Director Vincent Grashaw and Star P.J. Boudousqué talk Coldwater

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The best part of the festival circuit is finding new actors, directors and voices. At SXSW in 2013, a tiny film called Coldwater premiered and since has been getting quite the buzz. After finding a following in Europe, the film opened in the United States in August. The directorial debut from Vincent Grashaw, who produced Sundance darling Bellflower, the story follows Brad Lunders (Boudousqué), a teen who is sent to a reform center in the wilderness. As he becomes more immersed in the camp and their questionable procedures, his struggle becomes about survival and necessary defiance.

I had a chance to chat with Boudousqué and Grashaw about cultivating an anti-hero like Lunders and their collaborative process. They discuss living on the set, handling such an intense subject matter and bringing reform facility awareness to audiences.

Paste: P.J., this is your first feature film and you landed the lead. When we talked back at SXSW, I remember you telling me the unlikely story and I thought it was incredibly hopeful for other actors out there.
Boudousqué: I had ended my lease in Los Angeles and had planned a move to New York. It was my last audition in LA. The audition was literally a block away from my house on my street in Venice. I was like, “I’m going to go in and give it a shot!” There was a two-hour wait. I literally walked back to my house and defrosted chicken! I auditioned for Vince and they held me for a bit and had me read with some people. The next day, Vince asked me to grab lunch. He was like, “I thought you did a really great job,” but I was like, “Dude, I’m leaving for New York City tomorrow!” I actually left town and then finally a month later Vince hit me up and said he wanted me to play he role!

Paste: Vince, you wrote this script when you were 18! What made you still want to pursue the project years later?
Grashaw: I had to face something 10 years later after wanting to say it. Deep down, I wanted to make a good movie. That was a subject that interested me because I’d seen a kid go through that, and it was the initial spark. Over several years of failed attempts to get it made, I got funding and lost it. At some point, I was like, “Fuck this movie. There’s so much blood on it!” I was like, “This movie is cursed!” I grew up trying to make the movie! Thirteen years! I had to re-fall in love with it. Producing Bellflower brought a lot of heat and interest in people. In 2003, I brought on Mark Penney and did a major overhaul. The script would definitely not be what it is without him.

Paste: The genre of Coldwater is so specific. It’s this psychological thriller that really turns into something horrific. How did you approach the tone?
Grashaw: When I graduated high school, there was the Columbine Massacre and ever since a lot of these school shootings. There’s an eruption of this rage in youth today, and we still, to this day, we go through these massacres like a cycle. The killer becomes this infamous figure and […] and becomes sensationalized. Every time, they’re, “Like this is the largest school shooting in the United States.” Hearing that bothered me. I had spoken to a lot of kids and parents of kids who had died. I had an email from a kid who talked about revolting and what they would do to the counselors if they did. He never did it. I knew these kinds of things were on these kids’ minds. I wanted it not to be black and white. Grey area. There’s a lot of different ways you could do this type of movie. I was more interested in taking a kid who has troubles and being put in a place where kids are there for ditching or depressed or a psychopath kid. Watching a system that wasn’t really qualified breaking down these kids and then building them to what they want.

Paste: Getting in touch with what it means psychologically to kill someone is crucial. P.J., did you also research kids who’ve been through this?
Boudousqué: Brad’s dealing with a lot of adult issues and feelings he can’t express. Something about that resonated in me. After tragic events, school shootings, drugs, overdoses, it’s, “Why didn’t he talk to someone or a parent or teacher or reach out?” It’s not easy to articulate it because you’re not sure what it is yet. That really was the mindset of how I approached this. I read a lot of books on incarcerated youth, young black teens who were arrested for armed robberies or first offense criminals and what that loss of youth is. I watched the footage of Martin Lee Anderson on YouTube, a young man who was killed at one of these juvenile detention centers.

Paste: Everyone lived on set in this camp-like setting. Normally on a film set you’re not in such close-quarters. Was this advantageous to you guys?
Grashaw: The camp was this very large camp that had several different barracks and then a main building, kitchen and four bedrooms. I had my own room. P.J. had his own room. James Burns had his own room. We had seven or eight or nine in one barrack. The movie is dark and crazy, and it looks brutal, but we had the most fun making this! People still compare this movie to every other movie they’re on, “Well it’s not Coldwater!” It was such a luxury. Creatively, you could do anything.

Boudousqué: It was a ball. There was a campfire, and after work the crew and the cast would sit around and play guitar and shoot the shit at the end of the workday. It kept everyone’s spirit up. We had no cell phones. You would have to barter for the Internet Wi-Fi password. I loved it. It was like a little insular bubble you got to work in.

Paste: The boys in the camp form a strong bond through painful incidents. As a cast, did you find ways to equally bond but through more positive experiences?
Boudousqué: Absolutely. We pulled pranks on each other. Chris Petrovski [who plays Gabriel Nunez in the film] had pulled a serious prank on one of our producers. The producer was like, “You don’t fuck with the [guy] who has cars and crew and golf carts at his hands!” While Chris was shooting one day, he took all his possessions and had the crew move it to the top of the mountain we were shooting on! It was an exhausting movie to shoot out in the sun and running and carrying people up hills and getting hosed with shit. It was intense scenes, and everyone was supportive.

Paste: Making the actors feel that support on set is key. Vincent, how did you manage what stunts they did, the fight sequences, pushing them out in the heat? How did you walk that line?
Grashaw: It was different for each actor. One of the things I learned, this is my first feature, for an independent movie there’s a lot of young cast. Wrangling them all—they all had different quirks about them. Everyone had a moment of weakness. Some of them had to be pushed. If the one that you yell at works, then you do that! And I don’t mean yelling, but you just have to handle each actor differently. I got to know all these kids really well. There’s a lot of violence, and we had a stunt coordinator, but it felt like we were doing better without him. Once you throw stunts in, it was distracting. But these boys would do anything! They wanted to do the best they could.

Paste: At the end of the day, this is really an anti-hero’s journey. Tell me about creating that arc for Brad.
Grashaw: In reality, you have more rights in a state facility or prison that you do in bad privatized camps because there’s no oversight. Like prison, most people go in and come out worse. That’s the simple answer. I feel like in most cases trauma is never good for rehabilitation. For someone like Brad, he lost his dad, his girlfriend, he has been in this awful place and the kid he’s bonded with hurts his leg and then he’s involved in this Lord of the Flies massacre and has to go on with his life. Where is his head going to be? He comes out of that place very clear of his actions. I don’t think there’s rage or confusion in what he does. It comes full circle. A kid goes in and comes out worse. I felt like I had to touch on this. I couldn’t have this hero where it’s all wrapped up, and he’s okay. Regardless, he’s coming out of there changed.

Paste: The film is an exhilarating narrative but also a commentary on the reform facilities that actually exist. In what ways has the film increased awareness on the issue?
Boudousqué: As an actor, the one thing that was fascinating to me is, when we screened in Europe, the questions were different. They don’t have institutions like this outside the United States. In the U.S., people asked about the film itself, the filmmaking process. In Europe they were fascinated about what the camps were.

Grashaw: Here, it’s not a secret, not even to the government. They did a whole forty-page report, and they acknowledged how bad it is. It’s a very interesting report to read. In the U.S., there’s a sort of like, “Oh yea, it is bad isn’t it?” Abroad, they cannot fathom this going on. They don’t understand how they exist. And parents are sending them! There are very passionate responses from them. I notice a lot more of that abroad

Paste: Have you become activists in any way? Are you interested in making other films that also promote cultural cognizance?
Boudousqué: I mean I think you don’t want to just pursue one genre of filmmaking, but I’m definitely interested in it. When I went to school, I was studying political science and I think films do bring awareness to what it is to be human and things you wouldn’t really have light shed on. I think there’s intrinsic value in working on projects like this because it does broaden your perspective as well as other people’s. It expands your own awareness. It was an honor to work on a film like this.

Grashaw: I would have made a documentary about it if I were an activist! I don’t have all the answers. I wanted to help change and shed light. One of the main things I tell people, I was able to travel to Survivors of Institutional Abuse and every year they have this convention. They march in Washington, D.C., in the capital, and they did a whole protest and I showed the film to them. Most of the people there were females in their middle age. There was a lot you could tackle: sexual abuse, religious, drug, behavior modification in the wilderness. It was very effective and emotional for them.

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.