Interview with director/cowriter Jameson Brooks and actor/producer Major Dodge | By Nicholas Senior
Opening statements don’t get any more powerful than “Bomb City.”
The self-financed, grassroots, DIY success story is a dramatic retelling of the 1997 murder of Amarillo, Texas, high school student and local punk rock legend Brian Deneke. The horrific tale deepened the rift between the “White Hatter” jocks and the local punks, and the aftereffects lingered when the kid who ran Deneke over with his car basically ran free after his infamous trial.
“Bomb City” is, pardon the pun, an explosive film, full of visually sumptuous imagery, carefully placed nuance, and wonderful acting from the independent cast. Credit goes to first-time director, co-screenwriter, and Amarillo-born-and-bred Jameson “Jamie” Brooks, as well as actor and producer Major Dodge. The fact that the film ever happened in the first place, due in large part to the passion surrounding the project and the human element of its story, is a minor miracle.
So, why choose a renowned atrocity for a first film? Well, sometimes a childhood story never loses its impact.
“It was a lot of the pieces falling together at the right time,” Brooks says. “I was 12 years old, growing up in Amarillo, Texas. [Cowriter] Sheldon Chick was 15 when it happened, so he was a lot closer to the actual circle of people [involved]. He was in a band; he played metal shows and punk shows with the same group of people. This happened in 1997, so as time went by, it resonated with us all along. We finally realized, what better way to show our support for something that affected us growing up in Amarillo? So, we dug in and looked at it and read the court transcripts, realizing, ‘Oh my god, this is so fucked up.’ It’s still so relevant today. We hashed out the script and met with some people, including Major, who took it over himself and made the film happen.”
“One of the things,” he continues, “that was most important and inspiring for us was meeting with the Deneke family, Brian’s parents and his brother, asking their permission to tell his story. From then on, it became more than a show; this was their lives. This was a big burden, but we thought it was the right thing to do.”
“They are the nicest people in the world,” Brooks beams. “They will do anything for you. They are just all open arms. I feel like they adopted us during this whole thing. We could not have asked for more. They are amazing; they’ve been strong and supportive throughout the entire process.”
“For me,” Dodge adds, “Jamie and Sheldon had met [the Denekes] before, but the second meeting, I attended. We didn’t have any of our ducks in a row yet, but one of the preliminary things was we needed to meet them and get something in writing to where we could move forward. Originally, when Jamie and Sheldon came to me with the idea, it immediately resonated with me because something similar happened in my hometown; something happened when I was in the eighth grade that got national media coverage and really affected my childhood.”
“Also,” Dodge continues, “[Deneke’s murder] was one of those moments like 9/11, where I can remember where I was, what I was doing when it happened. It took me back to laying on the floor at my grandma’s house, watching the story on her big floor TV, the one where you had to get up and turn the knob to change the channel. I remember laying there going, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that kid did that,’ because if Brian were alive, we’d have graduated high school the same year. I immediately go—I’m a very visual thinker: when people tell me stories, I make pictures and movies in my mind. I’m seeing these punk rockers in these steer pastures and these wide-open spaces. I’m thinking that, cinematically, this will be really beautiful. I was really excited about that.”
Part of the passion Dodge felt for the project was related to a deeper connection, and it fueled his drive to bring “Bomb City” to fruition.
“When I met Mike and Betty [Deneke], being a dad and sitting across from another dad and knowing what it’s like to love your son—he talks about it like it just happened yesterday,” Dodge says. “That immediately resonated with me. That was what solidified it for me. It was no longer about punk rockers in steer pastures; it was about a family losing their son. It was the whole reason I got into the film, because I wanted to tell a story that mattered and would affect people and cause them to look at things differently. I think that’s what we were able to accomplish with this film. Every time I went out to pitch someone the story, I pictured looking at Mike and telling him, ‘We’re gonna make the movie.’ A lot of people had blown a lot of smoke up their asses about doing a movie about Brian, but nobody ever got it off the ground. I think he thought we were going to fail too.”
The portrayal of the characters in the film paints a picture of kids trying to find their place in the world. Yet, Brooks acknowledges that the only voices of reason are the women.
“The guys are so full of testosterone. They’re trying to prove themselves in whatever circle they are in,” he explains. “Major can attest to this: growing up in a small town, you’re constantly trying to prove yourself, trying to fit in. It’s just something we do as teenagers.”
“One of the really cool things,” Dodge notes, referring to the real woman who was in the car when Deneke was run down, “she is a criminal justice attorney for a living. Myself and Sheldon actually went out to Austin and met with her, and that event completely framed her life.”
Just like the backseat passenger of the fateful car ride in “Bomb City,” her real-life counterpart was the only one in the trial who was willing to cross party lines and tell the truth. Dodge shares that Deneke’s friends never forgot that fact.
“What was really cool about that was, myself, Sheldon, and Jamie had already met with tons of the kids on the punk side,” he says, “so when Sheldon and I were going to Austin, we were going there to meet with the King character, and we were able to just locate her and set up a meeting with her. We didn’t even know she lived in Austin. What was really neat was we got to deliver to her firsthand, after having interviewed the punks, that after all these years, they sang her praises as being the only one who actually told the truth from what they called the ‘White Hatters’ group.”
One of the tightropes the film walks expertly is presenting a tragic story full of broken people without overtly passing judgment—though some clear takeaways are present.
“There is a general lack of empathy in society in general,” Brooks states. “That’s why we wanted to touch on different issues in the movie, like police brutality, the criminal justice system, and looking beyond your own little world. What we wanted to do was not really take a side, per se, but to raise the discussion.”
“Bomb City” is that rare film that, once it’s finished, leaves the viewer a bit awestruck and uncertain of what, exactly, to feel. It sticks with you months afterward, which is a hell of an accomplishment for a film about an already well-known event. This was a common reaction from the team, Dodge says.
“It was weird, because I’ve attended a lot of festivals, but I’ve never sat in a theater before where no one wanted to get out of their chair,” he recalls. “It’s like people needed time to process it.”
Even for today’s desensitized audiences, when that horrific act of violence finally happens in the film, it is still shocking.
“One thing that adds to [the drama and suspense] is the score,” Brooks says, “which gives the film this impending-doom atmosphere. There’s this doom that just builds and builds. There’s no actual explosives or bombs in the film, but there’s this testosterone that builds and builds and all these different emotions that culminate into this street fight. People think that’s the end of it, but it’s just the start of it. The shocking part is that Brian died twice—once in the parking lot and once in the courtroom. That’s really the main reason it hits.”
While none of the punk songs featured in “Bomb City” were written for the film, they were very carefully selected. Brooks expands on how a collaboration with one of Deneke’s friends helped.
“We actually talked to Chris [Oles], who was the real-life guy who grabs his crotch in the diner scene,” he shares. “He was super helpful about two weeks before production about what Brian would have done, what he listened to, what they all listened to, and how every time Brian would play a show, he would play ‘The List’ by Filth. We realized we had to get that song in there. We had Major and Sheldon reach out to all these bands: Subhumans, Filth, Blatz, Total Chaos. They were all familiar with the story, which was one of the greatest parts about it, and they were all willing to donate their music to the cause, which is awesome, because this is an entirely independent film, grassroots, DIY. I think their eagerness to donate their music so willingly made me such a big fan of the punk culture. I was blown away by how helpful they were and how willing they were to make a difference and be a part of something. It goes beyond film, beyond music, and it becomes just a movement.”
Some rather big names also lent their voices to the cause.
“The guys from Total Chaos,” Brooks says, “were especially instrumental. They traveled to Dallas. We did a big performance on Brian’s actual 40th birthday at the historic Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff. Actually, CJ Ramone helped out both at the initial screening in Amarillo and again on Brian’s birthday. We screened the film and had a live performance; CJ actually sang with the guys in Total Chaos. They played a lot of Ramones songs as a big tribute to Brian.”
“It was super cool to me,” Dodge adds. “I’m not going to sit here and act like I grew up a punk rocker, but having made this film, I fell in love with punk rock. It was my first real hardcore mosh experience, and it was fucking awesome! I wish I had done this growing up. The thing about the punk community, in general, is that they’re so welcoming. Making this movie, the thing we wanted to get through to everybody was that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but that’s so fucking true. I didn’t grow up submerged in the culture, but now, I feel like there’s a part of me that’s punk rock just because I fell in love with it.”
“The way Jamie and Sheldon wrote and edited the story,” Dodge continues, “in the beginning, when they cut between the football game and the mosh pit, I had the realization, thinking back to my time wrestling and playing football in high school, it’s the same endorphin high in both activities. This is super cool.”
Four years of hard work, determination, personal growth, and falling in love with punk led to this moment, where Brooks and Dodge have officially arrived as a director and producer, respectively. “Bomb City” is a stunningly gorgeous, emotionally wrecking drama, but its ability to dig into the viewer’s cranium and linger with questions of identity, empathy, and equality elevate the moving film to a level of greatness its creators never would have imagined possible. This is a stunning first impression, one that highlights the transformative power of music to bring people together and honors the memory of a true punk son, taken too soon but never forgotten.