Summer of 84 Directors 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.

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