Juvenile Delinquents: Neil Goss’s Marvellous Journey

July 20, 2020
The Sydney writer/director travelled all the way to New York to make his powerful feature film debut.

Juvenile Delinquents is a gritty revenge flick centred around a group of teens living in New York. After a deadly run-in with a known paedophile, the gang decide to help right wrongs across the state. With each of them having a special talent, think of it as a superhero film where no one has a costume or powers.

The film marks the directorial debut of Aussie Neil Goss, who also wrote the screenplay based on his novel of the same name.

Keeping a respectable social distance, Goss took some time out of his busy schedule to chat candidly about his film, its genesis, and its ties with Marvel movies.

Juvenile Delinquents started life as a book you wrote. When did it click for you that it could be a film?

The story’s origin was actually a screenplay, which was sent to a very famous screenplay writer, who reviewed it as a favour to my US-based sister. At over 200 pages long, and not formatted properly, he correctly called it a “dog’s breakfast.” Still, he thankfully remarked it was a wonderful story he could see teens loving. Afraid that my plan to send it to producers would result in it being ripped off, he advised me to write the novel, which took almost two years as I was also raising my young son and three older children at the time.

What has been your relationship with cinema before Juvenile Delinquents?

I am an interloper who left the insurance industry, which was where a lot of the film’s initial investment support came from. Juvenile Delinquents is my first film. I’d never switched on a RED camera before day one of production and missed my first call of action because I did not know the protocols.

What were some of the barriers you had to cross to translate the novel to the screen?

Time and budget! The book, as told, would run over 3 hours of screen time, which is why we’re in discussions for a seasonal format. The initial final cut was 113 minutes, which had to be cut to under 2 hours for cinema. We aren’t Avengers after all! I had to merge certain components and leave out two principle characters which unfortunately left the movie too far removed from the book to reconcile. So, it’s been pulled for a re-write.

Unfortunately, the book may never again have an Australian version, as the original US re-write took over three months due to the significant differences in vernacular. Now it seems the reworking of the novel, and ghostwriting for the sequel, will happen overseas. On a positive note, I’m going to try and work with young up and coming authors who may never have otherwise had the chance to get a book out.

You planned to make the film in Australia before moving it to New York. What encouraged that decision?

We had over 3,000 young Australian actors apply for the ensemble and did auditions in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and on the Gold Coast. All roles, except Marko, were cast or down to the final few. The crew was partially built, and we had $1.2M in funding to make the film, but then it hit a substantial roadblock which is best for me not to elaborate on right now; what I will say is Juvenile Delinquents being made in the USA was a travesty for Australian cinema; robbing the industry of over a million dollars in work, the cast and crew an opportunity to have their talent showcased on the world’s stage and a chance for us to hit back at the US franchises dominating our screens. Just imagine if we made Juvenile Delinquents here and it kicked arse overseas! What a magical moment it would have been for Australian cinema to attack the dominant US market on its own shores.

The decision to relocate was not made overnight. In fact, it took almost a year. I’d flown to Filmart in Hong Kong to sadly learn the international value of Australian films as an export product, regardless of quality. That is not to say that there haven’t been well-earned successes! I’m merely stating two identical movies – one made in Australia, the other in the US – would not have identical value in international sales, which is hard for every Australian producer to hear.

We needed help to assure our investors that their $1.2 million would be safe in an industry returning less than 30c on the dollar. Needless to say, I investigated the US as an alternate option while re-editing the book over there. I met a medium-size production team, which in the US means they make films that cost $10-15M starring A-listers. They loved the story and wanted to option the script. Actually, they wanted to buy it outright and control the franchise totally, whereas I just wanted to partner with them so I could be involved.

As we negotiated my role, I tried my best to secure the assistance needed here. Ultimately, long story short, the New York Governor’s office chased our production with significant rebates and assistance. All of a sudden, I needed to get work visas for the US, which was not easy. However, in doing so, I became the first-ever person to be granted an E2 visa for the purposes of making a film in the United States. My teens once more became residents of Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens. My passion alone as a proud Aussie, in the end, was not enough for them to be based in my hoods of [Sydney’s] The Shire and Coogee.

And how did this impact on your vision?

Broken teens are everywhere, the JDs [Juvenile Delinquents] can belong to any big city. New York City would, however, be near the top of the list for international interest. I mean Tony Stark lives there, and the tragedies and triumphs of this city are felt in the hearts and homes of people the world over.

From a director’s perspective, NYC allowed for backdrops of a cinematographer’s dream. The city is also very film-friendly. We filmed at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, where John Wick always learns his fate.

Juvenile Delinquents falls very much in line with your typical superhero origin story, albeit with a much-grounded context. Is it fair to say this film could be seen as an antidote to superhero fatigue?

It is beyond fair; it is dead on. One of our bylines is “Not every Hero is super.” The JDs are unabashedly anti-heroes. Not only by design but by their failures. They don’t do everything right, and in the eyes of many, their justice will be seen as extreme.

I love Marvel movies and show them to my kids, but cinema-goers have to be careful of devoting too much of their attention (and money) into these causes. Marvel, nay Disney, don’t need you to go to the cinemas three times other than to break the $2 billion mark, but Indie and Australian Cinema desperately need those bums on seats. I always say if you don’t support these other worthwhile causes, don’t complain when you only get superhero movies to choose from.

Neil Goss (far right) with his Juvenile Delinquents cast in New York

The film deals with some heavy subject matter. How did you workshop these with your relatively young cast?

Kids have to grow up tough nowadays, it’s no picnic for them, especially in the USA. Most teens know a girl who has been abused or a kid fallen through society’s gaps, so there was little to no shock value. The hardest thing was during casting as some applicants related firsthand. My heart was broken many times, and I had an obligation to make sure the film was made and stayed true. We sent Bravehearts (An Australia Child Protection Organisation) a dollar for every book sold. I would love to have partnered with them, but the burden of the subject matter was too much.

It may be every abused child’s dream to have their monster slain, but in reality, this has very serious consequences. Many teens have expressed thanks for dealing with this heavy matter in this way, which is worth more than success. I allowed my young stars to make the characters more of themselves which brought authenticity to the roles. I wanted to know how they would act in these imaginary situations and merge this with their character to make the two become one.

The JDs cast did not happen by accident, we had over 10,000 actors apply, they are some of the best up and coming talent in the USA and real names of the future. Many are already or, pre-COVID, were working on major productions for the likes of Netflix and other big studios. They are consummate professionals who were a treat to have on set. So much so, that in a way we became family which was great as we were all away from home so long to make it happen.

Watching a talented actor work is something of real beauty. Only a few lucky people get to experience it, and I feel so privileged to be one of these people.

I’m sure most viewers will agree that the basement scenes in JDs really stand out, and not just because of the violence. You use such a contrast of colours, I wondered if you were influenced by Giallo cinematography. Were there any particular influences at the heart of your work?

Thank you, I actually never went to film school so I will need to google Giallo.

The look and feel came from asking the cinematographer [Dominick Sivilli] to make the shot feel claustrophobic, like a submarine. The basement needed to feel completely different from the rest of the house, which was intentionally bright. Still, it needed to be linked by colour and red was the infused colour of choice, once Corryn Treadwell became Sarah. Her beautiful hair is almost worthy of a credit itself, and I can’t say how thankful I was to have this addition cinematographically. But this is where my idea came to an end, and the mastery of Dominick Sivilli took over. Partnered with the uber talented gaffer, David Ospina, the pair made this magic. They excelled everywhere, but darkness was their real skill which fitted in well with my dark tale. For all directors and producers out there, I cannot express how important the cinematographer is to the final look and feel of the film. Dom is an artist of the highest calibre and our bromance is one of my finest memories from making the film.

Reading through JDs’ publicity materials, you write about how the characters could span across different media and even countries. What makes their story so universal?

Broken teens don’t come with geoblocks, they’re everywhere and relate to my celluloid counterparts. I’ve received thousands of emails, direct messages and the like from teens relating to a particular character. In fact, we will be using this for our next social media pushout. Messages come from all over the globe, places the book has never been. Teens just put together pieces of the story and demand a localised version. Following AFM Santa Monica, we are in early-stage negotiations with film people the world over. The biggest problem bringing the JDs to life elsewhere is… me!

I am the roadblock at the moment. I need to take care of my babies first. While I hope there will be JDs in every continent, who are from every race, religion and sexual preference, there will only ever be one original crew, and they are perfection.

Honestly, for the film alone, the story should have only had five teens, allowing more investment in each of them. From the outset, however, I wanted to build a franchise. In my opinion, it is the intertwining of dysfunctional relationships amongst the group that allows things to get so interesting. And trust me, it ramps up significantly in the sequel. If you think taking down a pedo is controversial, just wait until you see what they tackle next!

Limiting the number of teens would mean reducing diversity, and this film has always been about showing real life. Truth be told, I had an attractive offer to link in the children of some very famous celebrity parents in NYC, but this would have meant whitewashing the teens, which is really dumb. I’ve already had my quota of stupid mistakes for one life. Rather than gifting roles to those with connections and privilege, I gave them to those who earned it with their talent and have never regretted it. Even though it’s made it a lot more challenging to sell in the distribution world where the first question is always “who is in it?”

We released in LA at TCL Chinese Theatre complex, home of the Academy Awards which was a blast. We weren’t gifted an easy run, we had to take on Birds of Prey, Bad Boys 3, and Sonic to earn a holdover. As magical as it was playing in the cinema next to current Academy Award holder Parasite, it was conversations after screenings which really made the experience special. Having minority teens, or teens with troubled pasts, come up to you and thank you for showing people they can relate to or look like on the big screen was so special. I can’t do it justice with words!

Juvenile Delinquents is in cinemas July 30, 2020

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