The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

The Dangerous Lives of Altar

David Fincher, Spike Jonze and Jonathan Glazer are
just a few directors who’ve carried their success in the world of
music videos to the big screen, with such films as Fight Club,
Being John Malkovich
and Sexy Beast to their credit.
The latest director to follow that trend is England’s Peter Care,
whose The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys made a splash at
Sundance earlier this year and is now playing in theaters across
the country.

Adapted from the cult novel by Chris Fuhrman, The
Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
is an uncompromising coming of
age tale, focusing on the antics of two best friends, Tim (Kieran
Culkin) and Francis (Emile Hirsch), who spend their days scamming
up new ways to retaliate against authority, particularly their school
teachers, Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster) and Father Casey (Vincent
D’Onofrio). Though mostly live action, the film contains several
minutes of animation, courtesy of famed graphic novelist Todd McFarlane,
which only adds to the picture’s originality-particularly as it
relates to films about teens. In an interview with MM, Care
talks about his feature film debut, the challenges and joys of working
with a young cast of talents and the unavoidable misconceptions
audiences may have about the title.

Jennifer Wood (MM): How did The Dangerous
Lives of Altar Boys first come to you?

Peter Care (PC): It was about five and a half
years ago. I had done some commercials with Jay Shapiro, who was
on my production team, and he brought me the book. I fell in love
with the book-and he loved the book-and we heard that Egg Pictures
was looking for something that was hard-edged and sort of based
on the teenage years. So we took the book over to Jodie Foster’s

MM: Egg was the first company you approached?

PC: Yeah, we lucked out. It was sort of one-stop

MM: Was a commitment from Jodie Foster the
only thing you needed to get moving?

PC: Well, it wasn’t completely smooth rolling.
We worked with a writer for about 18 months and the scripts were
going nowhere. We ended up bringing in our second writer, Jeff Stockwell,
and that’s when it started to come together really well. Jeff was
a really great collaborator and had a great feel for the book and
adapting it. We ended up with a script after about eight or nine
months with Jeff that was good enough to show Jodie herself. She
came on as a producer, so that helped in terms of credibility, but
it was still tricky getting the money because it’s not exactly a
high-concept skateboarding movie.

The people who owned the project, USA Films, actually
ended up turning us down, having struggled and wondered what the
hell to do and ‘How do you say no to Jodie Foster?’ But they found
a way-and not a very nice way, actually. Luckily, Jodie was up at
Sundance with her film Waking the Dead and she had a breakfast
meeting with some people from Initial Entertainment who basically
gave us the money right there. It was amazing: Jodie just went in
and got the money; it was incredible!

MM:As a first-timer, was it intimidating
to direct the likes of Foster and Vincent D’Onofrio?

PC: It was for a few minutes, yeah I’ll admit
that. (laughs) But I think because I had spent a fair amount of
time with Jodie talking about the script, and I changed the idea
for the character-Sister Assumpta was written as a kind of Roald
Dahl, big beefy ugly woman and I was saying that ‘I don’t want this.
I think we should get someone who is really kind of younger and
stronger and more three-dimensional than this cartoon character.’
I think that was her signal that I was really into someone like
her being in the role. So the ice was broken months ahead of when
we were actually shooting. The thing is we had to do so much in
the first two or three days with Jodie that I didn’t have time to
get nervous; I just had to get my shots. (laughs)

And Vincent was a joy. We had a little time to just
talk about the part. Obviously, I had a huge respect for him and
it just came together kind of organically. There was no disagreement
about any aspect of the two adult characters with my actors. It
came together very smoothly.

MM: Yet it’s the teenagers who take center
stage. What was the casting process like for the film? The three
leads-Emile Hirsch, Kieran Culkin and Jena Malone-all seem to fit their characters so perfectly.

PC: Strange to say it was actually in a way
easy to spot these kids. We changed the role a tiny bit, but there
was no one who came even close to understanding the character of
Tim as much as Kieran did; he had a great feeling for it. He was
the only actor who read for that part and we saw hundreds of kids
on tape. He was the only one who had a feeling for the strange mixture
of that character, which is maturity and world-weariness and a little
nerdy at the same time. It was the same with Jena playing Margie. I was a couple of minutes late to a meeting to meet
her in our little casting office and I walked in and she was sitting
on the end of the sofa looking kind of lonely and forlorn and it
was obvious that she was the perfect Margie.

I was worried at first about Emile. I read him five
or six times for the part and I was just worried that this was his
first movie role. He had been in some TV and it was a big thing
to rest on his shoulders-to put this whole movie on his shoulders.
I liked him but I was just really worried so I kept sort of testing
him and getting him to come in and read. And then I started to improvise
with him one day and he just started to cry (I did one of the big,
emotional scenes in the movie) and he turned on these incredibly
real tears and it actually broke my heart. What we did then-me and
Jeff-while we were prepping and rehearsing was change a few things,
just some of the rhythms of the speech patterns, to fit the actors.
It gave them a feeling that they owned the characters and I think
that’s what you’re seeing on the screen. They have this emotional
link and an interest for the characters they were playing.

MM: Are there any real challenges working
with such a young cast?

PC: Yeah, there are.
They were kind of inconsistent. It was quite amazing really where
one day one of them would be absolutely on fire and amazing and
get everything on the first take. And then the next day they’d be
kind of floundering and you’d be doing multiple takes and trying
to figure out how to cover it and get around what you were missing.
In some scenes they would have a perfect instinct for every word
and every comma in the scene and then, in other scenes, I’d kind
of really have to pull it out of them. You know, get them to really
focus and go through every syllable of a sentence just to explain
what I was looking for. It kind of tricks you sometimes: you get
geared up for an easy day and it’s difficult and then you get geared
up for a difficult day-you spend all night prepping and you go in
and have had one hour of sleep-and then they get it all perfectly
on the first take. It’s like working with three monkeys: there’s
always one that’s climbing out of the barrel. (laughing)

MM: Coming of age films are one genre that
have the ability to quickly lapse into overly sentimental territory-but
your film never crosses this line. Much of the emotion that these
kids feel is under the surface. Was this something you tried to keep
aware of?

PC: Oh yeah, absolutely.
I hate sort of false sentiment in movies; everything was meant to
be understated. I also see the advantage of having the animation,
which is kind of what’s really inside of Francis’s brain: it’s the
other side of a child. That allowed me then to concentrate on the
more subtle side, the live action. I didn’t have to have some hokey
false drama put into the story because it’s already there in his
head in sort of a blown-up way.

MM: In addition to all the typical people
a director has to collaborate with-producers, actors, writers, etc.-you
had the added task of working with animators to bring your story to
life. At what point did the idea to manifest the internal emotions
of the characters through animation come about?

PC: We did a draft with our second writer where he kind of nailed
the ability to make this rather episodic book into the script and
thank god he didn’t listen to me because I had some ideas, too (laughing).
The first idea we worked on was actually very simple, which was
that the animation would be just little interstitial moments, little
psychedelic thoughts meandering. And then we kind of got dissatisfied
and I can remember saying to Jeff: ‘You know what’s really a big
deal when you’re an artist-I was thinking back to when I was 14
or 15-when you try and make a story.’ That’s a huge development.
But for kids, especially 14 or 15-year-olds doing drawings or comic
strips, it’s very rudimentary-it’s like ‘Mr. Amoeba Man Goes Shopping’-and
we wanted it to be a lot stronger than that obviously. So I said
he’s trying to make a story now, so he’s going to start ripping
off things that have influenced him, like stories out of the Bible
and Greek myths. And so that’s where it really came together.

MM: How did the animation work? At what
point was the animation being created?

PC: We had scripted before the shoot and while we were shooting
they were designing the characters and a very rough storyboard for
it. And when I came off the shoot, I was completely exhausted, of
course, and then we started to have meetings. It was like starting
all over again. It was exhausting.

MM:When a director transitions from music
videos to feature films, we’ve become used to the MTV-influenced style
of films like Sexy Beast and Fight Club. Altar Boys has a very straightforward
camera style. How did you work with your DP, Lance Acord?

PC: We’d shot some commercials together, so
I trusted Lance implicitly that he’d understand what I was looking
for. And really it was a very simple English attitude toward cinema,
which is that the camera serves the actor. You don’t do anything-anything-that
would distract from the performance. And the way that I worked when
I was a kid and a lot of English directors work is you don’t give
actors marks, you don’t put the microphone right in front on their
face. You give them as much space-psychologically and physically-as
you can in any situation. And the camera has to be in the right
place, but it doesn’t have to move, it doesn’t have to do anything
amazing. You’re just serving the story and the actors and I thought
that was the only way I was going to get these strong performances
from the kids. I think the minute I tried to put the camera on a
dolly or a train, it would have fallen apart. I think then I would
have wound up with some gimmicky, music video guy’s idea of a movie.
So I just consciously stripped everything down. And I thought also,
stylistically, it would be really interesting to have a stripped
down style like that that’s then intercut with something completely
opposite-the animation. The two worlds have absolutely nothing in
common. And I thought that would be a much more thought-provoking
way to do it, rather than blend the two together.

MM:Though the film is a period piece, being
set in the 1970s, it could just as easily have been taking place today-nothing
about it seems outdated.

PC: Yes, it’s
completely universal. Everything in the movie is exactly right for
1974 in North Carolina, which is where we shot. Everything-the way
that the Roman Catholic people don’t have Southern accents, the
cars, the wardrobe. Everything is correct but understated. I wanted
kids today to relate to it as much as adults. Apart from the fact
that they don’t have computers and they don’t say “dude,” I wanted
it to feel like it could almost be happening now. When we were looking
for locations (and there’s the inevitable budget problems about
where are you going to shoot? And should we shoot in Canada and
all this kind of stuff) I said, “Look, I’ll shoot this movie in
the Northridge Mall if I have to. We’ll just make it 1999 at the
Northridge Mall. It’s still a good story.”

MM: Do you think the story is a distinctly
American one, or could it take place anywhere?

PC: I think it could take place anywhere. I’m
not a Roman Catholic but I had a horrible schoolteacher when I was
10, 11 years old. I had the male version of that character who used
to hit kids across the head with pieces of wood and stuff. And also
I lived in a little town. The book was written for Savannah, Georgia
and we scouted for that and I kept thinking man this is a lot like
the little town that I lived in in England. So yeah, I think it
can happen almost anywhere.

MM: The title of the film is certainly a
topical one. Have you received any unwarranted criticism or scrutiny
because of what the title might suggest to some, considering the current
state of the Catholic church?

PC: We
actually got two thumbs up from the Catholic league and I thought
that was kind of funny. I think they were sweating and they realized
“oh my God.” I think we’ve heard along the grapevine, friends of
friends of friends have said you know I have a friend or a roommate
who wouldn’t come to see the movie because it’s about child molesting
priests. It’s sad if we’ve lost part of our audience and I’m really
pissed about it, but we didn’t want to change the title of the movie-we
were really happy about the movie the way it was including the title.

MM: Where do you hope the success of this
film will take you? What are you working on next?

PC: I’m looking at scripts that are more kind of Hollywood studio-type
scripts. And I’m developing some things, too. The film has given
me a lot of credibility right now. I’m working with Jeff, actually,
the guy who wrote Altar Boys. We’re looking to do something
completely different from Altar Boys-something with a lot
of thrills and chills in it.