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I shot Cody Wilson: 'Death Athletic' director Jessica Solce
Jessica Solce

I shot Cody Wilson: 'Death Athletic' director Jessica Solce

The independent filmmaker talks to Align about 3D-printed guns, the upside of self-funding, and why her films gain unlikely fans.

It's fair to say that Cody Wilson, the creator of the first 3D-printed gun, is an accommodating documentary subject.

The company Wilson founded, Defense Distributed, has always taken a build-in-public approach, both as a practical matter of fundraising and to frame its project — the free distribution of blueprints for personal, at-home gun manufacturing — as a fundamentally political one.

'I think people want an intellectually rigorous experience that's cinematic and beautiful at the same time. But they're scared of the political ramifications of the feelings that they might encounter.'

Wilson is an articulate and charismatic spokesperson for this project. While he can fluently cite post-Marxist theorists to justify his anti-state provocations, there's a certain mischievous swagger behind the Baudrillard quotes. He doesn't mind playing the villain a bit.

Early in "Death Athletic: A Dissident Architecture," filmmaker Jessica Solce's intimate portrait of an eight-year span in the techno-gadfly's life, Wilson even pulls a classic villain move — explaining his devious plan:

To a certain level, all this is theater. If Google's motto is "don't be evil" — and we all know how good Google is at doing that — Defense Distributed's motto is "be evil," or at least "think evil." I've always been up front about how it's going to go, what I plan to do before I do it. And really, only when people reach out and try to stop it does that seal the deal and make it happen.

In other words, when various federal, state, and corporate forces single out Defense Distributed and do their best to thwart it, they're playing right into Wilson's hands. At the same time, as much as Wilson seems to thrive in the spotlight, it's also clearly taken its toll.

At home with ambiguity

About 15 minutes into "Death Athletic," Solce gives us our first look at this more vulnerable side of Wilson. Having been dropped by his second payments processor, he makes a confession: "I'm telling you, I can't handle it, emotionally, mentally ... I'm gonna be screwed up because of the highs and lows." He stews on the "the insult, the humiliation" of "malicious bureaucrats" making him a target, "the constant ... dread and fear" they've instilled in him.

As if to illustrate his mood swings, Wilson suddenly becomes defiant. "They can all go to hell. They can all go to hell. They can go to hell."

Taking a big swig from gallon plastic jug of spring water, he turns from his computer to the camera: "Live with the federal monkey on your back for years. Live with it and do what I do. Live with it and build a multimillion-dollar company despite what they want to do to you. And sue the f*** out of your enemy."

Then Wilson gets up from his desk and walks abruptly out of frame, continuing to talk as the camera finds him again. He looks directly at us, his agitated movement bringing him in and out of focus

"I can't ... this is ... this is turning me into a cartoon character, a strange zealot ... bizarre monkish figure who lives only for revenge," he says, and for a split second, he seems to be speaking of Solce and the very film we're watching. Is he about to walk off?

It's a thrilling moment, and it testifies to Solce's talent and taste as a director, especially given the moribund state of the documentary today. In a genre in which most directors aim for worldview-affirming propaganda or quirky, undemanding crowd-pleasers, Solce is at home with ambiguity.


Irrational commitment

"Death Athletic" opens with artful close-ups of 3D-printed guns, dappled in shifting, geometric patterns of light, as slow piano chords play. The weapons look beautiful and mysterious, setting a mood that evokes one of those old James Bond opening credit sequences. Solce then pulls back to reveal that we're observing a photo shoot orchestrated by Wilson himself. He fiddles with the camera as he continues the first of his many eloquent politico-philosophical monologues in the film.

To what extent are we observing Wilson objectively? And to what extent are we already seeing things through his point of view? From the start, Solce makes it unclear. So it is with the of atmosphere of paranoia that Solce creates with surveillance footage-esque long shots and sinister synths. How much of this sense of persecution is real — and how much is of Wilson's own creation?

For his part, Wilson seems to agree. In an interview late last year with Compact, Wilson said that Solce's film “captures something true about being committed to your work to the point it may become irrational. There’s a Freudian death drive or something.”

The result is that "Death Athletic" succeeds in being as unsettlingly confrontational and contradictory as Wilson himself.

Embracing 'No Control'

While the reception for "Death Athletic" has been enthusiastic, it was never a forgone conclusion that it would ever be seen at all. Once she'd assembled enough of a rough cut, Solce worked with an industry PR person she knew to try to sell it to get funds for post-production.

"Streaming services basically said, 'We will not touch this film,'" Solce tells Align. "And one even said it was on the wrong side of history because I was profiling [Wilson]."

According to Solce, her let-the-viewer-decide approach would not have been such a hard sell 10 or 15 years ago. "But if you touch the gun world right now and you want it to be mainstream, it has to be anti-gun. It just has to."

If Solce came to the subject without an agenda, in part it's because she came to it — and documentary filmmaking in general — by accident.

Solce's background is in acting, writing, and theater directing — she mounted a small but well-regarded New York City production of "The Crucible" some years back. "I never thought I was going to make documentaries," she says. "I literally never thought about documentaries at all, other than to sometimes watch one and enjoy it."

A chance meeting in 2013 with a family friend named Greg Bokor changed that. When Bokor casually mentioned that he was about to debut an art installation in reaction to the Sandy Hook shootings (which had happened the previous December) something clicked.

"That was moment in my life where I had finally [started to realize] how media worked and how every time you saw this issue, there was nothing really important being discussed," says Solce. "Just fear and the imagery of terror to get this emotional response."

Solce called up a director of photography she knew, and five days later, she was filming. Originally, she had only planned to cover the installation, "but within two weeks, I realized I was making a feature."

That feature was Solce's self-funded 2014 debut, "No Control," a notably even-handed examination of the gun debate that features interviews with figures across the political spectrum. Among the gun rights advocates Solce spoke to was Wilson.

In fact, "No Control" ends with Wilson prophetically announcing the inevitability of the new freedom promised by 3D-printed guns. The moment all but demands a follow-up; Solce soon began working on one. She threw herself in to making what would become "Death Athletic" the same way she started her first film: "impulsively."

An unfinished story

"I wasn't done with the story. I was tired of seeing people making ineffectual, small, biased shorts on what Cody was doing," Solce says. "I realized that this gun issue wasn't really about guns. It was about the First Amendment. It was about sharing information online. It was about the digital era. It encapsulates and incorporates everything that's happening in the Bitcoin space." Solce contacted Wilson, and he got on board.

Like its predecessor, "Death Athletic" was paid for out of Solce's pocket. Despite the obvious limitation of this approach, Solce says it can be motivating. "Nobody can tell you not to do it. You don't have to wait for permission. You don't have to pitch for six to eight months. [If I'd had to] do that with either of those films, neither of them would have happened."

Forging a career

Getting the movie noticed is its own struggle. "Right now, it's a lovely trickle [of viewers] and I appreciate every single person who watches it," says Solce. "But it's still kind of lost in this niche world. Breaking out into any kind of mainstream has been a process of talking to people, trying to get on podcasts," Solce says.

And Solce remains optimistic that "Death Athletic" will slowly find a bigger audience. "There's something evergreen about it. Everybody [who sees it] has these incredibly visceral reactions and they want to discuss it."

Solce recalls the surprising reactions of some longtime acquaintances when they finally saw "Death Athletic" at the New York City premiere. "Throughout the eight years of me doing this film, they were aggressively against it. Oddly enough, they ended up being extremely moved by it."

Solce's next project is "Forging a Country," a short film about the recent re-election of El Salvador's populist president, Nayib Bukele. Solce will premiere "Forging a Country" this August at the Palestra Bureau conference in San Salvador.

While Bukele is another potentially divisive subject, Solce says she doesn't court controversy for its own sake. She merely asks that audiences watch her work with an open mind.

"I think people want an intellectually rigorous experience that's cinematic and beautiful at the same time," Solce says. "But they're scared of the political ramifications of the feelings that they might encounter."

"Death Athletic" can be streamed on Amazon and Apple TV. Both "Death Athletic" and "No Control" can also be bought directly from the filmmaker.

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Matt Himes

Matt Himes

Managing Editor, Align

Matt Himes is the managing editor for Align.
@matthimes →