For filmmaker Aimee Lagos, '96 Minutes' took years to craft
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 26, 2012 - In the mid-1990s, Aimee Lagos was a student at Washington University when “several things happened at the same time,” she recalled over coffee at Blueberry Hill one recent morning. She was back in St. Louis to talk about her first feature film, “96 Minutes,” which opens at the Creve Coeur on Fri., April 27.
“I moved downtown,” she said. “And I was doing an internship with St. Louis neighborhood stabilization, working with inner-city kids. And then several incidents happened involving Washington University students and kids from the neighborhoods I was working in, violent incidents. Their worlds seemed miles apart, but I thought, ‘I know the people on both sides of that story.’”
The most publicized of the incidents she mentions was the 1995 carjacking of two female students outside a St. Louis restaurant by two teenage cousins. The women were viciously attacked and left for dead. The attacks, “highly fictionalized” as Lagos says, provided the template for “96 Minutes,” a film that interweaves suspense and moments of visceral horror with a compelling human tragedy.
The movie, which begins with a few moments of terror in the middle of the carjacking and then flashes back in time to show us the events that led up to it, vividly portrays what it’s like to grow up in an impoverished, gang-plagued neighborhood, with almost everyone, including the police, assuming that a teenage boy will turn into a gangster and a thug. The movie does not ask for forgiveness, as a powerful final scene makes clear. “96 Minutes” is about bad decisions leading to inexcusable deeds. But it does give the viewer some understanding of its characters, all its characters. Lagos said, "It's not OK. Nothing could make it OK. But let's see how we got here."
In a director’s statement, Lagos writes that she “loved the work I did” in “some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the inner city” but “the harsh reality of their day-to-day lives was stunning and utterly heartbreaking.
“Eleven- and 12-year-old children, whose smiles would light up your soul, were under immense pressure every day to join gangs. They traded stories of whose cousin got shot in which drive-by that week, laughed at me when we talked abut the hope that someday they’d go to college. They laughed because they were all sure that by the time they turned 18 they’d either be in jail or they’d be dead.
“The things that were happening to my friends and classmates were horrific and seemed like pure evil, but I knew the story was much deeper than that.”
It would be almost a decade before Lagos sat down and wrote the script for “96 Minutes.” After graduating from Washington University in 1997, she went to New York and began working in theater and then in film. That had been her goal when she came from New Jersey to study at Washington University.
“Washington University didn’t have a film department at that time,” Lagos recalled, “but it did have an excellent performing arts department. One reason I chose Wash. U. was that you could be active in the performing arts and major in something else, unlike a lot of schools. I had been doing theater all my life, and I wanted to continue that journey without having to limit myself.”
She majored in social thought and analysis with a minor in legal studies. “At the same time,” she says, “I did a lot of acting and directing. I was able to spend the summer in London in a wonderful Wash U. program with the Globe Theatre. For me, Washington University was a wonderful place to go to college.”
In 2003 in New York, Lagos made a short film called “Underground,” about a white woman who grows suspicious of two non-white men on the subway. The short won a number of prizes at festivals and was picked up and shown by the Independent Film Channel.
“After that,” she recalled, “I was looking for something else to do in film, and the carjacking story was still a part of me, and something I wanted to explore. I wrote the script in 2004, and I was immediately set up with a studio for it to be a big project.” But that deal fell through, as deals with young filmmakers so often do in the movie business. “And then the script went from studio to studio and finally resurrected itself with Brittany.”
The young actress Brittany Snow, currently co-starring on the television series “Harry’s Law,” agreed to play the female lead, Carley, who aspires to law school. “Then we brought on Evan Ross to play Dre” – one of the carjackers – “and we were able to cobble the money together.
“We started filming in April 2010 in Atlanta. Initially, we had scouted St. Louis, but we ended up getting so much of our money out of Georgia” – through private investments and tax incentives – “that we decided to shoot it there.”
“96 Minutes” premiered last spring in Austin, Tex., at the South by Southwest film festival. It won the breakthrough performance award and got a favorable review in Variety. It continued to do well in the festival circuit. Last fall, Lagos won the new filmmaker award at the St. Louis International Film Festival.
Much of the magnetism of “96 Minutes” comes from the tragic relationship between Dre and his cousin, Kevin (J. Michael Trautmann). Dre, a couple of years older, a studious young man with aspirations to go to college, feels a deep sense of responsibility for his erratic cousin, a gangster wannabee who tries to prove himself with a car jacking. At times, trying to protect his out-of-control cousin, Dre makes profoundly bad decisions.
An interesting aspect of the Dre-Kevin relationship in the film is that Evan Ross, who plays Dre, is clearly African American. J. Michael Trautmann’s skin is white. Yet, in the movie, they are cousins.
Lagos nodded. “I come from a multi-racial family,” she said. “Some of my cousins are black. It just seems normal to me.”
She continued, “In the script, nobody’s race is mentioned. I told the casting director, ‘I want open auditions.’ I felt, this is a story about people, and the divide between these kids is socio-economic and class.
“When I walked into the auditions and I saw J. Michael Trautmann, he just exploded with this character. There’s something different and strange and unique about this character, and J. captured it.”