'Never Goin' Back' Director Augustine Frizzell On Making Her Joyful Stoner Comedy [Interview]

Never Goin' Back is a movie bursting with life. Even when the film's two teenage best friends (played by Maia Mitchell and Camila Morrone) are just tolerating another mundane shift at the diner, there's still a feeling of joyfulness in Augustine Frizzell's feature directorial debut. Even in the story's most dire or ridiculous situations, the characters manage to keep the good times going, thanks to each other.

There's a happy-go-lucky, adventurous spirit to Never Goin' Back, which is based on Frizzell's own teenage experiences with her best friend. The writer-director looks back on those times fondly and with reflection and, clearly, a lot of laughs. She has a lot of love for her protagonists, which is always evident in the movie. Frizzell recently told us about how close she is to these characters, working with A24, days from the set, and a whole lot more about her comedy, which managing what /Film editor Jacob Hall called "a sweet and raunchy tale of glorious idiocy" in his review.

When did you start writing Never Goin' Back?

I started that story probably ten years ago. It was basically just stuff that had happened. I mean, I had always kept a journal and kept track of things that had happened to me. But then I started writing it as a short sometime around 2000 ... No, maybe not ten years ago, probably like eight years ago. That was around 2010 or so. And then, I just kind of set it aside, but then in 2014, picked it back up and started putting it together and rounding it out a little bit more.

I'm sure you had a lot of memories and stories to tell. Were there ever any very different versions of the story or is the final film close to what you first imagined? 

There were many different versions. There were so many. I remember one, there was just like grocery store heist setting. I mean, we did so many crazy things when I was young. One time we fashioned this little net on the end of this pole and went to this grocery store near where we lived, and we slid it into the pharmacy area there. There was a little crack under the door. Slid it into the pharmacy area, scooped up a bottle of pills, and pulled it back out. [Laughs] We were awful. We were total criminals. We were wreaking havoc, and so yeah, that was in one of the versions, it was a grocery store, we had people looking at. There were so many very variations on this story. It took awhile to get it where it is right now.

Would you ever consider publishing that journal? That'd make a good tie-in. 

I have. Everyone's suggesting, "I want to know what else you guys did," and so I've thought about it. Maybe one day. I've thought about getting with my best friend because she had this incredible list of things we did and all of the people we hitchhiked. She had profiles of each person from back in the day because we had to hitchhike to work when we were living together when we weren't taking the bus, and this is actually another portion of our lives that she kept track of every person who picked us up hitchhiking. Her and I need to get together and release some sort of memoir, some companion book or something.

Anybody who likes these characters would want to read that. Never Goin' Back, it's a feel good movie about a not very good situation. How early on did you know that tone and feel was right for the story? 

I knew from the very beginning that that's what I wanted. It's a really, really hard tone to balance, so it took a while to figure it out. I mean, I still even think about it and I think about it's my first script and it's my first feature film, and so there are some things that I feel so I really hit well and others... You know, you wonder why are there no other films about kids with no money and these horrible situations. Why don't we speak in stories that are funny about them? Their lives are horrible. It's sad. It's a bummer. You feel sorry for them and it's tragic, and so it's a really hard thing to do.

I knew looking back that even though we had really difficult periods at that point, a lot of sadness and a lot of heartbreak and feeling abandoned and feeling like the world was big and out to get us, despite all that, such a strong bond as friends, my best friend and I. Such a strong bond that we were able to face the world together with a bit more humor. I think I do that in general, see things with more humor. And those are the stories I wanted to show. I didn't want to see the bummer, 'cause we've seen that. And I love those stories too. I love those, you know those heavy teen movies as well. But I just wanted to lighten up.

Right. There's usually that section of a movie where things go really bad or characters feel punished for their choices. I was happy you didn't go there. 

Thank you. Because teenagers inherently make bad decisions, all the time. And we know that it's bad, and we're gonna be 10 years later looking bad at it and being like, "Why did we do that dumb shit?" But in the moment, we all know these are dumb things that teens do. We don't have to pass judgment. They're gonna grow out of it, most likely.

Some of the reactions to that are interesting to me. How some people are reacting to the movie and specifically the characters, it can say more about them than the movie.

Me too. It's been so eyeopening in a way, and surprising in so many other ways. I had no idea that people would be angry about it. I think a lot of people are angry about it and they're just like, "Why are these kids doing all this bad stuff and they have no prudence." And you know, they're 15, 16, or 17 in the movie, so of course they're doing dumb shit. It's funny the way they're judged. You rarely see teen movies from middle class families being judged so harshly. You rarely see the characters being judged so harshly. I'm never bothered if people don't think it's funny, or if they think it's a little predictable. It may not be your style of humor, and yeah these are stereotypical tropes from super stoner comedies, but as soon as they start judging the characters, it's really weird.

I've talked to some filmmakers before who, when they make a movie this personal or true to their life, they feel more vulnerable and look at the reactions a little different. Has that been the case at all for you? 

I don't feel ... let me think of the right words. It is vulnerable to a certain degree, but only in that it's a piece of art that I made and put into the world. As far as it being my personal story, and having people judge me for the life that I led, that never bothers me. And it's weird, and I think that's- I've had a couple people ask me, "How are you so brave to talk about your past?" I've never been someone who hid my past or was ashamed of my past. I've always spoken openly about it because if there's anything I've learned, being a mom or just being the offspring of people who didn't open up to me about their past, is that we learn the most by hearing about other people's experiences.

I have a 19-year-old daughter. She knows everything about my life, and I think that's helped her learn what not to do, and just see the consequences. And then we have this open conversation, so I find that when I'm open about my life and my past, it allows other people to also be open about their lives and their past. And that's one of my favorite things. I love hearing about other people. I love hearing their stories. I love learning from other's experiences and so I never feel bad about being judged for my past. It's the art. It becomes its own thing. It is based on my life, but it is a whole other separate piece of work now in the world that isn't my life. It's a movie that I made.

Well, I just wanted to add, I think the girls are great. 

[Laughs] They're really cool, right? They're not too cool for school. I feel like they're just kind of goofy and fun. I love them. Talking about reviews, I read one like, "You should give them obstacles for these girls to overcome." I'm like, "So funny." [Laughs] It just made me laugh so hard at those reviews. It's like, "Okay..." I don't feel any woe or sadness over reviews like that. Yeah, those are the things that you put in a movie: you add obstacles for the characters to overcome. It was just so funny. Anyway, as far as liking the girls, I fucking love the girls. I'm obsessed with those characters. I mean, they're based on me and my life. I like myself pretty well.

never goin' back review

What sort of atmosphere did you and your cinematographer want to create? 

We talked about invoking a feeling, so that's what I kind of wanted to do and that feeling of being a teen and having the heat of the summer and all those things. So we definitely talked about that. But then we also talked about ... we didn't ever want to make it seem like a hazy, you know this distant thing, but we did want to add a graininess and a kind of a timelessness to it, so that it almost felt like it could have happened 20 years ago, it could've happened modern day at any point in time. It just needed to have a specific look, but it was also indistinct if that makes sense.

It does. Where did you shoot?

We shot in the DFW area, so the actual story took place, my life, in Garland, Texas, and we looked around Garland and didn't find any locations, and so we ended up finding a bunch of our shots in Fort Worth and Grand Prairie and even the diner was in Bedford, Texas, or something like that. Still around Dallas.

When you were casting you did a lot of Skype calls, so during that time, what stood out about Maia Mitchell and Camilla Morrone? 

Their energy. Their energy separately, and then their energy together. And so initially I spoke to them apart from one another, and they just had this crazy youthful, devil may care attitude to a certain degree, but they were also really intelligent, and had a lot of good thoughts on the script. There were a lot of experiences that they could link back to the material that were personal and made it relevant to them. Those are some of the first things that I noticed, and then of course they were great actresses, but then getting them together was the key. 'Cause I saw a ton of great actresses. I saw a bunch of people who were just fantastic, but them together was electric and magnetic, amazing.

When was the first time you saw them together in a room doing scenes?

That was back in July of last year. I came to California to do chemistry reads and so we had a day of girls coming in in-person and reading together with each other. They were, I think, the second group. I think Maia read with one other girl and then that was Cami's first read was with Maia. And it was clear.

I'm always curious about first day of shooting. Which scene did you shoot first for Never Goin' Back and what was the feeling on that day?

Yeah, so we're lucky in that we had a week of rehearsals, which I'd asked for ahead of time. And I knew that once we started shooting it was gonna be fast and furious, and so Greta, my DP, and I had planned everything very, very specifically before we ever even started rehearsing, so we had a very detailed plan as to how we were gonna shoot it. We'd been working on that for a couple weeks, so we had a week of rehearsals, and then we had the house where we were shooting. And so on the last day we went over there, most days throughout that week and rehearsed there, but then on that last day before shooting, she had ... her camera was there and we had the girls, and we went into their bedroom and we rehearsed with camera everything that we were gonna do on day one. And we still think back to that.

We could've just shot that, it was so exactly like what we did on day one, but it was hugely helpful. 'Cause then we had this really stable foundation knowing just what we needed when we were going into day one. I think on that first day we shot almost in order. We shot the scene of them at the computer, ordering the beach trip, so we'd rehearsed that. And then we shot the stuff of them waking up before the robbery, and I don't know if we ... I feel like there was one other bedroom scene that we did that first day, but I don't know if it was the dick on the face or not. It was something of them on the bed, but I can't remember at this point.

The trailer and poster for the movie really tell you what this movie is and who these characters are. What's it like working with A24 and their marketing department? They always seem to sell exactly what the movie is.

They're geniuses. They're like the dream, they're the ultimate goal. They're everything that I wanted when I knew that I was making this movie. They were the ones, 'cause they also make all my favorite movies. Everything they make, I see, and you're right. It's perfectly advertised. You know what you're getting in. That's just great. They have good ideas and I know when they finished trailer, I think I had two tiny notes, and that was it, and then they fixed it and that was it and then it went out with a poster.

You go back and forth. What if we combined this element with this element, and made this poster? But I love our poster. It was hard because the movie has these two girls who are... I mean, in real life Cami's like a model, and Maia too, she's just so stunning, and so all these pictures that we had taken on set, they felt just like these public model shots, so it was difficult finding something that wasn't aesthetically pleasing, but also spoke to the comedy of the film, and I think they did such a good job finding the picture and finding the moment within the pictures we gave them that spoke to the comedy. I just love our poster.

It definitely captures the vibe of the movie. You mentioned all the work you and Greta did in pre-production together, but once shooting started, was there maybe a scene or two in particular that were more difficult than expected?

We had a couple. I'd say the biggest challenge was everything that happened at the sandwich shop, 'cause it's all night. So, we were gonna be overnight on these days, and we had I think four days initially to get everything at the sandwich shop, and we had the big vomit gag, and we had them hiding in the closet. You know it was so much stuff, and then there was the spot where the sandwich owner is supposed to fall backwards, but he was an older gentleman, and so when we got him there we realized he's also six-foot-five; he's really tall [Laughs].

We had some challenges figuring out how to get that, but on top of all that, so we went from four days for shooting all that stuff to Cami hurting herself. So she went out one weekend and they rode mechanic bulls because we're here in Texas, and I guess that's what you want to do if you're visiting Texas [Laughs], and she pulled a muscle in her neck and ended up getting injured pretty bad. I guess she still goes now a year later for physical therapy for the thing.

When that happened, we ended up missing a day and then having to take what was already the most difficult days of the shoot and compress them from four to three days. And so it became this impossibly difficult schedule. Our first AD said, "This is not possible." We had 16 things, 16 pages or something crazy like that to get in this time frame. I don't remember what the exact number was but it was something absurd, but we were like, "Okay, we can do it." And Greta and I said, "We're gonna do it. Let's get another camera team, let's get another camera, let's get all these things compressed. What can we do? All these cool shots that we planned for the sequence out the window, we just need to get coverage." So that was really difficult. You end up making it work, but it's that thing where we had so much cool stuff planned here, and we don't have time to get it anymore. But it became about survival, we just need something to put in the movie at this point in time.

I definitely want to ask about the soundtrack. How did some of these song choices come about?

Even in the writing process I always write with music in mind and I always use it to set the tone for scenes. And so when we were getting ready to start shooting I put together a bunch of songs and made a playlist, and I made a playlist for the guys and I made a playlist for the girls. I sent it out to all the actors and my editor, my co-editor Courtney Ware and Greta and everybody else and then when we put together the initial rough cut I had told Courtney, I was like, "Hey look these songs, they may not be right for the movie, but they invoke a tone and a vibe that I want to work with musically." So she ended up actually putting almost every one of those songs into the rough cut. The first rough cut. They worked so well, I was like, "So they do work, but we can't use." There was stuff like the Cocteau Twins and Fleetwood Mac, and all this stuff.

So I knew, I'd been a huge fan of [music supervisor] Sarah Jaffe, she's a local artist and I knew I wanted to ask her to do the music, and the score elements. And so when I did, I found that we were also able to use her body of work, and a lot of her songs have a similar vibe, so I was able to pull from those, and then we had this incredible song writing team. We had two guys, Andrew Tinker and Nick Seeley, they write songs professionally and so we sent them the songs from the movie and let them see the rough cut and then they created songs based on that. Or just based on notes, like the song on the car with the girls rapping.

It was a week before we were shooting and we kept being like, "So we're either gonna have an original song here or we're gonna have to cut this scene, 'cause we're never gonna be able to put something known in the scene, and pay for the rights to it," so they were working very hard to get something and that was just me being like, "It has to have this type of feel, and then it needs to have this moment where they go along with it" and just like the thing that we did as teenagers when songs would come on and you're driving and it's this feeling that you want to invoke. That's how it all came together.

Did you ever play music on set for the actors?

I don't know if I did in this. I know I did in the last version that I made, and then I did in the [HBO] show that we just shot, used music. I can't remember if we did or not on set.

Is the soundtrack going to be available? 

It is. I just got a link to it. I can't remember what company's releasing it, but it should be coming out hopefully this weekend.

I read a bit about that other version you shot a few years ago and turned into a short film. After that experience, was there anything that was reassuring or maybe pointed you in the right direction? 

Yeah. Tons about it. A lot of people have asked, "Did you just feel like giving up after that?" And to be honest, it was kind of the opposite. It was like I'd known going in the compromises that I'd made, and I knew things that I'd rushed, and I knew things that I'd kind of not been 100% happy with. There was that initial feeling of ... the depression that followed that film was more about why didn't I just listen to myself? Why didn't I trust my instinct? Why didn't I do the thing that I wanted to do? And so that was kind of why I was so bummed out, and so going in to it the next time, it's never completely the case.

You're never at a point, for me at least, not yet, where I am going in to the movie saying, "Okay, trust your instinct," and then you do. You're still gonna be questioned, but going in the second time I was a lot more confident in my ability to fill things out. And to know what I wanted, and to be able to say, "Okay. This is what I'm envisioning. This is what I want. Now let's get it." And to feel I've made the right decision. It was more reassuring in that regard than it was making me want to give up or something.

So after trusting your instincts more and how well the movie turned out, how has that experience influenced what you want to do next as a filmmaker and the stories you want to tell? 

In a lot of ways it did. I still feel like there's a lot to learn, and so it's not like I've made choices that I didn't believe in because I look at this film and I feel so satisfied with what I did and what I made. I know that it's not for everyone, and there's something that comes from being truthful, and so to me this film is truthful to me and what I wanted to accomplish. I just want to keep doing that, but I want to be able to combine that truthfulness with other elements that create an even tighter experience, if that makes sense.

We were working with almost no money, a very short schedule, so I see all the things, that I'm like, "Okay, so this could've been even better or tighter or more visually appealing or something like that." But no, ultimately I'm really happy with it. I just want to keep learning to trust my instincts because you do start questioning that when you're on set and you have people telling you this or telling you that, or you're rushed and you have to make fast decisions. And I'm a person who has a hard time making fast decisions, so I'm like, "Okay, I just need to make the decision, it's gonna be fine. Typically it's gonna turn out the way that I hope it does."

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Never Goin' Back is now in theaters.