INTERVIEW: Jeremy Kagan Talks Shot
"Let go of fear and anger. Talk to each other. Listen to each other. Realize violence is not a solution. Put the guns aside and open our hearts."
Jeremy Kagan, who directs the upcoming Shot, took some time to speak with Cultured Vultures ahead of the release on Friday, September 22nd.
Thanks for joining Cultured Vultures. How are things treating you?
Things are reminding me of impermanence. Like what happened this morning with a green circular pin that was given to me by Al Gore when I did a Q&A with him at the Directors Guild in Los Angeles. I had seen that he had worn this on his lapels throughout the film An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. I asked where I could get one and he suddenly and surprisingly took it off and gave it to me, and I have been wearing it every day since (not many ask what it is, which is disturbing, as we all need to be reminded of the crisis of climate change, and this pin is the symbol that the Climate Reality Project uses). But this morning I couldn’t find it. Frustrated, I looked all over for it. Where did I put it? Did I lose it? Did it lose itself? Was a thing once again tricking me like the lost sock? Or was it telling me that nothing lasts. Everything dissolves into other things. The thing was saying: Learn to let go. I reluctantly did and then it appeared in a pocket. I am wearing it now.
Shot is your first feature film since 2007. Why the ten year gap?
Has it been 10 years?! Feels like yesterday. Or at least last month. 10 years. Let me check my iPhotos to see what I was up to. Oh, yeah. Not really a gap, as in empty space. There’s been teaching at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts where I am tenured professor and have run the graduate directing program and founded the Change Making Media Lab, where I have made 10 movies for various NGO like TreePeople that advocates water resilience in threatened cities, The Doe Fund that deals with homelessness, Bioneers that explores the best contributions to environmental and social justice work, NIH grants comparing the effectiveness of a drama vs an informational documentary to change behavior and other Entertainment-Education videos on ADHD and two on health issues like providing free hip and knee replacements around the world. And then in those years came three books – Directors Close Up, Vol. 2, My Death: a personal guidebook, the living etextbook www.keysstodirecting.com. And I developed a series on childhood obesity and one on hospices. And being Chairperson of Special Projects providing the educational and cultural events for our 17,000 members, I have organized our archives of 200 Visual Histories among other projects. And there’s being husband, father, grandfather, friend. But, heh, I also started developing Shot as a feature back in 2010, and it has taken 7 years to make! So more like a gap of 3 years.
What was the idea behind Shot and were you looking to get involved in the political debate on guns when you wrote this film?
What I wish is that the truly horrific epidemic of gun violence in America – 90 people killed every day, well over 200 off to hospitals daily with gunshot wounds, a billion of all our earnings spent as a result – what I wish is that this weren’t a debate – but a constructive discussion. No one wants this reality. And more than 70% of NRA gun owners agree with the other 2/3rds of our citizens that are non-gun owners that we can make this safer for all of us. We are not talking about taking away the 270 million guns in our country, we are talking about making sure those who have them are responsible by having effective background checks, stopping the excessive illegal sales, and making guns safer to use with things like protections where only the owner can use the gun.
But the idea for the movie was initiated by my seeing a great movie when I was a film student – Bonnie and Clyde – and I asked myself as the film played and many people got shot, what happened to all those innocent bystanders. Even back then I wanted to tell one of their stories. I want this movie to get us aware of what it really means to get shot, and what the ripple effects of a bullet are on so many lives. If we experience this, we can be motivated to make positives changes.
What’s the message that you want people to take away from viewing Shot?
Cherish this moment. Appreciate others. Forgive. Tolerate differences. Let go of fear and anger. Talk to each other. Listen to each other. Realize violence is not a solution. Put the guns aside and open our hearts. But then as that Hollywood magnate once said: if you want to send a message, use Twitter. What I want is for us to go on the haunting troubling roller coaster ride of what happens in real time were we to get unexpectedly shot. And the takeaway is compassion for those who live with this for the rest of their lives. And maybe even a motivation for us to make our country safer, and by doing that save lives.
How did the casting come together with Noah, Sharon, and Jorge?
We had a number of false starts, and almost casts, and then one of my director friends praised the work Noah Wyle had done in his movie and I then wanted to get to Noah as I also knew he was a caring person, and a fine trained actor and luckily I could get to him as he had lived down the block from me and had been in one of the episodes I produced and directed for a 10 part series called Freedom Files about threats to civil liberties. We knew each other. So, via my ex-wife who was still his neighbor, we got past the gatekeepers who often block access to their clients if there isn’t a lot of money involved – and there wasn’t as this was and is a low-budget endeavor. He quickly returned the call from me, after I got his phone number from my x, and he said he would read it. And he is a fast reader. He called me two days later and said – first that as he got to the last few pages of the script he got so upset that he threw the script across the room – but then picked it up and finished it, and was so shocked by the turn of events that he then said yes, he would do the movie, no matter what the budget. And he knew in saying yes he was taking on a very terrifying part for any actor. He’s got courage. And when he commits, he commits totally.
And Sharon came in during the last week of casting after we had one of those moments when you have an actor but their agents get them a higher paying job and call you – the small movie – to tell you that what was going to happen isn’t. And as often happens in life, what you wanted and didn’t get is unexpectedly replaced by something or in this case someone much better than you anticipated. And that someone is Sharon. She was evocative and original in her reading and she brings a heart to her work that is generous and enticing. We were lucky!
Finding the young Latino for the part of Miguel was a challenge. I met kids who had been in gangs, I met actors and non-actors and then, once again, last minute, in came this young man who had just arrived from New York and had literally only one movie experience. The irony was that it was in a movie that was directed by one of my former students. Jorge has those hidden qualities of a Brando and Dean that impart mystery and depth and innocence.
It’s interesting to have seen the tables turned on Noah as he goes from ER doctor to ER patient. On that note, what was the reasoning behind the split-screen?
I wanted to tell the two stories simultaneously – the story of the victim and the story shooter in real time so we get that from the moment of the shot these lives are intertwined and even, no pun intended, bleed into each other, as do the edges of the images in the movie. I also have been using multiple screens for decades in my work, even before we all became multi-taskers. When I realized that this style of storytelling is now more accessible and with digital production more doable, I knew that this would allow me to tell this story in the way that would be most emotionally and viscerally effective. It took lots of planning to figure out how to tell the two stories at the same time so that as viewers we know where to look and when. And it was an evolutionary process in pre-production, the shoot, and in the editing where what I had thought was going to work, worked differently because when you put two images together they create a third experience and often this was new for all of us and sometimes both shocking and exciting.
You’ve directed a number of TV shows over the years and won an Emmy for directing an episode of Chicago Hope. How different is it directing a feature film compared to a television episode?
Directing is directing. Getting truth in performance and involvement in storytelling is the same whether for an iPhone or IMAX. Years ago, before big home screens, there was the false issue that you had to use close ups more in TV because the screens were small. No more. Some of the best image making today is being made for television. And where once the resources were less in TV than in movies, that too has changed. The production values of television are often equal to most movies. And many episodes of TV shows cost three times as much to make as my movie, Shot!
Being a member of the tribe, I’ve seen The Chosen quite a few times. Can you talk about what it means to have directed the film, the awards it won, and why it resonates so many years later?
A lantz-woman, nu? What a gift it was to make that movie. And in a way like Shot, The Chosen wanted me to make it. It chose me. The script came to me from some producers outside Hollywood first. I read it and didn’t like it. Two years later the famed producers Ely and Eddie Landau approached me though my agents and sent over a script – and it was the same script and I reacted the same way – but these were outstanding producers. What was going on? I bought the book. Though a slow reader, I read it in a day and was deeply moved and knew that this was a story I could transform into an emotional movie. And specifically, as my father was a rabbi, I saw the two fathers in the book to be reflections of my own father who had died. And being a practicing American Jew with all the paradoxes of that life, I felt this was a rare opportunity to explore who I am and where I come from. At the time, I knew next to nothing about the Hassidic world – couldn’t even pronounce it – but I was excited to learn. And what a journey that turned out to be as these many years later, I am a daily practitioner of Kabbalist meditation. Thank you, Chaim Potok! Sometimes you make a picture to potentially change others and sometimes the picture changes you. The Chosen chose me and changed me, and I am forever grateful. I believe the movie has a timeless relevance in exploring father son relationships and friendship and tolerance.
Could a film like that be made today or would it be tougher to get financing?
You never know. I doubt it. But then no one wanted to make The Chosen for decades after the book had been published successfully. One of my students a few years ago was the daughter of the tough talented American movie maker John Milius and one evening he watched The Chosen on television and then told her that this movie was remarkable and never could get made today. But you never know. I am ready to make more of Chaim Potok’s novels.
Thanks again for your time.
Thanks for these good questions.