Felix Thompson's "King Jack" Is Crowned TFF's Favorite Film
Playing at Festival
Felix Thompson's King Jack Is Crowned TFF's Favorite Film
(from Sag Harbor Express Online April 27, 2015)
By Danny Peary
King Jack fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. I believe writer-director Felix Thompson’s tough-but-affectionate ode to boyhood will get theatrical distribution because on Saturday it received the Tribeca Film Festival’s Audience Award as the most popular narrative film.
Jack (Charlie Plummer) and Ben (Cory Nichols).
Thompson’s first feature takes place in a small, past-its-prime town in upstate New York, where fifteen-year-old Jack (a winning performance by Charlie Plummer) tries to get through a summer weekend despite having no friends or good role models, a critical older brother Tom (Christian Madsen), and a loving but oblivious mother who is busy working; and having to look after his younger cousin Ben (Cory Nichols is instantly likable), being hounded by bully Shane (Danny Flaherty) and his thuggish friends, and chasing after an elite girl who doesn’t like him–while not noticing the much cooler Holly (Chloe Levine) is interested in him. There will be trouble. Early in the festival I did this brief interview with Felix Thompson. A week later King Jack won the festival’s biggest award and Thompson received a $25,000 prize.
Danny Peary: King Jack takes place in a small town rather than a rural setting but it reminds me of Daniel Patrick Carbone’s Hide Your Smiling Faces, which is another director-writer’s memory piece about two boys experiencing a difficult rite of passage over a hazy summer. Did you know him when you attended Tisch?
Felix Thompson: Yeah, he’s a lovely guy and I’m glad to be put in his company.
DP: Did you grow up in New York?
FT: I first grew up in Australia. I was born in Sydney, and we moved to New York when I was about 9. I’ve been living in here ever since and went to Tisch.
DP: I watched you being interviewed on television, and you said King Jack is about how Jack, a young teen whose older brother Tom has resented him since their now absent father would treat him royally and call him “King Jack,” gets the chance himself to be an older brother to his young cousin. Because that’s your theme you made Ben younger than Jack rather than the same age.
FT: Yes. For me, really, I wanted to make a film about what growing up is. I think growing up is learning to care about other people more than you care about yourself. What Ben’s arrival does is help Jack grow up.
DP: I think there’s a lot of stuff going on with Jack at this time in his life. Do you think he knows what he wants in life, or is he just taking it one day at a time?
FT: When I was thinking about what his driving ambition is, I looked at the title, King Jack. He desperately wants to be somebody in his community, and to fit in and to have this title. But he’s chasing it in all the wrong places, with Karen the popular girl, and in this feud with the bully Shane. This is essentially a story about a kid who’s inherently selfish and is given responsibility for the first time in his life. But it’s also about a kid who finds his place and his friends and realizes that it’s not about being King Jack to everybody. If you have three good friends at the end, that’s enough.
DP: There’s a heartbreaking line in the movie, that Jack says to Ben when he’s trying to be honest with him to regain his trust: “I’ve never had a lot of friends, ever.” The time Ben doesn’t react to Jack’s words, but is it your goal as the writer and director to give Jack friends. He goes through bad stuff through a lot of this movie, including being beaten up by Shane, so, again, are you thinking how you are going to make a sad kid happy?
FT: Yeah. That’s a good question. It was about trying to help this kid find his place in the world, which is what a lot of us are trying to find, whether we’re 15 or 50. And I really wanted to tell a story about the weekend that changes his life. That was always something I loved about those summers–you could have these weekends that you look back on ten years later and you’re like, “That was the turning point. That was the moment when I started to become who I was.” We’ve all had those moments. Your first kiss, or your first beer, or your first swear word, or your first fight. Those first times I think really mark us, and most of the time we go through them alone. Or at least not with our parents around.
DP: Jack’s mother tells him the day after the eventful party he attends, “You can be a good kid if you wanted.” I think that’s the key line in the movie. Does he hear it?
FT: It was interesting for me to write. I think he hears it. I think he does. I think everything about that morning–and there is such a contrast to the night before at the party—is the dawning of a new time for Jack, taking him a step in another direction. That’s really what it was. A new path opens up to you when you’re a kid, and you just start walking down this new path, and hopefully it’s the right one.
DP: Jack is bullied by Shane to a scary degree. Was the bullying theme a popular plot device or something personal to you?
FT: The bullying part was something that was really important to me, and it started very early on when I wrote the screenplay. That character of Shane was something I really sketched out and fleshed out. I should say that all these characters came from people that I knew, in some way. In some cases I took three people I knew and made them into one character. One of the things that really inspired this story were these summers that I had when my parents weren’t around. What I really noticed is that when you’re given the run of the streets as kids and there’s no one to answer to, you see what kids can be. They can be incredibly noble and incredibly kind and they can also be incredibly cruel.
DP: That’s very much Lord of the Flies.
FT: Very much so. In King Jack, I really wanted to play with those two sides of what growing up as a young boy is like.
DP: I like your shots from above the town where Jack lives. What were you trying to capture with those shots?
FT: We spent a lot of time location-scouting, because we wanted to find a town that embodied those towns you pass by on the highway and never think twice about, forgotten towns with forgotten kids, and we wanted to tell a story about that. We wanted to tell a story that captured both the light and dark of it, because as a kid you’re ultimately trying to find happiness in whatever your surroundings are. We finally found Kingston—though we did pull imagery from a couple of other towns we saw as well–and there was something about this lonely train that passes through this town without ever stopping. This train does not stop in this town. It’s located in upstate New York, in Hudson Valley, and is one of those towns that used to have a lot of industry and now doesn’t, and I wanted to tell a story that took place in one of those towns. I think you know that town from the shots I took.
DP: In television shows of the 1950s, entire episodes would be devoted to missing five dollar bills. Now we’re in 2015, but in this poor town, I think you want to make it a big deal when Jack’s mom gives his older brother, a young man, $5 for lunch.
FT: Yeah. It’s something I’ve always been very conscious of. I’ve lived in a lot of places–for instance I taught a master class at the Haitian film school for a semester–and I’ve seen a lot of the human experience and people in dire circumstances. I’ve always been amazed that no matter what the circumstances are, if you can personalize them and show the human side, people can really relate to it. I could have written a political essay about how today looks so much like the Depression, but I wanted to tell a story about what life is like in these poor towns that people forget.
DP: Does Ben see things in Jack that Jack doesn’t see?
FT: The funny thing is that Ben is the wisest character in the movie. This eleven-year-old boy is in many ways the one who sees the interaction between Jack and Holly. He sees the sweetness that is in Jack. In the baseball scene, I think he can see the chinks in Jack’s armor. Ben is someone that a lot of people respond to, even though he says very little in the movie.
DP: He’s a sweet kid, the actor. So tell me about the two actors. Did you audition them together?
FT: We started out looking for our Jack. It was a lot to ask, we were putting this film on the shoulders of a fifteen-year-old boy. We had to find the right fifteen-year-old. And when we saw Charlie Plummer, we just knew. He was so connected, so believable, so real. And he had a sense of hurt that our casting director picked up on. Charlie’s tape really stood out. So we brought him in and he was terrific. Then we started looking for the other cast. And we brought in Cory and he and Charlie just got along so well. They had such a good time on set.
In fact, they’re best friends now—they have sleepovers all the time, they have a secret handshake.
DP: Do you think this movie needed a male director and writer?
FT: No, I don’t think so.
DP: I do. I usually don’t, I usually say it could be either gender. But I think this actually needs a male director and writer. You were a boy, and I think this film works because it depends on the filmmaker really knowing what boys are like.
FT: I’m glad it resonated and had a sense of authenticity. But I think the most important thing you need as a storyteller is empathy and an ability to listen. And if you have those you can really identify with anyone.
DP: All these boys in your film have to prove their mettle over and over again.
FT: I think one of the themes you picked up on—even when we did early readings—is how to be a man. There are different gradations of it. All these characters have failed in some ways and succeeded in others, to different degrees. Those are your role models—so you’re looking to imperfect men to learn how to become a man yourself.
DP: That’s a lot of this movie. And the thing is, you don’t have to become a man, you have to become a boy. You want to give Jack a chance to be a boy.
FT: To have that opportunity to have a childhood and not grow up so quickly, I think it’s so important.
DP: So what’s it like presenting King Jack at the Tribeca Film Festival?
FT: We actually had our short Bedford Park Boulevard here in 2010. Our producer Gabrielle Nadig produced that too, so it’s really wonderful to get to come back. Also having grown up in New York, it feels like a mix of a hometown festival and an incredible platform to promote our film. So it’s really cool. I’m having a wonderful time.