What if America reinstated the draft? The scenario isn't so hard to imagine. With the military already severely overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran and now Pakistan loom as possible new fronts in the war on terror, which, as we've all been told repeatedly, is going to be a long slog. We've already seen a "backdoor draft" implemented, in the form of stop-loss policy, which involuntarily extends soldiers' service time. We've seen legislation to reinstate the draft resoundingly defeated in Congress, but another attack on US soil could change things. Some of us have friends from countries like Israel, where military service is compulsory. Many of us have family members or loved ones who were drafted during the Vietnam era or before.
These issues are all in the subtext of Bryan Gunnar Cole's narrative feature debut, Day Zero
. But the film is less a message movie than a character study that asks what certain people might do under different political circumstances. Without making any overt judgments of its own, Day Zero
presents a near future in which the US government has reinstated the draft to fight the global war on terror. It's such a near future, in fact, that New York City, where the story is set, feels unchanged from the New York of today, aside from the news on TV and the characters' conversations about the specter of the draft. The film tracks three unlikely friends who get the call from Uncle Sam—Chris Klein as a privileged lawyer, Elijah Wood as a neurotic writer, and Joen Bernthal as a blustery cabdriver—and respond to it in vastly different ways, revealing their real selves in the process.
"What appealed to me was that this imagined future is very plausible," says Cole. "There's an aspect of being ripped from the headlines, but there's sense of such strong possibility that it doesn't feel sensational. It feels... constant. This could happen while we're making the movie, or while we're rolling it out."
Cole, who'd been working as a documentary filmmaker since the late '90s, and earlier in his career directed plays at Seattle's longest running fringe theater, the Annex, was ready to try his hand at narrative, and was delighted when producer Anthony Moody brought him the script by Robert Malkani. Working on a tight 24-day production schedule in which the crew shot at 62 distinct locations around New York, Cole relied heavily on the nimbleness he'd developed making documentaries and his intuitive relationship with Director of Photography Matthew Clark, a past collaborator. One scene, showing the three friends in the back of a cab, was literally shot as the crew moved from one location to another, with Clark doing picture and Cole on sound. "I think actors love that stuff," he says, "to shake off the yoke of hair and makeup, dive in, and get some acting done."
In another provocative scene near the end of the film, the three friends meet at a midtown coffee shop the day before they're supposed to report. Their personal struggles to come to terms with the impending reality of "day zero" are cast in relief by an antiwar demonstration taking place on the street outside. Cole got the scene by strategically applying for a permit along the route of a planned protest route. In the moment, he says, both he and the actors were momentarily floored by the enormity of the situation. "We're just sitting at this little table and looking out the plate glass window onto people congregating, ready to do this march," he recalls. "We felt like, 'Gosh, we're just pretending here,' and then we started talking about that. What are we really doing? Are we pretending, or are we trying to use fiction to articulate this dynamic we're looking at right outside this window? To have that kind of conversation with a piece of glass separating fiction and reality, and then stepping out the breech, that to me is true stuff. It was a special moment, because we'd been in la-la land, and then suddenly, there it is."
Not surprisingly, such moments were common among the cast and crew. While the story makes no presumptions about the rightness of military conscription, or about American involvement overseas, those issues hover all around. "It was the strangest experience, because everyone brought their own political pedigree to the process," Cole says. "You'd have liberals on the set who'd be like, 'Wow, this is such a great antiwar movie,' and conservatives who'd be like, 'Wow, this is such a great prowar movie.' It was a lovely dynamic to have on a movie set, because everyone felt like they were doing something good, regardless of their point of view. That was one of the strengths of the script, and certainly our approach as filmmakers. We wanted that dynamic in the film. We wanted to leave it up to people to bring their own feelings to it, and when they walk out of the movie theater, to need a stiff drink to talk it over."