Director Max Minghella and executive producer Jamie Bell discuss casting, cinematic music, and Ariana Grande while promoting Teen Spirit.
After watching a movie like Teen Spirit, steeped in the love of music, it’s impossible not to want to discuss the power of lyrics with its director. Max Minghella makes his directorial debut with the Elle Fanning-led quasi-musical, creating a film that’s utterly beautiful in how it showcases its leading lady, but how it also honors the power of music. I sat down with Minghella and executive producer Jamie Bell during the SXSW Film Festival to discuss pop music, the aesthetics of making a movie, and more.
What inspired you to make your directorial debut with this feature?
Max Minghella: It’s a great question that I’m still figuring out. I find music very cinematic and I found this music, specifically, to be very cinematic. I really liked the tonal dichotomy of the music and found it quite interesting to tell a story, which shared that sensibility in the sense that it could both be a big, popcorn-y experience and at the same time have something more melancholic underneath it, contemplative and human. I liked the mix.
There are several music-based stories out right now between this, Her Smell, and Vox Lux last year. What do you think is the appeal of these stories?
MM: Obviously there’s a big shift happening now in our industry and getting people to go to the movies is harder and harder. Right now we’re really driven by spectacle, whether that’s superhero movies or… those are the kind of things we’re wanting to justify that big-screen experience. We had this movie in development for a long time and were waiting for there to be an appetite for a movie like this and I’m glad there is some; it’s a growing appetite.
Max, with your family history, was there a hesitancy to direct a movie about being in the public eye?
MM: No, it never really occurred to me. I don’t think of myself as somebody who’s in anybody’s eyes. What I like about the film is that nobody’s really interested in the mechanics of show business, at least externally. It’s more interested in the behind-the-scenes and reality of it. There’s a thing I really like, which is when she [Elle Fanning’s character] goes to London and there’s all this energy about going there. And when she gets there the movie suddenly stops for a second. It slows down, it’s not actually very exciting.
The most meandering scene of the film is when she finally arrives and is just like “well, I guess we order room service and watch TV, maybe go do something at 2 o’clock” and that was important to me. It’s like anything in life, reality has its exciting moments and then it’s got its mundane ones. This industry is like any other one. It’s filled with excitement and then just the day-to-day reality of our life.
How much of the film’s aesthetics were pre-planned?
MM: We worked with an extraordinary DP, Autumn Durald, who has a huge amount to do with that. She’s really obsessed with lighting, that’s her thing, and I would say I’m really obsessed with framing so it’s quite a helpful balance and we worked well because of it. Editing is also paramount to me at every stage. The script is written for the edit. When you have limited resources, as we did, we wanted to make a film that had visual scope and ambition, the sacrifice you have to make.
You have to be extremely purposeful in how you’re shooting and use your time. You can’t go into a scene trying to shoot coverage. You have to go in knowing how you’ll want to assemble it and be confident in that. Part of it was, honestly, to do with the circumstances and having to make a lot of big commitments early.
I have to ask about how you accomplished the main tracking shot during the finale. What went into that?
MM: It’s about anxiety, that shot. There are a lot of moments in the movie but that’s the only one that the audience is, hopefully, deceived. I always try and shoot without having to cut as much as possible, but that’s the one time I wanted the audience to be conscious of the fact that we weren’t cutting. The reason was to unsettle them. I wanted them to feel that same nervousness and tension that Violet is feeling when she steps onto that stage and I think the shot helps that a lot.
Without spoiling things, was the ending always planned that way?
MM: Here’s the honest answer: we weren’t really interested in the result, that was the least important part. That’s not what it’s about and what’s great is that when Violet goes out to perform in the end I don’t think she’s performing with an agenda for the result of the competition. She’s just being authentic to who she is. It’s because of that authenticity that allows her to get to a certain point. We always thought that was an afterthought, whether she wins or not, and we treated it as a post-script. We feel, and hopefully we were successful in making the story feel complete, regardless of that.
What went into casting Rebecca Hall and finding her character? She’s not a stock villain like you’d expect.
MM: The movie definitely toys with the archetypal characters and subverts them. So Vlad is like a fairy godmother but an obviously unique version of that and in the same way Rebecca is the Mephistopheles of the story but she’s not. What’s great about her is everything she says is true and that was so important to me. She’s not manipulative and everything she says is right.
She’s actually based on my agent, John Garvey — shout out to my agent — who is somebody who has really cut me down to size on a daily basis. And in thinking of what would Garvey say in a scene and what he would do is just tell me a truth that was painful to hear and that’s what Rebecca does over and over. She tells the truth, but it’s painful to hear. Violet is more noble than I am. I don’t think I would have managed to make a decision that is as outstanding as Violet does. I’d probably go with Rebecca, be persuaded by her argument.
Do you worry about the criticisms that might come from people who see another story about a teenage girl directed by a man?
MM: I’m incredibly proud of the way that this teenage girl is portrayed. There’s another film that’s out right now and I’ve seen some reviews of it where, specifically male critics, have critiqued a performance because they feel like the actress isn’t smiling enough. I found that insane and so deeply offensive. Elle’s performance in the movie, which I take zero credit for, is so dynamic and complex. It’s so modern.
This is not a person who needs to wear makeup or always be funny or always smile or, frankly, always do the right thing. She’s a very human character; she’s capable of good or bad, and that’s my understanding of all human beings. They’re complex people. They don’t fit into a box of how people, or certainly men, want them to be. I’m not nervous about that question because Elle’s performance so clearly demonstrates that Violet is a fully rounded person and she brings so much to it. This is a movie made by people of all genders and backgrounds and I feel all of that in the film.