By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS
There is just something about the suburbs. Your neighbors live close, but are still strangers. All the kids grow up together, and over long summers grow restless together too. Joe Dante’s THE BURBS captured this eerie sense of suspicion in proximity, STRANGER THINGS has brought back that same era, and now RKSS’s SUMMER OF 84 continues that tradition of cul-de-sac discomfort. The latest film from the artistic hive who brought us TURBO KID follows the adventures of a group of neighborhood kids who think their bachelor neighbor just might be a serial killer. We sat down to discuss the film’s inspiration in true crime, as well as being a kid back in the day.
This is such a different film than TURBO KID. You went from a fantastical, nostalgia-dripping, post-apocalyptic film to something that is could have happened in our existing world. Why take such a leap?
Yoann-Karl Whissell: From MAD MAX to true crime? When working with the writers, this felt like something we could have written ourselves. It felt so close to us. I’m a really big fan of true crime. We could have gone from doing this to doing TURBO KID 2, but then we would risk becoming just the “TURBO KID people.” Then you do the third one, the fourth one. And we don’t want to do that. We want to explore; we want to try different styles. It is always going to feel like something we have made. But we want to do sci-fi. We want to do action, comedy. We want to really try every style. We will always stay genre.
François Simard: Fun movies.
Yoann-Karl: Yes! We want people to come out of the theater going, “I needed this, this was fun.”
François: We didn’t really plan that this was going to be our second feature. Any movie that gets a green light is a miracle, and we had several projects in development. This project was pitched to us in 2015. We worked on this project for one year, and then we saw the first poster for STRANGER THINGS. Are you kidding me? We were a bit down, but we got the green light right after. That program showed that there was a huge public for nostalgia, and we are grateful for them.
Yoann-Karl: We watched a season of STRANGER THINGS and realized it wasn’t the same thing at all. It’s completely different. But we go to the same well. Like STAND BY ME, MONSTER SQUAD, GOONIES. These are the movies we grew up on.
Anouk Whissell: Also, when we read the script, we recognize ourselves in the characters. It was like our childhood. Well, we didn’t have like a serial killer. We got that fun, summer vibe that we had when we were kids. That’s something important to us when we get into a project: that we feel passionate about it.
Yoann-Karl: Me and Anouk are brother and sister. When we were growing up we had the big book of mysteries from Reader’s Digest. It was ghosts and horror stories. We would go around drawing space aliens, and taking “pictures” with our camera, without film. This just felt like one of our summers.
What is your fascination with true crime?
Yoann-Karl: I find them fascinating. Some serial killers are from bad childhoods, but some of them don’t have that. Some were just born bad. That, to me, is probably the scariest thing ever. It is just an impulse and they cannot control it. It’s absolutely terrifying. We have some references to real killers, like Ted Bundy. We did research into that.
François: For us it was really important that the character be really likeable. We really focused on finding an actor who could be both. Rich Sommer is perfect.
Yoann-Karl: If you look at John Wayne Gacy, he was popular. People liked him, he was a nice person. That’s scary. Somebody that can actually hide in plain sight.
Where does interest in true crime come from?
Yoann-Karl: You would have to ask the bodies in my basement [laughs]. I love horror.
Anouk: It’s scary. It’s real. It exists for real.
Yoann-Karl: It’s terrifying. We love horror film because we love to be scared, but I think nothing is scarier than humans. Humans are terrifying. There’s a primal fear of of the stranger, of the person that you don’t really know. Especially in the suburbs. Most of those crimes are in the summer, and in the suburbs. You realize you don’t know that neighbor you see mowing his lawn every day. You don’t know what he is like behind closed doors. Is he beating his wife? Is he a raging alcoholic?
François: That’s actually why the story is set in the 80s. We didn’t plan on doing a film set then, but the 80s were the end of the American dream. Crime started to go outside of the cities and into the suburbs. People started locking their doors.
Yoann-Karl: It took a bit longer in Canada to catch on.
And that’s a tough environment to grow up in.
Yoann-Karl: It’s a coming of age movie. They are at that age where you still want to do kids stuff, but you feel too old for them, and yet you aren’t old enough to do the adult stuff. They are in that weird space between two worlds. They play hide-and-seek, but at the same time are interested in the girl next door. We were those kids. You swear too much because you don’t know how to swear yet. You just suddenly you give yourself that privileged to swear.
The film does a good job of constructing the feeling of suburbia; of closeness but with distance. How did you construct that feeling in the film?
Yoann-Karl: I think it was so much part of the story itself. You feel like those kids know each other’s real lives, but they don’t really talk about it. You see Eat’s tease Woody about his mom all the time, but you know she is hurting. That’s how they deal with their problems, and it creates distance.
Is that a part of growing up? Realizing that you need to construct a public and private self?
Yoann-Karl: Yes. Even in adulthood. You have a perspective of who you are, and then how people see you. You have no control over how they see you. Everybody else has a different version of you. You are many people.
François: We wanted to show their mastery of this. The perfect lawn. The perfect family. Everybody is happy. And then we go and see inside those walls. Nikki’s parents are getting a divorce, which was a huge thing.
Yoann-Karl: You didn’t want to be the kid whose parents are getting a divorce. She’s a popular girl, and it terrifies her to suddenly be an outcast. Those boys all know how to be outcasts, but she doesn’t. And for Wayne he has to be the perfect policeman, and present that.
Have you been following the capture of the Golden State Killer? It turns out he was a policeman for some time.
All three: Yes!
Yoann-Karl: Absolutely terrifying and yet brilliant. It’s genuinely scary. If you liked reading MY FRIEND DAHMER, also read GREEN RIVER KILLER. It’s written by the son of the cop that dedicated his life to catch him. Oh, it’s brilliant.
SUMMER OF 84 has much more of an obligation to feel real than TURBO KID. How did this change your approach to filmmaking?
Yoann-Karl: Both of them are low-budget, indie films. But we could get away with sillier things in TURBO KID, and it was worth it. On SUMMER, if we fucked up we’d be done. Everything needed to be on point. Our artistic directors and set designers did amazing work.
Anouk: We really wanted it to be like the real 1984, and not how we picture it now. It was closer to the 70s. We wanted that look. All the props. All the cars.
So many people born in the 90s have such a warped view of what things in the 80s actually looked like.
Yoann-Karl: We didn’t look like that. It was the leftovers of the 70s. And the kids don’t have like a GREMLINS poster and we don’t want to go that route.
François: We have the obvious STAR WARS references, but all the rest is really a subtle. We preferred to have the story in front, but you can catch some Easter eggs.
Yoann-Karl: There are some clever ones that we reveal on the commentary track of the DVD and Blu-ray.