Director Michael Tully on his new film Ping Pong Summer and how he got Susan Sarandon to play the part of “Randi Jammer” – a ping pong loving eccentric mentor.
Ping Pong Summer is a coming-of-age ’80s film. How much of your own personal experiences contributed to the script?
I would say a lot of the little details and a combination of putting my own life into the movies I watched growing up. It’s a combination of the movies I loved and a love letter to my own life. All of the plot – “Randi Jammer”, the best friend and the girl – was from my movie memories at that age whereas a lot of the details of buying the rap tape and smelling the cassette and the Irish father who was a state trooper – all those things were deeply embarrassingly personal. Then, all of the movie stuff – the ping pong arcade – that was from the movies I watched growing up.
Why do you think sport is such a good basis to explore human emotions and interactions?
Ping pong specifically was something I grew up playing. I’m not great at it but I love it. I just thought it would be cool to see kids taking ping pong too seriously because it’s kind of a goofy game. It’s really awesome but it’s sort of like bowling. It’s kind of nerdy at the same time because it’s really good exercise. More than even using the sports template it was me wanting to see real ping pong shot on 16mm in the movie. That kind of dictated the decision more – to make it about ping pong that way – even though my previous film Septien (2011), in which I act in, is about a character playing sports. I grew up playing sports so maybe that’s something that carries over to a lot of filmmakers. They weren’t hiding in gym class. I was very excited to go to gym class.
You were? I hated it. I was always reading a book at the back.
I read a lot too.
What were the influences that informed the film? There is a Japanese film called Pingu Pongu (2002) that is similar in story to yours. Have you seen it?
No, I haven’t. I was going to go on a little bender of all the ping pong movies made but I was a little too sensitive so I didn’t but I heard that one is actually very good whereas some of the other ones are not.
That one is very good. I thought you might have watched it but I know you had Ping Pong Summer in mind from the 1990s, right?
Oh yeah, ’92. The movies that I was referencing, in a production sense, was to try and make an artifact film. There were recent references like Shane Meadows This is England (2006) which was kind of a model. This movie [Ping Pong Summer] couldn’t be more different but it has the sense of that feeling. That was like a pinnacle for me but when it came to the actual movie content inspiration it was, more than even The Karate Kid (1984), a knock off of that called No Retreat, No Surrender (1986) which were like Hollywood is so lame. It was like that movie worked – lets do one kind of like it. So, a knock off of The Karate Kid was way more direct of a reference.
When you’ve watched the film back, is there anything that you’re not happy with?
I’m scared to watch it for that reason.
So, have you not watched it in its entirety?
I’ve watched it. I’ve seen it too much. I did watch it once with a crowd in Maryland, Baltimore. I knew that was going to go well so I sat through it but when you’ve been thinking about making a movie for 20 years and it’s in the future I have had an awkward time reconciling. Whereas Septien ,the last one, was kind of like “this is it”, we did the best we could and I’m totally content and proud of it. It’s not perfect but who cares – nobody is perfect. This one, because it’s sort of myself on screen in a really weird way, it’s different. There’s nothing I would do differently but it’s a strange experience.
Yes, it must be really scary. It’s like seeing yourself on screen as an actor. It’s really strange because you would see things other people wouldn’t.
Exactly. I just would be watching it with a really hyper-sensitive eye and I feel like there’s nothing good to come of it. I might watch it, we did with the last film we made, with my wife. I watched Septien with my wife before we went into production with the new movie and that was actually kind of fun to do that. Otherwise, I’m still kind of scared a bit. I was really nervous but it seems like people here have embraced the sincerity and gone with it.
It really has the feel of an ’80s movie. What’s your favourite ’80s film?
Oh man. I was actually really honored enough to do a podcast with, a hero of mine at that age, Savage Steve Holland who made Better Off Dead (1985) and One Crazy Summer (1986). He watched Ping Pong Summer and really responded to it so I got to talk to a hero and he was geeking out over the movie which was really great. Favourite ’80s movie period is probably Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue (1980) which I just saw recently again on the screen and I was like this is more involved than any American indie of the past five years. It was made 30 years ago. So, not like Ping Pong Summer with its family stuff. I was a little luckier with the family dynamics and my upbringing.
The family stuff reminds me a little of Jared Hess’s Napoleon Dynamite (2004).
Yeah, I like that movie. I really enjoyed that and you know the sense of it, Savage Steve actually did bring that up as well, having a timeless feel. Napoleon Dynamite is kind of modern whereas I felt our approach was more like This is England. We were really trying to set it in that summer of 1985 the way Richard Linklater did with Dazed and Confused (1993). He was like you cannot use any songs that come from after the last day of school in 1976. We broke that rule a tiny bit but I wasn’t going to be that firm. I tried to be pretty firm with our artistic voice.
How did you get Susan Sarandon on board?
I reached out to a friend who had directed her, Jay Duplass, who is brother to Mark Duplass and he’s kind of a big actor now. They directed her in a movie called Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011) a few years ago. When we were coming up with the idea of changing the mentor from a male to a female – I just thought that would be more interesting – I remembered Jay had worked with Susan. She is the co-owner of a ping pong franchise. She admits to not being a great player but she likes the sport. I directly reached out to Jay Duplass – he read the script and liked it and suggested it to Susan. After, she admitted the Duplass recommendation helped. Can you imagine how many offers Susan Sarandon is looking at on her desk right now? So, to have that one foot in was enough and she watched the previous movie we made – which is pretty weird – and she liked it. It’s not for everyone.
I haven’t seen it yet but I want to.
I originally wanted it to come out in the UK but I guess we never got a release here. Oh well, maybe one of these years. Like Ping Pong Summer the sense of humor is a little off so not everyone is going to click but the fact that Susan responded to Septien and we liked each other is great.
She’s quite cool though?
She’s really cool. She’s great and in the sense when you say ‘cool’ it’s really that definition of cool. Sort of not bothered by much. When I met her it was a year before we shot – or leading up to it – and she had three movies at Sundance and was like “I don’t want to go”. I mean not in a snobby way. It’s like “I’m surrounded by people all the time” and it’s true. She came to meet me on set one day and we were walking through the amusement park and within – from here to the door – she got stopped by so many people asking for a picture. It’s that idea of her saying I don’t want to play that game. It’s not why she does it [act]. It’s not why she is still working really hard and making bold choices as an actor. It’s really inspiring. I think we should all be excited about that.
How did you feel when you were at Sundance Film Festival?
It was great. When I made the commitment two days before to not watch it with the crowd my life changed. I went up in the booth with the projectionist and I kind of peeped out to suss out what was what – “Oh, people are laughing so it’s kind of going well”. Then, we had a really great party – a house party like old school Sundance. The reason they don’t do it anymore is because they’ve put laws into place. We sort of forgot or didn’t know so we had a huge house party and the Sundance people came and my programmers. We had photo booth and we made it look like Ocean City so it was great. It was like a wedding day. It was a perfect day.
That sounds amazing.
Yeah, I also write about movies so I was kind of doubling in where I was press and filmmaker. I write a website called Hammer to Nail in the States so twice I’ve had two movies at Sundance which is kind of a miracle thinking about it. It was great because I could be like which party do I need to go to as a filmmaker and then go to the press screenings where I could bang out a few. It’s really important to me to watch movies when I’m at festivals and not just sit here and talk about our own.
Was it hard writing the script? Transitioning from writing about film to writing a film?
Every winter, for the past 20 years, I would write it and say I’m going to make it this summer and then just by March wouldn’t have the money. There were R rated versions. A lot of the time there wasn’t a family, it was just Rad and he was older. So, as awkward as it makes me feel about the movie, I am kind of proud and happy that we decided to make it a love letter to a normal family which does not make the stuff of great, typical ,art indie film festival drama. I just thought it was the right movie to embrace that and make a love letter – and just be sweet and sincere. Then we can get back into our three hours of darkness and documentaries where you are like “wait wind turbines are terrible”. Yeah, so I thought it might be a nice tonic to put that out in the world and let people connect with it if they wanted to.
Any future projects in mind?
Hopefully in the spring we’re going to be in Ireland. I was just there scouting. Again, to say it’s happening is idiotic but the plan is to be in April shooting a creepy, dream logic nightmare film. This movie was Hollywood archetypes, the previous movie was throwing a bunch of genres in a blender, and rather than repeating myself it’s like wait I love all sorts of movies so lets do a creepy nightmare fairy tale in Ireland.
I can’t wait to see that.
I hope you see it because that would mean we’ve made it!
Ping Pong Summer world premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and had its UK release at the London Film Festival on 15th October. It will be available on DVD late 2014.