On the afternoon prior to their sophomore feature film playing to the home-town crowd at Fantasia, I had an all too brief chat with the Quebecois director trio known as Road Kill Super Stars (RKSS) about Summer of '84.
Sitting around the rather large table just off the lobby of a rather swanky hotel on Rue Sherbrooke, the three were at ease early in the morning, and willing to go in whatever direction I decided to take the conversation. As you will no doubt notice below, Yoann-Karl Whissell does most of the talking, with his sister, Anouk Whissell, quietly interjecting (all too briefly) in between the interplay of the back and forth between him and François Simard.
We discuss the influences of the film, audience expectations, and generally how to capture childhood in new and interesting ways, particularly when nostalgic 1980s throwbacks are in ascendancy of the pop culture zeitgeist. Below is a transcript of our conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity and flow, and depending on one's interpretation, there are perhaps *very mild spoilers* contained therein:
Kurt Halfyard: I think perhaps you are going to surprise your audience with the restraint that is used in this picture compared to the ‘humming bird’ pacing and philosophy of your first film. SUMMER OF '84 defied my expectations completely, in a very pleasant way.
FS: People in Montreal and other places that know us, they know our background, they saw our silly short, and Turbo Kid was way over the top. And now we are back with a totally different movie.
YKW: We could have easily went to Turbo Kid 2 right away. But we wanted to do something different that still felt ‘us.’ Summer of '84 was a perfect project. It felt written for us. It was the first time we were working with writers. It was fun and dangerous!
François Simard: We did not really plan this as a second feature. We had several other movies in development. But every movie that gets a green light is a miracle. When we heard the pitch, especially the ending of the film, we were in. We love all those type of films. The setting is our childhood. And as long as we are passionate about making the film - even if we didn’t write the story. I never thought we would do a drama, but at the time we said yes, there was nothing like that on the market.
YKW: It was definitely the ending. When we talked with the writers [Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith] that is what sold us. We wanted to go that far.
FS: Even at the moment, where things are immersed in 1980s nostalgia, I know the ending will be be different.
YKW: It stands on its own.
There is a line in the movie, “Fifteen is the perfect age, I wish I could freeze that for you.” I feel that, after only two films, is the mantra for the three of you. Do you feel that way, or do I speak too soon?
FS: We often joke, that our movies are about kids that have no choice but to grow up and become adults, lose their innocence. And the three of us are adults trying to stay kids.
YKW: We are eternal teenagers. Growing up sucks, I don’t want to buy a home, I don’t want to do adult things. I want to stay in my PJs and eat way-too-sugary cereal and watch cartoons! I still do adults stuff, because I have to. I have kids now, so I will live through their childhood…
There is a lot of ‘terrible’ things going on in the backgrounds of these kids lives, with their families fighting and divorce. That is to say this movie is not as escapist as an idealized childhood might be. Do you find the ‘difficult stuff’ is easier to digest when it is on screen than in real life?
YKW: Probably. That is a really great question. We are all paranoid about our neighbors now. We do not know what is happening behind closed doors.
You have to check their facebook page.
YKW: Facebook status: “Just beat up my wife. Didn’t have to tell her twice.” Send.
FS: Mackey has a façade, a mask. He is very likeable and yet do we know him? We play with that concept with the other families. There may be a well manicured lawn, and the appearance of happiness, but inside, there are broken families, or the verge of divorce, which I think was a bigger deal in the 1980s.
Perhaps it is normalized now?
Anouk Whissell: Crazy shit does happen, now and then, under the cover of the quiet neighborhoods.
The opening and closing line of voice-over in the film is, “The craziest shit happens in the suburbs.” Do you believe that? Or do you think it is the more naive character of your protagonist, Davey, who wants to believe it?
YKW: I think Davey creates his own world made up of Weekly World News clippings. The suburbs are his magical place full of creatures, and vampires and all the things in the active imagination of a teenage boy. This is what he knows about the world. The suburbs are his world. That is all he knows.
FS: He believes it.
YKW: But. John Wayne Gacy was in the suburbs. Jeffrey Dahmer was in the suburbs.
For Canadians, Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka were also doing awful things in the suburbs.
YKW: Ted Bundy’s neighbors liked him. He had a wife and kid. They lived in the suburbs. So, it’s 50-50 us and Davey. I do believe there are many scary things behind the curtains of peoples homes in the suburbs.
In the news clippings on the television in the movie when the cops bring out the suspect, the person’s name is Arthur Ray Peterson. As a pretty big fan of Joe Dante’s 1989 satire, THE 'BURBS, the call-out begs the question of just how much SUMMER OF '84 is having this kind of dialogue with that movie. In that movie, the have adults regressed into children. This operates as slapstick and satire. Here, you have children progressing into adults, and it is a drama. And yet both films share similar visual language. Where do you see this film in relation into other entries in the ‘paranoid about the neighbors’ genre?
YKW: I love The 'Burbs, it is definitely a huge influence. The 'Burbs is a full blown comedy. Where our movie is more of a straight thriller. I do think they can and do live in the same space. Or take something like The Monster Squad. Again, they are very different films. But, in each, the kids decide to take matters in their own hands. They do not realize the extent of what being an adult is. This comes back to the ‘growing up sucks.’ When the kids decide to spy on Mackey, the see it as an adventure, and how important it is they are the only ones who can save the day. But then reality hits. Life is not that easy. Life is much darker. Much more complicated.
You guys turn the screws on your characters, particularly late in the movie. The opening act is slow and very patient, much more like a 'hanging out' movie. Then it amps up, but in unexpected ways. I think my favourite scene is a tender moment between Woody as his nurse/alcoholic mother, where she is drunk and passing out on the couch, and he kindly ‘tucks her in.’ She has this line, “Your soooo good.” It is as if she is surprised that her kid is now looking after her. It feels genuine. I found this kind of shading to be quite surprising.
YKW: Wood is a sweet kid. That is what he does. Eats, his friend, is a much more angry, conflicted kid, he knows that things are not going great in either his home or Woody’s home, and that is why he jokes about it, in the worst possible way, with Woody. They are friends. They are too young to know how to deal with complex problems like this. Woody is almost acting like an adult to with his mother.
FS: It would have been easy for Woody to become comic relief. We wanted to play with the expections of what people might assume these 'character types' are.
YKW: But we wanted him to become the heart of the story. He is the only one always at the ready to help Davey. Eats is not always present. Faraday wishes he was Eats. Faraday is the geek. Eats looks like the cooler kid. Woody is ultra loyal to Davey. Even if things get crazy, he will follow him to hell.
FS: We wanted people to love and care for Woody as a character. It was hard to find a good actor for that part! Caleb [Emerey] came at the last minute. And he was so the one.
Can you talk about casting Rich Sommer in the movie? He looks like a young Stephen King. If you cross Stephen King with Jason Segel, that is Mackey.
YKW: Not intended! In a way, we were casting someone who could appear inoffensive.
FS: We wanted to put as much doubt as possible in the audience's mind. Rich can’t be a killer, he is Harry from Mad Men.
YKW: At the risk of spoiling anything, there is no moment in the film in which we lie to the audience. People often make assumptions based on other films. People are used to certain plots. The look for twists and turns that often not necessarily there. Audience expectations are like a twist in itself.
The movie is set and designed to appear like a movie that came out in the mid 1980s. But it very much a movie made in the 21st century. There is something vastly different when you make a movie 30 years later vs making a movie in-situ.
YKW: We have all seen those movies. Setting it in that period is to make you feel safe. The audience gets go on an adventure with these kids. Dread begins to slowly creep in, but you never feel completely unsafe. And then. Suddenly, audiences will feel very unsafe.
FS: The trick here is to give the audience a movie that they are familiar with, then do something new with that.
YKW: When we presented it a Sundance, there were a lot of questions. *Laughs* Many of them started with, “I didn’t think you would go that far…”
Last question, and one completely unrelated to SUMMER OF '84. I was curious about your reaction to actress Laurence Leboeuf when she shows up in Darren Aronofsky’s mother!
AW: Yea, I know! I have not seen that movie yet. I really want to. In local stuff she used to do mainly drama, and now...
FS: Apple is the first time she played something fantastic. We are very proud that outside Quebec, people now her from Turbo Kid.
YKW: A lot of people – audience members - got tattoos from Turbo Kid. And almost all of them were of her. It must be surreal to have your face inked on someone else’s skin! It’s crazy. When we approached her with that projects, she said to us, I’ve never done this before. I want to do this. She became that character. She seemed to have so much fun. When she and Munro play tag in the film, we just let the camera roll, they were having so much fun. They were like two young kids.
Summer of '84 opens in limited release, in the USA, August 10th (Midnight screenings have been quietly been playing for the past few days in select US cities), before heading to the European genre festival circuit at UK's Frightfest at the end of the month, and Catalunya's Sitges in October.