On the Sunday night before Labor Day, teens bike, drive and walk around the slumber parties, keggers and swimming holes of a rain-threatened Anytown, USA, in search of crushes and self-knowledge. There are no adults with speaking roles. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s first feature, The Myth of the American Sleepover, which opens Friday, has a feel for hesitation and potential humiliation not usual to the One Crazy Night movie, a wistful nature, nuanced widescreen cinematography, and a soundtrack that, aside from one Beirut song, seems hard to place as either aggressively contemporary in the teenage or hip-young-adult sense. The filmmaker answered questions over email this week.
Starting with its title—with its intimations of childhood pastimes and hallowed archetype—Myth of the American Sleepover is notable for its nostalgia and innocence. “I want to kiss you” is a repeated line of dialogue, and at one party a soon-to-be high school junior lectures an incoming freshman on the lost poingnacy of pastimes like board games and tag. If I say that the film feels anachronistic to me, does that jibe with what you were going for?
I tried to make a film in which bits of naturalism could exist within something like a dream: to create the feeling of a memory. Nostalgia was the driving force behind the script.
The idea of the sleepover seemed iconic to me and I wanted the film to suggest both the present and the past in terms of the idealized American teen experience. Board games and sleepover rituals aren’t tied to a single generation. We identify with them regardless of our birthdate. I tried to avoid too much specific pop culture and aimed to make something approximating an old film with random pieces of American culture from the past 50 years.
Is there then a tradition of youth movies to which you’re responding with this film? Films you admire, a tradition you aspire to join?
“Where were you in ’62?” That was the famous tagline to the fantastic and beautiful American Graffiti. I wasn’t alive in ’62, but I do remember the feeling I had watching that movie for the first time. I was joyful and melancholy, simultaneously. I had a similar
reaction to Last Picture Show and Dazed and Confused. The list of films goes on, but that feeling—of nostalgia for an experience I never quite had—was the same. I guess I aspired to make a film with its own special tone and style, but with the transportive and visceral quality that lives within those classic youth films. I wanted people to remember a lost feeling or to long for an experience that might only exist in our collective ideal of youth. That was my goal.
I understand the suburban Michigan setting, like that of Eugenides’s Virgin Suicides, was inspired by your own youth. How do you balance a feel for place with an understanding of your setting as universal and archetypal?
I think the suburbs, rows of yards, and box houses are as universal and archetypal as it gets. This film is true to the look of the neighborhoods I grew up in, and by focusing on the common realities of that space, I think it connects with people and communities outside of Michigan. I think these are the type of neighborhoods that have been burned into our shared concept of the American home. Also, by riding along suburban streets, and lazily hanging out in sun-drenched backyards, the film hints at something both iconic and true—at least I hope it does.
How was the casting process? One thing that’s really notable about the film is its understanding of the vast physical differences between friends and peers going through puberty at different speeds, and I imagine that must have been… sensitive to deal with. Was it something you were consciously looking for?
The casting process was long and tough. The producer and I held large open auditions in Michigan for about ten months prior to production. We wanted to find new talent, unknown actors—real kids with screen presence and charm. We liked the idea of casting kids who wouldn’t necessarily end up in a Hollywood movie—but should. We tried to cast kids close to the age group they were portraying. I think that adds something genuine and unique to the film. In addition, we took great care in balancing the cast: certain actors, when placed together in scenes, complimented each other and added hints of backstory—by virtue of their differing levels of maturity and age.
Were you always envisioning mostly indie pop for the film? Obviously selecting the soundtrack for a teen movie is an intensely specific, personal project: How do you balance your sense of the film’s tone with your sense of who these kids are and what they like? To what extent do financial issues dictate these things?
I’m really proud of the music we found for the film. It was a long process: we asked everyone we knew if they had a band and if so… “could we please use your music in our little film?” We amassed a big collection of albums and songs from various musicians all over the US. Then we started listening, trying to fill in the spaces.
The question of “music as tone” versus “music for characterization” is a tricky one. Early on, I thought it would be fun to use popular music from many different eras—even stuff that went against my own taste (things a kid might like for a short period of time). I probably would have explored that idea more, but we quickly realized that most popular music (no matter the era) was very expensive—mostly out of our reach. So… we decided to lean in the direction of “slightly ambiguous.” Working within our means, we tried to use cues that didn’t feel too specific or modern. There are a few exceptions (the Beirut cue for example), but those songs worked so well that we decided to keep them in. Financial issues dictated many things, but I think the song-scape of the film is really nice.