“Horror all around”!– “bloodbath”! – “graphic violence depicted”! warned the Sunday paper’s page one headlines – all teasing a story that the hasty reader might think was the latest episode in the chronicle of American mass murder, this time on the coast of Maine, in the small town of Brunswick.
The editors of the nearby Portland Press Herald apparently wanted its readers to be misled this way, at least for a few moments. Pictures on the January 13 front page featured armed, hooded figures shooting at an approaching car and at fleeing people, even as the captions revealed that the story was actually about “teen filmmakers” making “ultra-violent videos” that were getting millions of views on YouTube.
Even though the real story (see below), was already over, Sunday’s media over-reaction continued to flare on Tuesday with the Brunswick Times Record running an inherently false headline: “Kids Shooting Kids.” In the following story, a local reporter asked the central student filmmaker this hypothetical question: “Could the student be capable of a Newtown, Aurora or Columbine-style rampage?”
His answer was: “No.”
By Tuesday night the local TV coverage, while still exploiting the “violence” on air, was already beginning to sound a little embarrassed about making a stir over kid videos, when no one had been hurt, there was no reported property damage, and apparently no one broke any laws. On camera, two of the filmmakers were polite, rational, and all-American looking.
Fearsome Feral Teens Turn Out to Be Honor Students
As it turned out these students, probably 20 or more in all, had been making short videos for years – and the films’ popularity had provided an advertising base that made they quite lucrative. As one TV report noted, the producer, high school senior Paul Kousky, 17, who makes no secret of his identity as the owner of USN Films, recently bought a 2013 Honda Accord, and paid cash.
Come Wednesday, the first blogger struck, recycling the headline “Kids Shooting Kids” over a story that began by talking about “the discovery of a two-year spree of violent video making where local youth used public spaces to produce their ‘films’.” The blogger, Bruce K. Gagnon, lives in nearby Bath, Maine, where he is coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, which was founded in 1992. He reported, inaccurately, that: “In the videos youth go around killing people randomly and wantonly.”
Gagnon was less interested in the specifics of the Brunswick video-makers than he was in trying to make a larger philosophical point: “that violence and militarism is becoming ‘normalized’ in our society because this is the role that has been determined for us in America by the oligarchy.” Although Gagnon’s post appeared in some other blogs, the real story was sucking the air out of the balloon of outrage at imaginary, violent, predatory teenagers running amok in rural Maine.
Settled in 1628, Brunswick isn’t all that rural for starters. Part of the Portland metropolitan area, it’s a college town of just over 20,000 people, two museums, a major hospital, a coastal studies center, two active theater companies, and highly-ranked Bowdoin College (enrollment 1,700, co-ed). The town was also home to the Brunswick Naval Air Station until May 2011, when the Navy turned it over for civilian development. The crime rate in Brunswick is well under the national average and there hasn’t been a murder there in more than a decade.
Video Maker Started Young, Encouraged by Teacher
Paul Kousky made his first short video about six years ago, when he was a 6th grader, as he told his local paper:
“I did an iMovie project in school. A friend and I did a movie on the physics of sledding. The teacher loved it and gave out different awards for films. We got ‘Best Action Film,’ and ever since then I’ve been making videos.”
By 2009 Kousky and two of his brothers and many of his friends were shooting each other with Nerf guns, and shooting video of themselves shooting each other and putting the edited results on YouTube. Paul D. Kousky created PDK Films as the production vehicle for the group’s work, explaining: “Here at PDKFilms, we make the sickest Nerf videos on YouTube!”
PDK released its first production on YouTube on July 21, 2009, with its stated Mission: “To provide the world with the most intense Nerf videos of all time.” Kousky billed himself as the director, but later explained:
“All of our videos have been filmed in various parts of Maine. Everyone in the PDK Films crew has been in at least one of our videos. In fact, we have no permanent camera man, but instead whoever is not in the current scene will operate the camera. The members of PDK Films are as follows: Paul Kousky, Trevor Hopkins, Eric Kousky, Angelo Gerardi, Mark Haskell, Kyle Malliet, and Chad Kousky.”
As of January 2013, the PDK Films channel on YouTube carried 31 videos, running from two to eleven minutes each, all carefully edited, with a mix of live sound and music. The channel has 42,580 subscribers and has had more than 42 million video views. Most of the videos feature a shoot-out with Nerf guns and other weapons in the context of settings such as war, hostage rescue, drug busts, and hunting down Osama Bin Laden, or even a 9-minute bloopers reel.
From Nerf to Airsoft – An Escalation of Realism
Even as PDK Films continued to produce Nerf videos, the crew felt the need for greater realism and started making a separate stream of videos using Airsoft weapons that are non-lethal, but remarkably realistic-looking, especially when they have their red plastic gun-barrel tips removed. For the Airsoft videos, Paul Kousky created USN Films, which uploaded its first videos in October 2010. In 2012, Kousky described his second company this way:
“Here at USN Films, we make short films with a lot of visual and practical effects. We use Airsoft guns in our videos and in post production we add in sound FX, muzzle flashes, bullet hits, and explosions. Some effects, such as explosions, are done on set instead of during post production. We’ve made a zombie series, ‘The Biohazard’, and we’re currently working on producing more episodes.”
On the USN Films blog the first FAQ is what does USN stand for, and the answer is:
“It could stand for U.S. Navy, but in reality the three letters have no real significant meaning.”
As of January 2013, the USN Films channel on YouTube carried 24 videos, running from under two minutes to almost nine, plus a self-produced 37-minute “Explosion VFX Tutorial,” a tech lesson that’s had over 40,000 views by other would-be Hollywood FX creators. The USN channel has 29,209 subscribers and has had almost 8.5 million video views.
Abandoned Military Base Was a Great Location
The movies on both channels feature a variety of unidentified settings, including local fields and woods, beaches and lakes, what seems to be a gravel pit, local streets, and what had been the Brunswick Naval Air Station (NAS) that closed officially in May 2011, but shows signs of much longer decline. It is now a commercial development project known as Brunswick Landing (the airport is operational), run by the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority (MRRA), that defines itself as
“… a public municipal corporation by State law (not a local unit of government) established by the Maine State Legislature to implement the NASB Reuse Master Plans for both NASB and Topsham’s Annex as they have been set forth by both the Brunswick Local Redevelopment Authority (BLRA) and the Topsham Local Redevelopment Authority (TLRA)…. “
Among MRRA’s stated goals is the establishment of a “vibrant, work, learn, and play environment” and the approximately 3,300 acres of the base (still partly owned by the Navy) are largely open to the public with few restrictions:
“The main gate to Brunswick Landing is accessible from Bath Road. The back gate is not open to vehicular traffic at this time.
“However, pedestrians and bicycles are welcome to enter through the back gate. Please keep your speeds at the posted speed limits (25 mph).
“We appreciate your cooperation.”
Suddenly, around January 10, after three and half years of open, publicity-seeking activity, PDK/USN Films became objectionable to somebody, apparently somebody still anonymous, a woman with no apparent connection to any of the filmmakers, who took it upon herself to email Bill Nemitz, the Portland Press Herald columnist who broke the story three days later.
Secret Censor Sets Off False Alarms
Saying she’d come across the videos on the internet, the woman described some of the work and sent Nemitz a link. Asking to be left out of the story, the vigilante censor asked: “Think their parents and teachers know this is going on?”
The answers, as it turned out, were yes and yes – a good many parents and teachers not only knew, they were supportive, and even participatory on occasion.
But the poison pill of panic and suspicion from the anonymous woman began to ripple through the Brunswick community. Preparing his story for the Sunday paper, Nemitz made some calls. One of his calls was to Steve Levesque, the executive director of MRRA (formerly the Naval Air Station), who saw the videos for the first time that Thursday. He reacted badly.
“It’s pretty disturbing, actually,” Levesque told the reporter. “It’s something we would never support.”
MRRA Calls the Cops In High Umbrage
The next morning Levesque emailed a captain at the Brunswick Police Department:
“It has come to our attention that a large organized group of Brunswick students (present and past) have filmed a series of short films here at Brunswick Landing and in other locations in Brunswick including Town of Brunswick property….
“… and finally the film which shows a person in Curtis Memorial Library with a gun…granted in all likelihood all the weapons in these films I believe are air soft weapons however I never saw the orange tips on the barrels so I am not 100% sure they a not actual weapons….
“… in light of the recent events in CT., there are a host of issues displayed in these films which pose potential safety problems especially since the weapons have been altered to appear life-like…. “
Without taking the few moments necessary to learn that the USN Films use Airsoft weapons, Levesque asked the police to issue “criminal trespass notifications” to the people involved, adding: “I have attached a picture for the USN Films Facebook site which shows all the people involved along with their names.” In response to follow-up inquiry, MRRA declined to answer further questions about its due diligence.
Official Reaction Was Swift And Minimal
Within 90 minutes, the police captain replied that the police would “start getting them trespassed.” He said he had talked to the SRO (School Resource Officer) at the high school and had forwarded information to the director of the library (“she has also asked that they be banned”). Then he wondered:
“Re: the video of the entry into the former nuclear weapons facility, what does it say on the yellow sticker on the door? Does it say “No entry” or “No Trespass”? If so, do you want the kid charged with criminal trespass? This building is still Navy owned, correct? So I guess it would be Mike’s decision. I’m thinking he should be because it is a hazardous area over there (one of our guys was cut on the razor wire when we were setting up cameras last year to try and catch the metal thieves).”
Ultimately, none of the filmmakers were charged.
In the Press Herald on Sunday, January 13, Nemitz reported that
“… on Friday police corralled 15 kids at Brunswick High School and served them with criminal trespass warnings for turning their hometown into, quite literally, a horror show…. ” and “… it was relatively easy to alert school officials on Friday, call in the 15 students for a sit-down with the assistant principal and the school’s resource officer, and pass out the criminal trespass warnings…”
Video Sparks Shock and Panic at the Library
Elisabeth Doucett, director of Brunswick’s Curtis Memorial Library, watched one of USN’s 25 videos, from June 2011, and told Nemitz: “I have to tell you, in all honesty, I’m still aghast at it…. I was more than a little shocked.”
School Superintendent Paul Perzanoski told Nemitz that “I’m a little dismayed that these kids are involved in using violence on film — especially in light of what happened in (Newtown) Connecticut. Any crazy thing could have happened.” He also said that no disciplinary action was taken because there’s no evidence the students violated any school rules. [All of the posted videos were produced prior to the Newtown shootings and none remotely resembled that event.]
Online comments on this story and others later appear to have been overwhelmingly positive from friends and strangers alike. One USN Films supporter, Paul Croatti, commented on Facebook the day the day the story broke:
“Nemitz…you are a prime example of a sensationalist who is in lock step with the main street media and our elitist government leaders… no research done, and not letting a good crisis go to waste! Try some interviews around town first! and get the real story of what’s going on!”
On Tuesday, January 15, the local paper, the Brunswick Times Record ran a story more focused on the trespass warnings, perpetuating the assertion that the filmmakers had used locations without permission, which the filmmakers contradict. The posted public policies of MRRA and the library offer apparent and unconditional welcome to the public.
MRRA’s Levesque sees “Youth Desensitization”
The local paper quoted NRRA’s Steve Levesque again, at greater length:
“Levesque said a USN Films request to film probably wouldn’t be supported in light of events such as Columbine High School shooting and the more recent Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, “given the issues we’ve had with youth gun violence.”
“We have to deal with this,” Levesque said. “Guns were one thing, but we have an issue in our society where we are desensitizing our youth to violence such as this. That’s a concern that I have personally.”
Librarian Doucett was still sticking to her plan to ban the students from the library for a year and said she was trying to find out if anyone had brought a real gun to the library. The paper added that, “Doucett said she hopes to open a dialogue with parents to get straight the facts of what happened….”
“Some of the people that got warnings and were banned from the library weren’t even in that film or on that location,” Paul Kousky told the paper, which also quoted him at length expressing gratitude to his parents for their support over the years, since he first started making videos. He indicated that he and others hadn’t yet decided whether to hire an attorney to contest the trespass orders. [Trespass orders are not appealable in court, but in this case an appeal to the MRRA board would be possible, with uncertain result.]
Trying to Set the Record Straight Frustrated Kousky
In response to written questions, Kousky later wrote:
“Permission to film in the library was granted. We actually filmed there on two different days. The first day was just myself and three others and that was when we filmed inside. A librarian saw us walk into the library and asked what we were doing and I told her we were filming a YouTube video and she said it was okay. When we filmed outside of the library that was on a different day, when the library was closed.”
By Tuesday evening, two Portland TV reports were already reflecting a shift in the tone of the story, a softening reinforced by the on-screen normalcy of Paul Kousky and his co-producer Angelo Gerardi.
WGME was still reporting on the trespass orders and emphasizing the violence in the videos – with a selection of prime clips for audience excitement. The report also included MRRA’s Levesque expressing his concern and put forward MRRA’s unsupported view of the alleged trespass. But the story also included filmmakers Kousky and Gerardi on camera saying they were filming only in the public part of the old Naval Base and that, when they were at the library, there was a librarian who knew what they were doing and was OK with it. The three-minute report ended with an announcer tag noting admiringly that the filmmaking was lucrative enough that Krousky would be paying over $8,000 in income taxes.
Another TV Report Edged Closer to Understanding
WMTW had a very different take on the story, noting that the library in Brunswick had decided not to enforce any trespass orders against the filmmakers (with the exception of one student who had carried an Airsoft pistol into the library). A library official appeared on camera to talk about “great kids in the community” being creative and enterprising, without mentioning names. Kousky and Gerardi again appeared as pleasant, normal young men, and again told the story of the library letting them film without objection. MRRA’s Levesque did not appear.
And the WMTW reporter mentioned en element of the story that other reporters had omitted – that both Kousky and Gerardi are honor students and both are working toward becoming Eagle Scouts.
Brunswick Police Chief Richard Rizzo appeared in both the TV stories (and some print coverage) as a quiet, unflappable officer whose main concern was that there not be some terrible misunderstanding if a police officer came upon a filming without understanding that it was a movie and the guns weren’t real. Answering questions for this story, Chief Rizzo said that he was unaware of any damage done by the filmmakers and that, based on events to date, “There are no further consequences anticipated for the group.”
Peace Group and MRRA Take Issue Over The Top
Bruce Gagnon was already an outlier when he weighed in on the story in his blog on Wednesday, when the initial “randomly and wantonly” violent video narrative was already headed south. But as the coordinator of a peace group, he had another agenda – his past dealings with MRRA’s Levesque, to whom he wrote, first praising Levesque for his concern about “desensitizing our youth to violence,” but adding:
“Where my confusion comes in is that you don’t seem able (or willing) to connect the dots. Late last summer your authority had the Air Force Thunderbirds headline the air show at the former base. Included in that air show was a ‘spectacular’ simulated bombing with napalm on the runway that made the front page of the Forecaster….
“Have you ever stopped to wonder if your promotion of war and violence at these air shows does in fact directly contribute to this ‘desensitizing our youth to violence’? … The fact that you are eagerly scheduling another air show for 2013 only makes my sadness more acute.”
Levesque’s response, in its entirety, was:
“Thanks for your note on this issue. I personally believe that there is a clear distinction between the promotion of youth gun violence for the sport of it and military activities to defend our country.
“For the record, Napalm was not used at the airshow.”
Might Absurd Results Raise Questions About Process?
So Levesque, the supporter of “military activities to defend our country” has banned from his property a student filmmaker who is the senior class president and has been accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy with the class of 2017, giving a surprising twist to Gagnon’s next day post:
“This morning I found on the Global Network Facebook page a comment from USN kids here in Maine who produced the violent films. I had posted a link to my blog about the story on the GN page. USN wrote: ‘hahahahahahahahaha’.”
That could be the sound of Kousky laughing all the way to the bank as Levesque and Gagnon snap at each other over private agendas that have nothing to do with the two YouTube film channels where his 55 short videos have drawn over 50 million views, giving Kousky income that has reached more than $5,000 a month, with an online operation that ranks somewhere in the mid-3000s among YouTube channels.
As the “corporate” owner (he’s not incorporated), Kousky does some of everything in producing his videos. He’s an actor, director, cameraman, props manager, and wardrobe designer. He does all the editing, including adding the special effects. He’s the only one who posts to the two YouTube channels, and YouTube’s contract is with the entities of which he is sole owner and signatory. Or as Kousky puts it on Google+: “i’m a sponsored YouTube partner and AdSense publisher under the YouTube account USNFilms.”
Production costs include the Airsoft guns that can cost as much as $300 each, and camera equipment including a $900 camera, as well as assorted software packages, some costumes, and miscellany (like fake blood). Actors and crew are all volunteers, but Kousky buys water and food for shoots, and often pizza for everyone at the end of the day. Over the course of these activities, Kousky estimated that his expenses had been more than $10,000 while his income from the total project was “well over $60,000.”
Interactions With Police Have All Been Benign
Kousky says he and his crew have had a few interactions with police in different places over the years, every one of them benign. (In response to a question, Chief Rivers said he did not know why the filmmakers had been brought to his attention now.) Referring to the local paper’s story, Kousky wrote:
“… according to the article Steve Levesque says ‘we [MRRA] called police and the police came and asked them [filmmakers] to leave.’ That is not true.
“ When we filmed on the base near the back gate the police did show up. They told us we could film there, and just asked us to stay off of the buildings and not to break anything. I don’t know how many times I’ve told this to the media, only to be disappointed to see that they never publish it. Funny thing is that I have video evidence of the police telling us we could film there.”
On other occasions when the police appeared, it was no big deal, Kousky wrote:
“When we filmed ‘The Biohazard: Part 2’ at the walking bridge in town they came. It was just one female officer. Someone called because we were using fake blood, though we had no weapons. The officer merely asked us what we were doing, and made sure no one was hurt, and then left.
“ When we filmed at a rock quarry in Topsham the Topsham police came. It was just one male officer who basically asked what we were doing and we explained we were filming a video and he left.”
If It Bleeds, It Leads – Even if It’s Fake Blood
In an exchange of emails, Kousky seems to have taken his five day media ride in stride, not that he’s expressed great gratitude for the journalistic mistreatment beyond an appreciation of the free publicity, which led directly to spikes in his YouTube viewers, and hence more income. He has expressed gratitude for the public and private support, and commented, “I think the reason that calmer heads prevailed is because people actually took the time to watch some of our videos.”
He’s quite aware that contemporary American culture “can be classified as having a spirit that is centered around violence, and this is shown by all of the violence that has been in the media recently” as well as in movies, video games, and music. He’s also aware of his constitutional right to make the movies he wants to make, saying:
“I don’t have any other comments as of now, other than that we don’t plan to stop making films, or changing the content in our films.”
The high school senior and class president was out with a crew of nine on January 19, shooting new scenes for a video about three hostages who need to be rescued. He said he was glad the “over reaction was over. No animals were harmed in any videos.”
[Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.]