'Summer Of '84 Directors On Crafting Their Nostalgic Horror Throwback And The Status Of 'Turbo Kid 2' [Fantasia Film Festival Interview]

What is about the image kids on bicycles, having an adventure, that just screams "This is a story set in the 1980s"? The trio of Montreal-based filmmaking team, known collectively as RKSS (and individually as François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell), decided to find out when they got their hands on the Summer of '84 script from first-time screenwriters Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith. This is a story that taps into some of the same nostalgic vibes that made last year's version of Stephen King's It and Netflix's Stranger Things series so popular, while grounding its story more squarely in reality rather than diving into the supernatural or other worldly.

Set in the deepest, darkest suburbs of Oregon, the film follows 15-year-old Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere), who is bored and not interested in hanging around the house while the tension between his parents is close to boiling over. He sets himself the mission of discovering the fates of a handful of missing and dead area teens — a search that gets kicked into overdrive when a few pieces of circumstantial evidence points Davey and his three closest pals to suspecting that local police officer Mackey (Rich Sommer) of being the so-called Cape May Slayer. It just so happens the cop also happens to be Davey's next-door neighbor, which makes for some very awkward and tense moments around the old cul-de-sac.

The film finds ways to subvert expectations, generate genuine character development in a genre that doesn't often bother (there's a lot of hanging around time with the kids), and provides another excellent opportunity for RKSS to create a genre-busting cult hit, as they did with Turbo Kid in 2015 (and yes, they are still planning a sequel).

/Film caught up with the filmmakers just hours before they debuted Summer of '84 in front of a hometown crowd in Montreal during Fantasia Festival recently. The film begins making its way into theaters across the country today.

I was fortunate enough to be at Fantasia when Turbo Kid premiered, and I don't think I'll ever have a more thrilling experience being at a festival screening in my life. That crowd was insane.

Yoann-Karl: We cried that night, in front of everybody.

I remember. Both with that film and Summer of '84, the film had played many other festivals before Fantasia, both debuted at Sundance. What is the difference between playing anywhere else and Montreal?

Anouk: There's a lot of pressure.

Yoann-Karl: There was pressure at Sundance as well, but whatever else happened, we got in at Sundance. We did that. Coming back from Sundance, it was like "Oh no, now people have expectations. This is very scary. Summer is very different than Turbo Kid. This is a very rocking crowd; they get insane. Turbo Kid sounded like a rock concert, not like a movie screening. Summer is slower paced, so we're a bit nervous. But it's a good, smart crowd. They'll jump in at the right moments, but it's still scary.

Anouk: They're also very familiar with our short films from before [Turbo Kid].

Yoann-Karl: There's no gore in Summer, so that might make a difference.

Let's back it up a bit. You come off Turbo Kid a few years ago, which you wrote. How did this script come to you, and why did you decide to go with a story that you didn't start from scratch? What grabbed you about this screenplay that made you have to make it?

Yoann-Karl: It felt like it was written for us. We felt like those four kids were a mixture of all that we were when we were growing up—swearing too much, trying to steal alcohol bottles from your dad. What really hooked us was the ending, and we wanted to go there. We wanted to go that dark with this story; it made it interesting to us.

François: We didn't really plan for this to be our second feature. Every movie that gets a green light is a miracle, and we had several projects in development. When we heard the pitch and the ending, and it made us think "Okay, we're doing this." Even if it's super-serious and we didn't write it, we were still passionate about this movie and there was nothing like it in the market at the time—this was  2015—and now we're totally part of the zeitgeist.

I know, it looks like you planned it much more than you did. But when this came to you, it was before Stranger Things and well before It, and now you're part of this kids-on-bikes zeitgeist. Did you make any adjustments to make sure nothing about your film was similar to these other projects?

Anouk: We made a minor adjustment. We removed a Dungeons and Dragons reference, and we played a ton of it in high school. As for myself, I was so afraid that Stranger Things and our film would be similar, so I took some time and decided to watch it, and I was really relieved that it was so different. There are kids on bikes, but it's very different.

François: In the end, everybody realized there was this huge audience for nostalgia. In the end, we're grateful.

What is it about the visual of kids on bikes that sends people back 30-some years and gets people excited about a certain kind of adventure storytelling?

Anouk: We were huge BMX fans ourselves.

Yoann-Karl: That's what in Turbo Kid there are so many bikes.

Anouk: Right. We spent our summers on our BMXs.

Yoann-Karl: One of our favorite films growing up was BMX Bandits. We were obsessed with that film. A lot of people don't know that film, but in Quebec, that movie was huge. Everybody was obsessed with that film and watch it a billion times.

Anouk: I don't want to assume that later generations played less outside, but I feel like maybe that's the case, and that's why kids on bikes feels very '80s.

François: Yeah, with Turbo Kid and Summer of '84 are our homages to our childhood. I don't know if that's because we're adults and don't want to grow up.

Yoann-Karl: We'll be teenagers forever [laughs].

With these kid adventure films, I always believed that if the kids thought there was any real danger, they probably wouldn't be doing what they're doing. They're just bored in the summertime. Was that at least the beginning of these particular story—just something they could do as a group?

Yoann-Karl: That's exactly it. And it makes the audience feel safe because you've seen those films. You felt relatively safe with them going on that adventure, and suddenly we pull the rug out from under your feet and say, "No, this is real life, and real life is a lot darker than the imagination those kids have. They are so sure of themselves that they don't realize how much danger they're in themselves; they don't get it. They think they'll be the heroes and save the day. The audience doesn't realize; they don't realize; but eventually they get sidearmed by the movie.

Anouk: At first it's just a fun adventure, like going after Bigfoot [laughs].

Yoann-Karl: Yeah, but ultimately, he's a victim of his over-active imagination.

François: And the fact that it can happen, it makes it a lot scarier for us.

Yoann-Karl: True crimes are a lot scarier.

You play with our expectations for these kind of films, in that, the most guilty-looking person is almost never the actual guilty person. I won't spoil anything, but talk about subverting our expectations. You do it at a few moments.

Yoann-Karl: I think the audience does the work themselves. We never lie. It's hard to answer this question without spoilers. The answer is always there, but you always make more work for youself.

Anouk: We do create things to mislead you, a few red herrings.

François: And that's why it's so important that with the role of Mackey, he's really likable. People need to look at him and say "It can't be him; it's Harry from Mad Men. He's not a serial killer." [laughs]

How high and low did you search for just the right actor to play that role, because he has to hit those notes exactly right?

Yoann-Karl: We had long, long conversations with a lot of names, talking about looking for that perfect look. And for us, it made sense when we talked about Rich Sommer. That was the guy; he has that face. Thank god, it worked out because he could have said no. For us, it made total sense.

François: We learned that he's a huge geek and plays lots of board games. He's one of us; we'll be okay.

Summer of 84 Review

Speaking of searching, how many kids did you see to nail down this four main kids?

Yoann-Karl: It was two months of intense casting; we saw so many kids. But we started with Davey, so that once we had Davey and the look of Davey, then we could build around him for the rest of the cast.

François: We needed the perfect kid for Davey because he has the whole movie on his shoulders. It's tough for a kid that age to carry a film, but he was such a professional, such a great kid. And we really wanted them to become friends in real life, so the chemistry could come across in movie, and they totally did. Before the shoot, the did an Escape Room, and it could have backfired completely. But we were really lucky because they bonded. They were great on set. A lot of people think working with kids is hard, and maybe it's because of who we are, but it's not that hard. It was more fun and not difficult at all.

Anouk: They were all so very professional and really good kids.

Lately, when a film is set or pays tribute to the 1980s, there's always the assumption that it's playing to a nostalgia audience. In what ways did you want to embrace what was different about the '80s, and how did you want this to be a universal story that could have been set at any time?

Anouk: For this story, it was very important that it was set in the '80s because it's really that moment when that false sense of security in the suburbs went away. It was part of the story. It would have been very different if we'd set it in some other decade.

François: It's the end of the American Dream, when people didn't lock their doors and weren't afraid of their neighbors. It's not about being trendy or part of this '80s revival that's huge right now.

Yoann-Karl: Yeah, they were just starting to have crime waves in the suburbs and not just the big cities, and you had stories about people like John Wayne Gacy, the neighbor who would come to your children's parties and was a serial killer. That false sense of safety was shifting and disappearing.

Anouk: So we wanted to achieve a very general look and not play with the flashy references. Even in the costumes, we didn't want to make them overly '80s and make them neon. It looked more like clothes from the late 1970s then late '80s. The cars and everything in the design, we wanted to line up very specifically with 1984, rather than showing off.

François: We're not huge fans of "Remember this? Remember this?" The references or easter eggs are more subtle, and we prefer to have the story in front.

One of the my favorite sets is the treehouse set, and I have this feeling there are a lot of little things hidden away in there that I'm not even seeing.

Yoann-Karl: Oh yeah. The punk band posters that are hung up in there are the bands that we would listen to. One wink we did, you know that porn magazine they read called Boudoir? That's the same name of the porn magazine they read at the beginning of Goonies. So that porn company lives in both universes [laughs].

I'm sure you get asked this all the time, but I'd love to know the logistics of having three directors. Do you each have a specialty or are you a hive mind that anyone can ask any question at any point?

Yoann-Karl: We do share a brain. It's crazy, but we do have the hive mind thing, and we come super-prepared. But on set, actors will come to me for questions, and I'll go to actors; François will be with cameras and the DP; and Anouk will be with all heads of departments. Behind the monitors, we'll all stick talk about everything.

Anouk: We share very quick notes, just a few words. That's when we become more efficient than if we were just one person. It avoids that chaos of everyone coming to a single person.

François: If someone has a question, they know who of the three to ask. One things also, we have an animation background, so we storyboard everything and that helps a lot, and it's easy to show everyone and get on the same page.

Anouk: And we like to tell everyone that if you have a question, you can ask any one of us, and you'll get the same answer. And actually Rich Sommer tested us, he told us afterwards. He said, "You were right. I tested you and came to you all with a complicated question—a trick question—and you all said the exact same thing." Whew! Thank god it worked.

I keep hearing that Turbo Kid 2 is still alive and well. Is that accurate, is that still happening?

Yoann-Karl: I think we could have gone from Turbo Kid to Turbo Kid 2 easily. But then you would do Turbo Kid 3, 4, 5 and 6, and then you're only the Turbo Kid people, and that's your career. We really wanted to do another film before touching Turbo Kid again, but we're writing it right now.

Anouk: We already have a script that we wrote a whole ago, but we're fine tuning it now, because we really want it to be perfect.

Yoann-Karl: We're putting a lot pressure on ourselves for it to be good, because people are getting tattoos and doing cosplay and sending us fan art.

François: The notes from the fans is amazing, so we feel the pressure that the sequel needs to be good.

Yoann-Karl: We need to make a sequel that they would be proud of, so we're putting a lot of pressure on ourselves, which is a good thing.

If at the premiere in Montreal of Turbo Kid 2, people aren't ripping the seats out then it's a failure. I'm sorry. I hope I'm there to see it. So you're screening is tonight?

Yoan-Karl:It is. It sold out in record time, and then the next day, they found more tickets, and as soon as people knew, they were gone. It's super-nice, but more pressure. [laughs].

Best of luck. Have fun tonight. Thanks a lot.

Yoan-Karl: Take care.