Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Jacob Aaron Estes: Mean Creek director, moralist in a rowing boat


When the first preview screenings of Jacob Aaron Estes’s film Mean Creek were held in Britain, in the week after the American election, it was tempting to go overboard about its allegorical significance. It is a teen movie – Lord of the Flies on a rowboat in Oregon – in which a group of normal kids becomes involved in a disastrous act of aggression. Some are guiltier than others, but even those who merely witnessed the event find themselves sullied. Could they have done more to stop the violence? Should they have? And will one of the group be bold enough to stand up and say that wrong has been done?
“I didn’t consciously evoke an allegory,” Estes says, “but I think ultimately, that’s what a lot of writing is. So I’m happy enough to take credit for it being applicable to recent events.”
By this, he means the grim aftermath of the war in Iraq: “hiding violence, and secret tapes being discovered of abuse, and perpetrators who won’t accept responsibility for their behaviour, or even talk about the 100,000 Iraqi people who have been killed in this conflict, versus potential leaders who say we have to divulge the truth and talk about these things.”
The fact that a film about teenagers, written in 1996, could be viewed as an allegory for the war in Iraq, or the US election, is a compliment to the director. With his debut feature – which recently won two gongs at the Indie Oscars, the Independent Spirit Awards - Estes delivered a work of singular power. Mean Creek is a teen movie in an old-fashioned sense, but it has moral weight. Watching it now, the parallel with Iraq seems fanciful, but the precise political parallels are replaced by the film’s overriding sense of adolescent dread.
“It’s about violence and the way we deal with anger,” Estes says, “and the need for revenge, and what that means to an adult. As much as it might play for a teenager, it’s for adults to project their own version of what the kids are going through onto these kids. They’re so distant from us, they’re a land far, far away. They’re myth.”
The power of the story can be sensed in the delays which befell the production, first because of the school shootings in Columbine, and then 9/11.
“After Columbine, nobody wanted to make a movie about kids and violence. When 9/11 happened, they shelved an Arnold Schwarzenegger $100m movie they had already made. They just got scared.”
Eventually, Estes was encouraged by a film school tutor, who financed the movie. It is a low budget affair, but doesn’t look it. The urban scenes are flecked with suburban grimness. When the kids take their boat onto the river, the film reflects the gorgeous summers of childhood memory. The man responsible for the look of the picture, director of photography, Sharone Meir, gave up a job to shoot Mean Creek for nothing: “The good news is that he got a $40m feature immediately after. My editor is doing good work. Everybody is getting paid back karmically.”
Viewed dispassionately, Mean Creek is not overtly political, but it does contain subtle moral shadings. Several of the characters are bullied in different ways, for different reasons. One of them, Clyde (played by Ryan Kelley), is picked on because he has gay dads, just as Estes did.
“There was a period in 1985 where these other kids knew that I had gay dads,” says Estes. “Nobody was talking about that being an acceptable thing at that moment in history, and kids were incredibly vicious about it. Yet I wanted to be friends with those people.
“I wanted to write about a character that was going through something similar, so it was infused in the movie. It’s minor though, it was not a huge part of my life.”
Estes says he was not aware his upbringing was unusual until he was 8 or 9. “I never knew that anyone would be concerned about it until that age, when kids start to engender their parents’ tendencies to be racist or homophobic, or to say certain words, and ideas or words get floated where kids don’t even know what they’re saying. As a kid with gay dads who are communicative and want to make sure that I didn’t get hurt as a result of my background, I got to talk to them about it, so I was able to have incredible conversations about the world that I’m really grateful for. It made me a better person.
“The truth is that gay parents have to make sure that they’re dealing with whatever baggage comes appropriately, so they tend to be more sensitive, and trusting, and interested in taking care of their kids than the majority of parents. That was my experience.”
With such an outlook, Estes is unsurprisingly angry about the tone of American politics, and the widespread belief that Bush won the last election because of his stand on moral values.
“Bush stood for homophobia: he tried to create an amendment to the US constitution to outlaw gay marriage, and every state that had a potential swing vote in it had a measure on the ballot about gay marriage and the crazies came out to stomp on the homos, and in the meantime they punched the ticket for George Bush. He knew that, and he played right into the hands of his core Christian religious right, who seemed unbelievably concerned with how people love each other when there are kids starving in their own neighbourhoods. It’s not values: it’s poor morality and it’s sickening. When are people going to point that out? These are not family values. These are hate values.”
The contours of fundamentalism became clear to Estes on a recent drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles. “When you’re driving through Central California you hear all these Christian radio stations and they have these dialogues about demons – saying demons exist and can take over human beings. I’m not strictly against the possibility that demons exist, but the people that posit that demons are here and living in people – it’s like science fiction. Anyone that thinks that God is only on their side is out of their minds. Either we’re all touched by God, or God doesn’t exist.”
Estes’s preoccupation with ethics will be revisited in his forthcoming projects. One is a screenplay about a “life-rights issue”, while his first big studio movie will be a re-telling of the true story of the American rock climbers who were kidnapped by Islamic militants in Kyrgyzstan in 2000. “It’s a story about these Americans who have incredible ambivalence about what they have to do to escape, which is to kill the kidnappers. It becomes clear that they’re going to die if they go along with them, but their captors’ humanity gets more and more exposed. One of them is 17, and finally the 17 year-old guy is left in charge of these four Americans, and they have to kill him. ”
Audiences will be well-advised to pack a moral compass. “It’s horrible,” Estes says, as if mapping his creative terrain, “and it’s true.”
ALASTAIR McKAY
Mean Creek is available on DVD