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DID YOU READ

David Robert Mitchell makes “The Myth of the American Sleepover”

David Robert Mitchell makes “The Myth of the American Sleepover” (photo)

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It took a while to find its way to theaters after its well-received festival run through South by Southwest (where it won a special jury prize for best ensemble), Cannes (where it was 2010’s only American film at Critics Week) but a year after its premiere, David Robert Mitchell’s beautiful debut film “The Myth of the American Sleepover” finally opens in theaters today. “I would have loved for the thing to come out a year ago,” Mitchell told me. “But this is when it’s coming out. And it’s still exciting.”

It is; a film this good is worth the wait. It follows the structure of teen ensemble films like “American Graffiti” or “Dazed and Confused” — a single but all-important day and night in the lives of a community of small town kids — but applies its own unique mixture of sensitivity and sweetness. Most of the stories are about the elusiveness of young love. One incoming freshman spots a pretty blonde in the supermarket and spends the rest of the day trying to find her again; an older college kid reeling from a disastrous breakup realizes he might have missed his opportunity to hookup with a pair of twins and sets off toward the University of Michigan to find them. The film dances from one vignette to the next; the stories are small, but their cumulative impact is huge. Working with almost no budget, Mitchell proves himself to be a talented visual storyteller (many scenes, like the one in the supermarket, are told without dialogue) and a good director of actors, or, in this case non-actors, who the director found himself through months of casting sessions.

Before he got back to work prepping his next movie (a similarly structured story about a young woman wandering the beaches of California), Mitchell spoke with me about his own experiences in high school, what to look for when casting a non-professional actor, and how to apply your skills as a movie trailer editor to cutting your own movie’s trailer.

What sort of kid were you in high school?

Oh gosh, that’s so hard. I don’t think I was a nerd, but I definitely wasn’t a jock. Boy, how do you define yourself in high school? I played music, and I liked writing stories, and I was already making short films back then. I hate to say this to anybody that was sitting with me back then, but I think we were kind of at the odd outcast lunch table. I’m not sure, maybe some of the people I hung out with would have issue with that. I guess I was sort of in-between, that’s probably the way I would remember it.

Well that’s interesting, because the characters in your movie aren’t easy to categorize either. There isn’t a stereotypical “jock” or a stereotypical “nerd.” Most could probably fall into the category you just described.

Yeah, those were a lot of the people I knew. Of course, everyone changes all through high school. At different points I remember there were people who you could say were like a jock or a theater person or band person. But making this movie those kinds of distinctions just didn’t seem that interesting to me.

There are almost no indicators as to what era this movie takes place in. The clothing, the language, the behavior, none of them are specific to any particular time. What was the thinking behind that decision?

I wanted to suggest that this could be any time. I think it’s closer to something in the 80s or the 90s with hints of things from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and also the present day. The idea was just to blur the eras and not let it be timestamped by any one thing, by any technology or any sort of fad. I guess I was trying to avoid too much pop culture. You can’t avoid it completely; I’m sure there’s certain things in there that are. The idea was to make something that people of different ages might be able to see themselves in.

You did a pretty good job avoiding pop culture references. The only thing that really caught my eye was a LIVESTRONG bracelet.

Yeah, you’re right. There were other things too. We had a newer car in there in a few places, although we tried to mix them up a bit. It’s not 100%, but we did our best.

I have to imagine the casting process for a movie like this was not easy.

Yeah, it was hard. [laughs] And it was long. We wanted to find new actors and we decided to shoot the movie in Michigan; that’s where I grew up. I live in Los Angeles now, so about ten months before we made the movie, my producer Adele [Romanski] and I flew to Michigan on random weekends to do open casting calls that we promoted through a little community paper. So we had these auditions in community centers and church basements. My family helped out, but it was really Adele and I running the auditions ourselves. We read everyone between the two of us. It took a while but we slowly found our cast.

What do you look for when you’re casting a non-professional actor? I have to imagine that some of the kids in the film weren’t that good at auditioning — many of them have never auditioned before, they were probably nervous and uncomfortable. What do you see in someone that makes you think they could be right for your movie?

You’re absolutely right. There were some kids who did something really great in their first read, but most of the time it took some redirects and me trying to coax something from them that was closer to what we needed. Sometimes that happened in the first audition and sometimes it was about reading everyone and then going back through the tapes and trying to find kids that had a certain amount of screen presence or something unique about them. Sometimes we’d fine someone who was slightly against what we imagined for a certain character and we’d bring them back in. We’d have them read and try to talk to them more extensively about what we were doing and how to take an approach.

I know you shot the film in Michigan, which is where you’re from. Did you shoot it in your real hometown?

Yeah, we filmed a lot of it where I grew up, this city called Clawson. It’s a suburb near Detroit. We filmed there and all over Metro Detroit and in the city. We went there because it’s where I wrote the script, so I wanted it to take place there. But we also had support from friends and family and we had access to locations. The city I grew up in, they were super helpful. As long as we let them know, they basically gave us open access to film in the city and on the streets. It was pretty amazing to be able to do that, especially for not having any money.

Obviously there’s a long tradition of great ensemble teen films. Why do you think that structure — which often takes place in the span of a single day or night like your film does — is such an effective way to talk about teenage life onscreen?

I think there’s a lot of these movies because people enjoy them. They’ve meant a lot to me, and I think that’s why they get made. The structure itself is great because you have a very specific timeline of going into a night and the sun setting and setting out on some kind of adventure, and having some kind of change happen — even if it’s very small — and being someone slightly different when the sun comes up. I think it’s pretty simple in that way and pretty symbolic of what it means to start to grow up and be in that middle space between being a kid and being an adult.

There’s also something wonderful and magical about allowing people to reconnect to those kinds of nights we’ve all had. Going out as a kid, whether you’re sneaking out or going out with friends, can be really sad or really joyful times. We experience things in really deep ways. We all have memories from those moments — making a film that reminds us of those times is something that people connect to.

Your bio says you’ve spent time as an editor of movie trailers. Did you edit any of the trailers for the film?

I didn’t edit any myself. My good friend and former co-worker cut a bunch of the trailers and teasers for the movie and I worked with him pretty intensely. I definitely understand that world.

It was kind of fun and also challenging. We tried to do something kind of in the spirit of the movie. With a film like this, it’s very leisurely paced and so much of it’s about tone, it’s really hard to explain that or capture that in a minute or two. We had to work hard to get something that at least approximates that, while at the same time gets people excited about it. I think we did that but it was definitely a real challenge. I don’t think I’d be able to do it if I didn’t have that experience.

You’re right; it’s not an easy film to sum up in two minutes. I don’t know if I’ve seen the trailer you cut for the movie.

There have been some different versions; I’m only talking about the ones that we did. There’s a short one and a long one online that we did, or did the majority of anyway. Check out the long one, I really like that one.

“The Myth of the American Sleepover” opens in limited release today. If you see it, tell us what you think in the comments below or on Twitter and Facebook.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.