A Conversation With David Robert Mitchell (THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER)

The Myth of the American Sleepover is the debut feature from Michigan-native David Robert Mitchell. The film follows the escapades of several adolescents on their last night of summer. In the vein of American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused, Myth explores the psyche of American youths through parallel plot lines. Among the characters are Maggie (Claire Sloma), a little pixie looking to charm the local pool boy; Rob (Marlon Morton), an inscrutable alpha male in pursuit of his beloved “supermarket girl”; Scott (Brett Jacobsen) a heartbroken college drop-out hoping to rekindle an old flame; and Claudia (Amanda Bauer), a pony-tailed new girl hoping to mix with the high school in-crowd. If those names don’t ring any bells, it’s because they shouldn’t. Consisting primarily of unknowns, the cast is the crutch of the movie. In all of their authenticity, the actors beg to be considered more carefully.

Hammer to Nail spoke to David Robert Mitchell over the phone about his atypical teen drama, which is being distributed by Sundance Selects and opens theatrically on Friday, July 22, 2011 (before becoming available on VOD on July 27th). (UPDATE: The film is now available on DVD and at Amazon Instant through MPI Home Video.)

H2N: I saw your film for the first time at its MOMA premiere this week, and loved it. I saw it again last night, and enjoyed it even more the second time. What I love about it is it’s all subtext.

DRM: I always struggled with anything resembling a synopsis for this movie. Because I always felt it never quite worked that way, at least not for me.

H2N: How did you structure something like this during the writing process?

DRM: My goal with this was to try to do something that was—this sounds sort of strange—I wanted as little plot as possible. I wanted to do something that wasn’t just dependent upon traditional structure and story beats. And there’s nothing wrong with that stuff. I’ve written things that are like that, and I’ll probably do it again. But [I liked] the idea of doing something resembling some kind of real life experience, at least in relation to certain moments. I wasn’t trying to capture real life exactly, but I was trying to give the feeling of real life at times. I was frustrated by the fact that the feeling and tone of [a] movie was dictated by story beats—this is something that I just felt by the nature of watching movies, training, and trying to be a writer—things that I felt were necessary, but that didn’t leave room for the stuff that I actually liked, the stuff that I was actually interesting in making a movie about. So I put the things in that I wanted and then I tried to create just enough plot and just enough structure to appease the idea of it being something traditional. So I kind of tried to walk a line between those things to kind of hide the fact that it’s not exactly a very traditional movie. [DRM laughs]

H2N: No it’s not, which is refreshing. That’s an interesting idea about story dictating tone and style, because it’s very much the other way around in this movie. Myth has a strong visual style and choice of locations. The make out maze, the gym, the swimming pool all have a way of moving the story forward on visual terms rather than narrative terms. How did you go about choosing your locations?

DRM: In the writing stage, I was sort of drawn to things that are, at least in my mind, iconic, or representative of a general idea of classic American locations in relation to teen movies or at least the teen experience. But beyond that, I wanted to try to put people in a physical space. To me, it’s about trying to connect with that space and trying to make people feel like they’re really in it. So the locations are a big part of the movie. It’s really important for it to look like the kids are riding down a suburban street. I wanted it to feel a certain way, I wanted it to look a certain way. That was a driving impulse for me, trying to place the camera in these spaces and sit with the characters so that you feel like you’re actually hanging out with them. It’s about a visceral connection to space…It does drive the story. I think that was also the challenge of it, because there are so many locations, so there’s something about constantly moving through different spaces. To me, it’s kind of like moving through a dream in a way, where you find yourself in a new place, and all of these places within this community might be very far away from each other, but in the context of the movie world, you’re at the community pool, you’re in the suburban street, now you’re at the dance class, now you’re at the friend’s sleepover, you’re at the party lake. I think there’s something dreamlike about that. And I think that’s sort of how it came out in the script.

H2N: To what extent was the movie based on your own experiences?

DRM: It’s hard for me to say the percentage. The truth is it’s not really not my life. But there are some jumping-off points, and certain things that are inspired by things that happened to me, or sometimes things that I wanted to have happen, or that I saw happen for others. A big part of it is imagined. And I think that’s part of my connection to the title of the movie. Just like everybody else, seeing all kinds of movies growing up made me long for something that I wasn’t quite experiencing. And I think a lot of teen movies do that. And I was aiming for a similar kind of feeling with this…It’s a little bit of a memory, and it’s a little bit of what one might want to remember too.

H2N: I think that a lot of the characters do have this nostalgia for what seems to be the passing of their sincerity. Yet, they’re not necessarily deviant along Larry Clark lines. They’re looking for love and connection, good-hearted, tasteful stuff.

DRM: The film is not about denial of any of that. It’s simply a perspective on it. It’s just about one aspect of what it is to be younger. Some people feel like you need to address every single issue in order for something to work. But that wasn’t what this film was about for me.

H2N: Casting is everything in this movie. I understand you went through a rigorous casting process?

DRM: I gotta tell you it was really hard. I initially liked the idea of putting famous, well known people in some of the roles, amidst this cast of fresh-face unknowns, and having this extra-strange, mythical magical quality appear in the movie. But we couldn’t get in touch with anyone. And it was a little bit scary up until we found everyone. Because there weren’t other resources, so we had these big auditions, and we had a ton of people com in. Ultimately, there’s that gamble that you can only have so many auditions. It’s just Adele [Romanski, producer] and I. And we have to find our cast. And hopefully everyone can do this. And hopefully we can find enough people to fill these roles and to fill them well. Not just to fill the roles, but for them to have a certain degree of screen presence and performance ability. It’s a minor miracle that we found everybody. And when we did have just about everybody, a little bit before production, Adele and I were going through our cast book and were like, “We can’t wait to put these scenes together to see them interacting!”

H2N: The film focuses on a brother-sister relationship, a few friendships, and all kinds of relationships. How did you go about framing that?

DRM: A lot of it came out as I wrote. Sometimes I would later go back and reconnect things, do rewrites, and I would add extra characters, or I would take some away, or I would split characters up and rewrite them. It just kind of grew. Some of them came from my initial idea of what a character was. Some of it probably started from things that I remembered in terms of old friends, and I would imagine this person had a sister, or this person had a brother. That’s kind of how it started.

[The recorder cut off at this point. Mitchell went on to discuss the film’s evocations of feeling over thought. He attempted to convey the small reliefs from teenage sadness that come from smaller gestures—a smile, a laugh, physical contact, etc. Though slight on paper, these little moments were the ones that he tried to unpack in all of their complexity. If not for the expectations that come with the genre, he would have been bolder in letting these moments play out even longer.]

— Daniel James Scott

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