Film Courage: Where did you grow up?
Jack Peterson, Filmmaker/Activist: I grew up in Chicago and I’ve lived here all my life.
Film Courage: What was life like at home?
Jack: Pretty good, I guess. My dad wasn’t around growing up, but my mom was always supportive and basically let me roam free with whatever interests I had as a kid. I wasn’t disciplined much, and was never told to pursue any specific educational goals or anything like that. I was basically free to do what I wanted, which led to me making some pretty terrible short films at an early age.
Film Courage: Biggest supporter in your life?
Jack: Definitely my mom, but that’s sort of unconditional. I’m of the mindset that you basically have to be your own biggest supporter, because at the end of the day you’re the only one that can put the work in to make any progress in life.
Film Courage: Where did your love for film begin?
Jack: I watched all kinds of crazy films when I was a kid, like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre when I was 7 or 8 years old. My mom basically allowed me to watch anything I wanted, and I particularly liked horror films at the time so that’s what I watched. I also became obsessed with The Wizard of Oz as a kid, which led to me performing in a local production of it when I was 5. I was fascinated with the concept of showmanship in general, and I realized around 8 or 9 that filmmaking was the ideal artistic outlet for me. Probably the most influential film I saw around that time was Mulholland Drive. I was transfixed by the film and my 8 year old mind had no idea what it was seeing. The line “Silencio” at the end of the film was seared into my mind for several years after.
“I’m of the mindset that you basically have to be your own biggest supporter, because at the end of the day you’re the only one that can put the work in to make any progress in life.”
Jack Peterson, SAWGRASS Filmmaker
Film Courage: Did you go to film school?
Jack: Not exactly. I went to an arts-centric high school called Chicago Academy for the Arts, and I was part of the film program there. I enjoyed the film classes for the short time I was there, but I basically dropped out of high school after one semester. In hindsight, I don’t regret my decision. I’ve had a lot of invaluable life experiences that never would’ve happened had I stayed in school and followed a more traditional route.
Film Courage: If your life were a motion picture, what would the title be?
Jack: Well, probably Sawgrass. The movie is basically a summation of my subconscious over the last decade, so I consider it a movie about myself above anything else.
Film Courage: Having been involved with the incel community? Can you tell us your definition of term incel?
Jack: The official definition is “involuntary celibate.” It basically means you can’t get laid, and you struggle significantly with rejection. Looking back, I think it’s more of a negative mindset than an actual problem.
Film Courage: Has the incel lifestyle been called other names throughout history?
Jack: Not that I can think of. I think the rise of the internet and social media is the reason why it’s become such a big deal. 30 years ago, guys who couldn’t get laid didn’t really speak up about it much. Now, you can join an online group and talk freely about it anonymously.
Film Courage: What was your involvement with the incel community?
Jack: At first I was just another member of the online group like anybody else. I became more involved over time, basically becoming part of the staff on one of the bigger forums, and I hosted a podcast about incels called the Incelcast. Shortly after, I ended up speaking on national television after an incel killed 10 people in Toronto. I basically went on TV to disavow the violence, but I quickly realized I needed to make a significant change in my life.
Film Courage: Why did you leave the community? Did something prompt this decision or did it evolve over time?
Jack: I left because it can suck you into a pessimistic downward spiral that’s hard to escape. I’m still friends with several incels, but now I’m completely focused on improving my situation and moving forward in life. In reality, most of my dating troubles came down to a lack of effort and an overly cynical mindset. Once I left the group and had several positive experiences dating women, I realized I had bigger problems to worry about.
Film Courage: Where we you the night of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting? How did you hear about it?
Jack: I remember I was in bed, trying to fall asleep, but I had the news on and suddenly there were reports of gunshots on the Vegas strip. Like everyone else, I was just following the news as it happened. There were tons of conflicting reports at the time and I just wanted to know what actually happened.
Film Courage: What was your reaction, not just to the initial event, but the news stories that followed?
Jack: The big surprise for me was that the shooter was a 64-year-old retired multi-millionaire. Typically, mass shooters are a lot younger, with a history of violence and mental illness. It was shocking to see someone with no criminal record and no history of mental illness carry out something like that. The media came up with all sorts of explanations for his motive, mostly political, but Stephen Paddock was basically an enigma at the time. I watched his brother’s interviews to learn more, and I had a pretty unexpected reaction, which led me to contact him two years later.
Film Courage: When did you decide to interview Eric Paddock, one of the shooter’s brothers?
Jack: Well, Eric Paddock sort of became an internet meme after the shooting. Surprisingly, my first response to watching his interviews was to laugh, mostly because he’s incredibly blunt and called out the media for their amateurish reporting. In the midst of a chaotic situation, I honestly found Eric to be a likable guy and basically just thought he’d be fun to chat with. A lot of the comments on Eric’s interviews are, “this guy should be in a movie.” I felt the same, and figured I’d give it a try. Rather than do a story about the Vegas shooting, I just wanted to get Eric’s everyman perspective on life.
Film Courage: How did you find him and reach out?
Jack: It’s fairly easy to find phone numbers online if you know where to look. I just texted him, told him I was directing a film about Florida, and asked if he wanted to participate. He thought about it for a few days, and eventually we talked on the phone and he agreed. I explained it wasn’t a film about the Vegas shooting, because he’d already talked about it at length before. If Eric Paddock was famous for something other than being related to a mass murderer, I still would’ve found him entertaining enough to carry an interview.
Film Courage: How long have you been planning SAWGRASS? What went into the pre-planning?
Jack: SAWGRASS went through many incarnations over the course of almost three years. The original concept came about in early 2017, long before the Vegas shooting. I wanted to make an atmospheric film about Florida, a hybrid of abstract animation, documentary, and scripted scenes. I wrote a 93-page screenplay initially, and had no understanding of how to finish a feature film. But I was determined, so I pushed forward. Along the way, I got a chance to talk to some amazing people. Somehow I managed to speak to Bob Odenkirk of Breaking Bad fame and got tons of great advice and inspiration from him, as well as a writer named Ken Levine. I credited them both, because without the motivation they gave me, I might not have finished the film.
Film Courage: How much time did you prepare for the interview including the questions and how you would film him?
Jack: I didn’t really prepare it like a traditional interview. I planned it as more of a free-flowing conversation, and we basically wandered from one subject to the next. As for the filming, I was really paranoid about making sure the sound was decent, because I knew I’d be flying back to Chicago after the interview and wouldn’t be able to retake anything. I kept it as simple as possible, basically just a sit-down interview with a static tripod and a lavalier microphone.
Film Courage: What did you film on?
Jack: Primarily a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K. I also used my Galaxy S10 for a few sequences in the film.
Film Courage: How long did it take to finish it?
Jack: From the time I actively started production, maybe 6 months or so. I finished the initial script in 2018, and it took a while to get started on production because I had a lot of fears and uncertainties about actually making a feature film. I’m glad I went through with it, because now I have a lot more confidence going into my second feature.
Film Courage: What is the significance of the animation in SAWGRASS?
Jack: That’s difficult to answer. The film’s goal is to convey a tone and a feeling, rather than tell a traditional story or send a message of some sort. The animated sequences were the best way to convey that tone.
Film Courage: Where is SAWGRASS available to watch?
Jack: You can watch it for free here on YouTube. I’m also happy to ship out DVDs and Blu-Ray copies at no cost if requested. I just want to get this out to as many people as possible.
Film Courage: What universal themes are explored in SAWGRASS?
Jack: Everyone that’s seen the film has come away with a different interpretation. For me, Sawgrass represents the last 8-10 years of my life. It’s about the time I spent in Florida with my ex-girlfriend, it’s about my family, it’s about focusing on the future and forgetting the past.
Film Courage: What has been the reaction to SAWGRASS?
Jack: More positive than I was expecting. I wasn’t sure if anyone would even understand the film, let alone enjoy it. There’s a reason I avoided the festival circuit. It’s tonally a pretty strange film, especially considering the Eric Paddock interview combined with the lo-fi animation. I figured it would be jarring for some people, but I haven’t really had any overtly negative responses so far.
“The main thing I learned is, making a feature film doesn’t have to be such an intimidating process. I think it’s better to conceptualize it as making several short films. Anyone can make a 10 minute film, so just make 9 of them and then you’ll have a feature on your hands.”
Jack Peterson, SAWGRASS Filmmaker
Film Courage: Is there anything you haven’t shared yet, that you wish you knew before you made this movie?
Jack: The main thing I learned is, making a feature film doesn’t have to be such an intimidating process. I think it’s better to conceptualize it as making several short films. Anyone can make a 10 minute film, so just make 9 of them and then you’ll have a feature on your hands. Also, I think I was way too worried about how the film would be perceived. If you have a crazy idea, don’t second-guess yourself. Just make it, see how it turns out, and move on to the next thing.
Film Courage: Aside from fake news, how is the current state of media helpful in alerting the public to world events? How is it harmful?
Jack: Dealing with the media regularly over the last year, I quickly realized that journalists are just regular everyday people in a dangerously powerful position. Human beings are inherently biased, so it’s difficult or nearly impossible to present the news in an unbiased form. As long as the information being spread is factual, I don’t think there’s much that can be done to improve the state of media. It’s just important that you see through the biases and form your own perspective.
Film Courage: You have been vocal about the perception of incels in the media. Are there any misconceptions you’d like to dispel that the general public may not understand?
Jack: It’s the talk of “incel violence” that’s the biggest misconception. Most incels are pretty much harmless. I think incels are a bigger danger to themselves than anyone else, because a cynical mindset can cause you to give up on life prematurely.
Film Courage: What principles have guided your life?
Jack: I just try to live my life the way I want to, without getting in anyone else’s way. As long as you aren’t hurting anyone, I think you should follow your intuition as much as possible. Never sacrifice your goals to satisfy someone else.
Film Courage: What’s next for you creatively?
Jack: I recently wrote an 80-page script in five days. It’s called “My Perfect Everything.” Now that I have a minor resume, having finished a feature film, I’m gonna try to scale up and make something more ambitious. It’s the story of a famous magician hunting down a girl he hasn’t seen in over 30 years. I’m gonna try to navigate inside the traditional system this time as far as financing goes, so it’ll be interesting. I’ll let you know how it works out.
Bio: Jack Peterson is an American filmmaker based in Chicago. He’s been featured in the New York Times, the Daily Beast, and ABC News for his work as an activist. His first feature film, Sawgrass, is a psychedelic journey through Florida, featuring an extensive interview with the brother of the Las Vegas shooter. Sawgrass also features a performance by the Rock-afire Explosion, a vintage animatronic band created by famed inventor Aaron Fechter. Jack’s next feature film, My Perfect Everything, tells the story of a magician chasing an imaginary woman he met in 1989. My Perfect Everything is currently in the early stages of pre-production.
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SAWGRASS on Youtube by Jack Peterson. Jack is an American filmmaker based in Chicago. He’s been featured in the New York Times, the Daily Beast, and ABC News for his work as an activist. His first feature film, Sawgrass, is a psychedelic journey through Florida, featuring an extensive interview with the brother of the Las Vegas shooter. Sawgrass also features a performance by the Rock-afire Explosion, a vintage animatronic band created by famed inventor Aaron Fechter. Jack’s next feature film, My Perfect Everything, tells the story of a magician chasing an imaginary woman he met in 1989. My Perfect Everything is currently in the early stages of pre-production.