David Robert Mitchell’s THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER is a lyrical look back to the pain and possibility of high school. Set on the last day of summer, it conjures up the night-in-the-life yearning of AMERICAN GRAFFITI and DAZED AND CONFUSED, but eschews era-specific nostalgia for a more timeless evocation of those moments in a young adult’s life when everything seems strange and horrifying and kind of wonderful. It is a quiet, deeply felt film, closer to Truffaut than Lucas or Linklater, but not without its outbursts (though these are often observed from a distance). For the most part, Mitchell is after small epiphanies, the kind that occur in silences, when we’re afraid to come out and say exactly how we feel.
Mitchell shot THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER in a suburb of Detroit, allowing the Michigan native to immerse viewers in the neighborhoods of his youth. He also cast a number of local actors in principal roles, most notably Claire Sloma, who makes her big-screen debut as the impulsive, growing-up-a-little-too-fast Maggie. All four of the leads – Sloma, Brett Jacobson, Amanda Bauer and Marlon Morton – give sensational performances, but Sloma, with her pixie-cut blond hair and irrepressible curiosity - about boys, booze and other vices that’ll probably get her in lots of trouble over her just-beginning high-school years - leaves the deepest impression. Her fearless, impromptu dance at a lakeside party feels like a star-making moment.
So I had no qualms at all when I was pitched a dual interview with Mitchell and Sloma in Los Angeles a few weeks ago. Though Mitchell’s a little more seasoned, having lived in L.A. for a while (Sloma just moved out after studying in Germany), they’re both hoping the buzz generated by THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER will lead to their second feature gig. They’re also both uniquely gifted artists: Mitchell’s dreamily observant style of filmmaking is currently without comparison in American cinema, while I can’t think of a single actress with Sloma’s energy or look. Honestly, I’d love to see them go Scorsese/DeNiro over the next decade – and when you see THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER (it’s playing theatrically in New York City and Los Angeles, and is also available via VOD), I think you’ll agree. This is a very special, eminently rewatchable film.
Beaks: Having grown up an hour south of Detroit in Northwest Ohio, I’ve always wanted to see films shot in that part of the country. I just think there’s something to the layout of the communities, and the look of the people, and the unremitting flatness of the landscape. How difficult was it to get people to believe in you, to let you shoot in Michigan and not somewhere closer to Los Angeles?
David Robert Mitchell: In some ways it was difficult, and in some ways it was easy. I’m the same as you: I grew up wanting to see movies that took place in the area that I grew up in. I was always disappointed when there were movies that were supposed to be [set in] Detroit that weren’t shot there. And it was really exciting when a film would come into the city. Even if they just did a couple of shots, it would be on the news and everyone would hear about it. So I really wanted the movie to take place there - and in some ways it was easier to do it there, because we had friends and family and free locations. We had the support of the community. Some of that would have been really tough here in Los Angeles. I don’t think we could have made the movie with very little money out here. Also, Claire and a lot of the cast we found there; it was a lot of work to do the auditions there, but we found great people, and once we started finding them, then everyone was so supportive and excited about being a part of the movie.
Beaks: Where were you living at the time, Claire? How did you find your way into this audition?
Claire Sloma: It was my freshman year of college. It was winter break, and they had posted something in local newspapers. My mother’s best friend from college had found one in our local newspaper and told me about it, so I ended up going because I was home. And then in about March, David gave me a call to do another callback, and we went from there. Then I did one more callback and we started filming in the end of June or July?
Mitchell: Yeah, I think in the very beginning of July, because I remember the parade was our second day of filming. Second or third.
Beaks: Second day of shooting was the parade? Was there any trepidation there in doing that logistically complicated scene?
Mitchell: I was terrified. I think it actually was our third day. Basically, we had gotten permission to put the actors in the middle of the parade. The Fourth of July parade was one that I went to as a kid in [Clawson, Michigan]. So Adele [Romanski], our producer, got in touch with them, and they agreed to let us have little floats and have the dancers and all of the other people in the movie in the parade. Then we just sort of planned it with their help to run around with our camera and try and get the shots. It was so difficult; I can’t even express to you how hard it was. It was chaos, but we got the shots. But knowing that was how we were starting… it was intimidating.
Sloma: It was a stressful day. The dancers… we kept getting yelled at by people because they didn’t know we were part of a film. They were like, “Dance! Why aren’t you dancing?” So we’d be like “I’m sorry!”
Beaks: How long did you have this movie kicking around in your head?
Mitchell: Forever. I mean, a long time. I wrote it right when I got out of film school at the end of 2002; I wrote a first draft of it, and then I revised it for a while. I was trying to find money for it for maybe two years, and just wasn’t having any success, so I set it aside and was writing other things. Then it was probably like three or four years after that that my friend Adele read the script and really liked it. She hadn’t produced before, but she was like, “Well, I would like to produce the movie; let’s try and make this.” So we were like, “We’ll do it independently.” Then that started a whole other long road of trying to scrounge money together and resources and lots of begging - just doing anything we could to try and get the movie made.
Beaks: Did anyone ever step in and give you advice like “This should maybe be a little more traditionally structured,” or “This should be more John Hughes”? Was there any of that?
Mitchell: I probably heard a few things like that. Some people didn’t want the multiple characters; they thought it should just be one character. I heard all kinds of advice, but this is what I wanted to do, so I fought for it.
Beaks: The film does have this kind of remembered feel to it; so much of it strikes a chord. I really like that because, if this were ever to go through a studio system, they would be vacuuming out all of the nuance and making it about the big incidents.
Mitchell: Of course! It’s funny you say that, because there was a person we spoke with at FILMMAKER magazine who wrote something about the fact that they saw certain aspects of the film being the very things that would probably be taken out of a studio film. That’s sort of the basis of the movie, so that’s pretty interesting.
Beaks: Although I have to say, and this is to your credit: whenever I watch a movie from a first-time filmmaker, I’ll start ticking off references and influence. “Obviously, he watched this.” In terms of rhythm, I can definitely identify you with certain filmmakers, but your film feels so much its own thing that I didn’t have that identifying-references thing going in my head. So was there anything you were emulating, or anything that you were looking to as an inspiration?
Mitchell: There were a ton of references. I mean, I love so many different kinds of movies, I think all of that kind of comes out. But I made a bunch of short films that were kind of similar in tone when I was in school, and I started feeling like I was finding my voice a bit, and this feature was sort of building on that. I felt like I had something that was, at least to me, unique. Some of the references and some of the things that are familiar, were definitely things from American films, Hollywood movies, or even European art films. It kind of runs across the board.
Beaks: Claire, how much acting had you done in front of the camera before this, if any?
Sloma: None. (Laughs)
Beaks: So was there a rehearsal period? Was there time for you to get acclimated?
Sloma: Oh, yeah. David and Adele really helped, especially in the beginning of it, just getting me to feel comfortable. All I had ever done was theater, and it’s really, really different.
Beaks: Big gestures, big facial expressions and stuff?
Beaks: That all had to go away, right?
Sloma: Yeah. And I’m a loud person anyways, so there was a lot of taming me down a bit, but…
Beaks: So the sound guys loved you.
Mitchell: But even her first audition, when she came in there was something charming and natural and wonderful that we saw, and it was just about working with her to get her to the point where she was comfortable in front of the camera. She did that, and did a great job. I mean, this is the first movie she has ever done, and she’s won a couple acting awards. She won one at this festival in France and then another in Belgium, and we got an ensemble cast award at SXSW. So performance-wise, she really did great.
Beaks: How long was the shoot? Were people bonding? Were friendships developing on set?
Sloma: Doug Diedrich, who played “Steven” in the film, we really bonded. I actually really didn’t’ meet Amanda [Bauer] or the twins, Jade and Nikita Ramsey, or Brett Jacobsen until Cannes because we didn’t have scenes together. Marlon Morton… we met occasionally because we had paths in the film that would cross, but we never really had conversations off set. But I definitely think this film has connected a lot of us. I’m very good friends with all of them now, especially with Amanda. It’s kind of a beautiful thing.
Mitchell: It seemed like the cast had a lot of fun. They weren’t all together, but the ones who were during the summer, it seemed like they were having a really nice time. For [the filmmakers], it was very cool, but also a lot of work. I was working with a lot of my very close friends, and have continued to. A lot of them are my film school friends, like Adele and James [Laxton], our cinematographer, and Julio [Perez] our editor. It was fun for like Julio and I to hang out and edit the movie.
Beaks: Were you on schedule? Did you ever feel rushed or like you were falling behind?
Mitchell: In production?
Mitchell: We were always rushed. It was a really ambitious schedule. It was actually borderline insane, but somehow we made it. I don’t know how.
Sloma: It was, what, like five weeks?
Mitchell: Five weeks, yeah. It was stressful. (Laughs)
Beaks: How many takes did you need to get your dance scene down, Claire?
Sloma: I don’t really know. We had one camera, and we had to do different angles.
Mitchell: I think it was only a couple of takes per angle. I don’t remember how many angles we got on it, but I don’t think it was too much.
Sloma: I think I had to jump into the water about three times, but the water was really shallow, so… (Laughs) Also we had to get takes of the extras for the party scene.
Mitchell: We had to move quickly, because it had been raining, too. It rains a lot in Michigan.
Sloma: The dock was pretty slippery, too.
Mitchell: So what Claire is saying is that everything was dangerous, and they were all put at great risk. (Laughs)
Sloma: No, it was fun.
Beaks: The era in which the film is set is nonspecific. It feels intentionally vague. Did you have an era in your head, or were you playing it that way intentionally?
Mitchell: Yeah, I wanted to blur the time period. I think it’s a little bit ‘70s, a little bit ‘80s, there’s stuff that I think feels ‘90s, and a few things that are current. I think there are a few props and a few items that are even older than that. There are some things from the ‘50s. I guess we just wanted some kind of hint at timelessness. We didn’t really have the budget for a period film, but we did have enough that we could sprinkle in different elements from different eras and to try and give it some kind of a dreamy feeling.
Beaks: You’ve got music running through your movie, but it’s not like you are trying to identify the era by having a specific song [play on the soundtrack]. Were there songs you were trying to get that you couldn’t clear, or were you always thinking that you would just score it the way you did?
Mitchell: I didn’t want to fill the film with a lot of pop music from specific periods, but we ended up using a couple of cues that I hadn’t intended that do date it to a certain time. There’s a Beirut song in a montage that I really love. We sort of debated it, because it is more current, but the editor used the cue and we loved it. But mostly we were trying for things that just kind of hint at time periods, that are a little bit more vague.
Beaks: In the beginning at the pool, there’s a cue that sounds a little like “Green Onion,” by Booker T and the MGs. It’s just kind of hidden in there, but never pops out.
Mitchell: I’m pretty sure that’s a library cue, but it definitely is based off of that for sure. There are actually several cues that are kind of moving in and out of the soundscape there.
Beaks: As a first time feature filmmaker, were there any specific things you learned as you shot this?
Mitchell: It’s hard to say. I think some of it was just about pacing myself for how difficult it is to be completely focused all day for the number of hours that you are working on set. It’s just kind of exhausting, so I think that was something that I had to adapt to. You have months of preproduction where you are working on casting and location scouting and trying to assemble a crew, and fighting for things to be a certain way technically, and then making sure that you know your story well and that, performance-wise, everyone is up to speed. Then coupling that with just showing up to set and being completely focused every second of the day. I don’t know how you prepare for that other than… I mean I’ve done a lot of short films, but doing this for a longer period of time is a bit of a shock to the system. But you sort of adapt.
Beaks: How tightly was this scripted? Was there some improvising going on, or things that you were adding or discovering on set?
Mitchell: I think we pretty much followed the script. There may have been the tiniest of details that changed, but in terms of dialogue and most of the action and the points of view, I think it was the script.
Sloma: For me there wasn’t really a need to improv. I think ithat was true for a lot of the actors. The words we were saying felt like something I would actually say at that age, so it wasn’t like I needed to manipulate what had been written or anything.
Beaks: And that’s another thing, the dialogue is so real and simple. It’s not knocking itself out trying to be clever. Everyone is pretty direct.
Mitchell: For me it was always less about what the characters were saying and more about what they were looking at and how they were connecting to the things and the people around them. It’s more that I was trying to make things play visually.
Beaks: As you were shooting the film, did you feel that you were getting what you wanted, that you were capturing these moments?
Mitchell: I felt like it was working, yeah. I don’t know how everyone else felt, but I felt like it was working.
Beaks: Claire, could you tell like when you nailed a take?
Sloma: There were times where I felt more confident, but I felt better about it when I could tell that David and James were happy with it. There was never a time where I was like “Yes, I’ve done it” or anything.
Beaks: You’ve taken this film all over the world. How are the reactions different in, say, Europe than the U.S.?
Sloma: I was studying in Germany when the film was released. I felt like the Germans liked it, but they tend to be a little more… not critical, but just expecting a little bit more, whereas the French and the Belgians absolutely loved it. After I won the award in Belgium, people there were just so freaking nice; they just kept coming up and being like “This film was great!” It just felt so good to hear that, and have that support from European countries. I feel like Europeans have really taken a liking to it, especially the French, which is awesome.
Michell: It was meaningful for me because I grew up really caring about a lot of French films. They were certainly inspirational to me. So to have those critics and people in France responding to the film like that was pretty cool and pretty amazing.
Beaks: So now you both are living out here, how do you proceed from a film like this? What are you trying to do next?
Mitchell: I’ve been writing. Since we played SXSW, I’ve written several new scripts. I just wanted to create as much material as possible, so that I’m ready to start lining up these projects with things that I care about. So we have one film that we are hoping to do later this year or the spring of next year that’s a drama, and I have a horror film that I want to do. I think it is going to be really, really fun and cool, and really quite scary. And I have some more coming of age scripts that I want to do at some point, but not just yet. I’ve written three other things for that.
Beaks: Are you thinking studio or do you want to stay independent?
Mitchell: I don’t know. I would love to do some bigger projects at some point. I think the one that we are hoping to do next is called ELLA WALKS THE BEACH. It’s about this girl in her twenties who breaks up with her boyfriend, and we basically just follow her for a night and a day as she hangs out with her friends and wanders around California beaches having little adventures and talking to strangers. It’s sort of about every aspect of love in a person’s life. That one will probably be an independent film, but hopefully a bit of a bigger scale that what we did with MYTH. The horror film… I don’t know whether that will be independent or a studio. That hasn’t gone out yet, so we will see.
Beaks: ELLA WALKS THE BEACH sounds kind of Rohmer.
Mitchell: Exactly. Or like THE SWIMMER Antonioni or something.
Beaks: Those are all right in my wheelhouse. Tonally, what kind of horror are you going for?
Mitchell: This one is slow and calm, but disturbing and terrifying.
Beaks: Like REPULSION?
Mitchell: There’s some Cronenberg in there, and certainly THE SHINING. I think it’s influenced by everybody: Carpenter’s THE THING, a little Romero… all kinds of stuff. The really arty stuff and the B-movie stuff, I love it all.
Beaks: Just as an aside… I don’t know why, but when I talk to filmmakers who are our age, THE SHINING gets mentioned as something people are going for all of the time - more than almost any other movie. It’s got a real hold on a certain generation of film buffs.
Mitchell: Beyond being a horror film, it’s just a beautiful, yet disturbing movie.
Beaks: It fucks you up when you’re a kid.
Mitchell: It does, yeah.
Sloma: I even would watch it when I was a kid and be like “Ahhhhh!”
Mitchell: But I don’t think I loved it in a way that I now appreciate it as an adult. I really liked it as a kid; I thought it was really cool. But I can go back and watch that film repeatedly. It’s the tone of it. The tone and the pacing: I feel like those two things are not done very often. Maybe it’s the approach, and it is Kubrick… how do you get anywhere near that? You don’t.
Beaks: But you should try.
Mitchell: People should try, yeah.
Beaks: And Claire, so what are you up to? You’re out here now, so are you auditioning?
Sloma: I’ve been fortunate enough, because of this film, that I have a manager and an agent now. I mean, right now is kind of slow, but I do have an audition today. We’ll see how it goes. I’m just trying to adjust right now, find another part-time job. Seeing as I just graduated with a German major… I don’t know what good that’s going to do me out here.
Beaks: That’s cool. In some of the earlier interviews I’ve read of yours, you weren’t sure if you wanted to get into acting. Was there something that kind of tipped the scales?
Sloma: Just as the last year kept progressing, I guess it gave me a little bit more confidence, because you know this is the only film I’ve really done, but my manager, Mimi Wexler, has been very supportive. Her enthusiasm about me is what made me realize, “Hey, why not give it a try?” I love acting. I’ve always loved acting. I’ve always done theater, so, you know, let’s go this route and see what happens. Plus, it was this or move back to Germany, and I can always move back to Germany and pursue that later on.
THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER opens today, July 29th, at the Nuart in Los Angeles. It is currently playing in New York City and is available nationwide via VOD. This is one of the best films of the year, folks. Please check it out.