BigSPEEGS Movie Reviews
Interview with Ben Coccio, Director/Writer of "Zero Day"


According to his production company's website (Professor Bright Films-- http://www.professorbright.com), Ben Coccio has been making short films since he was twelve years old.  He has directed several short films with Dave Shuff at Professor Bright Films, including commercials and shorts for MTV and IBN, and the cult classic 5:45 AM, which has aired on the Independent Film Channel (IFC).  This September, I was lucky to see one of the first screenings of his brilliant first feature film, Zero Day,, at the Boston Film Festival.  Zero Day is a film about two high school students who plan a school shooting, and is filmed in an experimental, "Blair Witch"-esque way, as if the film were the video diary of the two main characters. Since the Boston Film Festival, the film has gone on to win awards from many film festivals across the country, including "Best Feature" awards at the New Haven and Empire State film festivals.  Recently, I had the privilege of being able to talk with him about his remarkable debut feature.

Evan Spigelman:  Describe "Zero Day" for someone who has never seen it.


Ben Coccio:  I guess I would describe it, in all honesty, as a movie about a school shooting.  I would also say, if you're going to put it in a genre or something like that, I think it would be a thriller or maybe a suspenseful movie, but it's also... this may sound kind of perverse, but it's also kind of a buddy film.  I think half the reason people who like the movie, who enjoy watching it (if you want to use the word "enjoy"), is because their relationship as friends is compelling, and I think, realistic.  I think there are times when it's just enjoyable to watch them together.


ES:  What inspired you to make a film about a school shooting?


BC:  I think Columbine is clearly the factual inspiration.  It's also a metaphysical inspiration too, but this isn't a movie about Columbine.  There are obviously a lot of similarities, but Columbine was Columbine, and this is a movie (laughs).  I just remember thinking that this was the ultimate event for describing a lot of things that people may feel in high school.  I don't know if that makes any sense, but the idea that it seems like what happened to me was (and I'm not exactly proud of this thought), but I was surprised it hadn't happened sooner.  That made me think, "why did I think that?"; it was just a fascinating event.  Being clinical about it, the fact that it was also a terrible event, but it was also fascinating; the thought of these two people committing to doing something like this and then actually following through on it.  I found it rather compelling dramatically and I was trying to think I mean, I don't have any connections, I don't have anyone in the industry who's going to help me get a lot of attention, but if I'm going to try and make a feature and get it out on the festival circuit, I should probably gamble on something that at the very least can get attention to begin with.  You know, you can either have a big star in your movie or make the subject matter the star to some degree, depending on when you do it, so all those things sort of culminated in deciding to do this.


ES:  How did you start to develop your idea into what we see onscreen?


BC:  That's a good question.  I did a lot of research.  The funny thing is, everyone does some research when doing a work of fiction based on something that they think is in some way realistic, but at the same time I felt like I shouldn't do research because I wanted it to be my own thing.  I think the main reason I did the research was to confirm what I thought about these characters and what I thought about this arc of their story, to see if real events kind of confirmed that to some degree.  And of course, when doing research I got a lot of ideas I didn't have before, so that was the first step, and then while I was writing I was casting; I was trying to get types of actors and whatnot; then I just jumped into it.


ES:  How were some of the more improvisational bits in the film handled?


BC:  The cool thing about that was, for instance: there's a scene towards the end of the movie where they break into Andre's Cousin's house and steal guns from it.  Basically what we did was we set up everything in the house as we wanted it and I told them exactly what they had to do and what they should stress and what they should hit, and said "Alright guys, do it," and just followed along as they did it.  So there's a lot of scenes in the film where they would actually just do what they were supposed to do.  It was unpredictable and fun, and we would get what we wanted but we would also get really excited and really nervous; you really felt like you were breaking into their house!  There was a lot of stuff like that that was just unique in a moviemaking experience.  We had a lot of control, but we also left a lot to chance, I think in a good way.


ES:  How did you ever find a school that would let you film that last scene?


BC:  (Laughs)  I never did.  I basically asked all the schools that I got in touch with in Connecticut and nobody wanted to touch it.  Every superintendent in every school basically explained to me that if they ever let anything like that be filmed in their school they'd be fired.  So I went with a college, actually.  The State University of New York, which is about an hour north of New York City.  It's this very strange looking place that looks actually a lot like a high school and they didn't really care about the subject matter because it's a college, so that didn't faze them too much; they were more concerned about the technical aspects: you know, would there be any danger to their equipment, would anything get broken, would anybody get hurt, and that kind of stuff.  I had insurance, so it just came down to that and convincing them that we were going to be professional and nothing bad would happen to their facility.  No high school in their right mind would ever (laughs) unless it was like, Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg or something, it would be very difficult to convince a high school to allow that to be filmed in it.


ES:  Why did you decide to have Cal and Andre use their real names and have their real parents be actors in the film?


BC:  I wanted to use their real parents; I didn't necessarily think it would work out, and if it did work out I didn't think it would work so well, but I wanted to use as many non-actors as possible in all ways and in all scenes.  As many as possible; just fill it with non-actors and make it seem as real as I possibly could.  That was the thing that I was striving for all the time, to make it feel real to the viewer.  And it's a challenge because when you go into a movie theater and you watch a movie, it's very hard to pull one over on an audience anymore, and I mean, I think I came close.  You know, there are scenes when I cringe, but using their real names and their real families was just a device, just like having them actually brake into the house.  It was a delight to get them into it and to get their family into it, and to get everybody around them into it.  Nobody had to remember some fake name or anything like that, and it was actually very easy for them to be natural around each other because the only "wall" up was this camera, which was, for all intents and purposes, it looked like the kind of camera you'd have for home footage.  So, I did everything I could to keep it real, and I think using non-actors and using the real families was sort of an essential part of it.  It would've been OK if I wouldn't have been able to do that, but I really wanted to do it.


ES:  Again, for someone who hasn't seen the film, why would Cal and Andre film all of this?


BC:  That's a great question.  To me, I know this is a polarizing and hard to ignore subject matter, and whenever someone talks about the film (like critics or someone), the first thing they always talk about is the subject matter, and of course they're going to.  Well unfortunately, I think sometimes this makes some people miss out on the fact that it's a movie!  And I'm trying to do a lot of things with the structure of a movie, and calling to question and playing with scenes in movies that I think we all sort of take for granted.  I think first of all that Andre and Cal use the camera as an audience.  To them, the most important thing is to not let on to anyone that they're planning to do this awful thing, but they've got to have an outlet; they've got to tell somebody, they've got to brag, and the camera is someone to brag to.  But the funny thing is, is how when they're directing the camera, Andre and Cal's characters will switch back and forth between conspiratory, where they're talking to the camera and you're along for the ride and "We're letting you in on this secret," and adversarial, as if the people on the other side of the camera are the target.  Like, there will be times when Andre will be teaching you how to put together a gun or a bomb or something and you'll be his friend, you'll be his confidant, you'll be someone who's going through a similar thing.  Then there'll be times when he'll say, "I'm going to come and get you; it will only take me 45 seconds to find you; we're going to leave you all behind."  Then, he's talking to you as if you're his target.  So I think the reason that Andre and Cal are doing this (as characters) is that it's a way to record and document what they're doing for posterity, and to brag to someone and let someone know what they're doing without letting anyone know what they're doing.  I think the nice thing that works within the movie is that it creates this kind of tension where you as the audience end up being both along for the ride and a target of the eventual assault, and I like that tension.


ES:  Do you think there's a leader between Cal and Andre?


BC:  I think that's one of those things that I purposely engineered to be unanswerable, and I think if anything I would love people to come out of the movie and go to a diner and have a debate about which one they think is the leader.  Because I think that there's evidence to say that either one is in control, and theres evidence to say that they're equal.  I think we definitely set up the character arc in such a way so that in the beginning Andre really appears to be the one in control; he's the one who seems to be setting the tone.  But by the poetry reading scene (I don't know if you remember that scene where they go to this poetry reading, and at the end Cal is telling Andre to drive with his eyes closed), you start to realize that Cal has a lot of power in this relationship as well.  I think you can definitely look at the character arcs, and they're intertwining along the way; they're going in and out and really intertwined in a nice way... I would never say to anyone, "no, you're wrong" if someone said "oh, I think Andre's the leader"; I wouldn't refuse it, but I think it's one of those things where I purposefully engineered it to be vague.