June 19, 2010

“Director speaks about dark comedy ‘My Suicide'”

Date published: 04/29/2010
Publication: Albany Times Union

By Elizabeth Floyd Mair

In the feature film “My Suicide: A Self-Inflicted Comedy,” a teenage boy announces in media class that he plans to kill himself on camera as his final project. Some classmates cheer him on and encourage him to end it all, while others try to talk him out of it, and still others seek him out as a kindred spirit. His parents send him to one counselor after another, but most of the advice he receives from adults feels like cliched catchphrases and has little impact.  Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, the film finds its comedy — dark comedy, to be sure — in the story of the boy’s inner journey as he grapples with the kinds of existential questions teenagers deal with as part of growing up.

Director David Lee Miller said recently by phone from his studio in California that the film isn’t really about suicide. “Hitchcock always talked about the McGuffin. It’s not necessarily the subject of the picture; it’s what the picture revolves around. I do not consider our movie to be a suicide movie. Our film’s a narrative story about the teen condition.”

At the same time, Miller was very much inspired, he says, to make the film after learning that “suicide is skewing younger now; the fastest-rising demographic for it today is 10- to 14-year-olds.” Suicide, he said, was a touchstone, a way to look at some of the toughest issues kids grapple with today — drinking, sex, loneliness — all at once.

“My Suicide” has been winning awards at film festivals around the world (19 so far). Miller even traveled to Rome in November — at the Pope’s invitation — to attend a “Meeting of the Artists with the Holy Father in the Sistine Chapel.” The movie is expected to be in theaters this fall. Miller will be in Troy today for a screening of the film followed by a Q&A at the Sanctuary for Independent Media.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is the nuanced acting of Gabriel Sunday as high-schooler Archie Williams. (The rest of the cast is also excellent, but Sunday has far and away the most screen time.)

Sunday happens to be a spot-on impersonator, too, and Archie often slips into other voices from famous film scenes, like Christopher Walken playing Russian roulette in “The Deer Hunter” or Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now.” In these moments, the scenery morphs around Sunday, through animation and computer graphics, to look like those scenes (a rowdy crowd of Vietnamese appears in the background to cheer him on); the effect is dreamlike and amusing. In one memorable scene, Archie sits quietly in the office of his psychiatrist (Joe Mantegna), revealing nothing of his real thoughts, while an animated version of himself leaps off the couch and goes at the shrink with a large kitchen knife while red cartoon blood soaks the screen.

The other “star” of “My Suicide” is its mind-bending array of cinematic techniques like rotoscoping, hand-held cameras, home video and filmstrips from the ’50s and ’60s (often with new and funny narration). Miller wanted the movie to look like something a kid could make. “All the techniques we used were done with off-the-shelf software that a young person would have access to in this day and age: Flash, Adobe After Effects, Photoshop, maybe a little bit of Maya, but really focusing on off-the-shelf technologies.”

The film’s densely layered, in-your-face approach reflects the chaotic energy of a young brain and forces viewers to think about the blessing and curse of being a young person in the digital age (as Miller puts it, “overconnected and sometimes disconnected”).

The director conceived the idea for “My Suicide” together with his son Jordan, who was then still a teenager. The project grew out of a nonprofit called Regenerate that Miller and his son had established when Jordan was just 14 years old.

This “by-youth for-youth” organization was the Millers’ response to a tragic car crash in 2001 in their town of Thousand Oaks, Calif., that killed several promising teenagers.

Jordan applied for and received a $10,000 grant to make a public service announcement on teen driving safety, and that was the start of a nonprofit that is still helping kids make professional-quality PSAs and films that influence young lives for the better.

Miller and other filmmakers brought the Regenerate kids to Sundance and other film festivals, which helped fuel their growing interest in independent films. Eventually father and son got interested in making a feature that would serve their mission and also be a “cool picture.”

Miller and his son co-authored “My Suicide” with Eric Adams. Well-known actors read the script and wanted to take part despite the low budget; the cast includes, in addition to Mantegna, David Carradine and Mariel Hemingway. Jordan Miller spent two years in post-production, editing the film with its star Sunday, also a young filmmaker.

“It was crazy putting two 20-year-olds in charge of editing a motion picture of this size,” Miller says, “but both of them had been making movies since they were 12, and I wanted to use artists who would be like Archie — really talented and media-savvy kids.”

Asked if parents should try to stem the tide of digital information hitting kids, Miller said that it is a decision best left to each parent. “But the main thing is to be involved. And communicate. Opening the communication between you and your children is absolutely required.”

Miller clearly walks the walk. His daughter Sarah (at age 20, an award-winning filmmaker in her own right) also signed on as an associate producer once the project got started. Jordan, Sarah and Sunday have all become very close, Miller says. “In fact, we’re all working on another movie together right now that Gabriel is slated to direct and star in, based on the life and times of bipolar musician and songwriter Daniel Johnston.”

Elizabeth Floyd Mair is a freelance writer living in Guilderland.

Film screening

“My Suicide”

Event features potluck supper and Q&A with filmmaker David Lee Miller.

When: 5:30 p.m. potluck; 7 p.m. screening, followed by question-and-answer session

Where: Sanctuary for Independent Media, 3361 Sixth Ave., Troy

Admission: $10 suggested donation, $5 student/low-income

Note: The Sanctuary gallery space will also be showing a video installation by teenage artist Chelsea Kereszi, “Daddyless,” about the reverberations in her life of her father’s suicide.

Info: 272-2390; https://www.mediasanctuary.org

Movie info: http://www.mysuicidethemovie.com

External permalink: http://www.timesunion.com/ASPStories/story.asp?StoryID=926037

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