“My Suicide” premieres at Mystic Theatre, Friday, September 25, features Penngrove screenwriter/producer Eric J. Adams and Petaluma actor, filmmaker Gabriel Sunday in lead role
There’s still time to get tickets for tonight’s North Bay premiere and benefit screening of ”My Suicide” at Petaluma’s Mystic Theatre. “My Suicide” tells the riveting story of Archie Williams, a brilliant and troubled 17 year old ADHD, media-savvy teen who announces to his high school film class that he is going to kill himself on camera for his final film project. Archie’s project brings unintended but devastating consequences. “My Suicide” not only delivers one hell of a story, with eye-popping effects, it’s also a portal into the complex life of today’s teens who are facing pressures they feel they can’t cope with and that adults don’t understand. The indie film was four years in the making and has numerous local connections—it was co-written and produced by Penngrove screenwriter Eric J. Adams, stars Petaluma actor and filmmaker Gabriel Sunday, and parts of the film were shot in Petaluma’s Phoenix Theatre. The film has picked up numerous audience and jury awards at film-festivals world wide, had its West Coast premiere in May at the SFIFF52 (San Francisco International Film Festival) and as it comes off the film festival circuit, it is about to be more widely distributed though a company that Adams and his partners have set-up. Tonight’s screening, hosted by the newly created Petaluma Film Alliance, will benefit Regenerate and Five Alive, two teen-oriented non-profit organizations working to prevent teen suicide. Following the film, Mike Traina, film instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College Petaluma campus and PFA coordinator will lead a discussion with the Adams, Sunday and others who had role in the film.
I recently had the pleasure of talking with both Eric Adams and Gabe Sunday about “My Suicide” and will be posting the interview with Gabe shortly. Eric and I met on Thursday in Penngrove to chat about his experience with the film. Heads up–this interview contains discussion about plot twists that you may wish to leave as a surprise. These portions appear below in bold face so that you may skip them.
Geneva Anderson: How has the film been received?
Eric J. Adams: We’ve gotten very good reaction and lots of awards everywhere we go—audience and grand jury awards. The goal was to create conversation around the teen experience. It’s not even about suicide but about that teen experience and point of view. We wanted it to be a very in-your-face movie. Parents tend to love it because it is unquestionably from a kid’s point of view, which most parents want to understand.
The response that we get from kids is that it’s good. We have kids coming up to us saying this movie captures how I feel more than any other one out there. The reports we get is that it opens up conversations all over the place about who I am, what I really feel, what hurts me and that’s the conversation that needs to happen between parents and kids. Another message is “I am not alone and this is not something that I am going through by myself. I have a generational link with others who are going through this.” Knowing that takes them out of isolation and isolation is the number one factor in suicide.
We actually got an email from a kid who said he went to our movie because he thought it was going to help him kill himself but, when he came out of the movie, things were different. It was such a perfect email, we thought it was a hoax, so we contacted him and got in touch with his parents and we all sat down together and they all ended up coming to another screening at that film festival. It was quite amazing.
Geneva Anderson: What is important for us to know about the way you as a screen writer approached this project?
Eric J. Adams: Well, I worked directly with David Phillips. We’ve been friends since the 1970’s, back in our hippie days and we’ve have always sort of helped each other on projects, co-writing, etc. David created the idea of “My Suicide” and his son Jordan Miller helped him. When we got to the script, we knew that we wanted to do something that was revolutionary and was always from the kid’s point of view.
Whenever we were at a script moment, the question that we would ask each other was what would Archie do? The story had to be from a young person’s point of view and a young person of today who is an aggregation of many different media. For us, growing up, there was film and there was tv. For them, there’s film, tv, internet, YouTube, iphone, public domain stuff, content that they’re shooting themselves, and all sorts of variants—documentary, animation, so forth. We want to make it as if Archie took a palette of all the media that was available to him and he ran with it.
“Natural Born Killers” was one of the movies that inspired us and, as violent as it was, it was an absolutely brilliant movie and probably 15 years ahead of its time. It used such innovative modern storytelling techniques—taking a plotpoint and creating a vignette around it rather than dramatizing it. We did this in the opening scene where you learn all about Archie through a visual vignette and re-employed that technique to add color throughout the film incorporating wild effects, animation, etc.
But this is really a very traditional three act story, right from the screen play, it’s the hero’s journey–the concept of the young man going on a journey to find the trurth and having to take risks and then coming back to save someone. From the plot point of view, this is a classic story that could have been written in Rome 2,000 years ago.
Geneva Anderson: Is “My Suicide” anyone in particular’s story?
Eric J. Adams: No, it’s not based on anyone. Both David and I are children of the 1960’s and 1970’s and a lot of the emotion was there from that—we brought a lot of our own teen years into it. When Gabe came on, he became the major editor and this was after we had a good credentialed Hollywood name editor work on it and give us something that didn’t fit. We went right back to the drawing board and started with Gabe and he delivered what we wanted. He turned the tone correct.
Geneva Anderson: How old was he at that point?
Eric J. Adams: About twenty, I’d say. I worked with him up here when he was 18 and I saw his brilliance and this was around the time that Dave and I were putting together our LLC for this film. He’s a young adult now, who has some distance on adolescence but can still jump back in. He looks young…you actually see him from 18 to age 22. We kept on filming the entire time it was being edited and added the little scenes here and there. For example, the ending was shot 3 or 4 years after the principle photography was done. He has that puffy face teen look in many of the scenes. We rented him that back house, which is the guest house in the movie, gave him a camera and a green-screen and said “go at it, investigate your character, create Archie from a character point of view.”
Geneva Anderson: Do you remember your teenage years as being so traumatic? What accounts for the tremendous dissatisfaction we’re seeing in today’s teens like Archie?
Eric J. Adams: I question that statement…I have 18 and 20 year old sons and I don’t see them or their friends as being dissatisfied. I think I see the same ratio of craziness to goodness that I saw when I was a kid. The craziness is just getting more hype. And I don’t think kids are that much different today but they have additional pressures. For example, with the Internet they have access to instant pornography, hard core stuff, which they can access at a very young age.
Geneva Anderson: Yes, so they are “experts” on sex or violence with no practical experience. In fact, that is what media offers–familiarity without any practical experience. Combine that with raging hormones and you’ve got serious volatility.
Eric J. Adams: Yes, and that actually puts some pressure or fear in them. Now, when they see sex, especially the hard core porn which is scary stuff even if you’re a seasoned sexual person, they must feel pressure. That could almost delay their entry into sexuality, that along with the pressure of knowing how you’re expected to perform and everything that’s supposed to happen. On the other hand, teens are very sophisticated today, savvy as consumers and as humans. They understand that people are trying to sell to them.
Geneva Anderson: sophistication wrapped in cynicism.
Eric J. Adams: Exactly and the roots of that started with our generation, the war. We are the first cynical generation of adults but they have learned a new trick–that they can manipulate as much as they are being manipulated. They are so much more comfortable with the tools of manipulation. They know how to take a camera out and make a YouTube video. They know how to do things.
Geneva Anderson: Let’s talk about Archie, Gabe’s character. The situation at home, his connection with his parents is stressed, which is typical for kids that age. This has lapsed into a serious disconnect though and when teens are dissatisfied with a connection, they really feel the severity of it. His awareness is curious. He seems to think he has seen it all and is ready to pull the plug but, actually, he’s done very little. He’s a loner who lives a mediated existence through his camera. He’s really very innocent and bright. He’s not hardened or into drugs. He’s a virgin, which is made a huge deal in the film, which further underscores his innocence. He’s just starting out.
Eric J. Adams:
Right. We wanted a kid who was on an epic journey and you can’t start a journey necessarily if you are jaded. The kid, of course had to have potential and everyone does but they don’t see it. We also did a lot of research on suicide and teen narcissism and one thing we learned was that people who are suicidal are often very ambivalent about their suicide. We wanted to take an idea that has been romanticized and really put it into play. That’s why it was so important to us to show that suicide so graphically because if we romanticize it, it remains an ethereal concept. When you see that kid hanging from the rope, you are sobered and it’s immediate.
Geneva Anderson: The cliché we hear “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” which is delivered first through Sierra Silver really become the film’s mantra. After Archie reaches out to Sierra, his life has taken on meaning.
Eric J. Adams: You can’t deliver a message like that on the nose, you see how that works in the film…it is just a cliché. We chose to work through storytelling channels that would have a better chance of reaching kids. Teenage years are affected by an incredible amount of narcissism. It’s all about me. My parents are the worse parents in the world. I’m the only one who feels this way. The whole flow of the film is to take this self-absorbed narcissistic kid on a journey that shows him he can grow out of narcissism and grow into maturity and responsibility. He learns that lesson at the end of the movie–that you can kill the part of yourself that you don’t like, that you don’t have to kill your whole self, that you’re really much better off when you start taking that camera and looking elsewhere, looking at the grace of the world and helping others. That’s when you can let go of the pain and that’s the lesson he learns through saving Sierra Silver and that’s the lesson for both of those young adults by the end of the film.
Geneva Anderson: What is Sierra Silver’s role in the film? Hers is actually is the more authentic trauma—she’s lost her brother, she’s living with a deep family lie and she’s a perfectionist who’s a compulsive cutter. Next to her, Archie is a poser who flirts with this from behind his camera but she is the real deal.
Eric J. Adams: Our research revealed two types of kids who kill themselves. The first is the “I’m mad” kid and the second is the perfect child who hates herself and—this does apply more to girls– has to be the best (has a 3.9 G.P.A. instead of a 4.0), the most popular and perfect in every way. So Sierra Silver is that other type of suicidal person. She personifies the shame around suicide and the drive and need to be perfect at all times which is, of course, unobtainable.
Geneva Anderson: Is there any evidence of more suicides occurring in large urban settings?
Eric J. Adams: No. The states with the highest rates–Montana, Wyoming, Kansas–are places with the greatest isolation; at the lower end are NY, CA, Mass. The reason for that is isolation is a huge factor, as is access to guns. Girls attempt suicide four times as much as boys do but boys are four times more successful. This is because girls tend to pick pills, cutting–slower methods–so there’s time for intervention and it’s more a call for help. Boys pick up a gun and it’s over. If you have a gun in the house with a teenage boy, your risk of suicide skyrockets. In terms of ago, the largest growing rate of suicides is among kids in the 11 to 14 age range which is horrific.
Geneva Anderson: In terms of adult characters in the film—from the film teacher, to the therapist, to the psychiatrist, to his parents, to her parents. You’ve basically laid out several possibilities which he treats as obstacles to get around. He doesn’t have any authentic connections with adults except the temporary one with the therapist.
Eric J. Adams: Well, we unabashedly told the story from a teen point of view. We did not try to be fair or just but shot through the eyes of an extremely upset young man.
There’s two times he does connect with adults…we wanted to show that a good mental health professional can be extremely helpful. You’ll notice right after that scene where he speaks with Joe Mantagna who says “be a kid, it’s not so bad,” Archie thinks it over and invites Sierra Silver to his place and he opens himself up to chance on being a kid.
The second time you see the connection is near the end with his parents when they confront him in the guest house and tell him “We love you but this is the truth about us and we can’t handle it any more.” And there’s the scene at the funeral when they finally come together as a family and you know that even though the resolution is thin there, you know they are going to have a new relationship from that moment on.
Geneva Anderson: How much of the film was shot locally?
Eric J. Adams: The documentary stuff where it’s real kids talking back…that’s all done in Petaluma and a lot of it at the Phoenix Theatre. In the beginning when you hear the kids saying they want to learn—shot at the Phoenix. The kid who says “we know more than they will ever know,” we saw that he had a friend with him who seemed to have a lot to say but never said anything. So when we shot the film, those two kids became the inspiration for the two kids Earl and Corey—the one who kills himself and the sidekick who says “Do it man, do it….I’ll do it tomorrow.” The spirit of Petaluma and the Phoenix is throughout the film.
Geneva Anderson: How do all these other media add or subtract from your job as screenwriter…what’s the synthesis with Internet, iPhone, so forth?
Eric J. Adams: It’s the new screenwriter’s toolbox and I love it. Now, when I go and see straight narrative films, it’s hard for me to sit still because it’s just the narrative story…where is the visual creativity? I believe “My Suicide” is the beginning of the next generation of film because the next generation will be done by kids where media is media and there are no lines drawn. To them, it’s all the same…they can appropriate anything they want at any time. Film is visual and you can readily pull things together.
Geneva Anderson: Actually one of the reviews I read dished your film saying it could just as easily be on the internet, implying that it could have been done on YouTube. So what?
Eric J. Adams: Exactly. It’s just like what “Blair Witch Project” did with the consumer camera, where it became part of the plot. For us, the internet is part of the plot as is media everywhere, which is the way we saw it and the way we tell it and the way we live.
Geneva Anderson: What’s the new distribution deal?
Eric J. Adams: We’re hoping to engage a three tier structure. We’ll start with a limited release in the NY, SF, and LA areas and, based on success in those areas, we will move to a wider area, college towns–Boulder, Madison, etc., and the third tier is to go really wide, to Miami and Dallas.
Geneva Anderson: Do you have a distributor right now?
Eric J. Adams: We’re creating a hybrid distribution plan right now. Now, all our work is toward distribution. In today’s economic climate where distributors are not picking up film, you create your own distribution company by pulling in P&A (prints and advertising) funds—that was what distributors were always all about. We’re working on that right now. We’ve hired our marketing team. This is good. You own your own copyright and create your own marketing plan as you see fit. You retain the ability to make money throughout the process.
Geneva Anderson: You also bear all the risk. Has this made you more realistic and less idealistic? Are you tainted by the market?
Eric J. Adams: Yes and no. I am tainted and I am bitten too. After that first dance, you will keep dancing whether you want or not. This is the greatest and biggest thing I have done and learned as an adult. To start to build something from scratch…we started with investments at $5K/pop. I made mistakes but I have learned.
Geneva Anderson: With that backdrop, what is your next project?
Eric J. Adams: I have just signed a deal with Halle Berry’s company “Good Shepherd Productions” and her manager Vincent Cirrincione. The script I wrote is based on a true story in Sonoma County. The story begins at Pelican Bay State Prison on the Oregon border, the home of the Arian brotherhood and Robert Scully, who was released from prison after 14 years. He started driving down 101, got stopped by a cop, panicked, shot the cop and killed him and ditched his car, entered a house and took the family hostage. Low and behold, it’s the only black family in the neighborhood. A true story. I got the rights, wrote the script and her company has optioned it.
“My Suicide” (2008)(105 minutes) not rated, would likely be rated R for harsh dialogue, some nudity and sexual scenes: screens 7:30 p.m. McNear’s Mystic Theatre, Friday, September 25, 2009.