As a close-to-death Jewish refugee in The Book Thief and an inspiring young gay man in Pride, Ben Schnetzer has proven his capacity to embrace difficult roles. But his turn as a 19-year-old college student who endures horrific abuse in Andrew Neel’s (King Kelly, Darkon) Goat may be his most challenging part yet. “I can’t say enough good things about Andrew,” the young actor says at The Sundance Film Festival. “It’s not every day that you work with a director who’s able to facilitate an environment of such trust and openness amongst the cast and the crew. We felt like we were in very safe hands, which you need in order to go to such dark places.”
Also at Sundance, Neel adds: “Being on set as a director, generosity and team spirit are everything. I tend to associate with what the character is going through, so to every extent possible, I tried to give them everything that I could for them to understand the scene better, and a pat on the back saying, ‘Don’t worry, this will be over soon’, especially with Ben, who was just getting brutalised.
The dark place at the heart of Goat is male violence. The tone is set by the opening titles, a slow motion vignette of a crowd of half-naked young men, faces contorted with viciousness and jeering. It’s meaningless, mindless, and disturbing. This is Lord Of The Flies, but the setting is a privileged college. We are introduced to two brothers at a party: Brett (Jonas) is already successful in the alpha male milieu of drinking and sex, while Brad (Schnetzer) is more sensitive. From the start, we see the place of women as sexual objects in this world of male privilege and dominance. When the younger brother is assaulted by two men, he struggles to recover from the trauma, and suffers doubts about his strength and masculinity. This is the set up that, once at college, leads him to try to prove himself through the violent and humiliating rituals demanded of the new recruits – or “pledges” to the fraternity.
The initiation has overtones of military bullying, as the recruits are stripped of their autonomy, and broken down through hectoring and humiliation, all in an atmosphere of cult-like secrecy. As a prelude to the long initiation sequence, a frat “old boy” – played with terrifying craziness by James Franco, who was also a co-producer on the film – turns up. Strutting the extreme alpha male persona, he incites the traumatised brother, pushing him to believe that undergoing the ritual bullying could be his way out of doubt and fear.
At a Sundance panel discussion with the actors and producers, Neel describes how Franco arrived on set “like he’d been shot out if a cannon. He’s an amazing specimen. I talked with him beforehand, and then he’s inciting Ben to punch him in the face, and then he was just slapping Ben. I’m going, ‘Woah, what just happened?’ But he kept going and going. It brought the whole thing up, because he’s an accomplished guy. He’s 37, so he’s older than the guys in the cast. It was this synchronicity with what was happening in the script…for all these young actors, he was the legacy guy.” What Franco’s cameo does so skillfully is lay out the promise offered by the fraternity. “That was the function of that character,” Neel explains. “When you take young guys and prey on their insecurities, you are going to form those guys for the rest of their lives.”
Neel also spoke of the challenges of depicting such a horrific subject. “It’s mindless brutality,” he says. “How do you portray it without glorifying it or painting the bad guys too simplistically, and navigate all that testosterone and insecurity? It’s hard to look at that behaviour being portrayed honestly and not be horrified. A lot of college films just make light of it all. They’re comedies, so they want the audiences to laugh. We didn’t do that. There’s awkward laughter, but by and large, it’s taken seriously. When it came to the scenes with the hazing [the frat term for bullying], I’d give the guys who were to start it a couple of key moments like, ‘Here’s an activity.’ I’d let them go for five minutes, and I wouldn’t step in. We would wait until it was pushed right to the limit where we’d start to think, ‘Oh, this is not safe’, both for the guys doing the hazing and the guys being hazed. It was traumatic to be in both worlds. It’s horrifying, and we tried to make that visceral. We make light of this stuff in our culture because we’re uncomfortable about it. All this stuff is hidden away because it’s the darker part of what we are as human beings. Seeing that when it comes out in an ugly way is scary, so I approached the dark part of the movie as if it was a horror film. I hope the audience feels the suspense, like, ‘What are they going to do next?’”
When asked if there was any moment where someone got hurt or an actor was traumatised, Neel responds in the negative. “No,” the director says. “Actors are just willing to go all the way. There was one moment where one of the kids said that he needed to tap out for a while. As soon as I spoke to him and asked if he was okay, he went back in. It was always a safe environment. When I called ‘cut,’ Ben just wanted to take a shower because there were all these condiments…”
Adds Schnetzer: “Andrew separated the brothers and the pledgers and gave us each a debriefing and talking to. He made sure that we were safe, that we trusted each other, and that we trusted him as the director. That allowed us to really go for it. Everybody was game, and everybody was excited about digging deep and getting as real as we could. It was challenging but it was rewarding. The hazing was an important part of the story.”
Nick Jonas’ character is on the dominant side of the fence in the initiation but says that “doing the hazing rituals was physically exhausting, but there was an element of emotional exhaustion that set in too. We built a strong bond, especially Ben and I. It’s one of those films that opens your eyes and makes you think. I read the script around the time that we started shooting the first season of Kingdom. My character in the series is full of complexity, and he internalises his emotions, so the thing that I was drawn to with Goat was the fact that my character was the polar opposite of that. He’s pretty outspoken, and he’s the life of the party at the beginning of the film, but then it shifts as he gains a bit of perspective. What was attractive was the brotherhood element, which I relate to, and the whole message behind the film. When I spoke to Andrew, he was very clear in his intention and what he wanted people to see and think when they left the theatre. Me and Ben start the film in two totally different places. By the end, we admire a lot of what the other person has, whether it’s humility or a bold attitude. There’s a place where we meet in the middle and find the support that we need. That’s a big part of masculinity, about who you can be to your brothers, both blood and fraternity, and what that means.”
Adds Schnetzer: “The context of the film is a fraternity, but I hope that it provokes discussion about masculinity in general and rites of passage in general, because it’s something that I think a lot of young men feel a need to embark on. There needs to be a definitive moment in which you become a man. It’s something that everybody can relate to, though not always to the extreme to pledging in a fraternity. In Brad’s memoir [the film is based on a memoir by Brad Land], it was all there. That was a real resource for me. I spent a lot of time with that, but then once it was time to shoot, it was time to let all that go and just be open.”
Legendary indie producer, Christine Vachon (Boys Don’t Cry, Kids, Carol) was also present at The Sundance Film Festival to talk about the background to getting the film made. “We were trying to make this movie for 10 years,” Vachon says. “About 12 years ago, I read Brad’s memoir, and was immediately struck by the story. I called to find out about the rights and found that they were available. This was the kind of story that should have moved pretty quickly. It had a young director/screenwriter attached in David Gordon Green, who’d made a couple of movies. But then there was the writers’ strike in 2008. We had almost every young actor in Hollywood attached to it at some point, but for whatever reason, we couldn’t get a name. Some of it was bad luck and bad timing, but I felt convinced about it. It talked about masculinity in a way that felt original, and not like something I’d seen before. David Gordon Green [who would eventually direct the likes of Pineapple Express and The Sitter] left, but we kept the option, and then we got into business with James Franco and his production company, Rabbit Bandini. Then Andrew Neel came into our lives. The penny dropped, and we realised that the perfect director was sitting right in front of us. Andrew and his writing partner, Mike Roberts, took the script made it relevant to now. Brad’s memoir took place around 2000, right before social media started to define our teenagers’ and college students’ lives. It was that version that we got financing for.”
Neel describes the memoir as “one of my favourite books. I’m interested in the underbelly of human behaviour and frat culture, and how the hazing process happens in private, so it was a perfect fit. I’m lost in all the various versions of the hazing now. First there was the book, then David’s script, and then our revision. The one most central to the book and the movie is what happens when the pledges get locked in a cabin. The film portrays hazing that’s pretty brutal, but in reality, it gets more brutal than this. Frat life hasn’t changed much…there’s been some improvement, but kids are still dying every year. You look at the stats and they are staggering.” Vachon adds: “When we were trying to get finance, we were met with the attitude that ‘we don’t have this; this doesn’t happen here.’ You mean that we don’t have clubs and organisations where men get together and do terrible things? Doesn’t every society have that?”
After the premiere, word was out at Sundance that Goat was a must-see, so subsequent screenings attracted capacity audiences, including plenty of college age boys. FilmInk spoke to two frat brothers (names not given) who were eager to explain that frats covered a wide spectrum, and that many offered positive benefits. “Our chapter is Delta Tau Delta at Chapman Uni. They actually have a wide ethnic membership, and they happily accept gays. Delta has a strong history of being philanthropic, and raising significant money for charities. On a personal level, it means that you get to meet with people outside your own age group. You can make strong friendships, and have a supportive social group with mentoring. We’ve heard stories about other houses where there’s hazing, forced drinking, and intimidation. The thing is, frats have these long histories and traditions, and the practice is that they would generally report hazing or bad practices. If they don’t deal with it immediately, then the house is colluding and covering up and it becomes corrupted by it. That’s why most times they would out it and report it.”
Says Andrew Neel: “I hope that it starts a dialogue. This isn’t just about frats. It’s gangs, it’s organised sports…hazing transcends all socio economic and racial barriers. Men are pretty fucked up, and a lot of problems that women have are because men are fucked up. Women’s responses to the film have been like, ‘I didn’t know that you guys did that to each other. What’s your problem?’ But I don’t make films for the sake of advocacy. I make them for aesthetic reasons, but in this case, the film has a great opportunity to have an advocacy bent. I would hope that people will think more about masculinity and how it needs to be discussed and improved.
Adds Nick Jonas: “It’s about raising a bunch of questions about masculinity as a whole, and about some of the violence that is in this frat culture. All of us were incredibly committed to telling the story as honestly as possible, and doing our best to raise a conversation.”
Goat will be released later this year.