On July 4th, 2001 my friend James Ballard took his own life at age 28. It was a complete shock, as I’m sure it always is. He wasn’t the first person close to me to pass away, but this was different. This was a choice.
When I was in my early teens I had my first exposure to suicide. I was friends with a girl in class whose older teenage brother committed suicide. We lived in a small section of a rather small city, so it wasn’t hard for all the neighborhood kids to know everyone. I started to notice that every time this girl’s brother’s name would come up, it would quickly be followed by the question “Isn’t he the kid that killed himself?”
That always bothered me. That was it, that was his legacy now. Years later, after James’ suicide, I couldn’t help but think about that. Except this was different, I knew James and more importantly, I knew people who really really knew James. He had friends everywhere. James was the kind of person that transcended the idea of having one group of friends. James had many groups he could belong to. You could hear about a completely different side of James depending on what group you talked to.
Was he a Florida boy that liked to camp and fish? Was he that crazy guy at a party that liked to go to the extreme just to get a reaction out of people? Or maybe he was a quiet, sensitive introvert who just loved good music and interesting art.
Truth is, he was all of those things and more. He was a trendsetter, he was a true original. James was the kind of person that could discover something that was new and interesting years before anyone else knew about it, and by the time that thing got cool enough to be popular, by the time the rest of us caught up, James had moved onto something else.
One of the first thoughts I can remember having after hearing of his suicide was, “Dammit….now he’s simply going to be known as the guy that killed himself. All the other stuff that made him who he was, the stuff that made him unique just wouldn’t matter anymore.” That really didn’t sit well with me.
At the time of his death, I was taking film classes at Valencia College and it wasn’t long before I started wanting to put my feelings down into a screenplay. This was before smartphones, before everything in our lives was documented in pictures and video and shared on social media. I knew that James would only exist now in the stories that all of his friends would continue to tell about him. I thought it would make an interesting framework for a film to have the central character be absent for the majority of the film, and only be represented by these stories. Somehow that seemed to fit with my view that James will always be a legend.
I developed a basic structure for a story back in 2002 but It took me until 2015 before I finally started putting this all down into a screenplay which I originally titled, The Legend of James Ballard. It was actually the easiest thing I had ever written because I’ve had it in my head for over a decade. I decided to tell the story through my own life experience of moving from New Jersey to Florida, joining a brand new group of friends and feeling a bit like an outsider. I changed a few details, blended characters together and based the lead character, Richie, on myself. I also changed the timeline a bit and made it so Richie never gets to meet James and arrives in Florida just after the suicide. I needed someone in the story that could go on the journey with the audience of getting to know James through his friends. With so many changes, I also decided to change James’ last name in the film to “Rider”. One of James’ nicknames was the Midnight Rider and one of his favorite movies was Easy Rider.
I could write an entire book about all of the synchronicities and happy accidents that happened along the way that made the film come to life. From fundraising, to finding all of these amazing people that did an extraordinary job, to watching a weather report for 8 straight days that was telling me there was a 100% chance of rain on our last and biggest day of shooting, which was to be shot entirely outside. However those are stories for another time. For having such a small budget, I am extremely proud of what we were able to accomplish. The acting, photography, sound, set decorations, music, and more are just incredible. It’s not easy pulling off a period piece for under 30K.
This week the film will have its festival premiere at the New York City Independent Film Festival in mid-town Manhattan. As fate would have it, sitting in the audience will be my old friend from my home town who lost her brother to suicide so many years ago.
I’m completely aware that this is a very personal story and one that is very close to my heart. I know that not everyone will totally get it. I also know that most of the people who will end up seeing this movie will not have known James Ballard. However, I hope people will find a connection to the universal themes of friendship, life, and legacy that are layered into the story.
As for James…. well I hope that wherever he is right now, he’s proud of the film as well. Remember, James is a trendsetter and he knows what’s good and what’s interesting. So if it turns out that James doesn’t like some of my creative choices in a film that he himself inspired….. well, when he and I meet again, I’ll have a lot of explaining to do won’t I.