There’s a big, bare knuckle brawl in “Hot Summer Nights” that unfolds in the middle of a go-kart track, requiring a whole bunch of extras and fight choreography just to make sure that everything goes off right — then there was an additional consideration that it wasn’t even the main part of the shot, so it needed to be coordinated with the fevered conversation in the foreground going on between Daniel (Timothee Chalamet) and his partner-in-crime Hunter (Alex Roe). In other words, it was the kind of scene that most other directors would’ve simplified to make their day, but not Elijah Bynum.
“We had some line producers that had come in to take a look at the script who said, “Look, we really love the script, but I can’t make it work for this budget,” said Bynum. “And I finally found one who is something of a magician because he was able to maintain a large percentage of what was on the page and give us enough time in production to get everything we wanted. Of course, there was a lot of stuff that I had to cut [or] make concessions on, but little details like that fight at the Go-Kart I thought were really important because the small details in the movie add up to a lot.”
Following the lead of its two enterprising marijuana dealers who seek to supply the upper crust of Cape Cod with the good ganja from May to August in 1991, everything that should’ve been straight-forward in bringing Bynum’s debut to the screen went in a different direction than expected, but unlike the fate that surely awaits Hunter and Daniel as they attempt to get their hands a little dirtier with a bigger supplier (Emory Cohen), “Hot Summer Nights” becomes a rousing success because of its sprawl and unpredictability. While Daniel finds a sense of purpose that wouldn’t make much sense to others in pursuing a life of crime after being sent to sent to live with his aunt after the passing of his father, Bynum, who was inspired by stories of wayward friends of friends he had growing up, creates a film where logic is shaped as much by emotions as much if not more than practicality, bringing in a 13-year-old narrator who watches from his window sill as Daniel starts to get into trouble, not only with the law, but with Hunter when he starts a romance with his estranged sister (Maika Monroe).
Vivid details such as playing “Street Fighter II” or going to see a double bill of “The Rocketeer” and “The Naked Gun” complete memories that otherwise might be incomprehensible to the boy with a limited understanding of the world, but cleverly serve the purpose in “Hot Summer Nights” of creating the exhilaration and sensations of Daniel’s wild ride through Cape Cod where he’s having too much fun to think of the consequences until they come due. As thrilling as it is to accompany Daniel for the ride, it is equally exciting to have a voice as distinctive as Bynum’s practically explode off the screen and it was a surprise to learn shortly before the film arrives in theaters following its premiere last year at SXSW that there was a time when the director thought he’d only be getting a writing credit on the Black List-endorsed project. Recently, Bynum spoke about how he found the confidence to take the reins behind the camera without any prior experience and creating a film that will burn its way into your brain as the memories of growing up in New England are burned into his.
I spoke to Casey Wilder Mott recently for his film “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and he said it was his work with you as a producer on this that in some part inspired to become a director himself because you were uncertain of becoming a director yourself when this all started. How did you become sold on the idea?
I hadn’t imagined directing it. I was an assistant at CAA, I had just left and I had written one other script before that and people seemed to like it, so I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll get lucky and write another script,” so I wrote this, just hoping maybe to start a writing career – find a manager, find an agent, and cut to three years later and I’m directing it. By that time, I was openly asking if I could be the director, which I knew would be a challenge and I was going to have to find the right company that would actually take a risk on me because I hadn’t directed anything before at all — a music video or a short film. I really didn’t have any directing experience, so I knew it was a big ask and it’s not an easy movie necessarily on the page. It’s not cheap. But by the time it ended up at Imperative, which is the company that ended up doing it, I wanted to direct this movie. [I said] “This is my vision for it” and they said yes.
The film distinguishes itself quite early with the use of an narrator unconnected to the events at hand, but makes so much sense for the way you’re trying to tell the story. One of my favorite lines in the film comes from when he connects events like the release of “Terminator 2” with something that happens within the community and he says, “I don’t know that these things are connected, but you can’t be sure…” as if there is some emotional logic that adds up for him.
Exactly. I thought that would make it feel a bit more like a small-town fairy tale, like an urban legend, than try to tell the kind of gritty version of it, which there certainly was a way to do. But this felt much more interesting to me. This felt like “Sandlot” meets “Stand By Me” meets “Virgin Suicides” and I was going for something a little magical. The true story that it’s based on, the way I had heard about it was through rumors that were passed along from one person to the next before they got to me and everyone puts a little bit of spin on their version before they pass it along, so I knew what I was hearing wasn’t necessarily factually true, but it was at least emotionally true. When I think back to that period in my life, I’m certain I’ve fudged and forgotten most of the facts, but I remember how it felt, so I wanted to tell a story that just punched you in the gut and was an emotional rollercoaster and to tell it from a distance [with] this innocent bystander who looked up to these kids. [Because] they were larger than life to him, it took on a mythical scope.
I felt this was informed as much by the 1950s as the 1990s when it’s set – did that grow out of the Cape Cod setting or just because you like the juxtaposition of it?
When I was figuring out what the tone of the story was and what it should feel like and look like, I wanted it to feel like a hazy memory of the past, something that evoked nostalgia, and not necessarily entirely grounded in reality, but something that felt like an emotional memory. When you think of nostalgia, the 1950s just creeps in there and there’s something very 1950s about Cape Cod. They still have the malt ice cream shops, the drive-in movie theaters and the mini golf and there’s something about the ‘50s that has carried over. Then there’s the jump from the ‘50s to the ‘80s because there’s a whole arcade scene out there as well, so Cape Cod oddly feels like a combination of 1950s Americana and 1980s Americana – it’s a weird juxtaposition, but something that evokes a very specific feeling of what it’s like to spend your summer out there. aThat’s what we were tapping into.
Was it difficult to pull all of those locations for this where there’s a drive-in, an arcade, all of these things that might not be around anymore?
Well, the thing about Cape Cod is it does have all of those things because that’s what people do in Cape Cod – it has the go-karts and the ice cream stands and the arcades, but we couldn’t afford to shoot in Massachusetts, so we had to go down and find all of those locations in Atlanta, which was a lot of more difficult than we thought it’d be. A lot of the locations were an hour-and-a-half away from our home base. For instance, all of the scenes shot at Hunter’s home garage were almost a two-hour trip each way, so it was difficult, but the locations played such a part in the movie, making it feel of the period and [that] it did take place in Cape Cod, we did put an extensive search into finding these places and we had a great crew that was able to do it.
There are many great song choices in the film, but one in particular stood out to me, Jonathan Richman’s “Hospital,” not only because of how tonally perfect it is for the montage of burgeoning romances you have, but also his connection to New England, yet I was surprised to hear it only came in at the edit. How did you find it?
I’m always listening to music when i’m in the car or in the shower, or when I’m writing, and I had never actually heard the song before. I came across it on Spotify and there’s something just magical about it. It’s sad and wonderful and ynostalgic and it captured the feeling, especially playing over the montage of people falling in love, almost foreshadowing that this isn’t going to end well and we, as an audience, know it’s not going to end well, but the two characters don’t know yet. They think this is going to last forever, so being able to watch them with that dramatic irony of wishing you could reach through the screen to tell them to “watch out, be careful, you’re going to get hurt,” I thought that piece of music really captured the emotion we were going for.
When it’s your first film, was directing what you thought it would be? Was it different?
A little bit of both. It was probably more different than expected. I didn’t quite realize how many decisions I would be having to make on a minute-by-minute basis. I thought there would be someone else somewhere that figured things out and that you’d just get to point and choose what you like. The number of decisions you make [was surprising] and you don’t know which ones are going to work out and maybe all of them [would], but you just have to stick to one and hope that’s the right one. That was definitely a big wakeup call. [Also] the amount of time you have to shoot, I felt like when they say, “You have 12 hours to shoot these three scenes,” that sounds like we should be able to do that with no problem. But when you’re on hour nine and we’re still working out the second scene and you still have another scene coming and it’s starting to rain and the light’s going down, all of a sudden, you feel very overwhelmed. Those 12-hour days feel very short suddenly. But working with the crew and working with the actors – that was amazing.
I love actors in general and I think what they do is some sort of voodoo magic. I have no idea how they do what they do, but when you cast well and you trust the actor, the best thing is to just hand over the material to them and see what they come up. Nine times out of ten, they’re going to make it better than I could’ve thought of in a dark room somewhere when I wrote it. That’s one of the most exciting parts about making a movie is you have this scene that you’ve written over and over again and maybe you hear it in your ear a certain way and you think it’s going to play out a certain way, but then you turn it over to an actor and they’re going to have their own ideas. They look at the material differently than you and there’s going to be something exciting in there if you can just let go and see what they have to say. And I got lucky because I had really good actors.
There a scene early on in the film between Hunter and Daniel on the beach that seems like it must’ve been a relief to get right because it happens during magic hour when there’s limited time and it’s a moment that’s so defining to their relationship. What was getting that like?
That was terrifying because that was the very first day of shooting and it was the very first scene we shot. It was six pages, and it was actually sunrise, so we went out there in the pitch black and felt out where the cameras should be. We shot with two cameras and we put sticks in the sand and were like, “Alright, let’s wait for the sun to come up.” As soon as the skies started getting bright, we just started shooting. Alex [Roe] and Timothee [Chalamet] had met each other the night before and we rehearsed the scene very briefly, like in the lobby of the hotel. They were still learning their lines, just reading off a script and we woke up that morning early and said, “Alright, we only have one shot at this. We have to make it work, and we’ll see what happens.” It was my first day directing anything and it was their first time meeting and they had six pages of dialogue to get through, so in hindsight, we probably should’ve started with something a little easier, and there’s a messiness to the scene, which I think the way it’s been cut together and the way it’s been performed that makes it feel organic — it feels like two kids stoned on the beach, just mumbling through this meandering conversation that eventually arrives at a point, and that’s how conversations like that go. I think if we had shot it later on in production when they had known each other better or they had practiced their lines, it wouldn’t have come out the same way, so I’m glad we did it the way we did.
“Hot Summer Nights” opens on July 27th in Los Angeles at the Sunset 5 and New York at the Cinema Village, among others. A full list of theaters and dates is here. It is also available on DirecTV.