'And Then I Go' Star Sawyer Barth on Humanizing a School Shooter on the Anniversary of Columbine

Nineteen years ago, two high school seniors walked into Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado, killing twelve of their classmates and one teacher. Many consider that bloody day—April 20, 1999—the beginning of an American epidemic of school shootings. The Washington Post reports that at least 170 schools have experienced a shooting situation since then. Just two month ago,19-year-old Nikolas Cruz killed 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Today, in honor of the Columbine anniversary, students across the country will participate in a National School Walkout to promote solutions to gun violence.

So is now really the time for a film that presents a humanized, sympathetic portrayal of two boys who plot to shoot up their school?

Director Vincent Grashaw thought it was. "While this topic is divisive, my intention was not to make a bold, political statement about why these tragedies occur, but present audiences with an opportunity to go on a journey with two troubled kids in order to try and understand," Grashaw said in his director's statement.

Thus his And Then I Go, an indie drama based on Jim Shepard's 2004 novel Project X. The film premiered at the 2017 Los Angeles Film Festival and came out on demand and digital Wednesday. The focus is an eighth-grader named Edwin (played by Arman Darbo), an isolated, bullied outcast. Edwin's parents (Justin Long and Melanie Lynskey) try—but fail spectacularly—to understand their son's troubles. His only friend in the world is a fellow bullied outcast named Flake. Played convincingly by 16-year-old Sawyer Barth, Flake, unlike Edwin, transforms his anger and resentment into cold-blooded violence. His plan is to shoot up their school with his dad's rifles. Edwin, confused and drifting, goes along with it, though he clearly has reservations. Spoiler alert: They carry out the plan at a school assembly in the film's final scene.

It wasn't an easy character for Barth, who previously appeared in the 2017 teen thriller Super Dark Times. For And Then I Go, the young actor was tasked with humanizing a person he'd been trained to fear his whole life. "I remember doing lock-down drills ever since I was in first grade," said Barth, a high school sophomore from West Long Branch, New Jersey. He spoke to Newsweek about the challenges of getting into Flake's head, filming that final scene and his hopes that the film might "better the world."

ATIG 11_preview
Arman Darbo as Edwin (left) and Sawyer Barth as Flake in 'And Then I Go.' Courtesy of The Orchard

In reading the script, what was your first impression of Flake?

He's very confident. He exudes that "I deserve this, I want it, and so I'm gonna get it" quality that you find in some people. His dialogue is very direct, which helped me understand his character more. You didn't have to read between the lines [to understand] his motives. I don't think I would have been able to play the character if I didn't know what he wanted.

Were you able to empathize with him?

It was definitely a challenge. I do, on some level, relate to Flake. In my real life, I share that quality of directness—having goals and pushing myself toward them. He differs from Edwin, who is submissive in their relationship. If I see something that I want in life, I go and take hold of it. It's unfortunate that Flake chooses the path that he does, rather than something more productive.

Right, ultimately his "goals" are to murder his classmates. How did you reconcile that part of the character?

It was hard for me. The final scene that we had to shoot, where they go into the gym during the assembly and ultimately carry out their plan… They yelled "Cut," and then I walked out of the gym just to take a breather. I handed over my gun—which wasn't a prop gun, it was a real gun it just wasn't loaded—to the ammunition handlers, and I just walked outside for a second. It was way more intense, that felt way more real than I expected. Pointing that thing at an actual human and pretending to shoot them… it's something that shouldn't physically be done.

It was hard to get into the mindset that this is what this kid really wants. There was a huge gap between me and my normal life, my day to day, and something that high stakes—this kid who's been pushed to the limits in that way. It was a big gap to fix. But I tried to focus on the similarities between me and him, and realizing that in some respects, he's an actual kid, while to others he may be a monster.

Did director Vince Grashaw have any advice for you on playing that scene?

Vince was really great and accommodating on that day. What he said was—and this was really just the truth of the character—that Flake was just going in and doing the job. He had already had his mind made up. It was Edwin's character who was deciding whether or not to carry it out, but Flake was set. He had decided a long time ago that this was what was in store for him. He almost does it like a machine: He's just carrying out orders implanted by himself. It's a little unsettling watching it back, because he's doing it completely void of emotion on the day.

ATIG 2_preview
Justin Long (left) and Melanie Lynskey in 'And Then I Go.' Courtesy of The Orchard

We don't get a very clear backstory in the film of what made Flake this way.

I think that would have been unnecessary, to find the exact source of resentment within him. The fact is, that resentment exists. There's something that exists in me that simply doesn't exist in Edwin. It's any audience member's guess as to where that comes from.

Were you apprehensive about humanizing a school shooter, particularly after the most recent shooting?

Which shooting are you referring to?

Parkland.

Man, it's ridiculous that I have to ask you that question: "Which shooting are you talking about?" It's really heinous. Parkland hadn't happened yet when we made the film, but there were other ones that had happened in recent years, like Sandy Hook in Connecticut. In reality, I was excited to take this role. I thought of it as an opportunity to better the world. I was optimistic because I wasn't thinking about what could go wrong and whose feelings could be hurt.

I think we need to bring up these harsh and difficult topics so that we can get through them as a community, and improve ourselves from within. The more it's brought up and the more it's analyzed, the more we can achieve a common goal of stopping it. I was excited to share my depiction of someone like to that to maybe bring some understanding the eyes of the general populace.

How are you hoping the film might better the world?

In an optimal situation, I would hope that the average viewer would understand more of the human side of these situations. A lot of the times on the news, we just see the aftermath. What this movie is doing is showing you the lead-up; how something like this can happen. Before these kids become criminals and monsters, they're just kids and they're driven to do these things. It's not giving you any particular thing to believe as the viewer, but it is depicting the human side of these events.

What do you think our country needs to do in response to the escalation of shootings in the United States?

I think it's awesome that kids have more power today than they've ever had, but I personally have no concept of how we can change anything for the better. All I know is the one thing that can't happen is nothing. Something has to change because these events are escalating. Whether it's increased gun control, mental health care, or background checks for people who want to purchase guns—I have no idea the means by which we can achieve this goal. All I know is something has to change. And the more that kids educate themselves and become involved, the more we can make these decisions as a community.