Last month, 28-year-old filmmaker Ben Coccio sat in a tent in Hollywood for the little league Oscar-eve ceremony called the Independent Spirit Awards. He was up for a best newcomer award, which would go instead to a different young director. If Coccio, the writer and director of the remarkable, zero-budget Zero Day, was irritated by the awards cascading down on such questionable indie films as Lost in Translation, 21 Grams and Monster--not to mention a smarmy ode to the independent spirit delivered by that exemplar of guerrilla filmmaking, Tom Cruise--he didn't show it.
"The wins need to go to the big indies," the director said in a recent telephone interview from his home in New York City. "The point [for the sponsor, the Independent Feature Project] is to bridge the gap between the obscure films and the bigger films in order to remain a relevant institution in Hollywood."
He's a good sport, and a practical one. But Coccio has a lot to be proud of. Zero Day, his first feature, is an utterly audacious fictional rendering of the Columbine massacre that manages to equal its more celebrated rival, Gus Van Sant's Palme d'Or-winning Elephant.
Using two high school actors, a video camera and a found-footage narrative technique borrowed from The Blair Witch Project, Coccio achieved the remarkable feat of making the incomprehensible somehow sensible, if not rational. (For a review of Zero Day, see p. 113).
"People said I was crazy to do a Blair Witch take on Columbine," says Coccio. "But it made sense to apply [the Blair Witch technique] to a society fascinated with documenting its darkest, most terrifying moments. In my film, the killers are filmmakers."
Coccio's film wouldn't have worked without an exceptional cast, and he found it in the duo of Andre Keuck and Calvin Robertson. "We really needed the right kids," Coccio says. "The film had so many strikes against it that it would not work [if cast badly]. Andre and Cal were the last two we saw. They were very good actors, and they were very much like what I'd written."
Andre Keuck, who spoke from Washington, D.C., where he attends George Washington University, recalled that Coccio asked actors to audition as duos, with both improv work and the traditional monologues. "Cal and I went to high school together, in Stratford [Conn.]. I saw Cal in school that morning, asked him if he wanted to come and he said 'OK.' "
(Both actors are classically trained: Keuck performed a piece from Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, while Robertson went with A Midsummer Night's Dream.)
Keuck ended up playing the strong, militaristic ringleader, while Robertson, with his blond, vulnerable, Kurt Cobain-like appearance, played the more passive and mysterious sidekick. (It's not surprising that Van Sant, whose aesthetic taste for slackly attractive male delinquents goes as far back as his first feature, Mala Noche, has expressed interest in finding a role for Robertson, according to Coccio.)
Coccio, who received an undergraduate degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, was heavily influenced by the improvisational realism of such filmmakers as John Cassavetes and Italian Neorealist directors such as De Sica and Rossellini. "I didn't want them to use exactly my words, but rather I wanted them to get to point A to point B [in their own words]," Coccio says. "Andre and Cal really made my script seem one-dimensional. They really brought it to life."
Coccio also found that the conceit of having his characters perform for their own video camera opened up old-fashioned dramatic possibilities. "It allowed us to do really exciting things, like having Shakespearean monologues where the character is speaking directly to the audience--in conspiratorial tones, adversarial tones, threatening tones. You can have a really interesting relationship with the audience."
Asked if he'd found inspiration for the role in his personal experience, Keuck demurred. "Everyone can draw on experience in middle and high school, names you were called and so on," says Keuck, who has junior standing in his first year of college, thanks to the magic of AP credits, and is double majoring in international conflict and computer science. "But I didn't really have problems in middle school and high school. Especially not high school--I loved high school."
Keuck (pronounced koyk) avoided doing research for his role, save for a primer on guns that Coccio gave him. In the end, his performance is a small wonder of a tightly wound, privileged suburban kid who harbors a deep, ineffable reservoir of testosterone-fueled rage.
It's the chemistry of Keuck and Robertson that ultimately carries the film, and indeed, Coccio was drawn to the project because of his interest in the relationship of Columbine's Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.
Herein lies the chief distinction between Zero Day and Van Sant's Elephant, which was a macroscopic look at a group of kids interacting through a school lunch hour, just before the massacre.
"Looking at Elephant," Coccio says, "what seemed to fascinate Gus Van Sant is randomness as a salient feature, not so much getting into character [study]. That was not the point of his movie, but it was the point of mine. I explore character but avoid motivation. His film is about the surface of the thing, while I'm going below surface of things."
While such comments might suggest a certain antipathy toward Elephant, Coccio downplayed the idea. "The messages are very similar but the method is very different to get to a similar place, which I find kind of fascinating," he says.
Coccio and Keuck agreed that Elephant's much ballyhooed kissing-in-the-shower scene that precedes the slaughter is dramatically suspect. On this point, Keuck was the more vehement of the two, although he acknowledged not having seen the film--apparently it has yet to open in Washington, D.C. Asked if his character in Zero Day could have kissed Robertson, in a shower or elsewhere, Keuck says firmly, "Most certainly not. No way.
"It seems more like the director's hand, because from the story point of view [such an act] would seem absurd. I could not fathom that because it goes perpendicular to the narrative," Keuck continues. "The story's the most important thing."
Zero Day's convincing rendering of a Columbine-like massacre is sometimes startling, no more so than during a sequence in which Keuck, Robertson and another character videotape themselves firing high-powered weapons at practice targets. According to Coccio, the videotape of Columbine killers Klebold and Harris firing their weapons was only released last October. "It looked so much like my film, people thought I'd seen that footage," Coccio says. "It freaked me out."
Zero Day is being distributed by Avatar Films, a tiny player in an independent scene dominated by such big dogs as Miramax, Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics. But even such modest success is a victory for Coccio. "Zero Day went further than I ever expected--I've gotten attention and distribution. It was what I was hoping for, but I didn't expect it."
Among those who've seen the film are survivors of the Columbine massacre. "Some have been supportive while others have found it completely reprehensible," Coccio says. "Ultimately, I didn't make it for the victims of Columbine. I made it for me--I wanted it to be a window into understanding the tragedy."