Movies help us make sense of the world around us. In the midst of an election year, war and political cattiness, two St. Louis filmmakers have created a film that challenges its viewers to be more than politically apathetic. “Causalities of the State,” a political thriller that follows the unlikely partnership of two federal agents as they investigate the recent deaths of high-ranking government officials, premieres Sunday, July 8 at the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase. We caught up with writer/producer, Alan Lamberg and director Jeremy Cropf to talk politics, St. Louis film and why truth is so easy to kill.
ALIVE: Where did the inspiration for the title come from? When I first read it, I thought of “Enemy of the State.”
Jeremy Cropf: It was really difficult for us to come up with a common consensus on the title, actually. It wasn’t until midway through production that we figured out something we all agreed upon. We had a lot of different options. The idea was to try to find a title that was powerful enough to make people want to see the movie, even without a full idea of the plot. Some ideas we threw around were “Order of Deception,” “State of Affairs,” “Casualties of Justice.” The one we all ultimately agreed upon was “Casualties of the State.”
ALIVE: What are your thoughts on the St. Louis film scee, and what does it mean for this film to be shot in St. Louis?
Alan Lamberg: Our company formed from the St. Louis media community, and our movie shows what a group of dedicated St. Louisans can do. “Casualties” started with four partners, and over time the project attracted over a hundred talented cast and crew, mostly from St. Louis.
JC: It’s amazing how many talented filmmakers there are in St. Louis, but because the city doesn’t have a reputation for being a film city, people don’t ever think about it. There is a movement that has been steadily building here called MidWood. The idea is to bring high production values and professionalism to films made here locally. We still have a long way to go, but the talent is definitely here.
ALIVE: What locations did you shoot at in St. Louis and in D.C.? Did you have to get a permit to shoot at some D.C. locations?
AL: I’d say 95% of what you see in the movie was shot in St. Louis.
JC: We had a member of our crew go out to D.C. to film all of our establishing shots, like the Capitol Building and Eisenhower Executive Office Building. We were able to get everything we needed, and since we weren’t inside any of the locations, we didn’t need a permit.
A favorite location of mine is the Old Post Office in downtown St. Louis. We staged it as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, west of the White House in D.C. Both historic 19th century national landmarks built by the same architect. A tight exterior shot, along with several beautiful interiors made it authentic.
ALIVE: Did you use any sets?
AL: Fortunately, people in St. Louis are generous in sharing their place, so we didn’t need to construct but a couple of sets.
Several films were made in Kirkwood, and I hope the community will find it heartening to know that our FBI heroes Seeger and Zoller walked the hallways and offices of Kirkwood City Hall. Mayor McDonnell was very kind to let us temporarily convert his office into the FBI Deputy Director’s office for a very good scene.
ALIVE: You raised $6,000 for post-production. How much did the whole film cost?
AL: Ours was a micro-budget production, and so we had complete independence.
ALIVE: If you had an unlimited budget for a film, where would you shoot and who would you cast?
AL: I love to travel, so I would produce a great story that spans a few amazing places in the world. Shoot on-location, [showing] landscapes and the people that live there. That’s why I like Werner Herzog. But, money isn’t everything. We’ve seen captivating movies with low budgets. A great story is priceless.
JC: Oh man, the possibilities here are endless. I’ve always wanted to shoot a film in New Zealand, after seeing the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The landscape shots in those films are jaw-dropping. As for who I would cast, that’s tough. There are countless actors I would love to one day work with. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is an amazing young talent, so it would be awesome to work with him. Also Simon Pegg. Because he’s awesome.
ALIVE: Did you have any particular actors in mind when writing the film?
AL: One way of writing is to make believe using a cast of A-listers, but I didn’t do that. First, I read scripts of movies that were inspiring in cinematic style and similar in genre. Then, I wrote. I did my best to craft a story. Somewhere in my mind were amalgams of on-screen characters and people I’ve met. And when we held auditions, I was very pleased to see my characters find their identities in our talented cast.
ALIVE: The film’s tagline seems to hold a lot of significance: “In War, the First Causality is Truth.” What does this mean to you? What does it mean to the film?
AL: I thank my friend and director Jeremy Cropf for that line. And Aeschylus the ancient Greek tragic dramatist. It signifies the bridge between my themes as a writer and Jeremy’s themes as a director. I would say it’s a warning to anyone who would support any war. After thousands of years of human civilization, we pay our taxes and go along with the belief that war is inevitable. Or justified. Buyer beware.
JC: This movie was really born out of the Bush administration and the dirty politics that were played during that era and all throughout the Iraq war. It’s crazy how long we’ve been at work on this film. Production started right at the start of the Obama administration, and now we’ve reached another election year and a lot of the issues that influenced the making the film are still very relevant now. There’s a timelessness about that quote. To me, it means that no matter what happens, in times of war there will always be some degree of deception and subterfuge. It’s inevitable. Because everyone has their own agenda for going to war. Sometimes that deception serves a purpose and the ends may justify the means, but those instances seem to be few and far between. As for the quote’s meaning for the film—it’s huge. The film is about deception and betrayal, by both our government and by our friends.
ALIVE: With politics and wars in the Middle East, what significance does the film have now?
AL: The ideas for this movie came from my concern about our nation being taken advantage of by war profiteers. My ideas aren’t anti-soldier—not even anti-establishment. I just think everyone should be held accountable for their actions, especially for actions that bankrupt our national economy.
JC: As I mentioned before, it’s incredible to think that we shot the film in 2009 and the political landscape hasn’t really changed too much since then. Obviously a lot has happened, but on a large scale we are still dealing with a lot of the same issues we were facing then. I think that this film is just as topical now as it was when it went into production and I think that was on purpose. Alan Lamberg and I knew from the beginning that the issues raised in this film wouldn’t be solved once the movie was finished and that was what made writing it somewhat bittersweet.
There are a lot of problems in the world, and writing this movie was our own little way of coming to terms with things that we knew couldn’t be solved in one presidential term—or even in one lifetime. The biggest example of this is with Iran. When we made this film, President Ahmadinejad had just been re-elected, and the country was in the midst of major protests. There were fears about nuclear proliferation and it was only a month after we wrapped principle photography that we learned about Iran building a uranium enrichment plant in Qom. Since then, Iran is still planning nuclear tests and there are still major tensions between the U.S. So unfortunately, it’s still as relevant now as it was then.
ALIVE: You talk about political corruption and civil vigilance. What do you think are the responsibilities of government and the people?
AL: The purpose of government is to be the sovereign protector of its people. A nation’s self-interest is noble. The principle of self-defense is just. But what about selfishness at the expense of others? We live in an era in which people are generally more open, but we must be vigilant by asking questions and holding accountable those in charge.
JC: I think the government has a responsibility to listen to the people and the people have a responsibility to take an active interest in their government. It’s a two-way street. If we don’t show enough interest in an issue, it’s going to be ignored. So, it’s frustrating to come across people who don’t vote or don’t keep up with what’s going on in their country, because it directly affects all of us—whether we want it to or not. So, we have to make sure we make enough noise that the people in power actually listen. If they don’t, their political careers are at stake.
ALIVE: What do you like most about independent film? What are some drawbacks?
AL: To have a vision and see it to its near-immaculate completion, thanks to a willing and able team who also feels the movie is their own—that is independent film. On the other hand, near-immaculate isn’t immaculate. With independence, we are not the well-oiled machine of a seasoned studio. We make some mistakes, we underestimate or overestimate (mostly underestimate), but we live and learn. The completed movie is a wonderful goal for our audience to critique and hopefully enjoy, but the journey was ours. And in the end, there’s always the novel adaptation.
JC: Well, the drawbacks are that you never have enough time, enough money, enough resources to make the film exactly how you want it. But, amazingly enough, that also seems to be how it is in Hollywood. There’s never enough of anything to make the film exactly how you picture it in your head. But what’s nice about indie film is that you have a lot more freedom to make the film on your own terms. You aren’t beholden to studio executives or the box office figures.
ALIVE: What are you looking forward to most about the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase?
AL: For several years, our families, friends and co-workers have put up with us devoting our time and energy into making this movie. I’m grateful for the generosity of Cinema St. Louis in showcasing [our film] for this year’s festival at the Tivoli. And this is an opportunity for curious movie-goers to become fans and spread the word.
JC: Two things. First, seeing “Casualties” on the big screen with an audience. It’s the obvious answer, but being in a movie with a receptive audience (hopefully) is the greatest thing in the world. The opportunity to show your movie to everyone is so great and it’s always enlightening to see how people respond to it. And, I also can’t wait to see all of the other films at the showcase. There are so many talented filmmakers in St. Louis, and I can’t wait to be inspired by the best of what the city has to offer!
ALIVE: What movies are you looking forward to most this summer?
AL: “Imposter” looks promising as a riveting story. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” seems to be an important documentary, worth a look.
JC: “The Dark Knight Rises.” Christopher Nolan is a huge inspiration to me as a filmmaker, and I really can’t wait to see what he does with the end to his Batman trilogy. Also, I love Batman so this is really a can’t-miss for me.
ALIVE: Have you started pre-production for your next film?
AL: Since we began production of “Casualties,” we also produced one documentary feature in New York and eight short subjects ranging from documentaries, music video, comedy and a sci-fi horror that was a best-of finalist at last year’s 48 Hour Film Festival.
The best part is all the associations we’ve made with fellow filmmakers in St. Louis and elsewhere. We’re always either working on someone’s project or we’re planting the seeds for our own projects.