Lethal passions

“My favorite teen movie is River’s Edge,” says director Tim Blake Nelson, whose second feature finds William Shakespeare’s Othello transported to a South Carolina prep school, “and I felt it was a film that had adults in mind as a viewing audience. That’s what I tried to do with O. I didn’t want to make it a film for teenagers. I felt that if I didn’t make a film for teenagers, I wouldn’t be talking down to them, and therefore, teenagers might actually appreciate it all the more.”

Few films focusing on adolescent protagonists tackle the issues O addresses with such calm forthrightness — interracial dating, athlete worship and exploitation, school shootings — and it was bound to ruffle some feathers. But no one expected O would be shelved for a year and a half.

During the last presidential election, violence in the movies became a hot-button issue that both major parties trotted out for show-and-tell, and Columbine became the code word for tragedy caused by lax censorship. The shootings at the Colorado high school occurred just as Nelson began editing O.

After he submitted the completed film to Miramax in March 2000, the company (once an influential upstart, now a division of Disney) kept postponing the release date per the wishes of co-founder Harvey Weinstein, a major Democratic campaign supporter. Finally, O went the way of another controversial Miramax release, Dogma, and was sold last April to Lions Gate Films.

“Tragically, this film remains relevant,” explains Nelson in Los Angeles, “because these shootings have not stopped. I look at it as an American Shakespearean tragedy, using Othello to examine the causes and consequences of teen violence. I feel that illumination is usually a pretty instructive thing to pursue. So I hope that this film will deepen our understanding of why these violences have occurred and what happens in their aftermath, how they affect the lives of others.”

The genesis of O, relates screenwriter Brad Kaaya, wasn’t as an exploration of contemporary teen violence, but a way to discuss race and the role black athletes play in American society. The 34-year-old Kaaya attended the all-boys Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento, Calif., where he was one of 20 black students in a student body of 800. Although O is set in a boarding school — which emphasizes the lack of parental involvement in these teens’ lives — Kaaya explains that the film grew from his own experiences and observations.

“I think it’s really relevant,” Kaaya says, “to the fact that a black athlete is the star. O.J. Simpson got to marry a woman whose parents were really, really prejudiced, and I’m sure 30 years earlier, he really wouldn’t have. The black athlete is worshiped. Even at the high-school level. In my high school, kids from the public schools, if they were good athletes, were told, ‘Hey, there’s no problem here, come to our school. Give you free tuition, just play football.’ We dominated sports with a small high school because we would import these athletes.”

In O, Othello is Odin, scholarship student, undisputed star of the basketball team and the sole black pupil at the tony Palmetto Grove Academy. He’s dating the dean’s daughter, Desi (for Desdemona), and his secretly envious teammate is Hugo (Iago), the overlooked basketball coach’s son.

Initially, few thought a contemporized version of Othello set in high school was viable, including its future director.

“There have been enough butcherings of Shakespeare’s plays,” explains Nelson, “by ‘teening’ them down. But when I read the script, I realized that this would be the first time that anyone had attempted to reimagine one of Shakespeare’s tragedies in a high-school setting and that is credible. The fact that it will actually seem believable struck me as so unbelievably sad that it was something I was drawn to.”

As a filmmaker, Nelson wrote and directed the 1997 cult favorite Eye of God and recently completed a screen adaptation of his play The Grey Zone. As an actor, he’s appeared in numerous New York stage productions (Shakespearean and contemporary) and has had small roles onscreen. His oddball breakthrough role came in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? as Delmar, the convict dim-bulb with the lowest wattage and the most illuminating dialogue. But this 37-year-old master of comic timing is continually drawn to darker, more serious material.

“I think that one of the forces at work,” he says, “in these high-school shootings is that adolescence is a time in which very dangerous forces are clashing. Put together adolescent passion with the adult capacity to act on that passion, add how easy it is to get a gun in this country, and suddenly, you have an explosive situation of Shakespearean proportions.”

For Kaaya, whose previous work was primarily in television comedies such as “Mad TV,” Nelson’s quiet, serious tone brings the tragedy of O home.

“I love [big-budget action] films,” Kaaya says. “Fifty people might die — you don’t even flinch. But in this movie, people clearly gasp when there’s some violence. It’s kind of refreshing to see someone reacting to the horror of violence rather than, Oh, it’s just entertainment, people getting shot.’”

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]
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