“U Want Me 2 Kill Him?” is yet another in a long line of movies that are “based on a true story,” but after watching it you have to believe it’s true because no one could make a story like this up. Based on the Vanity Fair article by Judy Bachrach, it stars Jamie Blackley as Mark, a very popular high school student who ends up getting into a relationship of sorts with his online girlfriend Rachel. Mark ends up becoming so hopelessly in love with Rachel that he’s willing to do anything to win her favor, and she soon has him befriending her lonely younger brother John (played by Toby Regbo) who gets picked on at school every day. As a result, Mark and John soon develop a strong friendship, but that friendship soon leads them down some very dark paths that will have them doing things neither of them believed they were capable of. It all leads to one of the most shocking and baffling crimes in England’s history.
The movie’s director is Andrew Douglas who is best known for making the acclaimed documentary “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus” and for helming the 2005 remake of “The Amityville Horror.” I got to speak to him recently about “U Want Me 2 Kill Him?” which I felt served as a reminder of threatening technology can be in this day and age, and of how the emotions of a teenager are always simmering beneath the surface. Douglas talked about the long road it took to get this movie financed and made, how familiar he was with the real life story it is based on, and he also gave me an update of what’s happened to Mark and John since the movie’s release.
WARNING: THIS INTERVIEW DOES CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE.
I was not at all aware of the true story this movie was based on. Were you aware of this story or the Vanity Fair article it was based on before you got the script?
Andrew Douglas: I’m not a big magazine reader anymore because of the internet, but for some reason I did look at that magazine and I did see the article. Ever since “The Amityville Horror” I’ve always got a weather eye out for projects. I didn’t know at the time what it could be or what it might be, but it just seemed such an extraordinary story. Being in America and finding a story from back home was also very appealing, and then it took a couple of years (to get off the ground).
It had a funky journey because uncharacteristically I tried to buy the rights to the story. It wasn’t something I’m kind of used to, but I did have an agent and I reached out to try to buy the rights to that story thinking that it was so extraordinary that I got to be able to do something with this. In the meantime, Bryan Singer of all people had also reached out and snagged the rights. So a year went by or maybe six months, and a script came out based on that story which Bad Hat Harry, Bryan Singer’s company, had produced and it was pretty good and I took a meeting on it. It went into the air as what’s called an open directing assignment, so I managed to arrange a meeting on it.
In the meeting I pitched a slightly different interpretation of the same material, and then another year went by during which the studio the project was with, Warner Independent Pictures, went down the tubes taking the script with it. So all of a sudden that material was untouchable, so Bat Hat Harry got in touch with me and said, “Remember the take that you had on this story?” I said, “Yeah.” They said, “Well could you come in and re-pitch it to Bryan?” So I did and they really liked it and they felt it was sufficiently different from where they’ve been in order to start again with the same thing.
Over the next year I developed up the script and I found a young English writer who had a great voice for authentic youth, and I presented it to Bad Hat Harry and got my commercial company, Anonymous Content, involved a little bit as well to pony up some money, and all of a sudden we had a film.
Interestingly, right around the time I was shooting, there was also in London an opera based on the same article. I went to see it and it was kind of very operatic and it couldn’t be more different from the film, but it was very interesting to me that here’s a story that grabbed at least three different people in three different ways. The first script was quite documentary in the sense that they presented the kids from a kind of adult perspective, and really to me it was a story of how weird the world is. The opera was told from the police woman’s point of view, so to some extent the story was really about a police woman being puzzled by the internet and by the strange landscape of the internet. My take on it was here’s this weird world, here’s this odd landscape that we haven’t really explored in literature or in film yet, but I’m going to approach it from the point of view of one of the inhabitants of it.
The idea was to see if I could find a way through the perplexing nature of what Mark does. What was interesting to me as a kind of challenge was we have these two ordinary boys, more or less ordinary boys, who live in an ordinary town, horribly ordinary, who go to a regular school. They are not project kids, they are not kids who are used to knives or used to violence. How do they make the journey that they made? That was really a kind of interesting challenge to me, and I felt as though it would be best served by really taking on the point of view of one of the kids. It could’ve been either of them funny enough, and John certainly makes an interesting journey as well. But I thought Mark was slightly the more difficult journey to explain; a regular kid who’s handsome and good at football and popular with the girls. What is missing in his life that he needs this thing so badly, that he needs to go as far as he goes? And I just thought that was both interesting in a conventional drama, but also interesting in the context of this new landscape of the internet.
Yes, absolutely. These days people seem to be more open with one another on the internet than in real life when they are face-to-face.
Andrew Douglas: Yeah I think that’s true, and also not necessarily honest as well of course. One of the things that internet provides then and now, even though we have cameras now which we didn’t have in the wild west of 2003, is the secret language of texting. So I might be projecting on this, but there is still something very alluring, hopefully not with my kids, about what is called the dark room. Being able to go into a dark room where nobody knows you and nobody can really see you and you can be anything.
Maybe it was two years ago that there was a floater piece about young gamers with their avatars. They had a real portrait of the gamers and then right next to them was their avatars, and it was so interesting and in many ways it was like a pageant. You get for example a disabled person or another person or the most extreme avatar who is everything that they weren’t, and it was very interesting and moving to see that article.
I think to some extent this is what we do and this is what my film’s about. The film doesn’t judge them. Mark says early on to John, “I want a mad life like you have,” and John gives him one. He so does for six months there; he gets a very, very mad life. John on the other hand, he’s just sort of like a brother or somebody to look out for him, and you get that. So I try not to judge the kids and say they’re weird or they’re bad. I just try and say that in a funny way both kids got what they needed and what they weren’t getting from home.
And I thought the judge was very cool. I copied the dialogue straight from the court transcripts, so when the judge says that each boy is an extension of the other, that’s actually what the judge said. I
thought that was like one of the coolest judgments. You’ve got to expect courts to be that smart, and I just thought that was really interesting because it was something that nobody had really seen before. It was a new crime so John was accused of organizing his own death, and Mark equally was accused of stabbing him. So for the judge and for all the generations of the legal institution, it was very perplexing which could have been another take on the movie of course.
This is material that has many different points of view on it. Somebody else could’ve taken it from the point of view of the trial and try to figure that out. You know how cool “The Social Network” was? It was all based around those court hearings. That could have been another way to go, but you just make your choices and I am pretty happy with how it came out. There are moments where it has to kind of stretch credibility. I had Mike Walden (the movie’s screenwriter) write the characters as realistically as I could bear, but still when you look back from the end of the film they’re melodramatic. They’re still not quite real and that was kind of intentional.
The film is almost more fun watching it the second time. A film like “The Usual Suspects” or “Fight Club,” when you watch these kind of films a second time you see all the tricks, and it’s very satisfying the see how the filmmakers flirted with showing you everything.
This is definitely a movie that needs to be watched at least twice to see how the characters managed to accomplish all that they did. “U Want Me 2 Kill Him?” also reminded me of what it’s like being young and how the emotions of a teenager are just simmering below the surface to where they don’t know how to deal with certain things.
Andrew Douglas: Right, and the stakes for a kid dealing with those emotions are always so high. So here’s this person online who he never met. He has a girlfriend of sorts, although that other girlfriend in the real world is just kind of messing him around, but here’s this girl he’s never met and he knows the stakes are so high somehow, and that kind of felt true. You’re absolutely right in what you just said. You have a feel as though one meeting and he loves somebody, and then they die and then you have to seek revenge. Teenage emotions, they run so big really.
Yes they do. It’s almost easy to believe that a young teenage boy could do what he did, and that’s scary too because when you’re that young and you feel the need to do something, you can get easily manipulated. The other thing I found fascinating, even though we know what happens at the end, is how the movie shows the power women can have over men.
Andrew Douglas: Yeah, it’s all about sex in a way. What John is so instinctively clever about is that every kind of invention is really about sex or power. So to create Rachel or somebody you talk about, but also somebody who is also in danger and in jeopardy… I didn’t really invent that, I kind of refined it. I was very careful to stay pretty close to the instant messaging transcripts, so all those characters come right from the source. So John was kind of preternaturally clever in understanding that Mark is going to fall for both the damsel in distress and the sex, and this is going to be too alluring for him. Each time he loses Mark’s attention, he has to up the stakes to invent something even bigger. So finally he invents the spy woman, and again the relationship is very kind of sexual. It’s funny in that there are so many ideas there and a film can only tackle a few without getting too dense. You’re right, that’s so interesting.
At the movie’s end it is said that only so much can be revealed about these two boys because of their age and that they were ordered to never contact each other ever again. Since the making of the movie, has there any other news about these two boys?
Andrew Douglas: No, and it’s so disappointing. When I was doing screenings in London, I was so hoping that in the audience was one of them. I was so hoping that one of them would come out. I always imagined it was going to be John. My interpretation of his character was that he was kind of very proud of what he did. I tried to capture that when he’s proud of that scar. And I felt as though Mark might be more humiliated by the whole thing and that he might well disappear and use the anonymity of the court much more than John. But I felt that John would continue being a con man which is why I do that thing at the end where he’s still conning. That felt as though the con man as a character… We know now as grown-ups that they use people and that they always have to romance us and exaggerate, so the con man as kind of archetype, it’s hard to break that. But sadly I never found out about them, and I really wish I could.
Remember that film “The Fighter” that Christian Bale was so good in as the messed up boxer? At the end of the movie you get this real satisfaction that you see the real guy (that his character was based on). I’d love to have been able to do that because it just kind of completes the circle, and it also nails down that this extraordinary thing you just saw is real. I would’ve loved to have done that. I would’ve loved to have been able to show pictures of them now. It would’ve been very satisfying to do that but no, not a glimpse.
This is not a story you could easily make up. It definitely feels like it came from real life.
Andrew Douglas: I know, it’s too extraordinary isn’t it? Sometimes during the filming I was going, “Oh man I wish I could put ‘based on a true story’ several times through the movie because otherwise people are just going to think I’m crazy to expect people to believe this.” But since I made this film, there was a big event here in America with that Heisman Trophy winner with that Hawaiian name. It just shows you what people will believe like Christianity or something like Mormonism. People believe what they need to believe, I think, at every kind of level.
It’s almost as if the internet is like a new country or a new landscape, and I’m a bit surprised that there aren’t more movies about it. One of the things that occurred to me is that I think maybe studios are scared of films where the danger is all going to happen on the computer. I know that was certainly true for myself when I was trying to get financing for the movie. They said, “Oh is it all going to be on computer?” That’s why I kind of invented that thing where often times they are talking, so it doesn’t feel as though it’s all written onscreen. I’m just a bit surprised there aren’t more films coming out (on this subject).
Yeah, it’s been a while. If you look back over the years, it’s kind of been an ongoing theme here and there like with movies such as “WarGames” from the 1980’s.
Andrew Douglas: Oh yes Ben, you’re absolutely right. I had forgotten about that.
It’s interesting to see how technology has evolved over time. Even back then it was a threat, but technology is even more of a threat today than ever before.
Andrew Douglas: Right, right. I think that there was one moment in the film when the police are interviewing Mark’s parents in his bedroom and his dad says he just sits on that thing and points at the computer, not understanding that the computer is a door. It is a door to a place that the dad knows nothing about. That wasn’t kind of forefront in my mind as a parent or anything. It wasn’t meant to be a cautionary tale. It was meant to be a roller coaster to be honest. It’s really true that parents don’t quite understand that this technology is a back door, so who knows what?
How did you go about casting the actors in this movie? They are all really good and very natural.
Andrew Douglas: Yeah, they’re terrific. It was just a normal process really. It started by trying to get real people cast. I really like Shane Meadows’ films like “This is England” and he always tends to use real people. But I quickly found that the script and the ideas and the characters were actually too complicated for real people to kind of be able to layer it, and so I went back to more conventional casting. It took a while. It took a lot of backwards and forwards with like 40 or 50 kids. Jamie was a stretch because that boy had to shave every hour (laughs). He’s got a real heavy beard. While everybody else would be having lunch, we sent him off to shave again.
Much of the movie looks like it was shot handheld.
Andrew Douglas: That was intentional. There was a limited budget, but also it felt that the film would be best served if it looked very realistic because the story is so unrealistic. I felt if I shot it as realistically as possible, not quite documentary but very handheld and very real, I thought as though that would create a tension within the story.
I liked that because you watch this movie and it just washes over you. It does feel like you’re being invited into these kids’ private lives in a way you wouldn’t necessarily be invited otherwise. In some cases people might view this story as being rather convoluted, but it is based on a true story and the realism of it aids the movie very well.
Andrew Douglas: Oh good, I’m glad to hear you say that.
Well thank you for your time Andrew, it has been very interesting to talk with you and I thank you for your time.
Andrew Douglas: Not at all. I appreciate you liking this film. Independent films need help; they need champions so it’s really great that you’re supporting independent films. It’s also easy to just go for the big studio films, but then I think we lose something. I’m a big fan of all kinds of movies. Along with everybody else I’ll be there watching the Superman or the Spiderman and I’ll be there on the first day, but equally I just love independent cinema and I love the way it deals with often times more grown-up ideas. It’s all great.
I agree. My hope is that independent cinema goes through another renaissance really soon.
Andrew Douglas: Oh I know, absolutely because you see films like “12 Years a Slave” or even “American Hustle” and they are very independent in spirit and they do so well. So it just feels as though we don’t just want to watch tent pole movies. It’s just not enough because that’s too simplistic and sometimes you feel as though all you are is a consumer. You’re just consuming a kind of product. And with big movies they have less and less dialogue because they travel more easily like a “Transformers” movie. There’s not any dialogue in them anymore because that way they can just export it all over the world, and you just feel like a sucker sometimes.