Sundance Preview: Director Michael Tully on Ping Pong Summer

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All this week Paste is bringing you preview interviews with filmmakers who are taking their new films to Sundance. Michael Tully is another repeat Sundance director, having premiered his feature Septien here in 2011. his new film Ping Pong Summer stars Susan Sarandon and Leah Thompson, and it’s set in the 1980s Ocean City, Maryland of Tully’s youth. We spoke with him about the film, old school hip hop, what advice he has for first-time Sundance directors, and much more.

Paste Magazine: Congratulations on the film getting into Sundance, that’s really cool.
Michael Tully: Yeah, it’s a lottery win. I’ve won the lottery twice.

Paste: I assume that every day from the time that you heard up until now has been crazy, is that right?
Tully: Yeah, no, you know it’s funny because this movie I’ve been dreaming of making, or thinking about making, maybe every day since at least 1992 when I was a senior in high school. I was like “I want to make a movie called Ping Pong Summer,” and now it’s 2014, so the fact that we’re less than two weeks from the actual premiere, and the fact that it’s been, I don’t know if I could safely say every single day for the past 22 years, but I could guarantee every single week for the past 22 years, at least once I’ve envisioned the world seeing a movie called Ping Pong Summer, so it’s kind of crazy.

Paste: That is bizarre, that’s awesome.
Tully: I have a friend in town, we were just catching up about movies and my path to being a filmmaker, and this just kind of hit me. I was telling him that when I met David Gordon Green, and Craig Zobel connected my to all the North Carolina School of the Arts people, it was 1998. And that fall he said “Next summer I’m making a movie called George Washington,” and I said “Yeah, next summer I’m making a movie called Ping Pong Summer,” and we shared drafts of those scripts in the fall of 1998. David seemed to have a better track to his path, because he actually did it. But here we are in 2014 and Ping Pong Summer is happening.

Paste: So you’ve got a lot to live up to with this next movie, I expect you to outdo George Washington with this one.
Tully: Oh God, that ain’t happening.

Paste: I know you want to keep the film under wraps, and have a sense of drama to the premiere. But tell me as much as you want readers to know about the film.
Tully: Really, ultimately, what this movie is and has been every year that I’ve rewritten it since I was 18-years-old, and now it’s really the movie I was hoping I’d make, but I guess you could say it’s my idea of saying okay, the movies I grew up on, say the Karate Kid, the kind of formulaic 80s movie. What if I injected my adolescence into that 80s movie? What would happen? So, it’s sort of a love letter simultaneously to the movies I was watching as an adolescent and my own adolescence, which consisted of a very loving nuclear family in middle Maryland where my parents were fiscally responsible. We never would even get on a plane, because that was too expensive, so once a year we would drive to Ocean City, Maryland for our annual weeklong vacation. It was my favorite time of the summer, a fantasy land, and I was the weird white kid in 1985 in Frederick, Maryland who was listening to the Fat Boys and Run DMC. It’s important to me that Ping Pong Summer takes place in the summer of 1985, because I feel like 1986 is when the world changed with the Beastie Boys and Run DMC. It was basically Licensed To Ill, Walk This Way and Raising Hell that changed things. The jerk football jocks would be wearing Beastie Boys shirts whereas the year before that wouldn’t be happening, so it was still kind of alien. In Ping Pong Summer, that’s what I’m trying to do. There’s this kid who wears parachute pants and there are a lot of references to him being this weirdo.

It’s just about that. It’s my love letter to my family, my upbringing in the state of Maryland and going to Ocean City, my love for hip hop back then and my love garage ping pong I guess you could call it. I never took lessons, but I was always playing ping pong in the garage and basement. I’m trying to combine my love of those Eighties movies that I watched — I was not watching fucking Wiseman movies when I was eleven, I wish I could tell you I was. I was watching Trading Places and No Retreat, No Surrender.

Paste: Tell me about the decision not to appear as an actor in this film, you were so good in Septien, was there not a role this time or did you want to move away from that consciously?
Tully: I’ve never considered myself an actor, and if people want me to do stuff I’m very honored that they would ask. It’s very fun for me; I just don’t consider myself that. Septien was always born as an experiment. For years it was Onur Tukel, Robert Longstreet and me saying “What if we were weirdos on a farm, like Brother’s Keeper, and we act in it?” But that was just dictated by that particular project. When it came to Ping Pong Summer I was like “I’m not even going to do a Hitchcock cameo, I don’t want to be anywhere near the front of the camera.” Although, I am in one of the rollercoasters, there’s a friend montage, you know the typical Eighties movie montage? There are two shots where a rollercoaster goes and I’m on one of the rollercoasters doing a loop. There’s no way in hell you would recognize me, you can’t see anyone, but I am in the frame for about 2.5 seconds.

For me it wasn’t about that, Septien was just a unique circumstance, that was just part of the deal, whereas I don’t really have visions of putting myself in other movies unless that particular project calls for it. So, I basically found me at fourteen in the actor Marcello Conte, who plays a very veiled version of me at that age. I’m 39, so I probably couldn’t have pulled off playing Rad Miracle in this movie; it would have looked a little bit awkward playing a fourteen-year-old.

Paste: Although, if you get together a few thousand dollars, I would love to see that movie too. With you at your current age playing a 14-year-old.
Tully: You know, for years I wanted the bad guy to be played by William Zabka, who’s Johnny in the Karate Kid. I wanted everyone to be like “why is this 40-year-old hanging out with 14-year-olds?” In theory I thought that was a great idea, but the reality was we ended up casting with kids. They’re a little older, the bad guys can drive, they’re around 17 or 18, you know in that age two years is a big gap.

Paste: You may have missed out on Billy Zabka, but you did get another huge 80s film icon, Lea Thompson. Tell me about bringing her on board to the project.
Tully: It’s a fantasy. The shorthand, for people who understand movies, I try to pitch it as the ethos of it is more Computer Chess than The Way Way Back. We’re trying to make a movie that feels like an artifact from the era, and of course when you see Lea Thompson and Susan Sarandon, they’re older than they were then so you’re not going to suspend disbelief, you know it’s 2014. When it came to casting the parents, there was that thought of “what if we did a somewhat referential casting?” but didn’t make it too winky.

Lea was great because she was formative in all of those movies, All the Right Moves, Back to the Future of course. It was another way of paying tribute, but not making any jokes. “Hindsight humor” was the term I came up with. I didn’t want the film to have any “hindsight humor” as if it were made by people in 2014 looking back on the Eighties. Having Lea Thompson in there gives it Eighties movie credibility, but she’s such a good actress that she is a dream person for the job. She brings humor, she doesn’t need to even say anything and she can make you laugh, which is not something many people can do. And she responded to the script. I had a phone call with her at the time and her only thing was, she said “The mom doesn’t really have a moment,” and it wasn’t a selfish thing. She’s a director in her own right, so she was speaking critically in the sense of “Well, the dad has the moment with the son, the mom doesn’t, really.”

And that was just my fault as a writer because that’s kind of how my family was, and this is maybe based on my family. My dad sort of wore the pants, and my mom was the supportive rock that keeps the family together. So we tried to give Mrs. Miracle a few moments in there, and Lea, I guess just liked talking to me and that I understood and knew a lot of movies, and she committed to it. It was a huge lead for these name actors to act in a movie, where the director’s last movie was a weird one starring himself with a beard, and this one would be dealing with kids who hadn’t really acted for movies before. All of them, to their credit, Susan Sarandon, John Hanna, Lea Thompson, Amy Sedaris and Judah Friedlander said “Sure, let’s do it. It sounds fun.”

Paste: Pick me out someone from the crew, one of the guys that you look back and think “Wow, there’s no way this would have turned out this well without that person.”
Tully: That’s like asking me to kill other children and leave them behind. In a production sense I would maybe say Bart Mangrum, the production designer. His nickname is the “Bart Department”— for the art department. For all of the department heads, the discussion I had was “We’re not making a winky ‘Weren’t the Eighties funny?’ comedy.” Because the Eighties were funny, we know that. Let’s reference how the Eighties really were, more like This Is England, the approach that film had. It really had an artistic integrity about that era and understood the movies and the world of that era.

Bart just inherently got it and he didn’t over-stylize anything. Everyone says good production design, like anything, is when you’re not necessarily noticing it. It just feels real and authentic. Whether it was a location that was natural, like this restaurant we shot in where he said “Are you kidding me? I really don’t need to do much here.” From the house, where they took everything out of the family vacation house and their house at home, and just totally reinvented and designed it. I think Bart is a real ace in the hole and the movie wouldn’t be what it is without him.

And Michael Montes, the composer, he fired on many cylinders. He did those sort of 1985 era hip-hop, he wasn’t familiar with that but I gave him a playlist and he recognized right away “Oh, that’s a linstrom. That’s an 808.” So, his main function was to do this 1985 era hip-hop, but he also for the bad guys did the Miami Vice, Tangerine Dream, electro-menace, then for the lead actress he did the John Hughes synth-pop, then for the family dramas and the Susan Sarandon character he did the Amblin Entertainment orchestral Eighties movie theme. He pulled all of that off. He worked four different worlds at once, and I think it’s an absolute marvel. Removing myself from the equation, if this movie doesn’t get Michael more work then I don’t know what we’re doing here.

Paste: What were doing when you got the call that Ping Pong Summer got in? What was your reaction, and, since you’ve done this before how was any of that different from what happened with Septien?
Tully: Septien was a total shock. I showed Sundance Ping Pong Summer pretty early; we were done with the movie in July, and I had a very positive phone call that seemed like we were in. In the intervening months, I started panicking, watching friends’ rough cuts and not hearing from Sundance. That call was such a positive call that I was like, if it doesn’t go well that would be weird but I also would understand. By the time the week was turning around, Thanksgiving week or the week before when we heard a little bit early, I had no idea, whereas a few months before I would have said “I feel pretty confident.”

Then I saw this LA number call me when I was driving to the Austin Film Society. I was seeing a screening of a movie there and I saw that LA number and pulled over very quickly. The way Trevor told me was kind of the implication of “You already know this, but just calling to confirm that we love the movie and we want it,” and I was like “I’m really glad you called, because I was not thinking we were in.” Septien was more shock, twelve hours of shock and awe; I had never been a Sundance filmmaker and that movie was such a leap. With Ping Pong Summer, it was 22 years of buildup, and then a positive call had taken place, so it was a gimongous exhale of relief. And then the shock and awe comes when you realize how many films were submitted and how many are programmed, and it’s hard to fathom how lucky you are.

Paste: Since this is your second time, for the first time directors who are bringing films to Sundance, what’s your best piece of advice? What do you wish someone had told you before you came with Septien?
Tully: The difference with Septien is we had made a deal with IFC. This is the first time I’ve gone to Sundance that we’re showing the movie with distributors in the room. I would say to be positive and optimistic, but don’t assume anything because it is so random. You can have a sure shot deal one year that isn’t a sure shot the next year. It’s really about being grateful and thankful that you won the lottery to even be there with your movie, and take any positives, don’t focus on the negatives. It’s probably the worst movies that only have good or only have bad reviews. Ideally, if you’re making something that’s daring and ambitious and interesting — someone with Septien wrote “the worst movie to ever have been programmed at Sundance Film Festival,” which actually is awesome. That’s not a good example, that’s actually totally cool. I think the thing is to focus on the positive and be really thankful and grateful that you’re even there, and if nine people don’t like it and one person likes it, both of them are wrong and right at the same time and just appreciate the moment and go where the positive vibes are.

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