Andrew Neel on Getting the Goat
James Franco and the bros
Though Andrew Neel’s Goat is produced by James Franco and stars Nick Jonas, it has nothing to do with commercial release. The film, adapted from Brad Land's memoir by Land and David Gordon Green, is a close investigation of masculine identity as experienced in a college fraternity. As a grandson of Alice Neel, a great portrait painter and a well known feminist, the director soaked up reflections about gender and its problems. Raised in a ski town and taught in a boarding school, he experienced several communities structured as male tribes. Neel knew exactly what he wanted to say in his film, in which he depicts two brothers (played by Nick Jonas and Ben Schnetzer). One is strong and independent, the other longs for acceptance and dreams about being part of the group. Along with an invitation to a fraternity, they get a chance to change their social status, too. But soon it turns out that the price is higher than they thought. How much are they ready to sacrifice just to prove that they're "real" men? And would their new super-masculine friends accept their disobedience? The film was critically acclaimed at Sundance, where it premiered. Then it screened at Berlinale, where I had the chance to talk to the director.
Artur Zaborski: Goat is an adaptation of Brad Land's memoir. Why did you find that interesting?
Andrew Neel: When Killer Films brought me the script I saw it as an opportunity to make my own version of Lord of the Flies, which is one of my favorite books of all time. I also found that frat culture was a perfect incubator in which I could look at masculine culture in a larger sense. It was a microscopic part of a macroscopic issue.
Zaborski: You waited a long time for that project to be made. How did you know the time was right?
Neel: Timing is very important in making films. I just was in the right place at the right time. I’ve been working with Killer Films for a while on other projects. They all came together very quickly, actually, once I got on board. I was lucky in that regard. To question masculine identity is really to question the very foundation of our culture, because unfortunately our culture, and by and large most cultures in the world, is a boys' club. So most people in the position of power behave and define themselves by mainstream masculine identity. Maybe to investigate those foundations is actually kind of worrying for men, because of questions of who we are and how we act. And especially given the fact that part of masculinity is about not being weak, not questioning yourself and not being vulnerable and all that stuff. Asking questions about whether that is good or bad may be a cause for anxiety for men.
Zaborski: How do you perceive masculinity? Is it something very natural, instinctive, or is it rather a cultural construct?
Neel: I think those two things work together to create masculine identity. Biologically speaking, especially men have a lot of tendencies towards more aggressive behavior. And when they take advantage of them and motivate them in the wrong way, it can create a lot of bad and potentially dangerous behavior. Look, the people that we send to war are young men. We make them warriors. To do that we break them down and then build them back up according to one definition of violence and aggression. On the cultural level, masculinity is in part defined by what we are biologically. But there are many things that are biological that we try to control and improve. And in the modern world men don’t need to run around and protect the tribe from other bad guys. We also don’t have to go kill what we eat. Maybe some of these tendencies inside us can be navigated and controlled in a way that could maybe make not only men’s experience better and healthier, but also in a fact women’s experience as well. I think women's experience is reflected in men's.
Zaborski: Have you changed your attitude to masculine identity after making the film?
Neel: No, I don’t think the film changed it. I had a very clear sense of what this story was about, and what I wanted to say with this story, before I went into it. I also grew up with my grandmother, who was a feminist icon. Her name was Alice Neel, she was a painter. She was really held up as this important feminist figure. In my family gender was a topic of discussion and something we were really aware of. Being an iconoclastic person, I wanted to get into an argument about male problems, too. In my opinion, men suffer from so many problems that actually do not get discussed ever. That’s really part of the gender landscape, and has to be part of the discussion of improving our lives. Without the rings I wear, I looked like everybody else; with them, I get told three times a week I look like an actor. It is a little feminine I guess. I just do that to keep people guessing. I’m very distrusting of groups. I was pretty fat between the ages of twelve and fourteen. It really gave me a deep cynicism about how groups behave and how they treat you.
Zaborski: Did you suffer?
Neel: I didn't suffer more than any other fat kid who doesn’t get girls' attention. It wasn’t that bad. But it made me more interested in hearing about gender politics. I’m actually very curious about what other people have to say about their experience. I’m interested in how gay people feel when they are to come out and to admit to the world that they are gay. They have to question the very foundations of who the society is telling them they are supposed to be. That’s a very terrifying thing to do. Because to not fit in the tribe is very scary. That’s what we’re supposed to do. It makes you an outcast. I’m always interested in what homosexuals feel about the movie. And if they can associate with the main character, because he does not fit in, too. He was supposed to be loving it, but it’s not that way. And that’s horrible.
Zaborski: Did you have any experiences with fraternities when you were in college?
Neel: I was never a part of a fraternity. I went to some frat parties, I had friends who were in frats. I don’t think frat boys are evil people; ninety-nine percent of them are perfectly good people, like everybody else. I think in some circumstances the tribe's behavior isn’t very healthy. I was just aware of the whole system. I also grew up in a ski town where there are a lot of athletic cultures, which are a lot like fraternity cultures. Also, I went to a boarding school. But I never saw anything that was really bad. There were certain kids that they picked out. Like young people—they just pick out one guy and go after him again and again. I did see a bit of that. I knew what men are like when they’re isolated and young.
Zaborski: Was it difficult to convince Nick Jonas to take part in this project?
Neel: No, he was actually really excited to do it. We had already cast Ben Schnetzer as Brad, his brother. We heard that Nick had read the script and was really interested in it and wanted to have a meeting. So I met with him. He was completely connected with the material. His whole life was defined by his brothers. He came in and read to me and my casting director, and he was great.
Zaborski: Did you want to take off his pop-star layer?
Neel: He did that himself. If I felt he was unable to do that, I wouldn’t have cast him. After he read for us it was very clear to me and the casting director that he was an actor that was capable of showing all that stuff. It’s a test of his ability which he passes on the screen. I think it’s a great performance. After thirty seconds, or less, you forget the fact that he’s a pop star. This identity goes away. He becomes exactly who he is in the film.
Zaborski: What kind of similarities do you see between Lord of the Flies and Goat?
Neel: I never thought of the goat and the pig being similar, but I guess they are. I think also a lot about the "Piggy" character, who gets killed eventually. He was very much like the Land character. Usually weak people prey on the sensitive. Also the Ralph character is very much like our main character. He doesn’t believe at all in that tribal creation, unlike other characters. There are a lot of similarities.
Zaborski: Where did the idea about the genre come from?
Neel: I considered this movie as a horror film, and I approached it that way in terms of pacing and what I wanted viewers' experience to be. I watched Full Metal Jacket the other day. I’m not comparing myself to Stanley Kubrick, but I do think the beginning of these films is very similar. I was surprised how similar the military process is to the fraternity process. I really like confrontation films. In a general sense, most stories have been told and most cinematic tropes have been used so many times that it is hard to pay attention to everything. For me movies that really confront you and force you to become involved are the best kind of movies. I think the best thing you can leave a film with is a lot of questions and a dialogue in your head. Sometimes these movies are very frustrating. You can leave the film and say: I really hated that film! But usually, about twenty-four hours later you start to think to yourself: You know what, I really liked that film! That is why I really like Lars von Trier. I think he’s a singular talent, and his films are affective and confrontational.
Zaborski: The script of Goat is based on a book, which is based on real life events. How much did you change?
Neel: It’s based on the memoir by Brad Land. I think the movie is very true to the book in a general sense. The feeling that I had when I finished the book is very similar to the feeling I had when I finished the movie. There are some artistic licenses that we took, but I think it’s pretty true to the memoir.
Zaborski: Do you want to continue your investigation into masculine identity?
Neel: I’m doing another film with Killer Films, and I have a few another scripts in development. The one that is coming up I’m not supposed to talk about, but I’m really excited to work with Killer Films again.