Best Coast's retro garage-band sound on the radio and pre-1980's-style balances in our bank accounts are the latest evidence that we're living in the era of the throwback. It's only natural that David Robert Mitchell's Myth of the American Sleepover -- a last-day-of-summer-vacation movie that borrows heavily from Dazed and Confused -- would surface as one of the season's most buzzed about indies.
Mitchell's characters operate in a world without iPhones, the Internet, pop music or sex. There's plenty of talk about this last item, but the most we see is a little bit of kissing and a lot of heartfelt conversation, along with the sort of bad haircuts and wounded sincerity all too familiar to anyone who's ever actually been a teenager. It's a movie so genuinely sweet that the climax is a town-wide parade, complete with choreographed dance routine and float. American Pie, this is not.
"Francois Truffaut made films about very simple human experiences. I guess I wanted to make films like that," Mitchell told the LA Weekly. As in Truffaut's Pocket Money, Mitchell's handful of main characters moon about town without doing much of anything. They do want to sleep with each other, but the lust is peripheral, and the compulsive hypersexuality that marks most American movies about teenagers is wholly absent. "It's a teen movie but we wanted it to be a little bit different," Mitchell said. "I was trying to give it a different tone. A little bit softer."
Mitchell wrote Myth in 2002 and moved to Los Angeles shortly thereafter to pitch it to financiers. After six years of fruitless meetings, the project seemed ready to die an early death. Instead, Mitchell and his producer, Adele Romanski, decided to raise the production money themselves. "We picked a start date roughly a year from when we realized we were having trouble," Mitchell remembers, "and we just said on this date, we're going to make the film with whatever resources we have." The two saved paychecks from their day jobs and Mitchell cashed out his life savings.
As anyone who's ever made an independent film can attest, financing is only one of many, many obstacles. During production, the filmmakers had to wrangle a huge cast of non-professional teenaged actors while navigating shots set in dozens of locations. After the shoot, Mitchell returned to his day job in L.A., which made editing difficult. "I was cutting the film at night. Me and my editor worked two jobs for about a year."
Indie filmmaking is a gamble in the best of times, and with distribution companies reigning in budgets during the recession, there was no guarantee the finished movie would see a release. A Special Jury Prize for best ensemble at South by Southwest helped, as did a glut of positive critical attention after Cannes. Myth was picked up by IFC and received a limited roll out in New York and Los Angeles. Starting July 29, it will be available nationwide on demand.
"When you make something you care about, you dream other people are going to care about it, too," Mitchell said. "If it actually happens it's kind of shocking. When we premiered at South by Southwest, that seemed like enough, honestly. And then we heard from Critics Week at Cannes and they were like, 'We love the movie! You're in!'"
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If the director seems startled by his success, it might be because it was a long time coming. He graduated from Florida State University's film school almost ten years ago. This is his first completed feature. "It's such a gentle film. I think people didn't really understand what it could be," Mitchell said.
Mitchell advised other filmmakers trying to get their own projects off the ground to "be willing to work beyond the point of exhaustion." He learned the hard way -- indie directors can't expect to rely solely on outside investors anymore. "We spent a good amount of time trying to raise money to do the film the way we thought we had to. I don't think anyone took us seriously. Finally, we said we need to do this ourselves with whatever we have. I don't regret it but...It took me a long time to realize you could do that."
Myth of the American Sleepover opens at the Nuart Theater this Friday.
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