While numerous films have depicted the struggle of finding yourself the unwanted focus of a school bully, Jeremy Merrifield brings a new dimension to this mainstay of cinema in his illuminating AFI thesis film Balloon. Remixing tropes of the superhero myth, we sat down with Merrifield to learn how and why the LA-based filmmaker created a compelling coming of age short which asks us to consider how our culture has turned masculinity toxic and what that means for the boys who will soon become men.
It’s always a pleasure to watch a film which alongside an engaging narrative raises deeper questions about the culture which shapes us. What spurred you to create Balloon?
Balloon was a memory I had that bubbled up when talking with my twelve-year-old nephew. He had just entered junior high and I remembered we had a school-wide balloon release. This was back before we knew releasing a thousand latex balloons in the air may not be such a great thing for the environment. The idea was that we would attach index card messages to our balloons and release them in hopes of finding a pen pal. I remember feeling so isolated and alone and hoping this message of mine would travel to some distant Island of Misfit Toys and I would finally have a friend! Though I never got a pen pal, it became a recurring dream. First, it was the balloon flying away, and over time it was me. I’d later learn that this Island of Misfit Toys was real, and it was called Manhattan and I would eventually move there!
I wanted to explore how a boy could grow up to become a toxic man.
At the time I started writing Balloon, Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults were in the headlines, Bill Cosby was in court, and Tom Brady was mixed up in his “Deflategate” scandal. I wanted to explore how a boy could grow up to become a toxic man. I remember hearing someone say the phrase, “more power to you, man.” It was like it was the first time I had ever heard it because it struck me what someone was really saying: “hey man, I wish you a bigger salary, a thriving stock portfolio, and control over a bunch of employees.”
So much of what we expect of men has to do with power. Not an inner self-empowerment, but an external, worldly power. This starts very young with how we raise our boys. We really largely define boys by who they should NOT be. A boy who doesn’t show this kind of physical power is deemed a “loser”, a “pussy”, a “faggot”. So, who should they be? Who are their role models? Who are their heroes? With the slew of disappointing male leaders in the news, the only reliable role models are the ubiquitous masked superheroes in our movies and they aren’t even real. There’s an allure to the idea of the superhero — the promise that within each of us is some untold power. It’s the perfect metaphor for inner empowerment, but the genre really has come to be more about physical power, lifting up a dated, narrow idea of masculinity: the warrior. In much the same way that princess culture was damaging to girls, I think superhero culture has been damaging to boys, teaching them they can punch through their problems.
Were there experiences from your time as an actor which shaped the way you worked with your young cast? How much improvisation made its way into the final performances?
It’s funny, when I walked away from acting years ago I thought that’d was the end of my time acting. But as a director, I feel like I work that muscle just as much if not more. In order to talk to actors, you have to be in the scene with them – knowing where they are emotionally isn’t enough, you have to be right there with them. I love actors and will do anything to allow them to do their job! And I can’t do that if I’m outside of the story their telling.
With the improv, I would say about 10% of the final result is dialogue we found together on set or in rehearsal. With someone like Paul Scheer you don’t have to do much, you set up the parameters and just let him loose. I think he found something new in nearly every take we did with him. With other actors, often the biggest deviation from our shooting draft was to either return to dialogue I already knew worked in the scene or simply cut the bad dialogue altogether.
I love what an actor can do with silence, paralyzed from having the right words for the moment. There’s a moment in the last scene with Sam and his friend Adam where Jonah Beres was supposed to say, “I’m your friend. You’re my best friend.” I remember asking him, “Would you say that? Would you actually say that to one of your buddies had he just betrayed you?” And Jonah was like, “Hell no!” So I told him not to say it then. On the next take he started to say it and caught himself, gritting his jaw, averting his eyes.
How did the coming-of-age nature of the story, not to mention the various integral effects shots, determine your equipment choices for the production? How long was the shoot?
We shot Balloon on an Alexa Mini with two different sets of vintage Kowa Anamorphic lenses at 2.39:1 aspect ratio. The anamorphics and the aspect give Sam’s simple, personal story, an epic isolation that we didn’t achieve as easily in sphericals. It was interesting how the different sets of Kowas behave differently but overall, I think the vintage glass lends a tinge of nostalgia to the film that I think works in the coming-of-age genre.
There are over sixty visual effects shots in the film and three major stunt sequences. We shot principal photography over six days at two different schools plus the house and an exterior wooded area. We had two additional days dedicated almost exclusively to green screen work. For the film’s stunt sequences we used three different types of cranes, two scissor lifts, a couple of drones, and a trampoline! In addition to the six days of principal photography and two days of VFX photography, we had about six months of pre-production and another four months of post-production. That was a VERY fast post-production for a film like this!
It’s been really encouraging how many people echo back to us the film’s core themes.
Have you found that audiences engage with the questions about our outdated modes of masculinity raised by the film?
I never want to be heavy handed with themes. I think some can watch this movie and just see a superhero origin story. But if you want more than that, there’s plenty to chew on. And what has been really special is how many have really grabbed on to those bigger underlying issues. Toxic masculinity is an issue that is staring us right in the face and yet so often we blame anything else rather than take responsibility for an issue that we all need to face. But it’s been really encouraging how many people echo back to us the film’s core themes.
We recently screened before huge sold out houses in New Orleans and I was blown away as the audience found laughter and tears in all the highs and lows of Sam’s journey. That said, we’ve also had some people who are irate about the message. We’ve had people walk out, claim the message is damaging to masculinity and to boys, and angrily proclaim that toxic masculinity is a myth. The thing is those people often assume we’re prescribing some one-size-fits-all solution. But in actuality, I can’t say I have any clear solutions. We want there to be a conversation and so far it seems we’ve been able to help make happen!
What are you working on next?
I have so many irons in the fire! But there is definitely a feature version of BALLOON! I also am working on a feature based on my life growing up in the commercial fishing industry in the southeastern US and how climate change has ravaged those communities.