Writer-director Ben Coccio on the Connecticut
set of his award-winning feature, Zero Day.

April 20, 1999

I’m living in New York and finishing up my first 35mm short. I watch the events at Columbine High School unfold on TV. The dramatic and tragic proportions of these two kids’ actions fascinate me and capture my imagination. I decide this will be the subject of my first feature.

I’ll show what happened, not why. To me, there will never be a why that could satisfy. I want to tell the story of two otherwise unremarkable suburban kids who set themselves upon this terrifying course of action. I want to take an audience into their lives—as close as anyone can get—and let people discover that you can never get close enough.

It will have to be done just right—with restraint, honesty and intensity. If it turns into oversimplified polemic or melodrama, then it’s worse than making a bad movie—it’s taking a dump on someone’s grave.

I have no money and no connections. I write a letter to Wes Anderson asking for advice. He doesn’t write back. Maybe someday I’ll be able to make this movie. I put it on the back burner and concentrate on the other ideas that I have no way of realizing.

March 1, 2001

I’m working at a shitty temp job to make ends meet. I crash my car on the highway and almost die. Suddenly, it seems stupid to sit around and wait for anything. If I want to make a movie, I’d better make it, because tomorrow may never come.

I’ve gotta figure out how I can tell this story with no money—and not compromise a thing. I do research and I find out that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold videotaped some of their preparations before they went on their killing spree.

I decide to stage the action in the first person, on video. I can do exactly what I want, and do it much cheaper than a traditional narrative. I will use my Sony DCR-TRV 900 3-chip Mini DV camera for most of the movie, and buy a cheap, throwaway Digital 8 camera to give to my actors for experimentation.

I title my movie Zero Day, after the name of my two characters’ planned assault on their school. I pray that no well-known moviemaker decides to tackle the same subject matter before I’m done. I tell a friend what I’m thinking of doing. He laughs and says, “So you’re gonna copy The Blair Witch Project, huh?”

April, 2001

I’m writing the script at my shitty temp job. I have a great system: They give me a day’s worth of work in the morning, which I do in 15 minutes. Then I write until five.

Some of the dialogue I write is good enough to be delivered verbatim, but most of it is just a blueprint. I plan on using real suburban kids and their parents. I want them to improvise liberally, based on what the script demands.

I put an ad in Backstage, just to see what’s out there. I am very circumspect about what I am casting for: “two teenage males for a coming-of-age movie.”

I get a deluge of headshots from New York character actors. It’s like a Law & Order extras reunion! I also get one intense-looking 12-year-old. Too young.

Zero Day Stat Sheet

Budget: The transfer to film, at $23,000,
the largest expense—larger by far than the total budget up to that point.
Everything was paid with money I’d earned and saved. And credit cards.

Shooting Schedule: Roughly 20 days between
July 4th and October 10th, 2001.

Primary Shooting Expenses: Food for
two teenagers and tape.

Cameras: Used a Sony DCR-TRV 900 3-chip
Mini DV, and Sony Digital 8 Camera.

Lighting: Used available lighting used
in most scenes; other scenes were lit with everything from
60-watt bulbs to an old Lowell kit.

Editing: Used Final Cut Pro 3 on a G4
(processor speed: 867) w/ 896 MB of RAM, 115 GB of storage.
(I won an all-inclusive editing grant—including Avid,
sound mix and assistants—at a film school in Portland,
Oregon but they wanted to start too late.)

Locations: Paid $3,000 for three locations,
others were donated and still others were used
with no permission.

Insurance: Through some freelance work
I was doing at the time, my partner and I had minimal production
insurance. This turned out to be enough to cover Zero Day,
and was absorbed in the freelance work’s budget. Ha!

Props and Effects: Including everything
from costumes to blank firing gun rental, roughly $2,500.

Festival Applications: I applied to
more than 50 fests. I would recommend you be prepared to
pay roughly $1,600 on fees alone.

May, 2001

I move to Connecticut to make Zero Day. My girlfriend lives in a small town, which is exactly like the suburban community that I want my movie to take place in.

I contact every high school in Connecticut and ask if they have a drama class or club—or just some kid who thinks he’d like to try acting. I start to build my list of potential actors and plan my auditions.

Some parents and teachers are suspicious of my motives. I make wisecracks and offhand comments designed to loosen them up. I lose a lot of prospective actors.

The Adam Sandler movie Mr. Deeds is shooting some exteriors two blocks away from my house. I contact my town’s newly created film commission and tell them that I, too, am a moviemaker, and I plan to shoot a feature locally, as well.

They don’t return my calls.

June, 2001

I contact my town’s superintendent of schools and tell him I’d like to use the local high school—an imposing building that’s a cross between a fortress and a prison—for my exteriors. He says, “If I ever let anything like your movie shoot anywhere near my school, I’d be out of a job.” It’s the same story with very other school I approach.

The auditions go well, but none of the prospective leads fits. I’m starting to get nervous. The 12-year-old kid from the Backstage ad shows up. He’s not 12 at all—it’s just an old headshot. His name is Andre Keuck and he brings a friend, Cal Robertson, along. They are absolutely amazing.

Later, I meet with Andre, Cal and their parents. I talk until I am hoarse about how much this movie means to me, how badly I want the two sets of parents to play themselves, how hard it might be and how I am going to have their kids shoot real guns with real ammo, make bombs and blow things up with fireworks.

To my surprise, they all decide to be a part of Zero Day.

July 4, 2001 

We start shooting. I decide to employ the Neorealist tricks of using the actors’ real names and not telling supporting actors the larger context of their scenes. I become a fixture at Andre and Cal’s homes. We shoot each scene until I am satisfied that we have thoroughly explored the material, then shoot some more. I still don’t have a school for the interiors or any idea of how I’m going to get one.

Andre and Cal are incredible, and it’s great to work with them, but with every scene we do, I feel like we’re going farther up the river toward the heart of darkness. How dare I make a movie about Columbine? What will the victims and their families think? What will festivals think? What will anyone think?

Andre and Cal imagine that I’m not making a movie at all, but just training them for an actual massacre that I will have them execute. Then, when they’re dead and gone, I’ll move on to the next town, find two different kids and begin the cycle anew…

August, 2001

I secure SUNY Purchase, a local college that looks like a high school, to shoot the interiors. It costs money, and I need insurance, but it’s nothing I can’t scam with a little fraud, forgery and debt. I create a bizarre CO2 compressed-air-fake-blood rig for when Andre and Cal blow their brains out.

The location is carpeted, and I want to get fake blood everywhere. I find an elementary school that is being remodeled. They let me take the old carpet they’re tearing up, and I personally transport several rolls of grimy, ancient, urine-soaked (probably) carpeting to the set. The night before the biggest shoot of my life, I don’t sleep.

August 18, 2001

We do the massacre scene. It’s one of the best days of my life—my heart is racing all day long. The CO2 rig doesn’t work well.

At the end of the day, I take up all of the carpeting I brought to the set and dispose of it. A day after my shoot, it rains and the location gets flooded. The carpeting I was trying to protect is ruined and has to be replaced.

September 11, 2001

9/11. The party’s over. I wonder, after this, will anyone really want to watch a violent retelling of what seems now like a minor, anomalous and depressing event? I start building 14 seven-foot-tall crucifixes for the final scene.

Andre, Cal and I go to the local high school—the one I was denied access to—and shoot the exteriors anyway.

October, 2001 – January, 2002

I have 30 hours of footage, and a self-imposed edict to have the finished movie be no more than 90 minutes. I also want to finish it before someone else beats me to it. I get a G4 and go deeper into debt. I do little else but edit for four months and get a rough cut.

February, 2002

A while back, I sold my 35mm short to IFC. My contact there gets me a meeting with their head of acquisitions. I deliver the tape in person. She says, “Thanks. I’ll take a look and let you know.” I ask that she watch it while I wait. Probably not the best move, but I’m anxious, and I have no idea how this usually works.

She watches it and passes. I go home and sleep for a week.

Cal Robertson stars in Coccio’s Zero

March, 2002 – April, 2002

It’s so important in a video feature to introduce the audience to the movie with confidence and polish—let them know they’re in good hands. I ask a very talented designer friend to do the titles.

May, 2002

I finish fine cutting, watch the movie and wonder what I’ve done. Will anyone ever want to watch this?

While following the Cannes Film Festival in the news, I hear for the first time about Bowling for Columbine. I am spooked.

I wonder: How hard would it be to break into the offices of United Artists and steal the negatives?

I start applying to festivals.

July, 2002

I finish paying off my credit cards. I hear back from the Boston Film Festival. They’ll play it in September if I have a 35mm print. I could wait for Sundance, but what if they turn me down? I tell Boston I have a 35mm print, and then go into debt to get one. There’s always American Spectrum.

I do my film transfer at Filmout Xpress, in Glendale, CA.

September, 2002 – December, 2002

After playing Boston and a couple of other great, smaller fests—New Haven and Empire State (and winning them both)—I’m ready to go to the Denver Film Festival. I’m on a panel with Michael Moore and Tom Mauser, the father of a Columbine victim. It’s quite an experience. Through Cal, who now has an agent at Gersh, I get an agent who likes an older script of mine and wants to send it around.

I find out I’m not going to Sundance—or even Slamdance. I’m crestfallen. Then I find out I’m headed to Park City anyway to be part of the Slamdunk Film Festival. I hate flying, so I take the train. Never again.

“Park City is not quite what I expect. It’s a
little like Girls Gone Wild for the film set.”

January, 2003 – April, 2003

Park City is not quite as I expected. It’s a little like Girls Gone Wild for the film set.

While there, I hear about a Gus Van Sant film called Elephant, which just wrapped and is also about a school shooting. I get a look at one of the two kids in the movie, and he looks like Cal’s long-lost twin brother. I wonder: How hard it would be to break into HBO Films and steal the negative?

I win the Slamdunk Film Festival and am awarded free DVD authoring courtesy of Sony Pictures. Making the DVD is a lot of fun. Andre, Cal and I get to do a commentary track and I edit together a little “making of” section.

I win the Florida Film Festival and am awarded $100,000 in-kind to shoot my next movie, as long as I shoot it in Florida. One of the Florida jurors introduces me to a producer’s rep. He wants to work with Zero Day.

May, 2003

MovieMaker Magazine asks me to take a look back and explain
how I made my movie. I think for a minute and try to catch my breath. MM