When we were kids, anything you found in the yard could become a weapon in your mind’s eye. A stick could just as easily be a sword, a pine cone could morph into a grenade, and a tree was just as likely to be a lookout tower. At some point we’ve all played a variation of war, and those magic moments of being a kid come across in the intense film I Declare War. The film follows PK, a natural leader obsessed with war movies and strategy, as he tries to lead his team to victory against a team that is prepared to do whatever it takes to win.
We sat down with co-directors Robert Wilson and Jason Lapeyre as well as star Gage Munroe to talk about games we played growing up, child actors, and the perfect movie marathon to watch alongside I Declare War.
Nerdist: When you were writing out the script and working together to come up with this, was it all about referencing your own experiences? Were there other things that influenced it or was it straight you guys?
Robert Wilson: Straight Jason. Jason wrote the script 10 years ago. Jason, Jason, Jason. Thank you very much, though. I appreciate your notion that I could write that well.
Jason Lapeyre: I wrote the script because I wanted to tell a story about how it felt to be that age. I played war a lot when I was that age, and so did a lot of other people. Almost everything that happens in this script is autobiographical or inspired by things that actually happened. That’s kind of why I wrote this script.
N: One of the reasons why I liked this movie so much and found it so accessible is that it is this period in our lives where we are kind of doing that. Everyone plays some variation on that game. For me and my friends it was Nerf footballs. If you get hit, you’re dead and then we’ll start again. It was kind of one of those things. When you were drawing straight from your experience, was there ever any variation on those rules or were you more like PK, “These are the rules. These are always the rules and we always have to stick to these”?
Jason: No, no, I mean with every different group you make the rules up at the top of the game every day. That’s a bit of poetic license we took in the movie is that this is such an intense group of kids. They regularly play with this particular set of rules.
Robert: And the rules changed as we were doing it too. There was no single grenade carrier that was a development of pre-production when we were like, “how come there’s no one with a grenade here? Well, we’ll do one satchel, one grenade carrier, it’ll be part of the deal, right?”
Jason: The rules changed to help the story when necessary.
Robert: As they do when you play the game as a kid.
Jason: There were commonalities for sure, like the steamboats thing — no matter what version of war I played as a kid, that was always something that happened. If you got hit, you had 10 seconds to be killed or taken out or you were back in. I think that’s the way you recognized it from having played it.
Gage Munroe: Push-ups.
Jason: Yeah, there’s always some version of it.
N: We were pop culture junkies, so you had to name five TV shows or movies and then you could get back in the game.
Jason: [Laughs] Your nerd credentials are so strong.
N: You had to name off five TV shows and you couldn’t name off what you already named off previously.
Robert: What about something someone else already named off?
N: Well, we couldn’t hear what other people named off, and it was the person that killed you that had to validate it, but you had to say it really, really quick. Or it was like, nope, can’t say it fast enough! You’re dead.
Jason: [laughs] So funny.
Gage: Actually, before we started shooting- I think it was a little bit after we had our first table read- we went up and these guys organized a big game of laser tag. I guess it’s a little bit more tame than the paintballs we played yesterday.
Robert: Well, with the paintballs, the scheduled date was a day and a half before principal photography. We sort of felt…
Jason: You can’t give welts to your cast.
Gage: So yeah, we had a big game of laser tag and we were actually grouped in the teams that we were in the movie so I guess we all tried to take up a role. The roles we were in the movie. Aidan being Quinn as the leader and me as myself as well. Each cast member tried to play their role in the laser tag game.
Robert: Uninterrupted without the script, uninterrupted by the camera.
Gage: I think we brought the camera in there as well.
Jason: Ray, the DP, was on one of the teams and he shot the whole thing.
N: Did the kid who played Skinner just run around and shoot everyone?
Jason: [laughs]. I can’t remember.
Gage: Mike and a few of the other taller kids were climbing on the walls and were able to shoot. I wasn’t so lucky. I’m not. If you’ve noticed, I’m not the tallest of people.
N: You’ve got time.
Gage: Yeah, it was fun though.
N: So Mike really is captivating in this role. You’ve said that he was able to turn on and off. What was that dynamic like seeing these guys just be able to shut off these characters and then go right back into them?
Robert: It’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Jason: Yeah, they’re actors.
Robert:But it’s often the way it’s not. As people linger in that character before and after as preparation, but for whatever reason this cast was able to…
Jason: They were constant and professional.
Robert: They would joke and have fun. Torture each other in front of the camera. And then joke, have fun. For us, we stopped worrying about the swearing, the sort of thinly veiled racism, the sexism, the violence that was happening in front of cameras to serve as a story because they were able to not be affected by it when they shut off that persona that they created. It is to be said that Gage is not PK. He’s not this person and Mike Friend is nothing like Skinner. They’re creations, and that alone is worth noting because it’s an incredible job done by the cast.
Gage: I think that, in some way, shape, or form, everyone in the cast could relate to their character. PK is a competitive character. I said before, a lot of boys at that age are competitive. Skinner’s being bullied, and most kids at that age at some point in their life are bullied, so it was pretty easy to draw from experiences like that.
Jason: It’s been weird for in other places, for some reason, that cast is entirely amateur actors, but they were all professional actors with different levels of experience. What I think you’re talking about is professional actors creating characters and and they shouldn’t be treated differently just because they’re younger actors.
N: I think one of the things that I found interesting about the movie and please correct me if I’m wrong here, but all of the characters are very, very relatable. It seems like all of the characters’ personalities could be an aspect of yours.
Jason: Yes, that’s true. All of the characters are part of me, but the attempt was to make them archetypal enough that anyone who had gone through adolescence would recognize.
Robert: One could be too self-aware, I mean it’s impossible to look at a person younger than you and not understand that a part of a potential is ending up just like you or going through some of the stuff you went through. It makes easy for you to look at them and go “Ah, I know who this is!” and then then you’re surprised when they behave differently than the kid you knew who acted like that and looked like that.
N: One of my favorite things about this film, aside from the occasional “I’m in this class with you,” is that it didn’t go into their lives outside of this afternoon. When you find out that Skinner and PK had been best friends, it’s a little bit of a shock. It’s like one of those things where you realize it’s just that afternoon. It makes me wonder what those dynamics were outside of that? What were those kids doing outside of that? But the decision to just keep it limited to that afternoon… you don’t get a slice-of-life film that abandons those back stories very often.
Jason: Yeah, we didn’t want to tell a story about an exceptional afternoon. We wanted to tell a story about a universal afternoon, so that was the decision to make it hermetically sealed. You wanted to have a sense that the exact same thing could happen next Saturday. We avoided particularities of the characters and tried to make it seem like this is any group of kids in any town.
Robert: But from the top end of the stick, if you could see the emotional violence, carnage, and intensity as a character, you’re getting that back story from minute one, and it’s carrying through until it develops and explains itself.
N: I thought that was very interesting, and you did a guys did a very great job with that as characters. As actors, you guys were carrying the weight of experiences but we didn’t know what the experiences were.
Jason: Right, you didn’t have to have them explained to you.
N: There was one line, “Well, you didn’t get picked last.” It kind of brought up the idea that, “Oh, these kids pick teams every time they play.” These kids aren’t necessarily on the same team every time, but I can see that there are pairings that probably happen a lot.
Robert: We actually did have to shoot a team-picking scene. All you need was to hear that if you do get picked last. You fill in the rest, right?
N: Because we’ve all been picked last at some point.
Jason: But even the team-picking scene fell and there’s an early version of the cut where it was in. Even that felt like it was outside the hermetically sealed universe and we realized we really didn’t need it.
Robert: Deeply redundant. As soon as you start accepting that the audience has been there and the actors know what’s going on…
Jason: The audience does so much of the work in this film.
Robert: We don’t have to tell you that this is what kids do, ever… I’ve seen people legitimately almost complain about the opening title sequence because it tells you what the four rules are which are clear and obvious from the story. I remember us deciding what the opening title sequence was going to tell you what the four rules were in case it wasn’t obvious in the story, based on one of the works of our cast members who drew up some ideas…
Jason: That’s key. So Eric Hanson is the actor who plays Kenny, the kid who takes the headshot at the beginning. Yeah, Rob had him doing some drawings of war scenes and then they were handed to 601 and he would use them as the inspiration to do the opening animation.
Robert: He has his own YouTube channel and made about forty little movies and reviews.
Jason: My favorite thing about him is that a couple weeks after we finished I Declare War, he made a feature on that’s on YouTube called House of Psychos. It’s a war movie. It’s a 70-minute film and he wrote, directed, starred, and did the score.
N: How do you feel about that kind of thing? We’re living in an age where it’s easier and easier to make movies and these guys have this, but it’s just as easy to turn around and make something that you could put up on YouTube. Are you looking forward to start creating things…
Gage: Yeah, I’ve tried to make few things, just like shorts, little bits, but I think the accessibility in which you can get new gear, a good camera, a good microphone is great right now. But I still think that if I were to make a short film, I’d want it to be something awesome. I want an idea that I could really get behind, and I still think that’s the most important part of making a movie. So as easy as it is to pick up a camera and make something, I still think you need a great idea.
N: You seemed to have really earnestly approached this film, not that you had to corral child actors, but you collaborated with young actors. Can you speak to that approach and why that was important to you?
Jason: Part of it comes from Rob and I remembering what it was actually like to be that age, and both of us have said that this is one of the best professional experiences we’ve had working with actors.
Robert: The idea of “non-collaborative” on this piece meant that you weren’t getting hired on this piece.
Jason: It was a “we” approach, not an “I” approach.
Robert: When we realized there was someone like Eric Hanson who was important to the cast dynamic who was only in for 3 days, we hired him to shoot for behind-the-scenes and brought him for an extra 3-4 days. A. You didn’t want anyone to feel like they were getting slighted because they were only in the script for a page and a half or ten pages or whatever and B. that continuity of relationship in summer camp is essential to what we were collecting to cut.
Jason:Yeah, that’s a nice way to put it.
Robert: It is a nice way to put it, but I’d say that the collaboration really existed from the first draft to the script. It was an excellent and fun read that put us back to when we were 12. As Jason will point out, we did our first table read really, really early in prep. Everybody had an amazing time at the table read. It was funny. It was fun. It was exciting and for parents and for audience, so the collaboration was already there. It was just taking a step back and wondering, “Are these kids gonna let us play with them?” [laughs] Because this is gonna be good.
N: To end on a light note, what three movie marathon would you like to see I Declare War included in?
Robert: I want that in with Goonies. I want it in with Stand By Me. The Sentinel…
Jason: Monster Squad.
Robert: I like Super 8 a lot. I gotta say.
Jason: Super 8 came out while we were in prep and I remember mentioning it to these guys…
Robert: If we can’t have that, then we can have Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Revenge of the Jedi, I Declare War, right? [laughs]