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“You Can’t Go Into Your Hometown and Not Shoot Cinemascope”: Writer/Director Adam Rehmeier on His Early ’90s Nebraska-Set Comedy, Snack Shack

Snack Shack

The logline for Snack Shack—two teenaged best friends spend the summer of 1991 working at a community pool food stand and get up to shenanigans—suggests a hyper-generic “one crazy summer”-type coming-of-age flick, but the film distinguishes itself with specifics almost immediately. It opens with AJ (Connor Sherry) and Moose (Gabriel LaBelle) at an off-track betting parlor intently watching the races with lit cigarettes dangling from their mouths. They exchange gambling strategies and profane insults before deciding to bet their new winnings on one more long-shot race. They hit big, but upon leaving they see someone swipe their cab, making it impossible for them to cross the interstate into Nebraska and sneak back onto their school field trip without raising suspicion. A frantic, improvised plan ensues that allows the boys to keep their winnings and evade consequences, at least until later when AJ’s parents discover their previous whereabouts.

Director Adam Rehmeier based Snack Shack on his own adolescent experiences growing up in Nebraska City, where he would constantly hustle for cash through odd jobs, quasi-scams and gambling. Like AJ and Moose, he managed and operated the community snack shack with his best friend Jarrod Esser, with whom he also made and sold “Real Beer,” their own homebrew concoction. Rehmeier set and shot Snack Shack in Nebraska City, which immediately lends a precise look and tone to the film. Everything from the lived-in locations to the comfortable way that Sherry and LaBelle engage with each other and move through their Midwestern environment suggests an authenticity that can’t easily be faked. While Snack Shack technically involves a love triangle with a literal girl next door, it’s more about two kids working overtime to stake independence and identity within a traditional, conformist milieu. Along the way, they’re thrust into adulthood in ways they couldn’t predict.

Rehmeier spoke to me over the phone for a freewheeling conversation about the ins and outs of making Snack Shack and shooting in his hometown, beginning with its autobiographical origins, specifically his betting philosophies at the track. Following its theatrical release, Snack Shack is currently on digital platforms via Republic Pictures.

Rehmeier: The dog track was in Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the river bridge from Nebraska. We’d hitch rides up there with people’s older brothers or pay kids to drive us up. We had a weird system for big money long shots. Gamblers, most of the time, they can’t walk away. But we didn’t have that problem. We were always doing trifectas. I think we’d do nine $2 trifectas—we had all this shit with numbers—so that was like $18 bucks, and if we lost two in a row, we walked away completely. So it was like $36, it probably cost us a couple of bucks to get in, so like $40-45 bucks we’re out of there if we didn’t win yet. But we usually did, and we were dumping our cash on silk shirts and designer jeans and CDs.

Filmmaker: There isn’t still a track there, right?

Rehmeier: When we shot the film in ’22, there were four tracks left in the United States. There was one in Dubuque, Iowa that closed May 15th, so we missed that by a month, and it would have been the closest for us to travel to and shoot some exteriors. At the time that we filmed, there were only three non-defunct places left in America. I think there was two in West Virginia and one in West Memphis, Arkansas. There just wasn’t a cost effective way for us to splinter and do that. I changed the script last minute to be an off-track betting parlor. When we used to actually do the racing, the track that we went to had an OTB room that was linked with a simulcast, so you could bet on things in Florida. If we were having a good day, we might do the matinee, hang out in between and catch everything that was happening in like Hollywood Park [Racetrack] in California, and just kind of follow the time zones because they’d be starting their matinees an hour or two hours later, then hit the night show if we were hot.

I’m sitting here right now, I’ve got this fermenter supply and equipment card taped to my computer from 1991. We figured out that while we couldn’t go into a store and buy alcohol, we could make it ourselves. There was nothing preventing us from getting malt, barley hops, and yeast. We bought a big tome that was all about making home brew, we studied that and figured out the equipment that we needed to make it happen. My best friend’s parents owned a bar, and they’d put [the empty bottles] out back for Budweiser to come pick up, so we’d steal them and soak the bottles in heavy dish soap and water to [scrape] the labels off. Then we’d run [the naked bottles] through the dishwasher and sterilize them. [But first] you’d make the mash, and after you pitch the yeast, you have to let it sit for 21 days or so. We’d come home after school and check the pH every day on our tubs to make sure that things weren’t going alkaline or base too much. Then we ended up bottling it and put on our own Real Beer labels. We had this little operation going, but eventually his parents caught wind of it. They dumped it all out and it was a whole thing.

We were also going around [door to door selling] candy, [lying about] different fundraisers for school. My friend recently reminded me—this is so shitty—but do you remember Jerry’s Kids? He said that I would say it really fast and kind of slur it together. So it was like “Jarrod’s Kids,” because his name was Jarrod. We were just kind of fucking with people and giving them old candy bars and stuff for $1, $1.50 a pop. Any way we could hustle and make some quick cash. Painting [house numbers on] street curbs was one of our big ones.

Filmmaker: That’s so much work.

Rehmeier: There was ingenuity to summer jobbing you were in that weird spot where you were just a little bit too young to go get a job at a pizza place washing dishes or something like I did when I was 15. But no one would hire you for that when you’re like 12, 13. So we still wanted these fancy shoes, Air Jordans and stuff. Parents weren’t gonna spring for that, so we’re just like, “We’ll figure out a way to get them.”

We shot the film in Nebraska City. So you’re seeing my hometown. It’s very safe. It’s very rural. It’s the kind of place that you could just walk around all day. You might go down and walk the creek and look for some arrowheads for a little while until you got bored. Then we’d go get Slurpee’s at the convenience store. Then we’d play video games for a little while somewhere at an arcade. Then we go see if we could get some jobs doing stuff. So we’re just bouncing around seeing what we could get into all the time.

Filmmaker: You received a grant from the Nebraska state government to film in the state. Could you talk about how that came to pass?

Rehmeier: It’s very competitive there. While we did receive some grant money, all in it was like $200,000 in grant money. If we had gotten in sooner with it, because there were a couple other films that we were competing with, we could have gotten up to like $400,000, which would have been more substantial for us. It is what it is.

To the first-in producers, I said, “Look, I really wanna shoot this in my hometown. I know Nebraska is not an incentive state, but the emotional mileage we’ll get out of it will trump everything.” It’s just a very specific place. Going in there, we had almost a nonexistent location budget, so much so that someone in accounting flagged it and was like, “Guys, this is ridiculously low. How do you think you’re gonna go into Nebraska City and pull this off?” This is my turf. If anyone would be able to pull some favors here, it would be me. It was also a really special thing for the town to have this production come in. There was this classic sense of “the movie came to town” and everybody’s gotta be a part of it in some way. It was outside the norm for Nebraska City, which I think [made] people more accommodating. You wouldn’t find this in L.A. because people know what to expect. They’re just like, “Oh God, somebody’s gonna ram a C-stand through my fucking plate glass window. Fuck no. Absolutely not for no less than $10K a day.” People were offering up their homes or a backyard for a scene. Everybody was working with us either in the capacity of us being able to do something for free or at an extremely reduced rate.

I have to say, the city of Nebraska City—the mayor, the city council, the parks and rec commissioner—they never said no to anything. They were the most accommodating, gracious hosts for this crew and cast. There’s a scene where AJ and Moose are riding their bikes at night. We blocked out like 15 blocks. Think about that. We went from basically the edge of where the downtown starts through a residential part of Nebraska City. It’s like a 15-block run, and we just shut it down at night. Any other city, it would take a lot to pull that off and a lot of police presence. The only thing was that we had cast the film in June, and we had to be there like June 15th for the city council to [approve the shoot]. We had to get on the docket so they could vote on us. We didn’t really know if we were gonna get accepted, [but] I had a good feeling that things were gonna work out for us.

Filmmaker: How long was the shoot?

Rehmeier: I was supposed to get six weeks with my DP and my production designer. I did have Francesca [Palombo], my production designer, out there early and, like, girl hit the ground running. I loved watching her work. She flew there, we got together, we were instantly driving around in my truck looking around at everything, day one. I think I introduced her to a few people and then she was off. She was at the Chamber of Commerce, the Morton James Public Library. She was going archival, going through microfiche and looking up basically everything from like 1987 probably to ’91 and getting outfits ideas and production design elements and what the swimming pool and downtown looked like at the time, so she could help recreate all of that as accurately as possible. There’s some side-by-side images that we’ve had from 1989-ish, stuff shot on film that was archived, and our production design looks very, very close to it. I’m shocked at how little the city has truly changed, especially in the downtown area, but also what we were able to pull off on a budget.

Filmmaker: I think a lot of people who shoot period films, especially films set in the early parts of a decade, make the mistake of overemphasizing the stereotypical aspects from that era. Like, 1991 isn’t “the ’90s,” it’s still basically the ’80s.

Rehmeier: Correct. That’s what we’ve had to explain to people pretty frequently. Like the ’90s certainly wasn’t happening, especially in Nebraska, yet. We’re in the Midwest also, so we’re a year or two behind fashion-wise, music-wise. Everything takes a little bit more time to catch up there.

We ran the snack shack during the summers of ’91 and ’92 completely autonomously ourselves. We helped a couple older college kids the year before, so we had an idea of how it all worked. I had the option to set it in ’92, but such a big paradigm shift had already happened at that point with music and culture. Nirvana’s Nevermind came out September of ’91. I thought it was way more interesting to try to focus on a post-Gulf War, pre-Nirvana period for the film where the ’90s hadn’t been defined yet. It was all this carry over from the ’80s. It was this strange period where we were listening to a lot of rap and metal. That alternative grunge thing was about to happen, and when that happened, literally overnight fashion changed completely. Everybody was wearing flannels. It just looked different. I thought that it would be more fun to be in this sort of weird, awkward period and have these kids in that weird, awkward period as well.

One of the problems I have with a lot of period films is the focus on gimmicky aspects, whether it’s props or clothes. Hairstyles, you know? It starts to stick out, and you’re just like, “Okay, they’re really trying to sell this.” I told everyone that I didn’t want them doting on the kids. The costume designers Annie [Anaïs Castaldi] and Hannah [Greenblatt], we had a discussion about just having clothing that feels lived in and repetitive. These kids aren’t wearing a different outfit every single day. They’re wearing the same thing several times because that’s how young boys are. But I look at what they did, and I’m just so impressed because it doesn’t draw attention to itself. It’s very natural and it feels comfortable.

The process for developing the film was super long. Around 2000, 2001-ish, I’m in my mid-twenties thinking about my mid-teens, starting to reflect but still too close to it. I have folders for all of my projects, and they’re like a little garden, and I tend to them. Usually, I’ll make a document that is just a series of bullet points of what I’d want to be in that project. Snack Shack for many, many years was just an accumulation of one- or two-line descriptions of something that we were doing in that period of time, like things that I would remember. Real Beer, gambling at Bluffs Run, jumping bikes in the pool, shit like that. As time passed, I would just meditate on that period of my life, and at a certain point, maybe at the 20-year mark [when] I’m in my mid-thirties, I’m starting to think about it more. Like, “God, that would be kind of cool to do a movie about that summer.”

Here’s a good example. When I was growing up watching Stand by Me, you’ll notice it’s narrated by Richard Dreyfuss. He’s in his like forties, he has kids, and he’s telling the story about growing up in the ’50s. We watched that in the ’80s and were like, “Oh man, these fucking cars rip, all these guys smoke cigarettes, they listen to cool bubblegum rock on the radio. They drag race!” All of that shit, we were just kind of enamored with it. That’s sort of what Snack Shack is now. It’s that 30-year reflection. So I just kept requiring more time to stew on what it would actually be. And I thought, “By the time I’m old enough and if I have kids and stuff, it’ll start to come back to me,” and it totally did.

The one thing that started happening was as my children are growing, I’m starting to engage with their childhood, and the stuff from my childhood was starting to get foggier. That’s when I was like, “Shit. I better do something now” before I kind of lose that connective tissue to being a young person. It was kind of an easy sell to do something that was also coming-of-age. I wanted to do something that was truthful to best friends and young men and the kinds of relationships that they have at that age. I had just enough immaturity left in me to pull it off.

Filmmaker: How did T-Street, Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman’s company, become involved?

Rehmeier: T-Street became involved from Ben LeClair. When this was all just sort of a treatment, I had talked to Ben La Claire over there, and I had also talked to Ben Cornwell at Paperclip, and they were the two producers that were interested in the project. I mean, in full transparency, Paperclip offered me more to write it. It was the middle of a global pandemic, and I just needed to find a way to make some cash. So I ended up writing it with them. But LeClair remained interested and said, “When it’s finished, we’d love to read it. We have an emerging filmmakers deal with MRC [Media Rights Capital]. This could be something that we could push through,” and that’s exactly what happened after I had a finished script.

Filmmaker: I have to ask about this Limps song that closes the film. I have some familiarity with punk bands from the late ’70s, and I had absolutely no idea they existed.

Rehmeier: Neither did I.

Filmmaker: How did you find them?

Rehmeier: Well, I’m a musician and a really big home recorder. I enjoy obscure music, lo-fi stuff, tape trading, I’ve always been into that. Nothing pleases me more than finding some kind of diamond-in-the-rough gem at a record store. I was perusing maybe six or seven years ago and came across the Limps song on YouTube. I don’t know if somebody had a collection of punk 7-inches. I don’t think it was specific to the Matchbox [Classics label] that was released, but whoever uploaded it had taken a picture of the 7-inch and you can hear the cracks and pops [in the video]. I really connected with the song and it became a regular rotator for several years leading up to the writing of Snack Shack. Even though it wasn’t something that we’d listen to specifically, it wasn’t out of the ballpark of the kinds of things that we were listening to then.

I just really liked how the song makes me feel. It became like the perfect send-off song for the movie, and it was written in the script that way as well. Even when I was writing, there were probably five or six cues that were the actual ones we use that were scripted. Like the EMF song [“Unbelievable”] was always the montage song. The Timmy T song “One More Try,” that was always in there. Urban Dance Squad, “Deeper Shade of Soul,” when they’re doing the night swim. That’s one of my favorite mainstream deep cuts. I love when there’s people that are my age that go, “Oh, fuck, I forgot about that song.” The only one that I cut that was scripted was there’s the scene where AJ is dancing to Dramarama alone at the snack shack, that was originally written in the script as “Grinding Halt” by The Cure, off their first album Three Imaginary Boys. That’s a top five Cure track for me.

Filmmaker: I like that first album more than the rest of their discography.

Rehmeier: There’s a few in a 10-, 15-year period that I think are perfect albums and that’s one of them. Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted; Guided By Voices, Alien Lanes; Ween, Pure Guava, all flawless.

I have to talk about Jean-Philippe Bernier, my DP. Between Jean-Philippe and Francesca, one thing that’s different about Dinner in America [Rehmeier’s previous feature] and Snack Shack is that our slate has all three of us on it. We made plans early on to kind of have an Ektachrome feel for this film. Part of that’s Ian Vertovec at Light Iron, who [did the color] on both Snack Shack and Dinner in America. JP did all the chip charts on Ektachrome up front.

The boys came out two weeks early, and we had a lot of runway on the tarmac. I got them jobs at the snack shack, they were hanging out with lifeguards and riding their bikes around town. They were really getting a feel of the place and the people. One of the great things that we had the ability to do because we had them a few weeks early is they could get together with Annie and Hannah, they could get their costumes that they were going to wear, and then JP could shoot the chip charts with them on film and send that out to Ian so he could build the LUT. We had a very specific LUT. We had way less latitude in this movie. A lot of these cameras, they’re 15 stops of latitude and shit now. It was controlled in a way where it dipped down pretty quick in the black, so it was like rich, rich blacks that were reminiscent of Amblin movies of the ’80s. There’s also a tight 64 ASA grain applied to it; it might be a 100 on this one. It does swim from time to time, but it tricks me [into thinking it’s film]. Depending on the theater, I’ve gotten tricked a few times. Obviously, I know the score, but the curve of it really throws me off sometimes because it does not have a lot of latitude at all.

There’s just a richness to that design and shooting Cinemascope. You can’t go into your hometown and not shoot Cinemascope. That would be ridiculous. There’s a missed opportunity there if you’re gonna shoot spherical in your hometown. You can’t do it.

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