“Coming of Age” is a genre of film to which everyone can relate. We’re all capable of understanding the struggles and confusion that accompany one’s adolescent years, as a kid awkwardly transforms into a adult and leans on his or her friends in order to endure those trying times.
David Robert Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover is one such story. Set in suburban Michigan (the site of Mitchell’s own coming-of-age years), the film tells the story of a group of adolescents on the eve of the first day of the new school year. The story is heartwarming, genuine, and speaks to a truth to which any age audience can certainly relate.
MovieMaker caught up with the film’s writer-director to discuss his inspiration for the film and the struggles he went through to get it made.
Hugh Cunningham (MM): How did this story originate?
David Robert Mitchell (DRM): I made several semi-autobiographical short films in film school. People seemed to enjoy them, so I decided to write a similarly-toned, feature-length script. Some of it is based on real memories, some of it is imagined. Basically, I wanted to make a film that was all about the feeling of being a teenager—what it was like to hang out with friends on a summer night.
MM: Location plays an important part in the movie. How important was the Michigan setting of the film to you?
DRM: I grew up in Michigan and when I wrote the script, I imagined it taking place in those same neighborhoods. As a kid, I always wanted there to be films shot in Michigan, and it was my goal to do that. By filming in the suburbs, homes and backyards of my childhood, I was trying to focus on the physical and visceral aspects of space in our youth: The connection we have to backyards, neighborhood alleyways, suburban streets and swimming pools.
MM: Did you have difficulty finding the right locations for shooting? Which was the biggest challenge?
DRM: We had around 40 locations in the script and the sheer number made it tough to find them all—and secure them for filming. With no money for location fees, we relied on friends, family and generous people in the community to allow us access to their property. It took a lot of work, tons of hours of scouting and a dose or two of stress to make it all come together. Our biggest challenge was the parade sequence: Multiple characters in and along a large parade route. We planted our actors on floats, along the street and within a dance group during an actual community parade. Then we had to film each story beat before the parade was over. I remember wildly scrambling up the parade route with the cinematographer and crew, carrying camera gear, sprinting through the crowd in order to get each and every shot. We did it, but it was tough.
MM: Can you talk a bit about the casting process. It’s the debut film for most of the stars. Was it your intention to fresh faces for the film? Considering this is your debut feature, too, was there a certain comfort in that?
DRM: We held several open auditions in Michigan in the 10 months leading up to production. These were advertised in community papers and via word of mouth. The producer and I flew into Michigan on weekends and conducted the auditions ourselves with the help of my family (my mom and sister worked the greeting table).
I always wanted new faces for this film. I wanted people to see the actors as these characters—hinting at something genuine and real. The challenge was finding unknowns, with little or no acting experience, who could carry a feature film. Honestly, it was a little scary going down that path. There were so many roles to fill and they all required sincere performances. Before finding our cast, I was worried that it wouldn’t work—that it might be too difficult to pull together. Over time, we assembled our gang, rehearsed and then… it just clicked. The charming qualities I saw in them during auditions translated into believable and natural performances.
Although there was probably some comfort for me (as a first-time feature director) directing first-time actors, I don’t think it was really a factor in my approach. It was always about showcasing a talented bunch of kids in a naturalistic, yet dream-like film. We were genuinely proud of our cast and we couldn’t wait to put them in the movie.
MM: What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
DRM: I hope that people of different ages will be able to see themselves in the characters. I hope that adults will be able to reconnect with parts of themselves they might have forgotten, and that teens might sense nostalgia for the very moments they’re immersed in today. It’s funny to imagine nostalgia for the present, but I think it’s a real phenomenon. I saw this film as a way to tap into that collective group ideal of what our youth should be—it’s a combination of real experiences and the dreamy qualities of memories we’ve never had, but hoped for.
MM: What’s up next for you?
DRM: I’m putting together several new projects. The next feature film is called Ella Walks the Beach. It’s about a young woman in her twenties who breaks up with her boyfriend and runs away with friends. We follow her for a night and a day as she travels along iconic California beaches, having little adventures and conversations with strangers. It’s about every aspect of love in a person’s life. I think it will be very entertaining and beautiful. Sort of like “The Swimmer” meets Antonioni with a dash of Truffaut (that’s the inspiration anyway).