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Three's company for 'Summer of 84' co-writer Anouk Whissell

Three's company for 'Summer of 84' co-writer Anouk Whissell

While we’ve seen a rise in the number of directing partnerships in the past decade, the three-person team is still a rarity. But for the team of RKSS (Roadkill Superstar) made up of Anouk Whissell, Francois Simard and Yoann-Karl Whisse, three heads are better than one. As you might expect from a name like Roadkill Superstar, the threesome from Canada are fans of films with plenty of violence and gore, including their festival favorite Turbo Kid, made to look and feel like an '80s sci-fi/action adventure. Their latest film, Summer of 84, is also set in the '80s but, this time, is set in the all-too-real suburbs. There, four teenage boys come to believe their neighbor (Mad Men’s Rich Sommer), a single cop, is actually a serial killer. We spoke with Anouk Whissell about entering the world of '80s horror, real life monsters and directing as a team.

Lesley Coffin: After the success of Turbo Kid, were you at all apprehensive about taking on another film set in the '80s?

Anouk Whissell: There was, because we don’t want to be labeled as just '80s-nostalgia directors. And we didn’t plan for this to be our follow-up. But we got the script and we felt it was so different from Turbo Kid, in terms of tone and style. We weren’t as afraid as we otherwise might have been.

Lesley Coffin: When it comes to using the '80s, and nostalgia in general, you have to be very careful to avoid using nostalgia in a superficial way and really make the time period mean something to the film’s story. What elements of your childhood in the suburbs and pop-culture did you choose to use?

Anouk Whissell: We felt it was really important for this film to focus on the lives of the children, because there was a big shift in terms of what it meant to live in the suburbs in the '80s. There had been a false sense of security before, but in the '80s there were some crimes which lead people to being more fearful of their neighbors. There was like a shift in thought that you should be afraid of your neighbors. There were stories in the news about child abductions and also a lot of stories about serial killers. So it was more important for us with this film to really ground the characters in that moment of time when things shifted, rather than just throw out pop-culture references and tell audiences, “Remember this?” But part of capturing life in that time means having characters talking about things like the E-Woks, because kids do talk about the last movies they saw.

Lesley Coffin: The film does reference several films however, and some more direct from others. I thought I noticed a bit of Fright Night and maybe even Blue Velvet. What films were you specifically talking about using as inspiration?

Anouk Whissell: There was definitely Fright Night. There was the movie The Burbs, with Tom Hanks. And of course The Goonies.

Lesley Coffin: We have a rise of these '80s nostalgia horror films like It and Stranger Things, but focusing on a serial killer rather than something supernatural adds a layer of real-life terror. And as you said, there was a rise of serial killer stories in the '70s and '80s. Were there cases that emerged during your childhood that served as an inspiration on this film?

Anouk Whissell: I’m a big fan of true-crime, I feel they’re the most terrifying stories because they’re true. I remember a show called Unsolved Mysteries, and those could be scarier than horror films I saw, because you knew they really happened and there were murderers on the loose. And I thinking they could be hiding in our neighborhood. I remember being terrified of the story about John Wayne Gacy, the man who dressed as a clown and abducted boys. It was so terrifying that he was an active member of the community and committed those crimes. That was probably the case we were most influenced by with this film.

Lesley Coffin: A lot of the reviews have mentioned the twist ending really catching people off guard because of the way the film almost lulls audiences into this very casually paced film. That approach is risky because you are risk losing people early on but the impact can be so much greater if you commit to that approach. What decisions did the three of you make regarding how long you could take that approach before you had to start throwing the scares out?

Anouk Whissell: We knew that the first half of the film should pretty much be comedic and about the kids adventure, like The Goonies. Even though those films are exciting I don’t think people watch those movies thinking things won’t be okay at the end. But once we’ve established the film is like one of those films, then we can pulled the rug out from under the audience and really scare them. And doing the first part of the film that way, we had an opportunity to introduce the characters and make audiences really love the boys. If we’d rushed those scenes, I think the film wouldn’t have been as scary and upsetting at the end.

Lesley Coffin: You’re part of the rare three-person directing team, two men and yourself, and this movie is very much about boyhood. Were there aspects of your life growing up at that time you wanted to add to represent what life was like for girls at that time?

Anouk Whissell: I really wanted was to put Nikki a bit more in the story, and she plays a bigger part in the film than in the script where she was more in the background before we were attached. We didn’t want her to just be the girl next-door. We wanted her to have a lot more going on and be a deeper character. But I felt very comfortable focusing on the boys because the three of us grew up together and I was a tomboy who spent most of her time with the boys. I spent a lot of time with my brother and his friends, and the relationships these boys have in the film are familiar to me as well.

 

Lesley Coffin: When you’re directing with two other people, what steps do you have to take to make sure you’re utilizing each other’s strengths but still have a singular vision for the film?

Anouk Whissell: It’s all about being prepared, we’re probably over prepared. By the time we’re on set, we’re a hive mind, some people have said it’s like we share a brain. When we wrote Turbo Kid, the only time we really fought was while we were building the story, but that’s also the time that no one will see use. But we storyboard everything so when we get to set, we are all on the same page. And on set, we each take on a different role. Yaunn works with the actors, Francious will work with our DP and crew, and I work with the editing department. But if anyone came to one of us with a question, we’d give them the same answer because we have the same vision. The actor Rich Sommer, who plays Mackey, actually tested us by asking each of us the same question at a different time and he said we all told him the same thing. We didn’t even realize he’d done that until he told the story at the premiere and I still don’t know what the question was but he said it was tricky and he was really impressed that our answers were so similar

Lesley Coffin: While we have seen a positive rise in female directors, women directing genre films, specifically horror films, is still very low. Have you met any resistances in the industry as a female genre director?

Anouk Whissell: Well, I think it’s weird that women aren’t as accepted in genre films, because they seem like the perfect vehicles for women to express themselves. I mean, look at someone like Kathryn Bigelow. She’s worked in genre most of her career and her first film was that horror-action film Near Dark. So the resistance to having women making these films doesn’t make sense. Why should women only make women-labeled films? I think it’s the exact right time for women to enter the genre world. I think working with two male co-directors has helped me avoid that resistance other women face from the industry. I mean, a three-person directing team has its own prejudice, people thinking we’re less capable because we work as a team. But with Turbo Kid I did face some prejudice. An interviewer came into the room and only asked them questions, totally ignoring me because he assumed I wasn’t one of the directors.

© Lesley Coffin (8/13/18) FF2 Media

Photo credits: Brightlight Pictures, Gunpowder & Sky