Takedowns of toxic masculinity have been in vogue of late, but rarely has one felt as personal as Goat, Andrew Neel’s Sundance-premiering adaptation of Brad Land’s 2004 memoir of the same name.
The film follows Brad, played by Ben Schnetzer, through his immersion into a college fraternity, as he navigates all the animalistic rituals that constitute joining such a “brotherhood.” A brutal incident throws him out of balance, and Brad is forced to prioritize his own mental health against pressure from his older brother Brett (Nick Jonas), also in the fraternity, and his other, figurative “brothers.”
Writer-director David Gordon Green (the indie auteur behind, on the one hand, cult dramas like All the Real Girls and George Washington and bigger-budgeted comedies like Pineapple Express on the other) wrote his adaptation of Land’s memoir years ago, initially planning to direct it himself. Later, a change of tack saw him staying aboard as co-writer and producer—alongside other producers James Franco (who has a small role in the film), Christine Vachon and more—while Andrew Neel took over directing duties. Neel was previously known for directing and producing docs through his SeeThink Films banner, as well as his narrative titles King Kelly (2012) and The Feature (2008).
We asked the two moviemakers to talk about their paths toward Goat in early September and allow us to eavesdrop. Here is their conversation, which ranges from their very different methods of navigating the adaptation, to the heavy responsibility of directing a film based on real trauma (with Green’s upcoming feature Stronger based on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing), Goat‘s tight 18-day shoot, and general strategies for survival in the indie film world. – Caleb Hammond
AN: How is it going, editing Stronger?
DGG: Well, I just outputted the first cut. I’m showing the producers tonight. The movie was its own thing. It was cool. It was fun. Actually it wasn’t that fun. It was satisfying and challenging. It’s a rainy day here in Texas. Where are you? New York?
AN: No, I just moved to L.A. I’ve been in New York for 18 years. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I ran out of fuel. There’s too many bars and too many people willing to go to the bars within like 10 blocks. I don’t know. I just was spent. I talked shit about L.A. for so long that there’s some people I didn’t even tell I was moving here. But it’s nice. I’m in Topanga Canyon, which is kinda cool. It’s mellow. The lack of seasons is weird for me having grown up in Vermont.
DGG: You just have to take a lot of trips. You got to get out of town a lot.
AN: And I rode my motorcycle out here, which was sick.
DGG: Oh, that’s great. And you’re already grinding on your next project?
AN: I’m at a funny point in your career where you have to just navigate, and basically not do anything stupid.
DGG: Maybe. Or do something really stupid and get attention.
AN: No, no, no. Well, even if you do do that, you have to do the right stupid thing.
DGG: To me, it’s just depends at what point in your life you want to listen to a lot of people and what point you want to listen to yourself and your closest collaborators, you know? And judge it by where that meets economic interests. And that’s your life.
AN: Yeah, I’m pretty pragmatic about that stuff. I guess I just want to step into a larger situation when I have a little bit more… You want to ratchet your way up the budget levels a little bit, so that you have more with you when you walk into those situations.
DGG: I feel like, and who knows what will happen with Goat, but there’s great value in not jumping into success right out of the gate. I talk to some of my buddies who made that first hit, it blew ’em up, and they made tons of cash and were offered the phone book. But looking back—and of course it was frustrating when I was living it—[there’s] something about not having a career based on commercial success, but based on individual aspiration, independent aspiration. I don’t know. There’s something there too, that keeps your appetite, keeps you hungry, keeps you a little pissed off.
AN: I mean, I agree. I can see how people get… I don’t want to say ruined. I mean, you buy all of this shit. You get a lifestyle. I have some friends in that kind of situation, and they have to maintain their whole lifestyle. Then it’s like this whole system, they kind of forget why they were doing it in the first place.
DGG: Or you just get bored and want to try something different. I remember when I went to do Pineapple [Express]. It was like, I’ve done four independent dramas… Actually, that was when I was really charmed by Craig Gering, our agent. It was, “What’s the most opposite thing to do? Let me try to do that.” And I remember going in, I tried to get that movie I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, that Adam Sandler movie. “After Snow Angels, let me go super light and fun.”
AN: Which I get too. It’s curious; I’ve always been aware of your move to do Pineapple [Express]. You chose the one that was going to be fun for you, and then it does broaden your horizons a ton. And then you can step back and forth a bit. That’s like the best place to be.
DGG: There’s not a Holy Grail of movies; it’s just I’ve got this broad curiosity. The one thing I haven’t done is documentary. It’s super-intimidating. But that’s the way you get to justify an exploration and a curiosity of any subject matter, any personality, anything on earth: Turn a camera on it.
AN: Doc is cool because you feel like you have this… It’s a life experience, and of course making a feature film is too. I’ve wound up in a lot of weird places in the world with a lot of weird people, and you’re shooting them with a camera. It’s kind of amazing; you get to know to these people and you form a really unique relationship with them. It’s very life-affirming to be out in the field just shooting. I actually miss that a little bit. I wanna try to make sure I keep doing that. I’m still producing docs with the guys at my company, but I’m not out there “in the shit” as much.
DGG: When you’re doing a documentary, do you ever sculpt the situation a little bit? If you’re with the camera and you’ve missed a look you think would be valuable, do you say, “Hey, give me that look again?”
AN: All the time. I’m not a verité guy. One of my partners there is more of a verité guy. I take the Herzogian approach to things. I think, documentary or fiction, it’s an art form, and you’re fucking with stuff and you’re sculpting it and you’re molding it to try to tell some version of the truth. And sometimes you have to bend the rules to tell the truth in a weird way. And so I’m doing that all the time. When you’re shooting—and I haven’t done it for a while—you’re editing in your head, which is cool because you’re like, “Oh, shit. He just talked and that whole middle part of that quote was going to be rambling so I’m going to need a cutaway there.” So while he’s rambling again, you pan off and you shoot the dog on the floor, so you have that B-roll when you come back.
DGG: You ask him something you don’t give a shit about for a second, so he can go that way and you get the rest of the coverage.
AN: Totally, totally. There’s this weird feeling too, that when you pan off people, it takes the pressure off for a second, and they’ll kind of reset their head. It’s cool that way. I’m always doing 50 things at once, and so what’s great about doc—or shooting a fiction film too—is that you’re just so intensely focused. Although when you’re shooting doc, it’s almost like a meditation, when you’re operating. You’re just looking at these people, and you’re just getting into their head. And it’s cool.
DGG: The project that I’m editing right now is the first real-life, true story I’ve done where you get to know the subject and you make a movie and you have an actor playing that subject. In 2005, I was doing my first—I don’t think we’ve every talked about this—I was doing my first adaptation of Goat, and I was a stowaway on a cruise ship. Did I tell you that?
DGG: I met this dancer on a cruise ship and she invited me aboard, so I snuck on board and was riding for 10 days, cruising around Aruba and shit.
AN: On a big cruise ship?
DGG: On, like, the fanciest… like, I’m in a hot tub with 80-year-old billionaires…
AN: …And the dancer, hopefully?
DGG: And it’s like the finest… The Crystal Symphony. Amazing. I was the freak-show of this boat. It was pretty fun, going into the cabin, working on this, or going up onto the deck, and it was like Titanic night and everybody’s in tuxedos on the poop deck.
AN: Doc is a little like that. You’re chucked in with a bunch of people you don’t know. That’s what it’s like. It’s cool that way. So you wrote all of Goat on that boat?
DGG: That’s how I wrote my first pass at the draft, and I remember having that anxiety because I knew Brad [Land] already and I had met Brad and Brett [Land], and I remember having that anxiety of the ethical line. I was having anxieties about doing an adaptation of a real guy, who now I know and I’m getting closer to. “I want this to be a project that he respects.” When I didn’t go forward with the movie, there was that little relief of, “OK, I can just be in the fiction world, and pull shit out of my ass forever.” And then I got into it hardcore this spring with Jeff Bauman, the subject of Stronger and the marathon, and so many people are actually playing themselves in the movie and it steamrolled into something even more strange and confusing…. More internal conversations and ethical conversations than I was anticipating.
AN: There’s even larger ethical ramifications for something like [the Boston Marathon bombings] because so many people died. At least, there’s more people involved in the kind of “truth factor” of the whole thing. I think I take a really liberal view of that. You knew Brad pretty well, and I didn’t. I always feel like, especially when it comes to fiction, you gotta find what’s in it for you, and if that means fucking with the truth a little bit more significantly, then maybe it’s a good thing. I guess with Goat I feel like in the end, what I hope the movie accurately represents are the experiences that Brad had. And I didn’t tell it exactly the way he wrote it, but I hope that emotionally for the audience, it translates the same way that it does when you read the book. Because when I finished watching the first cut of the movie, I was like, “OK. I feel good about this because I have the same feeling that I felt when I finished the book.” So I felt like I brought the spirit of the thing over to the movie. But I feel like that’s a tricky question with adaptation, always.
DGG: Did you ever ask Brad about the talking fox?
AN: I never talked to him about it. I talked to [producer Christine Vachon] about it. I kind of vacillated on it for a long time, and I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. It’s one of those things that, in the novel, I really liked. But I felt like I was going to break the tone. The tonal break was just going to be too significant. Maybe you could’ve done that and it would’ve worked. I wasn’t able to see my way through it. This fucking horrific thing just happened to him and then there’s this fox talking to him, and then I even just got into the budgetary issues: like, “Fuck. Is it going to be a real fox? I don’t want a shit CG fox.” A CG fox at our budget level would’ve been horrific. It would’ve been like a hand-drawn animation. So then it seemed complicated that way.
DGG: I think you made a good call. I just watched the final cut two nights ago for the first time. I think there was a consistency of tone. You were in the authentic moment from the first frame, and it was always going to “jump the shark” and snap you out of it and be “What the fuck?” I think it’s interesting because I did talk to Brad quite a lot about it. My thought was, “I’m going to film it, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll just cut it.” I was scared to death of including a talking fox in a movie that is that realistically based. But he was always like, “You know what? Obviously I was going through trauma, but a fox came up and started talking to me.”
AN: Actually, you know I had the same plan. I was going to do it with a real fox, and I was going to have them have this face-to-face thing. And then I was like, “If I shoot it, the fox can be voiceover,” and then I was down there and they were like, “This fox thing, real fox, this animal wrangler, da-da-da…” And we were 18 days on six-day weeks.
DGG: Whew. Eighteen days? That’s insane. And what did you shoot on?
AN: ARRI Amira.
DGG: Ethan Palmer, your DP from the doc world, was the same shooter, right?
AN: Actually he had shot Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, which I produced and was at Tribeca and won at Deauville. It was released by Oscillioscope. He also shot King Kelly. So I had done fictional work with him too, but I had done a ton of doc work with him. So when he and I decided to really take the neo-realist turn [in Goat], we looked at the camera options, and the Amira obviously captures pretty pictures but it’s super light, and Ethan wanted to operate himself too, so it looked like the right choice that way. Especially the hazing scenes, I wanted to let them run really long, and he had to have something light and mobile that would work for that.
DGG: Single camera?
AN: Single camera, yep. Actually, no. On the two big hazing days like in the basement and at the cabin, we had two cameras.
DGG: It feels very natural. Did you just stage it and let the actors loose? Did you do rehearsals and figure out where the inflections were going to be and overlap in the editing room? How did you coordinate that?
AN: I would say that most of the film, outside of the hazing, everything was pretty much on-book. We kind of flew pretty loose when it came to letting the camera rove a little bit. There was some shot-reverse shots that we did. But in the hazing scenes, I really let it go. I was really trying to get to that Lord of the Flies moment. At one point we did a 14-minute take. It’s actually when they get down to the cabin and they have the hoods on, and they cut the hoods off, and they start riding them around, they’re dumping shit on them. I wouldn’t tell the pledges what was going to happen to them. And I kept them separate from the brothers at the beginning of the day. And so I said to the pledges, “Look, guys, I’m not going to tell you what I’m going to do to you. What you gotta know is that you’re going to be uncomfortable. You’re going to be humiliated, and you might be physically uncomfortable a little bit. And you’ve got a safe word. But that’s it.” So they put bags on their heads and they started marching them out. And then when we got down to the cabin area, I could feel that the brothers…. It was starting to go there. It was starting to turn into the monkey cage. And all those props were sitting there. I didn’t even tell them to start going; they just started going. So they got them doing push-ups, and they were throwing shit on them, and they were riding shit around. And it started to get weird, which was when it got good. And then it got too weird, and then I could tell we were right at the breaking point. I could tell a couple of people were about to tap out. So I said, “All right, guys. We have to stop.”
DGG: You could see how these events can get out of hand, because it is that kind of tribal mentality, the Lord of the Flies. Once it starts, it’s exhilarating on both sides.
AN: I remember being that age, because I went to boarding school, and in the dorms, dude, they closed the doors, and the dorm faculty goes to bed at 10:30pm. It was fucking Lord of the Flies in the room. You had to fight to survive. And yeah, it is exciting, especially when you’re a young dude like that. You can get your juices flowing, and shit can get weird. So I was just trying to recreate that the best that I could.