While summer is officially over, films are still enjoying the warmth of the sun, including writer-director Becca Gleason’s teen comedy Summer '03. The film, starring Joey King, is set during the week 16-year-old Jamie loses her grandmother Dotty (June Squib)…but only after Dotty reveals some truths to her family on her deathbed. Thrown into turmoil by the family’s loss and her own teen hormones, she finds herself pursuing boy (Jack Kilmer) on the verge of entering the priesthood. As Gleason, making her feature film debut explains, her 2003 set film is based on some personal experiences…but not entirely.
Lesley Coffin: When you started work on the story, what made you decide to make it a bit of a nostalgic period piece, setting it 15 years ago?
Becca Gleason: It is somewhat autobiographical and my own grandmother died around that time. Somethings are true, somethings are fabrications, but the initial idea about my grandmother confessing on her deathbed took place in 2003. So when I was thinking about the movie and what I went through over that summer, I was also thinking about that time with my friends. I loved that just 15 years ago you had to go through completely different channels to hang out with your friends and find out what’s going on. You might have a cellphone but we didn’t really text all the time and we didn’t have social media yet. We still used AOL and if you had your own phone it might just die or be taken away by your parents.
Lesley Coffin: It was interesting watching because I think of the 2000s as being the rise of the cellphone age, but you see in the film how old-timey a 15-year-old cellphone is compared to now.
Becca Gleason: It is interesting because that hit home for me when Joey was on set. She was born just before the time that the film is set. And I showed her how to play SNAKE on the old phone. I passed a lot of time on my first cell phone playing that game. And she was like, “Why would you play this?” And I said, “It was all we had! Phones didn’t have the internet yet.” Seeing how different things are in her eyes was amazing for me and all the crew. It was amazing to realize that we were making a period piece and we made a point to add little clues. We had the Friends DVD box set in the background.
Lesley Coffin: One of the comments by the grandmother about her grandson reminded me of something my own grandmother said when she started suffering from dementia. And you realize in her comments how big a change we’ve seen politically and socially in a relatively short period of time about some issues. Were you looking for ways to show the changes we’ve seen regarding how the general public views sexuality and gender?
Becca Gleason: It was nerve-wracking to make a movie for today’s audiences that hinged on the idea of a teenage girl wanting to give a blowjob. Our ideas of female sexuality have changed so much in such a short period of time. Even reading comments about the trailer, I know you shouldn’t do that, but people have written “this is just a girl giving a blowjob, this movie isn’t feminist.” And I’m like “Yes it is, things have just changed.” It’s good that things have changed, but in 2003 girlfriends talked a lot about sex, what they were afraid of and wanted to try. Girls don’t seem as nervous about sex, or the idea they want to have sex compared to when I was in school. I just hope people are so connected to Joey’s point of view they realize that she’s experiencing what life was like 15 years ago.
Becca Gleason: It went much faster than I expected. I’ve written a lot of screenplays. Some which have been bought and they just sat on the shelf. But this is the first time I wrote a screenplay that I knew I’d want to direct. I had a chunk of time two years ago and wrote it over one summer very quickly. And I sent it to a couple of producers and I had one that was very interested in it from the beginning, Alexandre Dauman. And this is the first thing his production company, Big Cat, has produced. It was weird that we got it financed and started filming within a year, that never happens. It all happened between April and September of last year. But that happened quickly after I’d been working in LA for a long time, so it was pretty exciting to get my first feature off the ground that fast. We turned our film into South by Southwest a day before it needed to be received.
Lesley Coffin: Regarding the casting of Joey’s parents, you cast two actors (Paul Sheer and Andrea Savage) really well known for their comedy, particularly on the LA scene. Were you familiar with their comedy before casting them or did they come to you first and foremost as actors?
Becca Gleason: I definitely knew of them before casting them. When I heard Paul was interested in the role I was so excited because I knew his comedy. The reason we cast them was, besides being amazing actors, they have improv backgrounds and they know each other. And we wanted the family to be people who could play around with each other and riff a little. When they came to set we spent a lot of time talking about their marriages and what they’re like as parents. They felt like a real couple who could fight but still love each other.
Lesley Coffin: Does Joey have any training in improv?
Becca Gleason: Not that I’m aware of, but she just has an incredible acting background. She’s been working since she was 3 and is just this natural talent. You can’t tell when the cameras are on or off. I think she put a lot of herself into the role and she’s a naturally funny person. And I think she liked working with Paul and Andrea, getting to play off two actors who weren’t married to the written word.
Lesley Coffin: I know the film isn’t completely autobiographical but are the two boys in the film based on real boys you knew growing up?
Becca Gleason: Well, I never had sex with a priest so Jack’s character is mostly fictitious. It was more about me asking what would happen to this girl finding her sexuality and religion at the same time. And March’s character comes from bits and pieces from people I knew growing up but he’s also kind of based on me. I had a lot of parties at my house as a teenager, my parents would go out of town and I’d throw a party. I think I was like March in the sense that I’d invite people over to drink and suddenly there were 200 people at my house that I didn’t really know. But I also wanted March to be different from a lot of the teen boys we see. I didn’t want him to be the jock or the hunk or the bad boy, I didn’t want him to seem hyper masculine. I was excited to have a boy in my film that was earnest, likes her but also respects her, and first and foremost will be her friend. Stephen Ruffins nails the part, and a lot of my girlfriends who’ve seen the film tell me how much they love his character.
Lesley Coffin: Because you based it on some personal experiences, what has the reaction been of friends and family?
Becca Gleason: They’ve all been super supportive. It’s been a really lovely experience for me. I’m an only child, which probably says something about me. And my parents are so proud of me. I called them before sending them the script and told them, “I want you to know, yes there are parents. But I know mom, you are not an alcoholic or crazy. I know dad didn’t leave us to go to Germany and his dad is his real dad. They aren’t you.” I had to preference them reading the script, but they called after reading it and told me they loved it and thanked me for calling beforehand. My aunts and cousin all knew what was real and not real, and came to my premiere to cheer me on. My friends think it’s just funny. My friend Lauren is the loose inspiration for Emily, and she saw the film at the Cleveland film festival and thought it was great.
Lesley Coffin: Now that you’ve directed this film, are you going to pursue directing the same you’ve pursued writing?
Becca Gleason: I’ve been writing a long time, but I’ve also been directing web series and shorts for a long time as well. The difference is, you can write anywhere and it’s cheap. Directing requires more time and someone else has to give you an opportunity to direct. But I’m definitely trying to direct as much as possible. If anyone is reading this who can, please hire me.
(C) Lesley Coffin (9/27/18) FF2 Media
Photos: Summer '03 (IMDb)