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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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.