Nick Jonas stars in the latest hazing drama, 'Goat.'
Reeling from a terrifying assault over the summer, 19-year-old Brad Land (Ben Schnetzer) starts college determined to get his life back to normal. His brother, Brett (Nick Jonas), is already established on campus and with a fraternity that allures Brad with its promise of protection, popularity, and life-long friendships. Brad is desperate to belong but as he sets out to join the fraternity his brother exhibits reservations, a sentiment that threatens to divide them. As the pledging ritual moves into hell week, a rite that promises to usher these unproven boys into manhood, the stakes violently increase with a series of torturous and humiliating events. What occurs in the name of ‘brotherhood’ tests both boys and their relationship in brutal ways.
Directed by Andrew Neel (King Kelly, Darkon), co-written by Neel, David Gordon Green and Mike Roberts, based on the acclaimed memoir by Brad Land, Goat provides a searing portrayal of masculinity, violence and brotherhood.
When Andrew Neel premiered King Kelly at SXSW in 2012, he was greeted with acclaim for his controversial portrait of a debauched teen webcam star who gets embroiled in a drug deal that goes horribly wrong. Christine Vachon and David Hinojosa at indie powerhouse Killer Films in New York saw King Kelly and championed the film. Killer and SeeThink (Neel’s company) began discussing Neel’s next film. Convinced that Brad Land’s memoir Goat would make a fantastic movie Vachon had been doggedly holding on to the property for over a decade (in concert with James Franco’s company Rabbit Bandini). Gutsy, debauched, and frenzied the material seemed to be a perfect fit for Neel. The script written by none other than David Gordon Green and based on the book by Brad Land, details the horrific hazing process at a university fraternity, as experienced through the perspective of Brad, whose older brother Brett is already a member of the fraternity in question.
Neel decided to come on board, revising the script with co-writer Mike Roberts. Neel had become deeply drawn to the material. “I realized the film could be part horror movie and part exposé,” Neel explained. “It was interesting how the whole central section of the film – the hazing section – basically turned into a horror film.” Neel, who has made a number of feature documentaries, was also intrigued by the more journalistic angle of the material. “There really haven’t been many narrative features made about hazing,” he pointed out. “And the subject matter allows us to explore something intriguing, which is men and masculinity with a capital M. I don’t just make movies because I want to tell a story – for me, the films I make are often born out of an idea I want to discuss. And this film had a philosophical underpinning that made the story worth telling.”
For Neel, that philosophical underpinning is the complex web of codes and assumptions that make up the idea of what it means to “be a man” in contemporary American society, in all of its contradictions and faults. “When men are college-aged, they have a lot of violent energy in them,” he explained. “How that energy is focused depends on the circumstances you’re in. If you’re middle class, sometimes it gets meted out through the mechanism of a fraternity, which means it’s not really properly dealt with. Men deal with the specter of violence every day – ‘pussy,’ ‘bitch,’ all these derogatory terms are a part of daily language in our society. It stems from male insecurity, which itself stems from deeply rooted societal masculine expectations. They’re brutal systems, and certain institutions tend to prey upon and promote the darkest, most violent elements of the male psyche. I think frats are one of those institutions.”
Despite that, Neel’s goal was to humanize, not demonize, the members of the fraternity depicted in Goat. “There’s something that makes so much sense to me about fraternities. I think coming of age is terrifying. I think a lot of the people that join frats are actually really self-conscious. I don’t mean that in a cruel way. They’re just young men who don’t know who they are. They’re scared because they feel like they don’t fit in. They want guidance. The fraternity system offers a simple answer: ‘Oh, I’ll get together with this clan of guys who will help tell me who I am.’
For the process of casting those aforementioned guys, Neel worked with Susan Shopmaker, whom he’d previously worked with on King Kelly, to build out a compelling ensemble cast of the tortured masculine energies within the fraternity. Cementing the cast as Brad and his older brother Brett were Ben Schnetzer and Nick Jonas, respectively. For Schnetzer, the part of Brad held enormous appeal. “Brad’s kind of like a raw nerve throughout the story,” Schnetzer explained. “I think any man, to one degree or another, can understand the struggle to define masculinity and what that means to him to identify as being a man. The script explored all these insecurities that I think a lot of guys feel, that I know I’ve certainly felt, but in a heightened and distilled manner.”
For Nick Jonas, much of the appeal of the script was the nuance it provided of Brad and Brett’s relationship. “The thing that came to mind to me when I first read the script was this compelling relationship between these two brothers. At its core, it’s a story about two brothers and their strength and support of each other and the journey that they go on. I knew that it was something that I wanted to be a part of from the minute I read it. And I was really impressed by Andrew, his vision for the portrayal for these characters. We did a lot of great work together, Andrew, Ben and I, to really bring out the dynamic at work between these two guys.”
As Goat opens, we’re introduced to Brad, a somewhat shy teenager who is starting university in the fall, at the same school as his older brother. A friendly and somewhat naïve figure initially, Brad leaves a party one night and ends up giving a lift to two older strangers whom he doesn’t know – a decision that quickly proves to be an enormous mistake. The older, bigger men end up forcing Brad to drive into a rural field, where they proceed to rob him and beat him brutally. This fearsome act of violence provides the framing context for the rest of Goat. “So much of the work I did in playing Brad was about developing a relationship to that initial event,” Schnetzer explained. “Some events in our lives just totally change us, and we have no control over them. I think Brad’s relationship to that beating becomes a kind of breeding ground for all of the decisions he makes from that point on.”
Immediately after the beating, Brad’s brother Brett decides that he’ll try to seek vengeance for the attack, grabbing a gun and telling Brad that he and his friends are going to drive around, looking for the assailants. It doesn’t come to anything, but it depicts the world of masculine codes that Brad finds himself in. For Neel, the beating provides the crucial turning point that cements Brett’s belief that Brad should join the fraternity. “Brett sees his brother go through this horrible thing and doesn’t know how to make him better. He wants to make him better, to make him safe. So the answer for a guy like Brett is, let’s get him in the frat. Let’s make Brad more like me and my friends, and then he’ll be safe.”
This decision ends up cementing the film’s ultimate irony. After arriving at university in the fall, having recovered from the attack, Brad – along with his roommate Will – decides to pledge Brett’s fraternity. Neither Brad nor Will seem like the typical fraternity candidates – they are less “alpha male” than Brett and his fraternity brothers – but they decide to go ahead with pledging regardless. Schnetzer viewed Brad’s decision to pledge as a misguided seeking of validation. “I think Brad spends a lot of time looking for outward validation and thinking that someone else is going to be the catalyst in solving the problem of masculine insecurity that he’s dealing with. And over the course of the film, I think he slowly realizes that nobody else is going to solve his problem for him. A lot of the times people look for validation in the wrong place. I don’t think a fraternity is the right place to go to find out what masculinity is. It’s not really the right place to go find out how to be a man.” It’s a sentiment shared by Neel. “Are fraternities a good way to do that? No, they’re probably not. But I get it. I have compassion for kids in frats. They’re there because they don’t know who they are. And that’s why Brad goes there.”
The adulation for one’s fraternity is explored in great detail in the film, highlighted in one sequence in which a much older former member of the fraternity (played by James Franco, also a producer on the film) returns to campus and ends up partying excessively, keeping up with the fraternity brothers despite the fact that he has a wife and child at home. Neel noted that it’s the only point in the entire midsection of the film in which an adult is present. “I think that sequence is important because it points out what can happen to these guys. I’ve seen this happen to guys. Guys who were in frats, and sort of never really left. It just kind of turned them into a mess. So this guy’s just a man-child when he comes back. I think you see the foreshadowing of what some of these kids could become.”
Despite what Neel and Schnetzer referred to as the psychologically problematic nature of Brad’s decision to pledge, at first things seem to go well for him in the fraternity (before hazing has begun). He parties with the fraternity brothers and bonds with Brett, whom he clearly idolizes. “I think a lot of time he’s looking to his brother to answer certain questions of his, to provide him with a definition of masculinity in which he can fit,” Schnetzer explained. “He wants to prove to his brother that he’s a man,” Neel added. “He wants to prove that he can fit into the mold of manliness because he wants his brother to respect him. And the measuring stick for that is what society says men should be. Men should be tough. Men should be able to stand up for themselves. Men should be able to win a fight.”
That societal measuring stick comes into play as “Hell Week” begins, and the hazing rituals of the pledges commence. Initially the hazing appears to be relatively surmountable, but as it continues in duration and intensity, it becomes apparent that the hazing is veering deeply into dangerous emotional, physical, and psychological terrain, with Brad’s anxieties starting to skyrocket. As the hazing continues, the film enters the period that Neel refers to as something of a “horror movie,” presenting one hazing sequence after another. “Frankly, I wanted to assault the audience. I want to take them up the proverbial river, into a heart of darkness. I wanted the hazing sequences to feel as though we had fallen off a cliff into a world where rational, nonviolent behavior no longer was the norm. I wanted to try to convey what these men had to go through, and in a heightened way, convey what it really feels like to be a man, going through the world, all the time. It’s a dark, scary experience.”
In order to create the graphic sense of detail and verisimilitude in the sequences, Neel relied upon everything at his disposal, including not only Land’s memoir but Neel’s own personal experiences. “I went to boarding school, so I know what hazing is like. Now I never got hazed like what happens in the film, but I did experience hazing. And sometimes it was terrifying. Like they’d bring you in a room, and you just wanted to know what they were going to do to you. Now sometimes they just made you get fucked up. But other times they’d beat on you a little bit. My boarding school was pretty progressive, but there were bad things that happened there too. When the lights went off at 11:30, you had to fight to survive. It was 45 boys going through puberty, and it was intense.”
The intensity of the hazing ends up having catastrophic consequences; as related in Land’s memoir, his roommate Will ends up dying from a heart attack shortly after a hazing session. For Neel, the moment serves as a sobering event for some of the members of the fraternity, including Brad and Brett. “Will’s death imbibes the whole story with a deep sense of gravity, once we recognize that hazing isn’t all fun and games. People get hurt. People are getting hurt every year at these ridiculous things. There are stories about these occurrences every year. It’s a reality check. The characters are forced to acknowledge that these events can have serious repercussions.”
The death is particularly difficult for Brad to cope with, because his sometimes friendly, sometimes turbulent relationship with Will is fraught, as Schnetzer explains it, with a kind of recognition of Brad’s own insecurities as Brad looks into Will’s character. “Sometimes Brad is hard on Will. Obviously there’s a lot of love there, but so much of what pisses Brad off about Will are things that piss Brad off about himself. Sometimes, you have a negative reaction to someone at first, because you see elements of their personality that you know you possess and you don’t like about yourself. We shot a scene where Brad says to Will, ‘Dude, why the fuck are you in this fraternity?’ And the idea is, Brad’s really saying that to himself. I think that was a really fun and intriguing dynamic to play with. Will represents a certain side of Brad to himself. Brad is wracked with self loathing.”
In the aftermath of Will’s death, Brett begins to speak out against the hazing, causing a rupture between him and the rest of his fraternity brothers. For Jonas, that decision spoke to the development of the character’s moral compass over the course of the narrative. “I think it’s easy to think of Brett as a simple-minded guy at first, but when I dug deeper into the character I started to realize that he’s really driven by a moral compass. He’s seen the world as black and white for his entire life, and justice and right and wrong are very important to him. So when he starts to realize what’s happening to Brad, that moral compass really becomes apparent. In my prep for the role, it was about really trying to be aware of that. Of every moment within the script where Brett would start to realize that this hazing was wrong and that he needed to make a change in some way. I wanted to parse those moments out throughout the course of the film, and then, in the end, we recognize that what ultimately drives his behavior – over his obedience to the frat – is the desire and the instinct to protect his brother.”
Ultimately, as Brett ends up relating the details of what occurred to the school administration, the narrative arc of Brad’s trajectory becomes clear – he will have to find a different definition of masculinity for himself. For Neel, this realization is an emotional moment for Brett. “After Brett watches his brother go through this and suffer, I think he realizes that this whole system is perverse, and he decides that he doesn’t want to be a part of it. Through that he gains an understanding and an acceptance of who his brother is and the fact that he doesn’t fit into those masculine molds. And, I mean, that’s really what Brad wants from Brett. Brad wants him to say he’s okay the way he is.”