Q & A: Producer/Director/Writer David Lee Miller on “My Suicide”

Director-Producer-Writer David Lee Miller

Director-Producer-Writer David Lee Miller

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing series of conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to producer-director-writer David Lee Miller about the making of the coming of age romantic comedy drama “My Suicide”, which was honored in February at the Berlin Film Festival with the Crystal Bear for best feature in the Generation 14-plus youth film section.

“Suicide’s” story revolves around 17 year old media geek Archie Williams, who needs a project to do for his high school filmmaking class. What he comes up with is announcing that he’s gong to commit suicide on camera for his movie. Unexpectedly, the idea resonates with several of his high school classmates who decide to emulate him.

The Berlin Film Festival jurors applauded “Suicide” and explained that they were “not only fascinated by the film’s gripping content, but also the highly original way in which it was made. The protagonist’s loneliness and his longing for love are authentic and awe-inspiring.”

Miller wrote and directed the 1993 horror comedy “Breakfast of Aliens” and has been writing and producing video games for years. His co-writers on “Suicide” are Eric J. Adams and Gabriel Sunday based on a story by Miller and his son Jordan J. Miller. The Regenerate and Archie Film presentation in association with Interscope and Red Rover Films is produced by Miller, Todd Traina, Adams and Larry Janss. Its executive producers are Harold Ramis, Jimmy Iovine, Polly Anthony, Steven Jay Rubin, Karyn Rachtman, Ken Hertz, Michael McDonough, Karen Dean Fritts and Alana Henry. Starring are Gabriel Sunday, Brooke Nevin, Mariel Hemingway, David Carradine, Joe Mantegna and Nora Dunn.

Q: You’ve made a very unusual story.
A: It was made in an unusual fashion, too. The whole technique of production and post-production were really embracing new technologies. I have been working with young artists throughout my career. One of them was my son, Jordan, who at a very young age started when FireWire (an Apple device for connecting peripherals to computers) came out and I had a videogame company called Roaring Mouse. He started making movies. They were mainly extreme sports films and they took him to the Extant Film Festival at Sundance and a number of other places. So for four or five years running he would be on panels at Sundance as the freaky little 13 or 14 year old digital moviemaker.

We started a youth group together called Regenerate. He was approached by a concerned parent in our neighborhood in Thousand Oaks (California) about all the car crashes that were happening. They were wondering if he could make movies about teen issues for his peers that would help. So we formed Regenerate to empower youth to make programming for their peers about important teen issues — and suicide is the number two killer of kids. So Jordan and I would sit around Sundance all excited by independent films and go, “What movie could we make that would fit the mission of Regenerate, but just be a bad-ass rockin’ picture?” And we came up with the concept for this movie (in 2003). We also conceived it as something that once we discovered the (actor to play) Archie we could just start shooting and conceivably write on a timeline. Now that changed. If you analyze the film you’ll notice that underneath the experimental storytelling there’s actually a very traditional three act story structure.
Q: It’s a complicated story that you tell. How would you sum it up in a few sentences?
A: Ultimately, I see it as a boy’ journey from narcissism to connection. It really is about a young man who is ambivalent and over connected and disconnected, whose life changes when he announces he’s going to kill himself for his fourth period video production class. Basically, he turns from (being) a nerd to somebody who’s got a very high ‘q’ (popularity score) in his world. It basically becomes a journey to connection and to a discovery that the best things that happen in life are the direct result of giving as opposed to taking.
Q: In the film Archie’s announcement that he’s going to commit suicide in his movie prompts some of his classmates to try to follow in his footsteps.
A: He feels legitimate guilt over what happens (but) obviously we don’t want to give that away. All suicide is characterized by ambivalence. Archie could be suicidal, but was ultimately on an exploratory journey. But the fact of the matter is he’s playing with fire there and this is stuff that needs to be taken seriously. And it’s so often the case that it’s a boy who’s quiet and that people don’t really anticipate is going to kill himself who does.
Q: The way you approach the issue of teen suicide in the film rings very true.
A: We worked really closely with Dr. Edwin Schneidman (who is) the father of (the American Association of) Suicidology (and a leading suicide prevention expert). We consulted with him and Dr. Elaine Leader at Teen Line (a confidential peer hotline for teens) to keep everything really authentic and really on point in terms of the whole mental health side of this.
Q: And you seem to be speaking with the same voice that the youth audience you’ve targeted the film to speaks with.
A: The editors of this movie (Jordan J. Miller and Gabriel Sunday) both started editing it when they were 20 years old. They’re 22 now. I wrote the story with Jordan and, of course, Gabe wrote the screenplay with us as well as with Eric Adams. That really kept that youth voice authentic so it doesn’t come off as a preachy film. It’s ultimately a film that kids feel is expressing their emotions.
Q: There were times when I wasn’t even sure that there was a written screenplay for this movie because so much was happening on screen.
A: There was a written screenplay although there’s a lot of documentary footage, which was always intended that way, as well as improvisational footage. For example, the scene when he goes back to school after being taken away for 72 hours of observation, which is what happens to you — that is truly a blend of real kids talking, documentary footage, scripted screens and improvisational footage. You really can’t tell what’s what.

We probably wrote very early on in the process like a hundred pages of just Archie rants and then we wrote a treatment, which really has survived in terms of the structure of the story. When we found Gabriel we had looked for four months because we needed a kid who felt comfortable holding a camera on himself and who would join the movie (not only as) an actor but as a filmmaker. Eric Adams discovered him in Petaluma, Calif. We knew he was the guy. In fact, in all the years I’ve been in the film industry I’ve never had (like) when I met Gabe (that feeling), “Who am I meeting here? Robin Williams at 18?”
Q: It’s hard to believe that Gabriel Sunday hadn’t made any movies before.
A: (He had appeared on stage and he also was) a world class magician. When I met him he could do 30 impressions of famous people spot on. I mean, as good as I’ve ever heard anybody do an impression. He’d made a short film, a half-hour documentary about his adventures on the road with three of his mentors in life, who were Wavy Gravy, the emcee of Woodstock and founder of Seva (the Seva Foundation was started in 1978 to end global poverty), Ram Dass, the spiritual guru of the ’60s, and the real Patch Adams. This movie was fantastic and I thought before I met him, “Any kid who’s made this movie, I want to meet.”
Q: When you started working on “Suicide” how did you see the project proceeding?
A: My idea was that we would create the film and write it on a timeline and do it within the non-profit (organization) Regenerate. What happened was when I started raising money for the film people were like, “Wow. This is really a commercial idea. And this footage that you’ve got and these trailers that you’ve put together, they’re really, really strong. We want to invest in the film.” So working with attorneys we put together a structure that enabled both foundations and individual investors to get together in this movie. (At that point we wrote a screenplay that) we sent out and garnered all this talent who really came on (because of their) passion for the project. We shot principal photography and then with Jordan and Gabe during the long post-production process, especially because of all the animation, we shot more and really dug into the characters. (Some of) the intimate stuff, which I always knew I’d shoot last, is in the beginning, but it’s all through the movie. So that became the writing on the timeline part of it, but by having that screenplay and that original treatment our solid three act story structure never varied.
Q: You shot in L.A. as well as Thousand Oaks, Orange County and northern California. How long did you shoot?
A: The principal photography was 20 days, but the additional photography was basically on and off. I put Gabriel when I moved him here from Petaluma, after he was in my house for a while — which back in those days was like having Jim Carrey from “The Mask” living in your house — into what we called our “Kato Kaelin bungalow” (Kaelin was famous for being a house guest of O.J. Simpson) behind the pool house in Thousand Oaks. That’s the pool house in the movie, so he lived on the set.
Q: And I understand you made the most of that opportunity.
A: I gave him a camera that was all set up and I said, “If you’re feeling something late at night — feeling depressed or feeling alone or feeling happy — pick that camera up and talk into it.” There’s actually footage from that in the movie. There was additional shooting that went on and off. It probably represents another 20 or 30 days. We had a green screen stage in our little office building. It went on for a year or two after that initial principal photography in January of 2006.
Q: You make interesting use of animation in “Suicide.”
A: We always conceived that Archie would scribble over his film. So a lot of the animation was developed after (shooting) from the motivation that Archie animates stuff that's really important to him, that’s really heavy to him. And that’s why we feel the animation is all motivated. When you cut to animation you don’t just go, “Where did this come from?” It's Archie.
Q: What were some of the challenges you faced in production?
A: One of the biggest was dealing with the sheer amount of footage. We shot a lot of documentary footage (with) experts talking about suicide and suicide prevention and teen suicides and kids talking about their feelings — not only about suicide, but what they love and what they hate and what the condition of their life is today. Dealing with (all that) footage was a huge, huge issue.

The other thing is I wanted to make a movie where it was no holds barred in terms of what media Archie would be able to use. The entire movie was what I called WWAD — What would Archie do? I told the team, take whatever you want whether it’s off the Internet or whatever. In a sense, we created a monster piece because then I had to go own all that stuff. So that was a big issue.

It was obviously a very arduous journey for Gabriel starring and editing himself alongside Jordan. It was a huge learning experience for him and really, if you think about it, the ultimate film school. He grew so much as an actor and he's a brilliant young filmmaker. He learned so much about technology by the end of it. But it was definitely an arduous journey for him. I obviously asked a great deal of him, but I think it’s up on the screen.
Q: Now, of course, you’ve got to find an audience for the film. How did your showings go in Berlin?
A: Beyond some tests here, which went very well, we’d never played it for big audiences before. And we won the Crystal Bear in the Generation Division. The response to the film was really surreal. We had packed crowds and were sold out at every screening. Nobody left before the Q&A’s. They went on until they had to kick us out (of) the theater because the other movie was coming in. People were talking about the movie, of course, and filmmaking, but it also sparked incredible communication about feelings and suicide and life and death. We couldn’t have asked for a more shocking and amazing response.
Q: What are your distribution plans?
A: We’re just starting to show it to distributors. We’re getting a lot of inquiries after winning the Crystal Bear, especially from different foreign distributors. We’re just starting to work at getting our producer representation down and trying to find a great domestic deal. But we don’t have one yet. We’d love for people to see the movie with a packed crowd of the number one moviegoers in the world, who are 15 to 35 year olds, who this movie, we’ve learned, really plays for.

One of the things in Berlin that really shocked me was kids coming back again and again. By the fifth screening — we actually showed five times in Berlin because you show one extra time for winning — I was sitting way back because I’m still tweaking the audio a little bit (and was) making some notes. There was a group of kids who I recognized (and asked), “How many times have you guys seen this movie now?” And they were on their fourth viewing.