’t seen as much of university narratives and I wasn’t aware of anything that accurately depicted how I was feeling during my freshman year. Apart from that, we weren’t high school kids anymore and it felt cheap to try to reflect this angle. We wanted the movie to be as realistic as possible; to be as genuine as possible. By the time we got around to shooting the version you’ve seen, we were in our 3rd year in university, so it just felt disingenuous to set it in high school. It was a thematic and a practical choice.
I noticed that many of the people that are cast in the film are also involved in other ways. Are they friends or actors or hired crew? The project started with just me and Dean Tardioli, who played Timothy, in high school. We met Adrian Murray, who played Jordan in the movie. We told him the idea and explained all the work we had done up to that point and he was intrigued and hopped on board the team. He edited and co-wrote the outline. It was all very collaborative. At the end of the movie we credited ourselves as a film by the three of us, because we felt that at any given time we did the other’s principal job. All three of us were acting, all three of us contributed to the story, edited together, and directed in different senses. So it was very much a collaborative project, especially as there was no formal script. There was sort of a detailed outline as to where each video should go, but it was a collaborative discussion between us as actors and writers in the scene, as to what exactly should transpire in terms of dialogue, and the beats of it. It felt because the main three of us working on everything, that we should credit us together. Molly who played Chloe, we knew from high school and we had always intended on her playing Chloe.
We shot half of the movie in Ottawa, Canada and half in Toronto, Canada. There is about a four or five hour drive difference. Adrian, the editor, and I lived in Toronto, which is where most of the university scenes took place. Dean and Molly both lived in Ottawa. So for certain combinations of actors to get together we had to travel back and forth, repeatedly. The majority of the budget was actually not spent on anything filmic, but was on the transportation, back and forth.
You mentioned that there wasn’t a formal script, so all of Timothy’s monologues were also not scripted? How those worked, we would have an outline as to where each video needed to go from a plot perspective, so we certainly knew what had to happen in order to advance the story. Having discussed that back and forth between myself and Dean, he would go and give it a dry run and inevitably maybe twenty-five percent of that first attempt would be workable and then we would expand on that and find something that worked, or a joke that worked. Often he would say a word by accident or he would stumble on something he was trying to say, not deliberately but I thought it was funny the way he screwed it up so I would ask him to repeat it. A strength I think he had was that he managed to screw up the exact same way several times afterwards, which I was thankful of. By the end of shooting a video, which would take anywhere from half an hour to two hours, the majority of it would be not scripted, but we knew almost every single word of what he would be saying by rehearsing it over and over again. So by the end of it we had a pretty good idea of what he was going to say when I pressed record.
So it made it really natural? Right, and we really enjoyed working like that and being able to have that very close experience; it was just him and I in a room as our working process. We’re all kind of disappointed in a way that the movie is over and we won’t get to work exactly like that again.
How long did it take to film? In terms of the actual production when we started shooting to when we wrapped, it went from August 2011 until March 2012. We shot mostly on weekends. I would go back from Toronto to Ottawa to shoot the film with Dean and then I would bring the footage back up to Adrian in Toronto and we’d look at it together and decide if we needed to change things. This was done from a practical standpoint as we were all going through school, but we also wanted to have the passage of time throughout the film to make sense of the jumbled chronological narrative. This way you knew that if you see future Timothy in the winter and past Timothy in the fall, you sort of have your bearings a little bit. We also thought it would add a sense of movement because we were worried that if everything looked the same all the time too, that it would become visually stagnant, especially as a video blog movie during which the majority of the film is the same person talking at you. So any kind of visual diversity we could build into the film, we wanted to do. Filming over the course of a year was therefore both a practical necessity and a visual continuity, as well.
Would you ever do another film with this format? I would never say never of course, but so much of the movie is about the form itself and we commented so much on the form throughout the film that I think I’ve said everything I could about that format. To use it again would be to use it only for its aesthetics. I don’t think there is another story that I can think of that would necessitate the style as much as The Suicide Kid did. Because we’ve been really hypersensitive to found footage movies in the four or five years that we’ve been working on the film, something that bug us about found footage films is when it is it is used simply as a style and often doesn’t even make sense. So we went to great lengths to make sure that everything in the movie was not only thematically consistent, but also consistent in the sense that very little that happened is not something that Timothy would have either shot himself or edited himself. I am not sure we could do that with a different story so I think I’ve had my last hoorah in found footage.
On your film’s website the movie is described as “a tragic comedy about a generation growing up online” how do you think growing up online has affected storytelling and maybe more specifically filmmaking? One thing that we didn’t feel was being represented in movies was our experience with the internet. It felt like it was being used as window dressing to prove that a movie was hip. But it didn’t feel like Facebook or YouTube was being used in a way that actually spoke to current reality. The Social Network was announced and had its whole run was seen as the definitive “Internet movie” and that we wouldn’t have a place after it. The thing with that film and it sort of felt like most films was that they were made by adults in their 50s about kids our age and that they weren’t on the inside or coming from our perspective. It was more of an observation from the outside. So something that we tried to do with The Suicide Kid was to reflect our reality of how we used these technologies from our own point of view, without treating it as a novelty. In some movies it’s like “look kids, we know what YouTube is and we know what Skype is.” Whereas for us, it’s just a part of our lives in the same way telephones and TVs is a part of life. It’s not something that you remark on, you just use it casually. This was what we tried to reflect in the movie.
To answer the other part of your question, there is an incredible paradoxical narcissism that comes with the technology we have now from Facebook to YouTube and Twitter. But at the same time there is this backlash against narcissism saying, “I don’t want all my information out there, I want to be protected and I don’t want Facebook selling my photos, I want all that to belong to me,” but at the same time “I want you to know everything that I’m doing and I want you to see pictures of what I ate today” so there is a double standard that we were noticing with how social media was being used. To me it always felt like I didn’t mind if somebody was using Facebook in moderation, but I also didn’t understand why those same people would then be upset when Facebook privacy violation scares would go around when people were deliberately uploading their own information and their own face and their own story into the internet, only to then go around and claim that it’s not fair use. So the movie was also an attempt to address that as well.
Was there a single moment or experience when you decided you wanted to be a filmmaker? Yes! I was in 7th grade and I was in a science class in which a project consisted of making a video about energy conservation. It was just sort of a throw away way for the cameras we had kicking around the school to get used. I went full force on this PSA and it was the first time I had held a camera or done anything like that. I was really enamored with iMovie and the fact that I could layer the Harry Potter theme song over anything I wanted. When I went back to my dad and told him how excited I was about doing the project, I wasn’t thinking “oh I want to be a filmmaker now,” I was just thinking “I’m having fun doing this project at school” and my dad picked up on something and realized that it might be in everyone’s interest to foster that burgeoning love of cinema. So, he went and bought me camera and from then on it was the only option.
Well, The Suicide Kid was awesome and thank you so much for talking with me today! We are all really, really thrilled to be a part of the Atlanta Film Festival and you guys have been really great. We’re a very small movie and a very small group, so to get into a festival the size of Atlanta has been a real dream come true.
The Suicide Kid screens on March 16 at 12:00PM at the Plaza Theatre as part of the 2013 Atlanta Film Festival taking place March 15 - March 24. Visit www.atlantafilmfestival.com for information regarding tickets and screening dates.