Filed in Max News Teen Spirit

How Max Minghella’s Love Of Robyn Sparked His Directorial Debut ‘Teen Spirit’

“Spirit” centers on Violet Valenski (Fanning), a shy immigrant whose family can barely afford to keep their home on the outskirts of a small British town. Violet has a gift, but no one at the almost deserted bar she secretly performs at is helping get the word out. When auditions for a televised teen singing competition are announced nearby she takes drastic measures to participate including partnering with an unconventional business manager (Zlatko Buric). Eventually, she finds herself tempted by a questionable record executive (Rebecca Hall) who offers a once in a lifetime deal, but at a price.

Fanning delivers an impressive performance and proves she can portray a convincing pop singer with her own rendition of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own.” The film also is beautifully shot by cinematographer Autumn Durald and miraculously looks much more expensive than its small indie budget.  Minghella might be best known for his current role in front of the camera as Nick Blaine on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but demonsrates with “Spirit” that he knows how to fashion a compelling feature.

He jumped on the phone last week to discuss the challenges of bringing “Teen Spirit” to the screen, its unexpected inspiration and tease what to expect on the next season of “Handmaid’s.”

The Playlist: Hey Max, how yeah doin’?

Max Minghella: I’m doing great. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk.

No, thank you. Let’s start with the most obvious question first: where did the inspiration come from to make this movie? 

I think it really came from listening to Robyn‘s “Dancing On My Own” for the first time. The song has this really kinda interesting tonal dichotomy. It’s very anthemic and poppy but it’s also very European and melancholic. I found the song very cinematic and I was also really was interested in that feeling. I wrote a scene for that piece of music and kind of stemmed from that.

How would you describe that first scene?

It’s the scene you see in the film when Violet (Fanning) performs the song for the first time. It’s almost exactly as you see the movie now. It was as it was first drafted.

Where did you get the idea of Violet as this immigrant teenager? Where did that whole context, the idea of having her on a national singing show come from?

Great question. I think the immigrant thing is two-fold. I come from two immigrant families. That’s a huge part of my perception of the world. My father comes from an Italian immigrant family. My mother’s Hong Kong and moved here when she was eighteen years old. I’m a dancer, so I can see a lot of parallels in the parents’ lives and Violet’s life. So, a part of it is biographical. And then I was also not very interested honestly in a movie about … there was never a draft in the script [that took place in] Texas. I love escapism, I love getting to explore worlds that I haven’t seen before. I think it lends itself to the cinematic experience. I wanted to tell a story that felt authentic to my own experience growing up in England too, which is a deeply diverse place. There were both English people in my school and yet in British films they are very, very rarely focused on other cultures so it just felt honest to me.

Had you been looking to direct something for a while before you even started writing this screenplay?

So, I’ve been playing around with cameras for a long time. For the greater part of my life, I’ve been carrying something like a five piece or whatever. And I would film stuff and edit and that’s been like my great hobby in life and I really love doing it. And also became clear after a while that these little home videos I’d make had quite a consistent style. Whether I liked it or not they all kind of turned out fairly similar, whether I was filming a wedding or a children’s birthday part. They all kind of felt the same. So, definitely the reliance on visual storytelling that happens in “Teen Spirit” was seeded in some of the experimental work.

You mentioned that Robyn’s song was your inspiration when you first started. What would you have done if she said “no” to having the song in the movie? What was your backup plan or would you have just cried for days on end?

Yeah, I would’ve cried for days on end. I mean there have been so many miracles on this movie. I mean I know that happens with every movie but there really has been some bizarre miracles on this film and one of them is that all of the songs in the film besides “Don’t Kill My Vibe” which was added very late. Every other song was in the script and scribed in the script through the earliest drafts and not only were they scribed in the script but the visual sequencing of how that music was used was all quite specific. Each setup and edit was on the page and I think that if we hadn’t been able to get this music, I don’t know if I would’ve ever made the film. It would’ve required such a drastic re-imagination of the screenplay that I don’t know if I would’ve been able to do it. It was all married to each other and Interscope Records ended up producing this movie and unbeknownst, I mean truly unbeknownst to me, they represented ninety percent of the catalog of the songs we needed for the film. And if that hadn’t happened we would’ve just been in such trouble. So, I don’t know, it is so serendipitous. I’m still pinching myself that it played out the way it did.

Obviously, the movie doesn’t work unless you found someone amazing to play Violet. How did Elle come to light and did you even know she could sing?

So, the movie was almost entirely in Polish originally. There was very little English language stuff so we weren’t looking at Americans at all for the part. We were having a very, very difficult time casting the role for all the reasons you can imagine. It’s such a long list of things that this person has to be able to do. They have to sing, dance, speak two languages fluently, play the age range and carry every frame. It felt like too many things. We announced the new cast and Elle reached out to us and I was a huge fan of her work but also extremely cynical about how an American can play a Polish immigrant living in the Isle of Wight. The moment we sat down and started talking about it became so clear that she was not only going to play the part but was probably the only person who could play the part. She has these natural talents that we needed. You know she has an extraordinary singing voice even before she started training for this movie. She has real ease with choreography and memorizing choreography. She has very good dialects, she’s done British dialects many times before. So all these things were really helpful but overall the thing that was most important to me was her connection to this character and not only did I feel like she really understood the character as it was but she also brought quite a lot to it. And once she came on board I ended up absorbing a lot more of Elle’s real life into Violet than I originally anticipated, just because there was such an interesting kind of overlap between where Elle was at in her life and where violet was at in her life.

Did you rewrite the script or were there scenes that you added while shooting?

Well, there was pretty drastic rewrite honestly once Elle came on board because the movie had to be reconfigured as an English language movie, so that was one big change. And then talking to Elle and having the perspective of a young woman on the screenplay but also a young woman that is going through some similar things to Violet meant that I just felt more informed to write some of those scenes. So I did a pretty significant overhaul of the script right before we went into production. And including weirdly and unrelated a significant expansion of Rebecca’s character. And those are probably my two favorite written scenes in the movie and those came about pretty late in the process.

I was actually going to ask about Rebecca’s character because I appreciated the fine line in her performance that she’s playing. You know, it felt in a way very “Hollywood.” Clearly, she’s playing someone in the music business, but it just reminded me very much of studio execs for some reason.

I’m really not interested in characters who are one dimensional, even in a fairytale. So, even though she’s basically playing Mephistopheles, I wanted everything she said to be right and true and that was like a huge deal to me. I never wanted to Jules to have a point of view that was manipulative. I actually think that everything she says is probably right and is honest and is what she believes is right for Violet. And that was much, much more interesting challenge to put in front of Violet than if she was obviously a villainous character and like her Violet was an obviously heroic character, there is no drama or conflict in that for me. I know that if Jules came and sat and gave me that speech that she gives Violet that I would absolutely sign that contract ’cause everything she says makes sense, completely logical. We just talked about that with all of the actors. I don’t want any of these people to be one thing I want them to be fully dimensional and good and bad, and capable of kindness, and capable of malevolence. And even down to you know Roxy who’s kind of the antagonist in the competition at the end but I actually think she is a lovely character and extremely talented. It’s very confusing, I mean I hate it when movies are didactic and tell you how to feel about a person or tell you how to feel about the story. I’m much more interested in allowing a conversation between the audience and the film itself.

What the most fun for you making this film? Was it just shooting in general? Was it the music sequences? Was it working in the editing room?

I think what I look back most fondly on is the people I met on this journey of making this movie. First of all, I collaborated with Jaime Bell on this, whose my best friend and we’ve been best friends forever and we are obsessed with movies, we’re obsessed with your writing and the playlist. We’re just big movie junkies and to get to make one ourselves has been an extraordinary privilege and joy. So, that has been one of my favorite parts. It was not an easy shoot, man it was an extremely ambitious film with very little time and very little money and we didn’t want to short change, anybody. We really wanted to deliver the full cinematic experience of what this could be and that meant that everyone had to work very, very, very hard with very, very few resources. So, the actual shoot was quite difficult. But I would say there was one afternoon where we got to hang out with some goats and some horses and there wasn’t a gun to our head and that was definitely my favorite day of work. It was really lovely to have one afternoon where we didn’t have to be completely dogmatic.

I don’t know what the budget is but it was obviously an independent, seemingly low budget film. How did you pull off the sequences with the show competition itself in terms of the staging of it and how it looked? Because it looks pretty close to what you’d expect for a European, U.K. television show to look at. Did you just have an amazing production designer, did you get lucky with you some set being available? How did that sort of happen?

The crew on this film is astonishing and all completely out of my league. We also have an amazing line producer who I think squeezed every nickel out of this budget. I think the headline answer is that basically you just have to be very, very precise with your plan. I obsessed with editing anyway, so I always think about it through that lens regardless, but you’re really having to work backward from there as early as the scripting stage. So there really wasn’t, for example, this is quite unusual, there are no deleted scenes in “Teen Spirit.” In fact, I would argue that there’s maybe no deleted footage, we simply had to shoot everything we needed as precisely as possible and nothing more because otherwise, we would be short changing what we did have to get. So I hope that in the future when I make movies there will be a little more space to explore and try things. On this movie we really didn’t explore or try anything, we shot a very, very strict plan.

Did you shoot it in 2017 or 2018?

Its been a very unusual production. We shot the movie in 2017 and then we went on pause because I had to go and shoot “The Handmaids Tale.” We actually kind of just put everything we could on pause for about six or seven months while I went and shot that and then I came back and edited the movie actually quite quickly so that we could be ready for Toronto.

So you didn’t try to edit it whiles you were shooting “The Handmaids Tale”?

Well no. I couldn’t be honest because that would be a legal nightmare.

Oh.

So, it was always the plan that I would just take a break, but going back to our previous conversation, it wasn’t the most complicated edit, I would say on this movie simply because we had been so purposeful in the production. So the assembly of the film which I had while we’re still shooting very, very, very strongly resembles the final movie. I mean I spent a lot of time playing with frames and trimming 12 frames here and 12 frames there and you know all that stuff, but it was really pre-locked in from the onset.

Now that you’ve made this movie, do you have the bug? Are you chomping at the bit to direct your next feature?

Absolutely. But I also absolutely have no expectations that, that will happen. You know it’s incredibly difficult to have a film made as I just learned. It feels like a real privilege to get to do it. It feels like a crazy thing to be allowed to do, especially as a writer/director. I would absolutely love to do it, I think Jaime would also love to do it, but we have no expectations. We’ll see what happens.

You have been busy shooting the latest, upcoming season of “The Handmaids Tale.” I know you’re not allowed to spoil anything but can you give a suggestion or a glimmer of what fans should expect for the new season?

Sure, I mean I think it’s gonna be great. I found this season super surprising. One of the good things about being on an ensemble show is that you actually genuinely get to kind of enjoy it as an audience member and I really think this is gonna be a great season. I think people know that Bradley Whitford is gonna be a kind of larger element this year, which is never a bad thing. And I think it’s gonna be great, and I don’t think it’s gonna go. I would say there’s more of a sense of hope and rebellion this year than last year [and I] think last year was an extraordinary season of television. It was also extremely difficult to watch.

It was, it was. Yeah.

Very morose and I think this season, there’s definitely an energy to it, which feels different and new.

Well, my last question for you is did you get to see Robyn on her current tour?

I didn’t see her on this current tour because I’ve been finishing this movie, but I’ve seen Robyn perform many, many times live and she’s absolutely extraordinary.

“Teen Spirit” opens in limited release on Friday.

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