Have you ever sat in a movie theater staring at a blank screen after the credits had completed their roll? Stunned silence. You look around and people are staring straight ahead. Among a crowd, they are alone with their thoughts. No one gets up to leave when the lights come on. I look to my right and Rosie is staring straight ahead with tears coming down her face. On my left Pat is sobbing. Two seats down Ron sits staring forward, perhaps engaged in a losing bout to control his anger. I don’t know. Finally the surreal daze is broken when the director of Johnny Got His Gun, Rowan Joseph, goes to the head of the theater and asks if anyone has any questions.
Johnny Got His Gun is not a movie. It’s an experience. I confess I didn’t know what to expect when friends Ron and Rosie (CS2 Single-Payer Healthcare Advocates) invited my wife and me to join them at the GoggleWorks in downtown Reading to see this picture. When I read that the star of the show was Ben McKenzie from the Fox TV show The O.C., my level of expectation was lower still. The O.C. is one of those titillating prime time smash series that enables TV to earn the reputation as the veritable wasteland that it is. Totally vacuous characters, one more slimy than the next. So what could I expect from an actor who dishes up this kind of fare on a regular basis? Not much. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Ben McKenzie serves up an Oscar worthy performance as World War I soldier Joe Bonham. This is a one man tour-de-force that you won’t soon forget. What makes it so extraordinary, besides the fact that he is the only actor in the entire movie, is that Ben is not content to entertain you and let you come to your own conclusions. Oh no! He wants to control you. And he does it as well as I’ve ever seen any actor do it. He grabs you by the neck, shoves your face into the truth, and doesn’t let go for the entire 77 minutes of running time. There are no breaks. No comic relief. You take this roller coaster ride of emotions and you have no say in the matter. Ben decides when you’re angry, Ben decides when you’re scared. Ben is sensitive or Ben makes you feel betrayed. You are not merely watching Ben as Joe Bonham feel these emotions. You are feeling these emotions. This movie will leave you spent. As one who suffers from hypertension, I felt my blood pressure rise on many occasions. This is a magnificent performance.
Joe Bonham is a wounded soldier from World War I. The entire movie takes place in a hospital and inside Joe’s head. We are privy to Joe’s thoughts. The truth is revealed to us as the movie progresses. We quickly learn that Joe is missing his legs, arms, eyes, ears, nose and mouth. Yet Joe’s brain is functioning normally. A brain trapped inside of what remains—merely a stump. Of course, Joe sees himself as whole, and thinks of himself that way. Ben acts out Joe’s thoughts as a whole person.
There is an overriding sense of claustrophobia that often reaches panic proportions at points in the movie. When Joe has an itch, he can’t scratch it or ask anyone else to. When he imagines that a rodent or bug is on him, he can’t roll over. This sense of being in control of nothing sets off a panic within him. He needs to control something. He remembers that Robinson Crusoe had a calendar even though he had no visitors. He tries to make a calendar. He knows the different nurses by their touch. Those who aren’t repulsed by looking at him touch him differently than those who are. One nurse in particular, he likes by her touch. When she changes his dressing and leaves, he starts counting until she comes back again. Then he begins counting until the next nurse. There are six visits and then he’s back to the original nurse he likes. He figures six visits, two per nurse. 3 nurses. 24 divided by 6 is 4 hour intervals-8 hour shifts. Now he has his calendar-control over something. The whole time this effort to make a calendar is going on, you’re sitting tense on the edge of your chair. You want it because he wants it. You never stop to ask, “What difference does it make?” This movie has way too much control over its audience and that’s what makes it so majestic.
Through flashbacks we find the things that matter to Joe. How he’ll never be able to put his arms around his beloved Karen again. How he despises the military brass who come to pin a medal on him. His sense of profound betrayal. He remembers his last civilian day when Karen’s father allowed them to sleep together because he might not be coming back. He remembers how the whole town came out to see the boys off—complete with marching bands and blathering politicians. All the glory. All the tumult and the shouting is behind him. Now he’s stuck with the real consequences of war. He bitterly remembers an incident when one of the soldiers was shot a short distance from the trench he was in. The body was draped over a barbed-wire fence. After a few days it began to smell. One of the brass disliked the smell and ordered some to go and get the body for burial. They’re promptly slaughtered on this mission. Joe’s anger is palpable.
One day Joe realizes that the only thing on his body that he can move is his neck muscle. He immediately starts banging his head on the bed. One nurse realizes that it is Morse code. Joe taps out that his wish is to have what’s left of him put on public display as a living example of the cost of war.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the wonderful use of lighting in this film. Rowan has enhanced the effects in each scene with his lighting techniques. They run the range of warm golden glows when Joe is remembering Karen to almost strobe light effects in the war scenes. They make a very stark film even more so.
Johnny Got His Gun is based on a book by Dalton Trumbo. I believe it is an important movie. Movies like this are not sponsored by corporations or supported by the corporate media. They need to become known by word of mouth. We activists, who are sick of Neocons and Militarists who look at war as a first and not a last resort, should make it our business to see that this movie has wide circulation.
In this Thanksgiving season we should be thankful that directors like Rowan Joseph will make an important movie like this instead of just another big-buck thriller.
I asked Rowan for a little time to discuss his movie, and he was happy to oblige. Our interview starts here:
Chuck: Before we get to this amazing movie, I would just like to ask you to give our readers just a little background on yourself and your experience in the business and how you got to where you are today?
Rowan: I’ll start with now and work backwards–that’s probably easiest. The first film I directed? I have to laugh because it’s literally the first frame of film I directed since I don’t even know how to work the camera on my cell phone. I come from having been a theater director for many years. I’ve also worked as a film actor. I’m in a variety of movies. From Crime in Town, which was at Sundance this year – 2008, and commercially in Raising Helen with Kate Hudson and Helen Mirren. Also Princess Diaries II with Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews. I appeared in those films and then also did some television work. Growing up, I worked extensively as an actor on stage. I was in New York for 18 years and then traveled all over the country. I have a theater production company called Theater A Go-Go, and we do tours of shows. Right now we’re doing a tour with Jack Klugman. Jack was the original Oscar Madison in the TV show The Odd Couple. He also did Quincy. A big Broadway person for years, he was Herbie in the original Broadway production of Gypsy with Ethel Merman. A wonderful actor. From that great film Twelve Angry Men, Jack is the last actor of the twelve men to still be alive. In addition to touring Jack’s show, we also tour a show called The Queen of Bingo. We were going to tour the show of Johnny–that’s how I originally got the rights. But when I went back to New York for the archival video that they have at Lincoln Center from the 1982 production with Jeff Daniels, I saw, much to my dismay, that in transferring VHS tape that was made in the 1980′s onto digital format which is what they store everything in now, they lost about 1/3 of the original production. That’s what set all of this in motion. It’s a play that’s very well known, or I would say much better known, in other parts of the world than it is here. A production just closed in Belgium. There’s another one opening in Tanzania sometime after the first of the year. It’s not as well know here in the states, and I wanted to make sure that a video of it did exist. That’s what we set out to do, not thinking it would end up in theaters. But because of the power of Trumbo’s words and the brilliant acting of Ben McKenzie, it elevated it to a level where we were able to get theatrical distribution.
Chuck: Can you talk to us a little bit about the logistics of an independent film like this? How do you get it noticed without the advertising budget? Do you just enter it into film festivals and what not?
Rowan: Independent film has changed and is changing very drastically. Especially over the last 12 months, things have really gotten much more difficult for the independent filmmaker. It’s become radically easier to become an independent filmmaker and make an independent film because the technology is now so accessible and the initial technology as far as doing something on digital is economically within many people’s grasps. What’s become difficult is the distribution opportunities. They’ve really, really, really taken a hit. Picture House is gone. Warner Brothers Independent is gone. Many of the long standing really good independent film distribution companies have gone under. Many of the art houses around the country are now showing more commercial fare or mixing commercial in with the art films. When I was growing up there was a very healthy mix of films, particularly foreign language films, where now you really have to seek to find them because in many cities they don’t even exist. So it’s become very difficult. Our situation is extraordinarily unique to the point where I happen to feel very guilty. I’m not someone who went to film school or who has struggled for years with the dream of making it. I sort of accidentally made a movie. And in our case, what happened was, the traditional route is really to go to film festivals as you said.There are really only four available. They would be Sundance, Berlin, Toronto and Cannes. There are other good ones like South by Southwest that are reputable. The proliferation of those festivals has also weakened the impact that they have. Sundance is a double-edged sword. If you get in Sundance that’s great, it’s wonderful and exciting, but only a handful of films end up getting distribution out of there. And if you don’t, instead of increasing the stock in your film in other places, it decreases it. So it’s a very difficult, difficult world. We were very fortunate in that we had no expectations at all to end up in theaters. Editor Jay Cassidy was nominated for an Academy Award last year for Into the Wild and was working with Sean Penn at the same time he was editing this. In fact, he was running back and forth between Sean and me. This little penultimate $100,000 movie and Sean’s 45 million dollar movie. Jay was the one who was very instrumental in saying, “You have something very unusual here.” Not just making a film of a play-it’s more than that. It’s a play on film. He said, “I really think it holds up and can work in theaters. I really suggest that you look around and ask around.” We found out about Truly Indy which is a company that Mark Cuban owns. It sounded like it was a good fit, and they do some political things. You know, it doesn’t hurt anything. You send a screener and it costs a couple of bucks to mail. We were doing test screens of it in Landmark theaters around the country. We didn’t even realize that Mark also owns the Landmark theater chain. We did a screening in the East Street Cinema in Washington,D.C. That went very well. We got a call from Mark’s office saying they wanted to pick it up for limited distribution. They picked the cities it’s going to go to. It’s been wonderful. It’s been a terrific experience for us. But it’s hard. You’re also competing against these big movies opening. We were laughing a couple of weeks ago because a Chihuahua is kicking my ass. But what are you going to do? They have millions of dollars and you survive on word of mouth. Really independent films and even smaller film studios now, the distribution is a precursor to when the DVD comes out. It’s really used to prime the publicity machine and get your quotes so that you have all that. The money that you make is not at the box office but on the DVD.
Chuck: Is there any chance that this will be on DVD?
Rowan: Oh yes. I’m sure it will. I’m certain it will have a good future in that arena, and hopefully it will benefit from word of mouth.
Chuck: Dalton Trumbo. He was blacklisted. I was wondering when I read that he was blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, was it merely because of this work or were there other things that they were angry about?
Rowan: It was a principled statement for him, but there were certainly other things that came into play. He was a Communist. He was a pacifist. An ardent believer, ironically, in the Constitution and freedom of speech and freedom of expression. In those days he wasn’t fortunate enough to be a member of the Bush Administration where he could just ignore a subpoena from Congress. So he didn’t end up that lucky. He went to jail instead. You know, different times.
Chuck: Okay. So you told us how this play came to your attention when you went to view the history of the Broadway play and the tape was missing a piece of it.
Chuck: … so how did you go about finding the lead actor McKenzie who did a fabulous job?
Rowan: Yes. He’s remarkable. It’s incredibly courageous. It’s a very difficult thing to do. Just the level of memorizing 50 pages of dialog. It’s a lot of dialog. I mean it’s an hour and seventeen minutes of just him up there. You don’t have the luxury that actors really feed off of. You know-bouncing something back and forth, having a dynamic working between two people or three people, or an action scene. It’s really just him creating the whole effect. We were very fortunate to find him. I found him initially because a casting director we hired, Chadwick Struck, had given us a list of younger actors around town who would be appropriate for it- who had the look and the age I was looking for. It was somewhat difficult because so many of Ben’s contemporaries are really people and individuals who are so much a part of their generation and their time. I needed someone to have a quality that was believable, that he was someone who just stepped off a battlefield in World War I but also someone who was an “everyman”, someone who 5 or 10 years from now was not dated, just as the film itself and the cinematography won’t seem dated. Just as I feel that Dalton Trumbo’s book is still not dated. So that was the criteria I had, and his work was suggested to me. I didn’t see his work on his television series originally. But I saw an independent film he did called June Bug which was a terrific movie in which he played opposite the wonderful Amy Adams. I loved that and on the DVD of June Bug there was a special feature that showed his audition for that movie. I watched that. Through a mutual friend I knew that he had done theater, and that was another of my prerequisites. I needed an actor that would be comfortable on stage and one who understood the difference between stage and film and the performance styles. He fit the bill. He also went to the University of Virginia and majored in political science and economics. I just thought that was great background.
Chuck: I think that viewers of The O.C. are really going to be surprised at the versatility of this guy.
Rowan: Yes. Plus he’s got some glowing reviews. It’s such a small film; it’s difficult again. There are films that are opening with multi-million dollar campaigns behind them for their actors for awards this year. I certainly think his performance is, by far, the strongest. From everything I’ve seen thus far this year, I haven’t seen anything near his level. It will be difficult for him to get that kind of attention. We’re going to do everything we can to get the word out. It’s an amazing performance and deserves that kind of recognition.
Chuck: Can you tell me about some of the decisions you made? Was it your decision that no other characters were going to be seen? No human was going to be seen in this film except him? It almost comes across as a claustrophobic thing.
Rowan: It was deliberate, but I can’t say it was deliberate on my part. That’s the way the play is written. In the play, in one of the opening pages in the description of the set and such, it said that it should be very sparse with no use of make-up or bandages or anything of that nature. The character Joe sees himself in his own mind’s eye as he his: healthy, youthful and trapped. So that was part of the script. It’s also what appealed to me in terms of a filmmaker coming to the piece. Because when I read the book in high school, that was the power of the piece to me. I really associated with that character, and that stream-of-consciousness style really worked for me as a teenager. It still works very well for teenagers. I felt claustrophobic. I felt that sense of being trapped. When I saw Trumbo’s ’71 film version, which was wonderful in its own right, he did what is traditional with someone who takes this type of piece. He opened it up and in fact showed the nurses and the doctors and showed the mother and the father and dreams of Jesus and all this other various stuff, and Joe was a lump on the bed covered and with voice-over. This film takes the same material and approaches it from the complete opposite point of view, inside his mind and trying to figure out what’s going on around him. That’s what interested me-that sense of claustrophobia that I had from the book. That’s what I wanted to be able to capture in putting it onto film.
Chuck: And you did very well. I also noticed when watching the film that this actor and the way you set it up made me experience his emotions. When he was getting on these flights of fancy, I felt myself going up. When he was getting panicky, I felt myself getting panicky. Especially that scene where he’s trying to establish a calendar in his mind. That entire scene was so “on the edge”.
Rowan: Thank you.
Chuck: Yeah. A wonderful performance. Another thing I noticed at the end of the movie is that people just sat silently until you walked up to the microphone.
Rowan: They do that everywhere. People are really left….. We hear from people all the time who will send an email two or three weeks after seeing the movie saying, “I can’t get this movie out of my head, and I just want you to know that it really affected me.” To me that’s the greatest compliment of all because usually when a film is over, the first thing we’re thinking about is where we are going to go to eat, where do we park, what’s going on. I mean, you go right back to your world. This doesn’t allow you to go back to your world. It holds you in the world it creates for a little bit. It’s not an easy film for an audience…
Chuck: No it’s not.
Rowan: The audience has to work almost as hard as I am. Because we’re not used to listening to films. We’re very accustomed to watching stuff that is babble and then we go on with our lives. But this film really does engage an audience. The sound is every bit as important as the picture in this particular piece. What I mean by sound is the silence. There’s a point where he just gets up and walks and, as he does, his hand slides across the chair. Just the sound of his hand on that chair is a statement. Audiences at the end–well, I think it’s a long time since they’ve seen that type of film here. It’s more of a European style in what I chose to do than an American style. But I think it fit the material. People are having a unique experience. Especially people who haven’t seen this kind of film before.
Chuck: You know what else I really liked about it? I guess I would sum it up this way: The film doesn’t tell you. It shows you. Remember the scene where his buddy is hung up on the barbed wire?…
Chuck: An officer comes in. He doesn’t tell you that this pompous, jackass officer is sending more guys out there to get killed..
Chuck: He just lets it happen. You hear it happening in his memory. It’s just riveting and harrowing.
Rowan: Yeah. The editor said when he was watching it, “You know, you have two movies going on here. The one that you’re filming and the one that he’s looking at. Everything he talks about-you see.” He’s so present in the work that he does that you see what he’s thinking. You see the nurses. You see Lazarus hanging up there. Everything he’s seeing, he’s so committed and completely within that character, and you go there with him. As you said, you experience it with him. It’s a great tribute to both the words that Dalton Trumbo wrote and then to Ben’s amazing performance, his courage and his commitment as an actor.
Chuck: Okay. Let me put you on a soapbox just for a second.
Chuck: If you had your druthers and the world saw this film, what would you want them to take away from it, and how would they apply it to their world?
Rowan: To understand the true cost of war. It has nothing to do with oil, whether it’s in Iraq or it’s in Georgia. It has nothing to do with money. It has nothing to do with Wall Street or politics. It has to do with Main Street. With people. The reality is that in any situation in the world, the resources that are involved in the war that are non-human, are, no matter what, potentially replaceable. Whether it’s land, or oil, or money, or whatever. When an arm is gone, an arm is gone. When a mother is gone that mother is gone. When a father, a brother, an uncle or sister, a niece, a nephew, or neighbor. When they are gone, they are gone. That is the true cost of war. You know, (Rowan’s voice is breaking) as Trumbo felt, war is inherently evil. There may be times when it’s a necessary evil. When it has to be conducted. I just think that we don’t fully appreciate, in many countries and many politicians especially, what the cost of war is. We read about it in the paper. It’s costing us billions of dollars, trillions of dollars. You know, (voice breaking) it cost that little girl her father. You know what? You’ll make your millions and trillions back. She’s never going to have that father. That’s what we’re losing! That’s the cost of war! That’s what this movie tries to get across. Uncle Sam does a brilliant job in their recruiting trailers in the movie theaters in front of Batman and Iron Man and all the movies this year that are great. I just wish that I had the same financial backing from the government as an artist that I could show a completely different point of view. One that, to me, has as much value, if not more value of getting it in front of young people. There’s so many young people today who don’t see both sides. In Vietnam, we did see both sides. We saw all sides of the issues. Here we simply don’t. One of the reasons I went after Ben McKenzie was because of his cache within that community. But still, it’s difficult to get them to come out. We’re hopeful that eventually this film will find an audience. It will spread.
Chuck: I think this is one of those word of mouth films. It will grow over time.
Rowan: Well, I hope it grows over time this week for GoggleWorks because I sure appreciate them having us here. I did feedback on WEEU Friday and am hoping that people who saw the film this week will call in to feedback and say I went to that movie and people should go to see it. It is word of mouth. People telling people. Some actors in Reading told me they were going back to their acting teachers and making them come because, as a performer, his work is magnificent. Whatever gets people into the seats to expose them to the film’s message, I’m willing to try. Because it’s the message, and I know Ben feels the same way. We feel very strongly and passionately about it.
Chuck: Thank you very much.
Rowan: Thank you.