Embarking on a new chapter in life can be a daunting experience for anyone. But the process can be even more stressful for someone who is unable to contend with the guilt that arises their actions when they’re inadvertently placed in a tense situation. The emotional consequences of dealing with such an unexpected challenging environment is insightfully presented in the new drama, ‘The Submarine Kid.’ The movie, which MarVista Digital Entertainment will release tomorrow on Digital HD and On Demand, is a timely film that takes a unique look into a Marine’s journey through wartime post-traumatic stress disorder after he returns home to his civilian life.
The drama also grippingly marks the feature film writing debuts of lead actor Finn Wittrock and Eric Bilitch, who also made his feature film directorial debut. The two collaborators and friends impressively worked on creating and producing the realistic story for years, and never gave up hope on showcasing the obstacles veterans face when they return home in the captivating drama.
‘The Submarine Kid’ follows Spencer (Wittrock), a U.S. Marine who has just returned home from his third tour after a difficult wartime experience. He struggles to acclimate himself back into civilian life with his family, including his younger brother, Cooper (Jared Abrahamson), who idolizes him, as well as their parents (Nancy Travis and Jack Coleman). His friends, including Toad (Matt O’Leary), Paul (Alphonso McAuley), Howie (Joe Massingill) and Mailer (Hunter Cope), as well as his girlfriend, Emily (Jessy Schram), happily welcome Spencer back. While he initially seems to be transitioning relatively well back into civilian life, including taking a job at a local bookstore owned by a fellow veteran, Marc (Michael Beach), he’s actually secretly dealing with being haunted by an event from the battlefield.
Spencer’s outlook on life improves, however, when he meets a mysterious woman, Alice (de Ravin), at the book store. After then deciding to put his long-term relationship with Emily on hold, much to her displeasure and protest, Spencer begins an entrancing relationship with the new intriguing woman in his life. His bond with Alice provides him a new focus in which he can withdraw, as he desperately tries to emulate the story told in a comic she shares with him, called ‘The Submarine Kid.’ As the comic brings the two closer together through adventures above and below water, it creates a destructive situation from which only Spencer can save himself.
Wittrock generously took the time recently to talk about writing and starring in ‘The Submarine Kid’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the actor and first-time feature film writer discussed how he was drawn to pen the script with Bilitch, as he feels it’s an important creative outlet for them to tell their own ideas. He added that once they completed their story for the drama, they were grateful that people like Deborah Del Prete, who served as one of the film’s producers, were so helpful and willing to help them fund the movie. Wittrock also mentioned that he didn’t initially think of the drama as an acting vehicle for himself while he was working on the script. But when Bilitch decided to also direct the film and suggested that he portray Spencer, he also became interested in bringing the character to life in front of the camera.
ShockYa (SY): You made your feature film writing debut with the upcoming drama, ‘The Submarine Kid,’ which you co-wrote with Eric Bilitch. Why were you both interested in scribing a script, particularly one that tells the story of a U.S. Marine who has just returned home from his third tour after a difficult wartime experience?
Finn Wittrock (FW): It was a dream come true. I have been writing on my own for a long time, but this was the first project that I have officially put out into the world as a writer. Writing is an important creative outlet for me as an actor. You don’t have to wait for someone to tell you that you’re allowed to do it. So much of acting is waiting for a project that you can work on, but no one has to tell you to write.
Eric started off as an actor, but he’s now fully working as a director. So this film was a dream come true for him, as well. We started writing the film when we were in college. I think I was in my junior year of college when we began working on the sript.
He came down from Syracuse (in Upstate New York) to visit me at Juilliard. We developed the idea in a bar one night. We talked late into the night about this idea, and I then wrote a draft of it. That original draft and what’s in the final script now are completely different movies. We’ve gone through probably over 100 different drafts. I would write a draft and send it back to Eric, and he would then re-write it and change it, and send it back to me. That process went on and on over the years. Whenever we were working on another project, we would keep ‘Submarine’ on the back burner, but we would keep working on it.
Then we found a time when we were both in L.A. a few years later, so we decided to put the film out into the world, and try to get producers interested. That’s a huge uphill battle (laughs), but we finally got Deborah Del Prete, who runs Coronet Entertainment. Her son actually went to our high school, LACHSA-the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts.
Deborah said she wanted to make the film, so we tried to raise money, which is another endless process with all of these hurdles to cross. (laughs) But then one day we were on set, and we realized that it was really happening. So the film as definitely a labor of love, but we definitely had a community of people helping us, and the whole process was exciting.
SY: Besides co-writing the script for ‘The Submarine Kid,’ you also play Spencer in the drama. Was it always your intention to also play the film’s protagonist as you were penning the screenplay? How did co-writing the film influence the way you approached your performance?
FW: It actually wasn’t my initial plan to also star in the film. I never thought of it as an acting vehicle for myself. I think some people see their movie as they’re writing it, and envision who they’re going to cast in it. But I wrote it more abstractly. My writer’s hat and my actor’s hat are in very different parts of my brain.
I was initially attracted to just write a story about a veteran. I also wanted to write about someone who was going down a dark, emotional and psychological path.
But then Eric said he wanted to also direct the film. He also said, “You’re obviously going to play Spencer.” I hadn’t really thought of that as a possibility at first. But then I thought, I guess I should.
About two weeks before we began filming, I thought, I’m not a writer anymore; I’m an actor now. So I’m going to put away the writing part of my brain. You can’t totally put that part of your brain away, but you start looking at the script as a text that anyone could have written.
SY: As you were both writing the screenplay, and preparing to play Spencer, what type of research did you do into how Marines adjust to returning to civilian life after finishing their tours overseas?
FW: Yes, I read as much as I could about PTSD and what it’s like to come back from war. I was interested in reading about that, so that I could see the perspective of soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and are returning home to suburban America. I wanted to find out about the discrepancies in society, and the disillusionment that culture shock brings.
James Gandolfini was also interested in the subject. He produced a documentary (in 2010, called ‘Wartorn’) that was really helpful, as it showcases how soldiers have dealt with PTSD, even as far back as the Civil War.
We also had veterans on set who helped us. Jon Barton, who was a Marine, was our military adviser. He was on set almost every day, and was mainly checking for authenticity. It was also helpful to talk to him and some of the other veterans about what their experiences were like. They don’t easily open up in a vulnerable way. But there was definitely a sense that they approved what we were doing. Having them on set added a sense of responsibility to our commitment to making the film authentic, not just physically, but also emotionally.
SY: What was the process of casting your co-stars in the drama, particularly Emilie de Ravin, who plays Alice, the woman Spencer develops romantic feelings for when he returns home? Did you work with Eric at all on finding the supporting actors who would appear with you in the film?
FW: I actually did sit in on the casting for most of the other actors. As an actor, that’s an incredibly revealing thing. It makes you realize how difficult of a process it is. An actor can come in and be brilliant, but they won’t quite fit in with the rest of the cast.
It’s definitely reassuring to sit on the other side of casting as an actor. Just because an actor is good in general doesn’t mean that they’re right for every role. It’s an interesting jigsaw puzzle to form a cast that fits together.
But I was definitely happy with the ultimate result. We had a cast that’s not only very talented, but also very committed to telling the story. People don’t work on an indie movie like this for the paycheck, so they definitely have to really love the project. People really did love this movie, and went the extra mile for it. So we got very lucky.
SY: Once the rest of the actors were cast, were you able to have any rehearsal time with them before you began filming ‘The Submarine Kid?’
FW: It was a pretty tight shoot, so we didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse first. But we did get to meet before we began filming. All of the actors who played Spencer’s friends, for example, hung out in my garage for a night. We got to know, and create a banter with, each other. Then we also met with the actresses, including Emilie de Ravin and Jessy Schram, as well as the actors who played Spencer’s parents. So we had meetings to feel each other’s energy.
Then we started filming, and we were lucky to have a cast who showed up and really did their homework. They were always ready to work, which was helpful, because we had a quick shoot. There was a bit of chaos every day, as there always is with a movie of this size. But if that doesn’t kill the morale, it will make everyone a lot stronger. Everyone came together to get everything done.
There’s a scene where I’m at the beach with Emilie. We were literally speeding down Highway 1, so that we would have enough time to film the scene. Emilie’s make-up artist was in the car with us, and was doing her make-up as we were going over the bumps. We had to beat the lights, because the sun was going down. (laughs) It was our last shot of the day, and we had to get it that day, because it was the only time we had that location. That was our average day on the film, and we were always doing something of that nature. But we did have a lot of fun. (laughs)
SY: How did you approach the physicality of your role in the drama, especially during the water sequences? Do you enjoy performing your own action sequences?
FW: Oh yes, it was all me-we could not afford a stunt man. (laughs) They assured me that the water tank was going to be warmed, but that was a lie! (laughs) It was so cold, and we shot the underwater sequence where we dunked the car at 4am, which was its own problem. My lips were blue, but we had to get this scene, in which I had my shirt off, done. I would run into the hot tub between takes, and then go back into the pool.
Before I began film ‘Submarine,’ I had just recently finished shooting ‘Unbroken,’ for which I had to lose a lot of weight. So to then play this Marine, I had to gain a lot of muscle weight. But it’s much more fun to gain weight than lose it. (laughs)
SY: Since the drama is set in Spencer’s home town, did you film the movie on location? Overall, do you find shooting on location to be helpful as an actor?
FW: The house that he walks into is my mom’s house. That’s where I grew up since I was 12. So it was pretty cool to film there. We took over her house for about a week, God help her. (laughs) Her neighbors were really perplexed, because there were all of these trucks all along the street where they always park. But whenever I went to my mom’s house after we finished filming, her neighbors always asked, “When is that movie coming?” So they’re promised copies of the DVD.
Other than that, we shot all around L.A. We wanted it to be an L.A. story, and show a side of the story that you don’t always see. It’s not Hollywood; it’s Pasadena, the Valley and other places where working class people live. People often have this one idea of L.A., and everyone here is in the (film) industry. But there are firemen and plumbers here, just like anywhere else. So we wanted to show that authentic side.
Also, finding the right lake was really important. We found this place called Malibou Lake. It had to feel like a part of L.A., but also feel other-worldly. So that was a big location we needed, but I think they found the perfect location. We were lucky to be in L.A., because we got to be by the ocean and the sea. The city has so many climates to offer.
SY: The movie is set to be released on Digital HD and On Demand on Tuesday. Do you think the VOD platform is beneficial for independent movies like this one?
FW: Yes, it is now. Being released straight-to-video used to be a curse word. But these days, it’s really not; it’s now a way for more people to be able to see independent films, instead of just on the traditional festival circuit. We all want our movies to be loved by Sundance. But even if your film receives great critical response at Sundance, who knows if a wider audience is then going to actually be able to see it?