We Are the Night: Interviewing the Team Behind Myth of the American Sleepover
The Myth of the American Sleepover has seduced audiences from Austin to Cannes with the intimacy of its look at a group of teenagers during one long, magical summer night. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell and his team discuss the film’s journey to the screen.
How well do you remember what it felt like to be a teenager?
The loneliness, the intoxicating surges of horniness, the longing to be noticed, the anxiety of… being noticed too much?
Most films don’t manage a decent approximation of that experience — the emotional, the tactile, the olfactory. Really: what smell do you recall most vividly from age 15? Can you remember?
Films about growing up usually lapse into cliche in their snarkiness, in their reduction of youth to a series of cruel put-downs, clever (and perhaps even meaner) comebacks, well-defined cliques, and frogs in thick-rimmed “nerd” glasses magically transforming into homecoming kings and queens.
But that’s film reality: one-liners for a trailer, tag lines on a poster.
The Myth of the American Sleepover, David Robert Mitchell’s elegant and introspective first feature about a night of teenage wandering and wonderment, isn’t sarcastic, caustic, or loud. In fact, the film has a rare quality — it’s so quiet that it seems to listen to you.
Mitchell — who also wrote the subtle, multi-plotted screenplay, which follows two girls and two boys — has a reverence for those ephemeral moments when something tiny and internal has shifted in a character. Yet while that change might be invisible to the eye, it’s also sort of epic (at least for the teenager experiencing the change). The Myth of the American Sleepover (which IFC Films will release in the summer) is surprisingly idiosyncratic, existing in some cinematic dreamland where Adventureland and Dazed and Confused live side by side with Truffaut’s Small Change or even something as non-narrative as Sharon Lockhart’s hypnotic, gazing Pine Flat.
In a way, Mitchell has constructed a film about the negative space of childhood — many of these bits and pieces of life on a Michigan summer night would wind up in the digital dustbin of more mainstream “high school” films. The film doesn’t really contain any histrionic highs or lows — it just patiently follows a few kids as they search for a kiss that doesn’t happen, or kiss the wrong guy, or do a drunken dance in front of a crowd at a party and manage to… not be humiliated (maybe not be “cool,” either, but hey — that’s okay).
Working on a shoestring budget, producer Adele Romanski paired with Mitchell to take great advantage of Julio Perez’s confident editing and James Laxton’s lush RED cinematography (which won great-acclaim — and an Independent Spirit Award nomination — several years ago for Medicine for Melancholy). The resulting film feels patient and rapt — but not small.
There’s a sadness in watching the calm and relatively innocent kids in The Myth of the American Sleepover: they’re young and have their entire futures ahead of them, until one day they won’t. But for the length of the movie, it’s summer, and college is a few years off, and there’s still time to figure everything out.
David, can you talk about the origins of the story? David Robert Mitchell: We all met at film school at Florida State. I did a few semi-autobiographical short films about growing up in Michigan. So I just wanted to do a sort of feature version of some of that.
And when did you first tell Adele about this? When did this collaboration begin? Adele Romanski: I think it was the beginning of 2006 when we said, “We should do this thing.”
Mitchell: But I wrote it in 2002.
Romanski: The year is 2011.
Mitchell: [laughs] I know, it’s crazy! Time flies.
Adele, do you remember what David first told you about the project? Romanski: Well, my memory of it is that you sent me Myth to read and give notes. And you also sent me this thing called Pop Beach, which was a short film that you wanted to make. I read them both and said, “Let’s not make this short because you’ve already done that very well before. Let’s just do this feature.”
Mitchell: It was right when I came out to L.A. I thought, “Oh, I’ll be able to take these short films and get this [feature] done within a year.” And then it just wasn’t happening. I had set it aside, and then I showed it to Adele —
Romanski: I thought, “This will be easy! I’ll produce it.”
Mitchell: [laughs] And it was not. It was hard. I guess I thought it would be easier than it was.
Romanski: You still think everything is going to be easier than it is.
Mitchell: That’s true. Maybe that’s an aspect of my personality.
Did you always know there would be several plot threads and a number of kids, or was there ever a version of it with one kid going about his thing? Mitchell: It was always supposed to be a bunch of them. I couldn’t hit all the different story points I wanted to tell with one character. In fact, originally, there were probably more. It got to be ridiculous. We decided to cut some.
So, Adele, the iteration of the film that wound up happening, shooting in Michigan for the budget you shot at: How did that come about? Did you ask for money from family members? Did you do meetings with producers? Romanski: No, because nobody wanted to talk to us. At the time I was a 23-year-old kid asking for $1.5 million to make this movie by some guy they’d never heard of. Nobody was really interested in that. But we set out very idealistically with this big budget and this business plan. And it kind of became clear roughly a year later that we needed a new strategy. So we decided to push everything one year, set a date and then scrounge together whatever the fuck we could from friends, family and ourselves. With whatever we had in the bank at that point, we were going to go to Detroit and shoot this movie.
Mitchell: I was working as an editor doing movie marketing. I put myself on a crazy budget and started saving every penny I could save. It was a painful year of saving. Saving and begging.
Romanski: Begging for money, and then once we got to Michigan, begging people to come out and help us, or let us come shoot in their home or their swimming pool or whatever.
Was that a really demeaning process at times? Mitchell: I took joy in it. But what happened was we put ourselves in this situation where we had to, or we would have to turn around and say, “Oh, sorry everybody. This isn’t going to happen.”
Romanski: There was a certain amount of naïveté.
Mitchell: Right. The script that we wrote really should have been a much bigger-budgeted film. And we ended up having very little money, but we didn’t change the script that much.
I heard someone say that every movie is the story of its own making. How do you think that this process of begging, this filmmaking of humility, affected the film? If someone had just cut you a check for $4 million right off the bat, do you think that would have affected the tone and vibe of the film? Mitchell: We would’ve had crane shots.
Romanski: [laughs] James could have had some more lights, some HMIs or something.
Julio Perez: I would’ve gotten paid. I like that line as a statement, but I believe the psychodrama of creating the film did not carry over to the actual film. I feel like it’s quite the opposite.
Mitchell: Yeah. I think that any of the melancholy that’s in the movie, that’s just there. That would have been there with money or not.
Julio, you were one of the people who read the script. Can you talk about your impressions when you read it? Perez: David and I had been colleagues and friends since film school. So I took my editor hat off and just read the script and gave him my honest take on it. I remember having some strong feelings about it, and as usual, Mitchell was maybe a little… not entirely pleased that I wasn’t right away bawling with enthusiasm.
Mitchell: [laughs] That’s a funny way to say it.
Perez: I can be a pretty harsh note giver. I don’t think he addressed most of my notes, probably. But whatever he did, I felt when I read a later draft that it had become clearer, more accessible. Not necessarily accessible in a commercial sense. But there was a clarity to it, and it moved along. And I was like, “Yes! This is great, man!” And Mitchell swears that he didn’t change much.
Mitchell: I didn’t.
Part of what sets Myth apart from a lot of other movies about young people is its quietness. It’s not chirpy, catty, chatty, sarcastic, snarky. It’s not necessarily that it’s melancholy, it’s that the kids are more introspective collectively than a lot of kids. They’re not as much at each other’s throats. And they’re not overly clever. Mitchell: To me, that gets tiresome. The quiet stuff is what I really like about it. Those are the things that I’m really most proud of. I almost would have wanted there to be more, to tell you the truth.
If there had been more, in what way would that have…. Mitchell: I don’t know. It probably would have been a more challenging film, maybe a little less commercial. But I don’t know, I think it could have lived that way. I felt like there was a need to make it a little bit more interesting and exciting — not too much but enough. It strikes a balance. But sometimes I like the other directions.
James, can you talk about when you first read the script and what your first impressions were? James Laxton: I came on in 2008, much later than anyone else in the room. I wasn’t there for most of the begging. Adele handed me the script, and we met with David. I think we both shared a lot of sensibilities and thoughts about the material. And yeah, my initial reactions to the script were that it was fantastic, and obviously it was also just a great visual canvas because it’s so patient and quiet. As a cinematographer, when I read all those actions and not a lot of dialogue, it’s exciting for me because I know that those are opportunities to visually explore the scenes as opposed to just covering dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.
When you guys started talking about the visual scheme and the look of the film, what were some of the reference points that you had? Mitchell: My memory with it was that film-wise, it was a lot of Truffaut, 1960s European films in general. And also we shared a lot of photos. Sitting together looking over photography books. But even the photography was probably from a certain era as well. None of it was modern or anything like that.
What photographers? Mitchell: We grabbed a few things. There’s a book that you gave me, I forgot who….
Laxton: It’s a book called The Age of Adolescence. I forgot the photographer. [Joseph Sterling]
Were you also imagining how the film would look? There are a number of shots where the characters are almost looking straight into the lens of the camera. It immediately establishes an intimacy between the viewer and characters. Was that an early decision? Laxton: Well, I remember there was definitely a conversation about point of view. The scene I’m thinking of specifically now is in the basement with Amanda. She looks directly into the camera as she’s touching the boy’s arm.
Mitchell: I love that on-axis stuff. That very direct use of point of view is important. There’s something about being right on the edge of the eye line that I think is visceral — especially playing a really nice close-up with these actors who have these really interesting faces.
Whose point of view is the film? Whose story was it? Or are you saying, “There are four main characters, and it’s each of their stories. At any point, it’s any character’s story.” Mitchell: Well, depending on where you are, it’s that particular character’s, for sure. I think that the Maggie character [played by Claire Sloma] is the lead; she probably has the most screen time. But the point is you really have to care and relate to each of them. And also, not just those four — there are side characters, and you could feel some empathy for what they’re going through. So it’s about shifting point of view throughout.
Why did you shoot in Michigan? Romanski: There was one primary factor for us: that was where David envisioned the story when he wrote the script. That was where he grew up. It’s that simple. Coincidentally, the [film tax] incentives kicked in before we headed over there. If we shot the year before like we intended to, they wouldn’t have existed at all. But, because of the scale of our project, it didn’t change very much for us.
Mitchell: We were too small to qualify.
Were you guys shooting the same summer that Gran Torino was shooting in Detroit? Mitchell: Yeah, it was right after.
Romanski: We were going right when Whip It and Youth in Revolt shot. The only thing that changed for us as far as the experience was that people were becoming a bit savvier about film production in their community. And a lot of the gear was getting eaten up because Michigan didn’t have much infrastructure yet to support such volume of film production. Also I think that people were focusing a little bit more on some of these bigger movies, which sometimes allowed us to slide under the radar. Which I think is a good thing.
No one was asking for money or anything? Romanski: Location fees or anything like that? Not really. We did shoot at a high school that Youth in Revolt shot at. And I had to break down for them the difference in size between that film and our film.
Mitchell: Yeah, they have millions of dollars and we have in the thousands.
Romanski: Because David grew up there, had friends and family in the area, we were able to rely on them. My family is from the area too.
Mitchell: Every house [in the film] is a relative’s, like mine or Adele’s, or a friend of the family’s.
What was the minimum for the film incentives to have kicked in? $500,000? Romanski: It was actually $50,000. That tells you something about how much we shot the film for. We did not qualify for the minimum spend of $50,000.
That’s part of the wonderful Rocky story of you guys. At festivals, you don’t want to talk about the budget. But now it’s a charming point. Mitchell: We didn’t say it for a long time, but then we kind of looked at each other and we’re like, “We can say it.”
Romanski: Yeah, I’ll say it because I’m proud of it. We shot a film, we had $30,000 in our bank account when we shot that movie. And I’m fucking proud of what we did with that. I know it’s taboo to talk numbers, but…
Why is it taboo to talk numbers? Romanski: Fuck if I know, man!
Before you get distribution? Romanski: But then after, people still don’t want to talk about it.
Oh, really? It’s so hush-hush. Romanski: Yeah, everybody is so cagey with their details.
Well, scream it from the mountaintops. Romanski: I will. I’m taking out a banner ad on Facebook.
If this had been a bigger budget film — if you didn’t worry about finances — would you have had more signifiers that said, “This is set in this specific place?” Detroit Pistons logos? And do you think of it as a sort of regional film? Mitchell: I probably would not have put in any of that. But, yes, it’s regional. It’s about this space. But I don’t think that it was important to give all the specifics. I don’t think the film exists that way. To me, it’s a little more dreamy and magical than it is documentary-like. The geography of it is like dream geography. Some of the neighborhoods that they’ll go to, those actually might be farther away. To go from the more middle-class to the more upper-middle-class [neighborhoods], from the lake to the pool — I mean, all these things can be connected, but in my head there’s something a little bit more magical connecting these spaces. So to try and limit ourselves to saying, “Yes, it’s in this city, it’s in this space, it’s on this road” — I really didn’t want to do that. I would have probably masked it even more if I had the money. And in terms of editing, in terms of post —
Perez: [The intention] absolutely carried over into post. There are certain scenes where you have a choice. You can edit them in a very matter-of-fact fashion, or you can try to uncover something that is maybe not so obvious in the scene. I think that we approached [editing] largely from intuition, but also, sometimes very consciously, we tried to find rhythms that: 1) spoke to the scene and 2) took it to a place that’s maybe a little more lyrical, maybe a little more…magical?
Julio, knowing David and having worked with him for years, what would you say some of his qualities as a director are? Perez: I think one big undercurrent of his work is a refined nostalgia. He has a great deal of patience. And he likes to lavish attention on the human face when the character is in some sort of crisis of seduction, whether to seduce or not to be seduced.
When you’re working with a director, how do you get a sense of their value system? I mean, is part of your job eking out what you think are their filmmaking values and the tone that they’re going for? Perez: Yeah. Part of it is eking out what I feel they want. And part of it is also bringing what I have. I think there’s a lot of both. But yes, I guess you look at things as basic as genre, tone and personal style. When somebody says, “He or she gets it,” I think part of getting it is understanding the work and collaborating in terms of their values or aesthetics.
Were there any specific scenes that the two of you butted heads on? Are there any scenes that stand out in your mind when you thought, “This is one where we need to really articulate our values in this film because we’re disagreeing about something in the edit?” Perez: One sticks out. When Scott runs down the hallway in the high school, we were trying to cut it matter-of-factly. We were both working day jobs and editing at night. We were both exhausted. And I think that night I was a little lazy, dragging my feet. Mitchell was getting tired of it. The scene wasn’t resolving itself. So we were butting heads in that sense. “I don’t know where we’re going,” [I said]. Mitchell is like, “We’ll find it.” And I’m like “Fine!” And I just start slapping things on. “Try this music, and how do you like that?!” Then I threw in a jazz number, and we watched it and we’re like, “Well, that’s a lot of fun. We’re doing a little bit of a tonal shift here. We’re doing a rebellion in tone, in this moment.” But why not? Some of the filmmakers we revere did some tonally crazy stuff.
Mitchell: And there were a few other weird tone moments in the film.
Maggie’s dancing on the pier is one. The hallway moment, for me, is like The Breakfast Club moment. And I mean that in the best way. I know you’re probably thinking of it as “the Truffaut moment,” but I’ve been watching some of the John Hughes movies recently. As we know now since he passed away, he was a morose man in his mid-thirties, grasping at some lost adolescence with these kids. I watched Myth with my wife last night. And the moment on the pier where Maggie is dancing, she was like, “Oh my God, please tell me it doesn’t end badly.” She was so sure Maggie was going to be humiliated. “Is everyone in the scene laughing at her, or are they laughing with her?” My wife wound up so happy it worked out for her. And I feel like so much of the tone of the movie is that. That’s being a teenager. You’re either going to have this transcendent moment of joy, or you’re going to be utterly humiliated. Perez: I think what you’re describing is something that we’re also very conscious of: tension. As you mentioned, this is a drama, a gentle story, but there’s still gotta be tension. You have to have a sense of release. Of relief. You have to be concerned about whether something good or bad is going to happen to a character.
Can you guys talk about the casting? I know there were a lot of non-professional actors in the cast. So what were you looking for, and what was that process like? Romanski: We were meeting up in Detroit starting about nine months or a year out. We would do these open-call auditions in church basements and colleges. We just put the word out in the local paper, to the local community theaters and college and high school drama programs and told everyone they were invited to come and give it a shot. And David would run the camera, and I would read the sides, and we’d read a hundred kids.
Mitchell: My family was at the table.
Romanski: His mom and his sister would check people in and help advise them on which character they thought they should read for, which was interesting.
Perez: They were like casting directors.
Romanski: And that is chiefly how we put it together. Some of the actors came from L.A., but I’d say 90 percent were from Michigan.
Of Claudia, Maggie, Rob [Marlon Morton], did any of them come from that process? Romanski: Amanda Bauer, who plays Claudia, grew up where we shot the film but came out to L.A. several years ago to pursue acting. We had done a small casting session out here [in L.A.], which was where we read her. We actually cast a local girl in that role originally. And at the last possible second…
Mitchell: The first day of her actual filming.
Romanski: At the last possible second she dropped out of the film.
Mitchell: Like about ten minutes before she was supposed to be there.
Romanski: And she did it via text message.
[laughs] A movie with kids! Of course they would do that. Either that or IM-ing you. What did the text say? Romanski: It was a series of four texts basically saying that she had a lot going on right now, and she didn’t think she was going to be able to do it, like, today… or maybe ever. I tried calling her immediately and she wouldn’t pick up the phone or return the call. I’m totally comfortable saying this because this was a really irresponsible way to behave. I hope she has grown up.
Mitchell: I wish her the best.
Romanski: David, always the positive one. And me, always the cynic. We did a quick reshuffle and obviously rescheduled the second half of our day to not include her. And then, this is awesome: we were between locations, and David walks up to me on the driveway with that crazy look that I’m intimately acquainted with at this point, and he says, “I know who I want to replace her.” And it was Amanda Bauer, the girl who ended up playing her.
Mitchell: We read her once in L.A. basically.
Romanski: We read her once in L.A., like five or six months prior, and had not spoken to her since. We did not even follow up to say, “You didn’t get the part.” Nothing. I was like, “I’ll call her up and see what she’s doing and see if she can get on a plane next week and come to Michigan.”
What was her response? Romanski: She was like, “Send me the script. I’m going to talk to my mom.” She was 16 or 17 at the time. It happened really fast. She came out and was able to stay with her relatives.
Mitchell: She was awesome. We read her once for a different character. And I just remembered that she was really good.
And the actress who played Maggie, she came from one of those calls? Romanski: Yeah, she was a freshman at University of Michigan.
And when she came in what was your first impression of her? Mitchell: She had a lot of energy. She’d done some high school theater. I just worked with her in terms of figuring out how to deliver a performance that was smaller, a little subtler for this kind of movie. We called her back several times, and it took a little while. But by the time we were ready to shoot, she had it. Adele and I, we had a blast putting together all these audition tapes, finding these kids for the film, taking their photos and then saying, “So-and-so would be good for this [part].” Pairing them up. We were excited, and we’re really proud of the cast.
Romanski: Some of the roles were harder to cast than others, but I feel like we always knew: “He’s gonna be Steven. She’s gonna be Beth.”
Do you think that’s because the kids kind of are those characters? I mean, they’re not actors, these guys. They had to be that person right away. Romanski: I think that they had some aspect of their characters.
Mitchell: They are these characters, but they are acting. I still have to say that some are very different from the characters that they’re playing.
Julio, can you talk about editing professionally trained actors versus non-professional actors, and what that process of building the performance is like? Perez: I’d say, in all honesty, I have not edited many professionally trained actors.
Mitchell: But some of the characters in this film are. I mean, it’s the difference between cutting [Marilyn] and cutting Brett.
Perez: Right. Okay. I think there’s perhaps a matter of precision. With a professionally trained actor often comes precision. You’re really digging around for different nuances. Whereas with a non-professional there’s a point where you’re just trying to float. You’re just trying to make it work sometimes. Sometimes. Excepting all the non-professionals on this film — everybody here was perfect!
Was there a typical number of takes that David would go for? Perez: I think on average you probably get three to four on close-ups. They could go up to seven. And of course, more complicated, choreographed, wide shots were up to 12. But 12 takes was not common.
So what was the post process like for you guys? You finished shooting, and then… Perez: It was already in the can, so to speak, when they brought it back to Los Angeles. And from there, David brought the drives over to my place, and we cut it on Final Cut Pro. We sat down for probably around two weeks, watched all the footage together.
Everyone or just you two? Perez: Just the two of us.
Mitchell: We drank a little bit of whiskey.
Perez: [laughs] We drank whiskey after our screenings. I took notes on what he liked. And from there we went into doing what I guess you can call an editor’s cut, but I prefer “rough cut” as the term for it. As I mentioned, we were both working full-time jobs. So it took a while. And once we got to that stage, producer, director and other people screened it and came back with notes. And there might have been a little tweaking from there, but almost immediately Mitchell came into the editing room, so to speak. At that point we worked on a director’s cut for probably a couple months. And it was evenings showing up around 8 PM and working until midnight or 1 AM. Getting up the next morning and then going to work, doing the same thing.
Mitchell: Every day except for one day a week, and one day on the weekends.
Perez: Sometimes when we were really pushing we would do both Saturday and Sunday. And yeah, we’d have a hard night of editing, and we’d pour a whiskey and put on some music we like and sit back and chat about something totally different than the film. Or we’d talk about what we did that day, and where the film was going and other aspects of the film.
Mitchell: And my break-up.
Perez: [laughs] Oh yeah. A little bit of therapy was involved.
Mitchell: Yeah, he’s a great editor/therapist.
Perez: I try.
You said the first draft was completed in 2002… Mitchell: Yeah, end of 2002.
Now that your film is coming out in theaters, and you have to support it, is your emotional connection the same? Is it like your kids grew up and are going off to college? Mitchell: It’s that. When I talk to someone, if they have a really strong response to it, I can feel that again. But me, I’ve seen it so many times. I’ve been living with it for so long that it’s hard for me to see it and feel it in that way anymore.
Romanski: Well, the college analogy is perfect. We use that all the time.
Mitchell: Yeah, I’m still very close to it, but it’s through other people that I enjoy it.
Is there anything else that I didn’t touch upon? Laxton: One last thing to mention: I kind of disagree, to a certain extent, with what you were saying earlier about, “If this was a $4 million movie, it wouldn’t have affected the final product.” Part of the way we made this film — with a small crew, a low-impact production — I think helped your non-professional actors a little bit. Being able to not have 40-year-old grips with all their huge crap everywhere. I mean, we were almost kids when we made the movie. And I felt like that relationship of ours was imoortant for some of these teenagers. Having it not be a major Hollywood production was important for them.
Mitchell: That’s a good point. It was casual, it was relaxed and it was fun for them. We heard this many times: it was just fun. It was this fun thing to do in the summer. It was like summer camp. They were just hanging out together, going to different backyards, and houses…
Perez: I think you would’ve built the Make-Out Maze if you had more money.
What is the Make-Out Maze? Mitchell: It’s a half-abandoned industrial complex in Detroit.
Did you find the owner and secure the rights to shoot there? Romanski: We were put in contact with this guy who’s actually a musician/artist living in the part of the complex that was residential. I’ll be honest, I don’t know if I ever got that contract signed.
Mitchell: [laughs] You may not want to mention that.
What are they going to do now? Romanski: Sue us? We got an [E and O] policy. Bring it!
Mitchell: End of the article: Bring it!