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Interview with Jennifer Venditti

As soon as [Billy] opened his mouth I was filled with curiosity, I was filled with inspiration, I was filled with ... respect and admiration.

HBO

Billy is a remarkable teenager. Where did you find him?

Jennifer Venditti

I'm a casting director, and I was casting a film on location in Maine. There were some small parts that I thought I would love to give to a non-professional to be an extra or a featured extra. So, every day I sat in the lunchroom of the high school where we were shooting. I hadn't been in a high school for like 15 years, and I was introduced to Billy one day, and as soon as he opened his mouth I was filled with curiosity, I was filled with inspiration, I was filled with ... respect and admiration.

High school is where we learn as kids to adapt and often go against who you truly are in order to get your needs met. It's a survival technique. And Billy was someone who didn't know how to do that, and didn't feel he should do that. But at the same time I was so perplexed by him. There were moments where I thought, my God, he's brilliant, and then there were moments of, okay, is he strange? Is he dangerous? I felt all these different things.

The other kids at the school were like, why are you talking to him, saying, he's a jerk, he's a weirdo, he's a freak, he's dangerous. I think when we meet someone different we're conditioned by the way our society works- and one of the ways we learn about someone is through other people. I asked about Billy and people used words that made me even more confused.

I didn't want to label Billy because I saw the universal story, and the humanity in him that I think is in all of us. And the point of this story is to see that no matter who we are as humans, we are all trying to have the same experience in terms of wanting to find love, wanting to be accepted, to be heard and understood, but we all do it in different ways.

This film shows that just because someone does it different than you, doesn't make them bad or wrong, it's just we all have our own paths of getting to the same place.

The point of this story is to see that no matter who we are as humans, we are all trying to have the same experience in terms of wanting to find love, wanting to be accepted, to be heard and understood...

HBO

It's such an intimate portrait. How did you get Billy to let you into his world?

Jennifer Venditti

Well, it's interesting. What I've learned is the most important thing in your project is intention. People can sense if your intention is genuine and clear and sincere and comes from a good place, and people can sense if it doesn't. I feel like my intention was really clear, which was to give Billy a voice. I felt like he deserved to be heard, and that he had a voice and could speak for many other kids that weren't being heard. To me this story speaks to all humanity.

Billy's imaginative world is his sanctuary even though he knows that none of the people in it - like King Kong - are real. But still he wants to be a superhero; he wants to rescue a damsel in distress. He doesn't think the same way we do and he doesn't understand and see things the same way. And he's gleaned so much information from movies and books about social situations that these people have been his resource. He imagines, what would Cary Grant do in this situation? Because he doesn't know how to do it the way we do it, but he knows that in order to survive in this world he's got to know how to do it, so if he's going to learn from anyone he wants to learn from these people. And because of this, the rest of the world doesn't always understand and him, he goes to that other place and says I'll go hang out here for a little bit.

HBO

And at the same time he's very quixotic.

Jennifer Venditti

He is like a young Don Quixote. There's a lot in the film about perception, and I think all of us perceive things in a certain way, and we only see what we wanna see, or what we can see at the moment that we're in. And I think the thing with Billy is he just does things in an extreme way. Billy really sees the good in everyone. He's a glass-half-full kind of guy, unless you're performing some kind of injustice. He can't stand people that break the rules, or doing something to hurt someone. But otherwise he's gonna give someone the benefit of the doubt. I think he really just wants to be a good person and he cares so much.

I say sometimes I feel like the qualities that Billy possesses are these innate qualities that all of us come into the world with. And then we learn over time how to build up defenses and get callous to those things because you need to survive in this world.

HBO

It's like he knows that the world can be an awful place, but he doesn't want to go over to the "dark side."

I always say that my intention was to give Billy a voice - and he gave me one.

Jennifer Venditti

Yeah. And that's the mystery factor of this movie. That's the tension that's always underlying in this movie that's sometimes uncomfortable. It's like...will he just stay like this, or will it finally get to him one day and he'll break, or he'll go to the other side because how long can this be sustained in a world that's not tolerant or accepting of the way he sees the world, or the way that he exists in it?

For me, Billy is about a bigger story. It's a story about finding tolerance and acceptance and beauty in this world. And sometimes it doesn't look nice, and sometimes it makes you really uncomfortable. But there are gems within it. And that's what life is. It's opening up to places and experiences that don't make us so comfortable and aren't as obvious in the pre-packaged ways that we get things delivered to us in certain mediums. There is magic around us all the time. And I hope that people can see that in this film. It's about the dark and the light in all of us, and accepting that and understanding that that is what makes us who we are.

HBO

What do you hope people will take away from the film?

Jennifer Venditti

I wanted to give everyone else the gift that I experienced, having the opportunity to reflect on my own life through Billy's eyes. I always say that my intention was to give Billy a voice - and he gave me one. And when I say I hope Billy's story "inspires people," I don't mean that in terms of to inspire them to like be a better person, but inspire them to look at the world differently; to experience life in a new way; to look at themselves and to hopefully expand our tolerance and acceptance and see the beauty and the less obvious in life.

Billy the Kid