“Goats” is Christopher Neil’s first film as a director, but he has both an unusually deep connection to the material and an amazingly sturdy foundation of cinematic experience from which to draw. An adaptation of Mark Jude Poirier’s rangy novel of the same name, the film tracks the coming-of-age of Ellis (Graham Phillips), a 15-year-old Tucson native who leaves behind his New Age hippie mom (Vera Farmiga) and his best friend — an affable stoner and their live-in gardener, named Goatman (David Duchovny) — to attend an East Coast prep school where his estranged father (Ty Burrell) once matriculated. For ShockYa, Brent Simon recently had a chance to speak to Neil one-on-one, about the movie, marijuana and his connection to the Coppola clan. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: Watching “Goats” cold (without knowledge of its background), it struck me that the movie had to be based on a novel. One really feels the presence of this greater, grander prior source material. What was your first contact with Mark’s book?
Christopher Neil: I stumbled across the novel. It was a notable book of the year in 2000, I believe, and I stumbled across in the “New York Times Book Review” a collection of caption reviews of the notable books of that year. It had a very short summation of Ellis’ story, and in that capsule I recognized my own adolescence. I shared a lot of eerily similar experiences with Ellis’ character, and I was compelled, based on that, to go out and get the book. I read it, and halfway through, it was so interesting and unique and honest and visual on top of being very familiar that I had an immediate compulsion to make it into a film. By the time I met with Mark Poirier a month later, I’d read the novel probably four or five times.
ShockYa: There are plenty of books and galleys, of course, that never actually make it to the big screen. What was that process of collaboration like, moving toward eventual production?
CN: It was essentially Mark’s first screenplay. He and I worked on it at the same time he was working on an original script called “Smart People,” which was made a while back. It was the right place at the right time, really — the rights had become available because Miramax Books had published the paperback version of the novel [and] had held the rights, and right when I met with Mark they had expired. We hit it off, and it was a very un-Hollywood process — it wasn’t an agent sending a book to a filmmaker, it was just a first-time filmmaker who stumbled across something that he couldn’t help but want to make. I think that Mark appreciated my dedication and care for his work. I optioned the book myself; I just cobbled the money together, and then Mark adapted it, working very closely together. That process took a couple years, because I was just very focused on getting it as good as it could be. And then we went out to actors and through a long and curvy road, as the development of most independent films usually are.
ShockYa: There’s a certain unexpected tonal combination to the movie. When you say “prep school setting,” it kind of immediately puts your head in a Northeast space, but the movie also has this complementary Southwestern flavor, which really helps give it an offbeat charm. Which portions of Ellis’ story rang most true to you?
CN: I could relate to both sides of the story, the two worlds that Ellis has to straddle. I grew up on a goat farm until I was about 12 years old, in the 1970s in Northern California. My mother was very involved in the New Age scene at that time, and had a lot of influence in that world, and my stepfather was a Berkley grad school drop-out — a brilliant man who’d just decided to sort of give it all up. I lived with him, during my younger years. I spent a lot of time hanging out my long-haired, bearded, goat-herding gardener stepfather. [But] at a certain point, though, they decided that they didn’t want to do that anymore. So we moved to Minnesota, to the well-to-do suburbs of Minneapolis. My stepfather got a job and I went off to a very nice day school in the city, and although we didn’t wear blazers, I was the kid whose family drove the funky car. We still had goats in a barn who got out and got into our neighbor’s nice yards. So I could understand what it was like to be the fish-out-of-water in that much more regimented, organized system. I got a good taste of both worlds.
ShockYa: That does sound like a pretty grand overlap with the narrative of “Goats.”
CN: Yeah, and a lot of the way that Goatman’s look was developed was just based on my own family photos. I showed David pictures of my stepfather and he said, “Oh that’s great, let’s go that way,” all the way right down to the way his shorts were fitting.
ShockYa: Ellis shares with Goatman a love of marijuana. Where do you stand on the issue of legalization, which seems close to reaching a tipping point nationally?
CN: I feel like the criminalization of marijuana is up there as one of the most ridiculous things in the history of the United States. It’s ridiculous that you can’t smoke pot but you can drink a bottle of Jack Daniels. It’s absurd. Pot has always been, from the very beginning, a mystical [substance], and it’s used spiritually. And the way I wanted to portray the use of marijuana in this film is that part of Goatman’s practice of communing with nature [includes] smoking pot. But as the story progresses, the film has a subtle warning about the reasons you smoke pot. When you see Ellis go off to school, he wants to smoke pot not because he fiendishly wants to get high but because it’s his connection to Goatman, it’s sort of a talisman to connect him. So when Goatman isn’t sending him that pot, he’s cutting that thread between them. The marijuana is a symbol for the connection between these two characters. Goatman, as you see throughout the course of the movie, can’t get by without pot, so my goal [was] to establish that he believes he has this spiritual, ritualistic relationship with marijuana, but really it’s his escape. He’s been hiding from the world, and needed it, and it wasn’t as sage-like and deep and profound as Goatman would like to think it is.
ShockYa: The movie’s music, by Jason Schwartzman, has a really nice Southwestern flavor to it.
CN: Thanks. Jason partnered with a good friend and fantastic musician named Woody Jackson, who’s an amazing guitarist. A lot of that Spanish-sounding guitar was stuff that he did. The movie’s visuals have a rangy feeling, from more poppy to very traditional Southwestern, almost Mexican tribal-sounding music. There’s also some Tito Puente in there as well. I felt very fortunate to work with Jason. I think Jason did a little bit of work with Judd Apatow on “Funny People,” and I know that he works from time to time with Wes Anderson. He’s very selective, and [only] works on projects that are personal and connected to directors he’s very close with.
ShockYa: Ignoring the corporate-vetted biography, what was your own path to filmmaking?
CN: Half my family is very much in the filmmaking business, and I was very fortunate to have apprenticed with some master filmmakers. My uncle, by marriage, is Francis Coppola. I was a creative writing and psychology double major in college, and did a lot of theater work, and … I’d spent a lot of time during summers driving a truck and doing the grunt work of being a [production assistant] around set. And when I came out of college I was fortunate enough to be asked by Francis to come work with him on a couple films as a dialogue director, which is just someone there to rehearse with the actors and be there as the director’s assistant to the actors. And so for me that was the beginning of my training working with actors. I learned a lot from him, obviously, and then I went on to work with a lot of other first-time directors, and had a 10-year career as really a director’s righthand with actors. I’m very fortunate to be in a really creative family, and be supported by them, and it’s something that I don’t take for granted for a minute.
ShockYa: Part of the appeal of coming-of-age stories, I think, is an identification with these journeys of concentrated maturation, but they’re also frequently vessels for great young talent. Notwithstanding the known actors in the movie, “Goats” couldn’t work quite as well as it does without Graham Phillips. What was the casting process like with respect to him?
CN: It’s interesting, because one of the things that we were up against and a lot of people said [in trying to raise financing for the movie] was, “Man, this is really difficult part because there’s a lot that’s communicated not through dialogue, but communicating the character’s inner life.” It just required a kid with some real chops, and an old soul. But the process of finding Graham was a very traditional thing. It wasn’t one of these things where I had to fly all over the country and audition 5,000 kids over six months. My casting directors, Nicole Daniels and Courtney Bright, were fantastic in reaching out to the right pools of talent. I think it was maybe a week or so into the process that I saw Graham’s audition tape. I was maybe fifteen seconds into it when I said, “That’s the kid.” There was a level of calm and assuredness, and he was, in a very organic way, nailing all of the subtler aspects of the character. I met with him a week later and he’d read the book already, for our first in-person meeting, and I had to contain my enthusiasm because I felt like he was the kid that I’d seen in my head for nine years. And then, working with him, he’s a real pro. He’s one of those actors who — like with Kirsten Dunst and Claire Danes early on in their careers — have that old-soul quality, that great instinct to be able to realize the character in a way that feels in no way forced.
ShockYa: What’s next for you. Do you have anything else definitively on tap?
CN: I have a few things that I’m working on. The thing that I feel like is closest and I’m most excited about is another project with Mark Poirier, a small and character-driven piece. It won’t be a big paycheck for anybody, but what keeps me excited and wanting to keep pushing the rock up the mountain, so to speak, is that I love working with actors. It was how I began working in film, and for me the collaboration between an actor and director on a piece of material is the most exciting part of it. So I can’t wait to finish the script and hopefully get the same response that I did with “Goats.”
Written by: Brent Simon