One of the sharpest moments in Augustine Frizzell’s utterly delightful “Never Goin’ Back” is one that seems to have the least obvious amount of edge, finding best friends Angela (Maia Mitchell) and Jessie (Cami Morrone) at a bus depot when they’re approached by a vagrant asking for change. The young women, who have been struggling to pay rent, let alone put money towards their dream vacation in Galveston, have spent the day going to increasingly extreme lengths to finance a trip out of town, only to see it backfire spectacularly. Yet down to their last few dollars, Angela thinks nothing of handing one to the man and listen to him ruminate about rising sea levels, a gift of attention that may be even more generous than the cash she can barely afford to part with.
“When you’re young and desperate, you don’t always make the right decisions, but at the heart of everything [the girls are] doing, they’re good people and they just want to do their best,” says Frizzell, recalling her own youth spent in Dallas. “You’re all struggling and life’s this cesspool sometimes of down-on your luck misery, so the people in it with you, you do have to look out for each other, and you do have those moments where you do the thing and hopefully it’s returned to you.”
This generosity extends to the way in which Frizzell treats everyone in “Never Goin’ Back,” a raucous comedy in which the sight of Angela and Jessie punching each other in the face as part of a con to scare up some quick cash or holding in their bowel movements so as not to use a prison toilet after getting caught with a bag of weed somehow seem less audacious than exposing the holes in the social fabric that make it understandable why the girls may need to do a bump of coke before heading out to their thankless waitress jobs in the morning. Instead of picturing the usual rogue’s gallery of stoner flicks that Angela and Jessie run into during the course of a day as loveable losers, Frizzell approaches them with dignity and warmth, suggesting a camraderie forged in hard times that makes one overlook your new best friend having burst into your house a day before to steal your TV, as happens with Jessie’s brother Dustin (Joel Allen).
Like the girls’ spur-of-the-moment scheme to spend Jessie’s 17th birthday out by the beach, “Never Goin’ Back” succeeds against all odds, enabling audiences to feel the cool breeze before Angela and Jessie do as the film refreshingly steers clear of judgment while carousing from one big comic set-piece to another. Yet while Frizzell knew exactly how “Never Goin’ Back” would look for the longest time, realizing it was something else entirely, as she attempted another feature-length version of the same story after she found success on the festival circuit with her 2014 short “I Was a Teenage Girl” that never quite cohered. When talking to the writer/director now about the second iteration, in which Angela and Jessie’s room was going to be littered with “dirty clothes because if you’re having to use a laundromat, you’re not getting your laundry done regularly,” you get the sense that as wonderfully shaggy as the comedy is, if even one detail felt off to Frizzell, it was never going to work, though now that she’s finally gotten “Never Goin’ Back” out of her head, you’ll have trouble getting it out of yours.
Following its success at Sundance earlier this year where it kept up audiences in the midnight section well after the end credits rolled, “Never Goin’ Back” hits theaters this weekend and Frizzell spoke about finding the confidence to go back herself to take a second crack at a story that she was so close to, keeping the energy up on set to contribute to the film’s frenzied pace and how she was able to secure the rights to songs from Barry Manilow and Michael Bolton to score some of the film’s most outrageous scenes.
At first, it was really depressing to make that decision to redo the thing. There are phases. There’s the phase of like, “God, I messed this up. I should’ve done things differently.” Then there’s the phase of “Well, I learned a lot, so it was worthwhile,” and then there’s a phase of this is really exciting because I know so much and I can go into it with that experience and do it so much better this time.” So it was not an easy road, but once I had that change of thought-process, it became a really good experience.
What sold you on Cami and Maia for Angela and Jessie?
They’re just so good, right? Their energy. From the moment I spoke with both of them, they had this infectious energy that came through across the computer – we were Skyping together – and then they sent in videos and their videos were great. When I got them together in the room for chemistry reads, they just had this spark that you rarely see between actors upon their first meeting. It was if they’d known each other for 20 years, knew every secret and having every detail without having ever met. They were just naturally the right people. Then [in the script] Angela was big and energetic and Jessie was more mellow, so it flipped. Angela is usually the bigger, bolder, brasher one, but Maia brought this really cool calming effect [to her], but she’s still really quick and reactionary, and Cami brought this anxiety to Jessie that I hadn’t seen. She was like a Woody Allen-type – like “Aghhh, too much stress, too much anxiety, I’m freaking out” — that was Cami and her energy, so it was the opposite from the way that they were written.
I understand dailies may have played a big role in finding the rhythm or tone of this – how so?
Yeah, I had a co-editor Courtney Ware, who was amazing, compiling the footage and she was putting together the scenes we had shot on a daily basis and when you first see something cut together, it’s really jarring. You’re like, “What have I done!?!” And then I took it and cut it together myself in the style I had in mind and showed it to Courtney and I was like, “Hey, this is more what I had in mind with the footage we’re getting.” And then she just ran with it and understood the tone and the pacing, so that was helpful to see those things and we recognized right away that we were on the right track. We had very few pickups — I think we had two things that we had to go back and get, but everything we planned for worked out really well.
When you have a great soundtrack like this, did you have a lot of it in mind before shooting?
I had a lot of those songs in mind while I was writing, so I put them all together on a playlist and had given it to all the actors and gave it to Courtney. And 90% of the music that was in our rough cut was on that playlist and from there, we had original songwriters creating songs in that style, but within their own voice and style. I’m so proud of the soundtrack — we sent [the songs] back and forth and gave notes and tweaked stuff, and then Sarah Jaffe worked with these two songwriters and that collaboration just put out these amazing and unique songs that had the same vibe of the movie. It just worked really well.
Then we added a couple [classic songs from] Barry Manilow and Michael Bolton. [With] Michael Bolton, that moment actually was something I had discovered in the editing process. I had written [that scene] set to “Glory of Love,” that “Karate Kid II” song and we couldn’t get the rights because they didn’t want it associated with drug use. So I thought what would be as good? I’d seen that Michael Bolton/Lonely Island Valentine’s Day special, it was so funny and I thought it seems like Michael Bolton might have a sense of humor. And we got approval. The Barry Manilow song [“Mandy”], we worked with a couple of music supervisors who sent over options for the pancake scene after we lost “Glory of Love,” and the Barry Manilow song was [on the list], but [I thought] “it doesn’t work there, but maybe…maybe it’ll work [somewhere else]!” And it made me laugh, so I thought if it makes me laugh, well…
I’m not going to spoil the scene, but the context for “Mandy” seems like it could be more objectionable than drug use. Was it tricky getting the rights?
They needed to know we weren’t making fun of the song or making fun of Barry Manilow, so we were just like, “this is nothing but a tribute to this wonderful song and this friendship and this wonderful moment.” As long as you’re not being derogatory towards the artist, they’re usually okay with it and thankfully, they agreed to it. I love Barry Manilow, so I would never [do] anything mean-spirited towards Barry Manilow.
Because music runs in the family, I imagine you could’ve chosen from a number of artistic mediums to work in – how did filmmaking become the one for you?
It was a really organic transition to becoming a filmmaker. I didn’t grow up thinking I would make movies. I always wanted to be a singer or a performer of some sort, so I tried singing and I was never quite able to get over my nerves and took an acting class. I really liked acting and I enjoyed this energy that it had that, and I liked that creative process, but was never 100 percent comfortable with it [either]. But I always loved stories and keeping a journal [of] random things, and over the years I found that I was creating little snippet movies on a DV or whatever the camera, and making things in that sense. I never linked it with filmmaking because filmmaking to me was really expensive. It was something that people with money could do and I never had money. I was always really broke. I was a single mom. Acting was something you could do and earn money and if you pursued it, it didn’t cost anything, whereas if you were making movies, it was expensive.
So it was later on when my husband, who’s a filmmaker, and I worked together and I was just like, “God, I’d really love to make something.” And I thought he might think, “You never made anything. You’re a little old to start now. Don’t do it.” That’s what I thought his response might be, but instead, he was really supportive and told me how to do it and to do it for cheap, and how if you have a script, people are going to help you if they like the script. You just have to write the material and people come onboard. Once I made my first short, I felt alive and it felt so natural and it felt incredibly challenging and exciting, but it hadn’t been that anxiety-ridden thing that acting had always been. I didn’t judge myself as harshly as I judged myself as an actor because it just felt organic. It felt like what I need to be doing. And then I just did it.
“Never Goin’ Back” opens on August 3rd in Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood and in New York at the Angelika Film Center. A full list of theaters and dates is here.