David Robert Mitchell on ‘The Myth of the American Sleepover’

First-time filmmaker David Robert Mitchell has struck gold with The Myth of the American Sleepover, a dreamy yet realistic tale of suburban youth told in the same it-happened-one-night vein as other teen classics like Superbad and Dazed and Confused. Mitchell, a film school grad from Florida State, made his movie on a shoestring budget, doing post-production while working a 9 to 5er as a commercial editor in LA. After making it to SXSW, Myth eventually found its way to Cannes. Here’s Mitchell on how he found his cast of non-professional actors, ditching his day job, and breaking into the film industry.

How did you get this movie made? We wrote the script forever ago. I wrote a first draft in 2002, and then kind of sat on it. It wasn’t something that people wanted to put their money into, at least not knowing enough about me or what the film was going to be. I had short films that had gotten a decent amount of attention and people really liked, but it wasn’t enough.

How were you supporting yourself? I was an editor, cutting mostly commercials for really big movies. It was a good job. and I was trying to make films at the same time. Basically, my good friend from film school read my script and was like, “Let’s try to do this independently,” and she’s a producer, so she wanted to help me make this movie. So we just picked a start date and started saving money, and I just put as much as I could into the bank and we got a little bit of money from friends and family, and we just went and made it. We went to Michigan for three months, rented a house, got certified, it was about as low budget as it gets. We put a crew together locally and then cast all the actors.

Did you pay the actors? No. A few had done work before, but for most of them, it was their first film. I don’t think anyone worked on this movie because of money. It was just because they wanted the experience or they liked the script and wanted to be a part of it.

How did you find the actors? We put an ad in some community papers, and called some people, because that’s where I’m from, so we kind of got the word out that way. We were flying in on occasional weekends and holding these big open auditions.

Your characters cover the whole spectrum of adolescence. Some haven’t entered high school yet, and others have graduated. Why not focus on a more specific group? I think I wanted to focus on a point at which you’re sort of getting a sense of what’s to come, but you’re still hanging onto a little bit of your childhood, and sort of playing between those lines. You’re still excited by things in a way that maybe you’re not as much as you get a little bit older, where things—not to sound goofy about—but things can feel a little bit more magical in a way at that age.

Why did you ignore some of the hallmarks of today’s youth, like the internet and texting? We wanted something that felt a little more timeless. The second you have someone pull out a phone, it’s like, There’s the iPhone 3, and you know what year it is. It just dates things instantly.

How did you handle post-production while working your day job? It took us like a year and half to put it together, because we all had day jobs and the editor and I were both editing during the day. We’d get home, eat something really quick, and we’d walk over to my friend’s house and we’d edit the movie until like one in the morning, and then we’d go home and sleep then go to work and we each did that, and we did it for a very long time.

Was it all you could think about? Yeah. I was thinking about it constantly, and tons of different aspects of it. I was juggling the editing with just trying to figure out what we were going to do with the film. When you make a super low-budget movie and you don’t have those kinds of connections or track record, there’s always that fear that no one’s going to see it and you’re not going to get into a film festival, and it’ll just go away.

And then you got into SXSW. That was huge, and it was really exciting and it seemed like a good amount of people saw the movie. And then we were met with some nice reviews and I was hoping we’d get some kind of distribution. Like a month later, my producer called me super early in the morning and she started speaking in French and I was like, “What?” and she was like, “We’re in Cannes!”

And how was that? It was awesome! Just really cool. It was big gang of us because we’re all film school friends and we’ve known each other a long time. We got a good amount of attention and did interviews with foreign press. It was a surreal experience.

Have you quit your day job? I have! But I’m definitely not rolling in it from this movie. Quitting my day job was really about me making sacrifices in order to have time to write and to this. I feel like it would be stupid if I didn’t put all my energy into doing this right now.

Summer Movie Reviews: ‘The Trip,’ ‘The Devil’s Double’ & ‘Project Nim’

The Myth of the American Sleepover David Robert Mitchell’s directorial debut begins when Maggie (Claire Sloma), one of the film’s four teenage leads, decides to skip an end-of-summer sleepover party to chase after an older boy she likes. The camera then cuts to Rob (Marlon Morton), who’s looking for a girl he saw in a grocery store earlier that day, and then to Claudia (Amanda Bauer), who’s taken Maggie’s place at the all-girl soiree. Finally, it settles on Scott (Brett Jacobsen), a high school senior whose recent breakup has him contemplating the meaning of life. Nothing really happens in the film: there are no moral lessons, no life-altering revelations. There is, however, something familiar about the group’s adolescent vulnerability, which can be felt in the actors’ clumsy, monotonic delivery. Mitchell hired real kids instead of pros, and it shows. Whereas John Hughes understood that high school was still recognizable under a Hollywood shellac, Mitchell knows that you don’t need good lighting or a Glee star to create something authentically emotional. —Cayte Grieve

Project Nim In Project Nim, Academy Award–winning filmmaker James Marsh (Man on Wire) turns his camera on Columbia University in the 1970s, when an animal language research group tried to close the book on the nature-versus-nurture debate. Marsh’s exposition-heavy documentary introduces audiences to an infant chimpanzee named Nim Chimsky, the subject of what amounts to a real-life version of The Truman Show. We witness a diapered Nim curiously exploring the complex human world—and his caretakers’ optimism about his initial linguistic progress. As the years pass, however, disagreements within the group proliferate in tandem with now-adolescent Nim’s increasingly unpredictable and violent behavior, which eventually forces the project’s premature termination and Nim’s return to the primitive cages where he was born. Project Nim is an important testimony to the often cruel cost of science, and a telling reminder that chimps and humans aren’t so different after all. —Rory Gunderson

The Trip In this gorgeously shot but otherwise spartan comedy, director Michael Winterbottom sends his two leads, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon—playing exaggerated versions of themselves—on a road trip through picturesque northern England. Coogan has agreed to review a half-dozen upscale restaurants for The Observer, an assignment he initially took to impress his foodie girlfriend. But when she abruptly returns to America, he reluctantly invites his actor friend (Brydon) to take her place. Coogan plays a frustrated thespian entering midlife, hoping to land more meaningful roles while easing his pain with weed and women. Brydon is an able foil as the somewhat annoying friend—happy family, successful career—who becomes more likable as his unwavering optimism infects his recalcitrant partner. Over the course of 100 minutes—culled from a six-part BBC series—the duo exchanges insults, compares impersonations (their Michael Caine battle was a minor YouTube hit last year), and samples some of the finest cuisine ever prepared in the British Isles. It’s a buddy comedy, a road movie, and food porn all rolled into one. —Victor Ozols

The Devil’s Double An unfortunate resemblance to Saddam Hussein’s eldest son, Uday (Dominic Cooper), forces Iraqi army lieutenant Latif Yahia (also Dominic Cooper) to serve as the loathed progeny’s body double in Lee Tamahori’s The Devil’s Double. Under looming threats to his family’s safety, Yahia consents to plastic surgery, dental work, and a wardrobe makeover that casts him as Saddam’s “third son,” a carbon copy of Uday, a coke-snorting sadist with a murderous temper and a habit of preying on underage girls. A respectable and level-headed man who first told his real-life story in a 2003 memoir, Latif’s is the only voice of reason in an otherwise trigger-happy, amoral world. —Nadeska Alexis