Director, Producer, Artist

My Very Strange Newtown Experience

Posted on: December 17, 2012

In 2007, I shot a film called “Home Movie” in a small town in northwestern Connecticut. The film was starring Adrian Pasdar and was to be Christopher Denham’s directorial debut. It was a big break for me. Although I knew one of the producers, Andrew can den Houten (we had worked together on a beautiful film that was never released called Alma Mater), I still had to audition and go through the agonizing process of meeting the producers and the star. When I was told I booked the part I was thrilled. It was a big and important role, with an enormous amount of dialogue which would challenge even the most facile actor.

I had two weeks to prepare the part (of course). The character was a mother of twins, both of whom had an undiagnosed mental disorder that made them seem blank and remorseless. She was also a psychiatrist. She and her husband (a pastor) made the decision to move to Connecticut from New York City to take their troubled children away from the over-stimulation of the city and into a more pastoral environment, where they believed they could also keep better eyes on them.

In the course of the film, both parents try to maintain some sense of “normal” while they diagnose and treat the children. They dress up for Halloween, they dress the kids for school plays and shop for Christmas trees, the usual. Meanwhile, the kids exhibit increasingly bizarre behaviors, such as putting goldfish in their sandwich and crucifying the family cat. It gets worse from there.

My time shooting in Newtown was very pleasant. I stayed by myself at the Dana-Holcombe House, a charming B and B on the main drag, where coffee and breakfast was served every morning by a charming couple in their late 50’s. The drive to the house was short, through a pretty wooded area to a wide piece of property that was secluded away from the road. I was told that the house had a spooky past and some of the crew who were camping out there (it was an Indie movie after all) felt ghosts. I didn’t feel any ghosts, personally. I felt plenty of mold, but no ghosts.

The kids were played by Austin and Amber Joy Williams, and I liked carrying Amber around on my back. Sometimes I thought about making a deal with her mom so I could borrow her from time to time. They were such great kids. We played board games between set ups, and joked between shots. Despite these pleasantries, it was a serious shoot. The kids were playing psychopaths who are slowly plotting to murder their parents. I had to scream at them and run through the woods fighting hysteria at night. By the end of the shoot my legs were covered in bruises. It took me a week on the sofa to emotionally recover.

In order to prepare for the film, the director suggested I read a book by Jeffery Dahmer’s father, called “A Father’s Story.” In the book, the father accounts for any and all reasons that his son might have turned out to be a mass murderer, including his own abandonment when the boy was about 15 (if I recall correctly.) The one reason that stood out the most to me, however, was that Dahmer’s mother took an inordinate amount of pills while she was pregnant, including depression, anxiety, and weight control medication. My common sense told me this was a bad concoction to be giving a fetus, and could only result in some kind of defect in the child. However it was hard to really point at any one cause that made this child kill his first grown man when he was only sixteen years old, burying him in the woods behind his house.

Before we began shooting the director told me he wanted to make this film because he knew a kid growing up who was remorseless, and in his opinion it was a condition that was not really investigated enough in our storytelling and in our culture. Again, if I recall correctly, this kid killed one of his family members and was put in jail for life. This was a kid he grew up with, and knew well. It made a deep impression on him, deep enough to want to make a film about it.

These days there is a lot of talk about evil, and what is evil. “Evil has visited Newtown” seems to be the statement on many lips. Despite all the reasons to believe this is possible, this word worries me. Once you decide that a person has absolutely no chance at redemption, that they are pure evil, there is little recourse but to want to purge that evil from your life or community. This doesn’t lead to much good, if we recall history. It tends to lead to torture, burnings, hysteria, and witch trials.

So I say, let’s not blame evil. Let’s figure out what is wrong with these kids and what we can do about it.

In the film, no good comes to the parents who try to help, I can tell you that. In life, no good came to the mother of Adam Lanza, but why was she dealing with him alone?

I don’t have any answers here. I do know there needs to be more help for parents with severely mentally ill children, especially those that exhibit violent tendencies. I don’t think Newtown is a place that draws bad people or bad situations to it. I do not think it is cursed or “evil.” It’s a sweet little Connecticut town, like most Connecticut towns. I had a house in Connecticut for over 20 years so I know there is nothing about Connecticut that radiates “let the worst mass murder in American history happen here.” Quite the opposite, unless you think cows and woods create a methane gas that makes people nuts. If you think that, then.. well I am sure there is a forum somewhere where you can enjoy your philosophy.

There are so many people with a profound personal connection to this tragedy that can help us get insight. Some people have sick kids, like the woman who wrote the article, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.”

(My links are all screwed up so while I try to fix here is the full link)

Some have Asperger’s themselves, like my friend Matt, who wrote this article about how it feels to have Asperger’s and why he thinks it should not be blamed for one troubled young man’s actions.

(Again, you can copy and paste this.)

I shot a movie in Newtown about a mother and father living with two remorseless children who are obsessed with killing their parents. I know it may sound silly that I comment as an actor feeling my way through a fictional mother’s horror, but I can tell you that, even just in my imagination, it was heartbreaking to experience “my kids” as cold hearted killers. No mother wants to believe their darling child is capable of terrible acts of violence.

It’s a tragedy that hits close to home for us all in our own specific ways. We pray for healing for those closest to the tragedy, we send money, we talk about gun control, mental illness, single mothers, social responsibility, how to help, why it happened and what we can do to make sure nothing ever happens like this again, but at the end of the day we cannot bring those twenty 6 and 7 year olds and those six adults back to life.

At the end of the day, those very real, very innocent people are dead. And that is what we all have to live with.


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