In November of 2004, a former National Guard sniper by the name of Chai Vang was convicted of six counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder by an all-white jury in a rural suburb of Northwestern Wisconsin. The outcome of an altercation between Vang and the owner and employees of private hunting ground that claimed Vang had trespassed and Vang claimed had harassed him with a series of racial epithets, the event splintered relations between the Hmong-American that Vang had been a part of and the white working class communities that identified with those killed. Many, including Vang himself, had been recently laid off and the story was an early case study of the cycles of blame in the working class America, an issue many would say was behind Trump’s unexpected electoral victory in the state last year.
But it was also a gruesome event, a reminder that Reservoir Dogs-esque violence was not contained inside the comfortable confines of exploitation cinema but was a very real possibility that existed down the barrel of any rifle. The details of the story caught the eye of Tom Choi, a Korean-American actor who is most known for playing Mr. Yukimura on MTV’s Teen Wolf. Mark Tang and Lu Lippold had cracked the case open a little, in a 2010 documentary called Open Season, but the visceral experience of the event itself need the eye of a dramatist to bring it alive. While other mass shootings may seem to have obscured our collective memory of the event, there could hardly be a more relevant time to revisit it. Occurring at a triangulation of working class employment anxiety, middle-America racism and gun culture, Vang’s story seemed as much part of our current political climate as his own.
Choi, who has some experience writing for a canceled sketch comedy show, had penned a script and took to it to Pascal Leister, a director with a few comedic shorts (i.e. “The Haircut – A Tragedy of Epic Proportions”) and advertisements for Lego and Virgin America under his belt and, as he told me, “something dramatic.” They changed Vang’s name to Lee and adjusted some details of the event itself for creative license but what they were able to put together was remarkable for a short film, so often a domain of poor film school nonsense: Colin Walker, Alex Skuby and Timothy Davis star as Lee’s taunters, famed for their roles on TV shows as diverse as Treme, King of Queens and Billions.
What they managed to put together reveals itself as a serious piece of social realism, a cautionary tale with a smart eye on the working class economic pressures and xenophobia that lurks under the tapestry of middle America. The story it tells is as strange and homebred as any Coen Brothers movie but it is Choi’s powerful command of silence that turns it into a visceral and painful experience.
I had the chance to chat with Leister about how he came to the project and how he views the constellation of issues that the Vang case embodies. An edited version of our conversation is below:
POPDUST: Tell me about when you first heard of the Vang case and what drew you to it as a director.
Pascal Leister: After having shot a bunch of comedic videos and commercials I wanted to do something dramatic, something more of a thriller, in order to prepare for an upcoming feature. When Tom [Choi] told me ‘ex national guard sniper was confronted in the woods by hunters,’ I was in. Of course, then, I learned how dramatic and how tragic the story really was. I feel in a way it is a cautionary tale, which made it even more worth while telling it.
PD: Did you make any major alternations to the events?
PL: We took some artistic license in order to fit it better within the scope of a short film. There is [sic] less people in our film than were involved in the real story. We made the setting and some of the characters a little bit less specific in order to make the story more universal. And since what really occurred in the woods is somewhat unclear, even after extensive court proceedings, we had to come up with our own interpretation to some degree.
PD: From racist xenophobia to gun control, ‘Lone Hunter’ feels very much like it’s at the center of a number of contentious political issues. Would you call yourself an activist?
PL: I am politically very opinionated but I wouldn’t call myself an activist. I believe the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle. And, so, I wanted Lone Hunter to be very much told from an observational point of view. We, the team, all agreed on that. As a filmmaker my background is much less political and so my next projects align more with my passion for genre films, but if the opportunity presents itself to shed light on an important issue I’m not opposed to stepping up and using my tools as a filmmaker to help.
PD: Another central subject in Lone Hunter is blue collar unemployment. Tell me about the movie’s focus on it and if you feel like you learned anything about the greater issue while filming.
PL: It’s an issue in the film, because through our research we knew that the real life main character was under major financial pressure. And given what the country went through since at least 2008, when the crash happened, it’s an obvious issue that’s on a lot of people’s mind. If you’re not part of the one percent, there is a lot of pressure to keep the bills paid and to keep a roof over your head, especially if you have to support a family. That doesn’t justify killing anybody, but it may help explain why some people snap or commit suicide.
PD: How do you feel like economic tensions exacerbate the kinds of xenophobia that you look at in Lone Hunter?
PL: If everybody was employed and doing well, and there were plenty of resources going around, no competition over jobs, etcetera. I am convinced that xenophobia would be much less of an issue. That doesn’t mean that it would be eradicated. It would still be there, lingering under the surface, because as soon as things turn sour, some people need to find someone else to blame.
PD: Lone Hunter also takes a look at gun violence using hunting rifles, something that a lot of people are convinced are safe, if handled safely. Do you feel like your short complicates that narrative?
PL:Well that’s the big qualifier “if handled safely.” I have no problems with responsible gun owner ship. But, I think we need to talk about guns in the hands of mentally unstable people, people with a history of violence, people on terror-watch lists, etcetera. These are complicated issues but we need to start talking about them, considering what happens in our country on an almost daily basis, in my opinion.
The other issue I see here is the casualness a lot of people are treating guns with. There needs to be more respect for what guns are and can do. They are not toys. They are not something you casually wave around to intimidate someone. I was in the military and we treated guns of all kinds with great caution and respect because we knew what they could do.
PD: Do you feel like ordinary middle-America is more racist or less racist than people on the coasts think it is?
It’s all part of America, right? Lot’s of folks out here who just scrape by for a living as well. I can’t give you an informed answer to your question, because I haven’t spent enough time in middle-America for that. I know many people from there, who are all great and super nice and not racists. I’ve visited plenty of states and loved them all. But I also know that my friend Tom grew up in Iowa and as a Korean American was confronted with a lot of racism. So it’s there. But it’s also here at the coast. It keeps rearing its ugly face especially since the last election, even in the middle of L.A. – we need to address and confront that no matter where it occurs.
Andrew Karpan is Popdust’s Short Film Editor, among many things and hats he likes to wear. Follow him on Twitter.