Rebecca Eskreis on the Fragility of Youth in “What Breaks the Ice”

Rebecca Eskreis would spend her summers of her youth at a summer camp in New Hampshire, away from both the city and any adults that knew her, allowing her to have a break from the life she knew. Still, her curiosity about a life outside of her own experience extended to those who would didn’t get go somewhere else and being naturally inclined to look at things from another angle, she thought about the invasion of out-of-towners that would happen every year from the perspective of the locals when she began to work on her debut feature “When the Ice Breaks.”

“For all the classic teen movies, I think that’s something that comes up again and again is the slang and language that teenagers talk about the inner circle and the other,” says Eskreis, who coined the phrase “joyriders” to describe the outsiders like herself and by extension, Emily, one of the film’s two leads, played by “Stranger Things”‘ Madelyn Cline. “And I loved the idea of Emily being someone at first we think of as an outsider, but then through the events of the movie becomes part of the events of this town and part of this teenage and young adult group.”

It turns out to be a fascinating starting point to find a fresh way into a coming-of-age tale, set in a sleepy lakeside town where residents can expect a new set of rowdy teenagers annually crowding the docks. This being 1998, the internet is not yet an escape for Sammy (“Ozark” star Sofia Hublitz), who at 15 is finally of age to consider partying with the carpetbaggers, but when it appears life moves so fast for those from the city, she is content to take things slow until meeting Emily, who she saves from an early summer arrest for stealing a candy bar – not because she can’t afford it, but because she believes she can get away with it. The two become instant friends in spite of the different the backgrounds they come from, but drawing far more serious attention from the police after attending a rave together where things get out of hand, the dynamic between the two shifts dramatically as Sammy, the seemingly more timid of the two, is far more confident in knowing the terrain than Emily, with both coming to acutely recognize where their strengths lie and the areas they still have some growing up to do.

Although “What Breaks the Ice” is Eskreis’ debut feature, it appears as the accomplished work of a seasoned pro, with the filmmaker clearly building in enlivening details from personal experience and years of work in various capacities in the film business from once being Jonathan Demme’s assistant to becoming a formidable producer to weave together a compelling thriller that conveys the danger of moving into a more adult world with equal precision as Emily and Sammy handle the fallout from when the party is over. After premiering last year at the Woodstock Film Festival, the film is being released widely this week in theaters and on digital platforms and the writer/director spoke about how she went about entering a tried-and-true genre from a new angle, working with “The Half of It” master of light Greta Zozula and how she could be inspired by her actresses.

This is a curveball, but since seeing it, the burning question I had is you find such a perfect song in Sophie B. Hawkins’s “As I Lay Me Down” to establish the time this takes place in at the beginning and over the end credits, there’s a different version of the song that doesn’t sound like a cover exactly – how did you manage that?

That’s a good curveball. That is one of my favorite songs and even though “Whaler” came out in ’94 and the movie is set in ’98, it’s such a quintessential ‘90s song for me and it was one of the two choice songs beyond our score that we really wanted to secure for the movie. I actually reached out to Sophie directly to get the rights to that and she goes, “You won’t believe it, but because it’s the 25th anniversary of ‘Whaler,’ I’m rereleasing a new version of ‘As I Lay Me Down’, so we got early dibs on that and I thought it was such an interesting way to close the movie. The original version is so upbeat, and then I find the closing track version, which is Sophie 25 years later, [to be] this melancholic mature version of the same song and it bookended the movie really well. Sophie’s one of the coolest people I’ve ever met and has been really supportive of the movie, so it’s been awesome. She’s one of my heroes.

It fits so perfectly the idea that you see these young women grow up before your eyes, and one of the things I thought must’ve been difficult is how to modulate these performances when the dynamic shifts. What was it like to find these two actresses who could play the entire spectrum?

I was so fortunate to meet so many wonderful people in the process of putting this film together, but the two of them in their own unique way really spoke to me as individuals for the part of Sammy and Emily. They were able to play off of each other and I think you’re correct in that Emily starts out as seemingly the older one and what we really realize is her confidence comes from a place of a lot of naïveté whereas Sammy comes off as being very innocent and then we learn that she really isn’t, so we spent a lot of time talking about that flip-flop. They became really good friends in real life, which was awesome and made the whole process very organic, which was really lucky for me.

Even though [the characters] seem to be polar opposites, it’s much more a yin and yang than it is one is so opposite from the other and we had a really fun time with that. Towards the end of filming, we had a lot of those deeper conversations of like “What would the character do now?” and “Where is this one sitting as far as her feelings towards the other one?” In particular, the locker room scene right before Sammy’s nightmare, really is where the shift occurs where you start to see Emily is not exactly as mature and worldly as she comes off to be initially.

What was fun for me is this is a screenplay I had spent off and on a bit of time working on and there were for sure moments where they came to me with ideas, whether it was with dialogue or specific performance. I can think of one shot in particular where I don’t want to give too much away, but Greta [Zozula], the cinematographer, and I had worked out all the coverage for a scene that happens after the midpoint of the story. It was a shot in front of Sammy’s house and I went over to Madelyn and I said, “What are you thinking about right now? And she goes, “I’m thinking about how the truck is not in the driveway.” And it ended up being a shot we use in the movie and it’s ominous in the way it plays out. You’re always moving so quickly and we were constantly having conversations like that, but I was like, “Oh, that’s so intelligent and in the idea of covering the scene, I hadn’t even thought about it, so it was those moments that were so awesome as a director to see how invested the actors were in making the movie even better.

There’s a really wonderful scene where Sammy ends up wearing half a pair of pajamas while Emily wears the other half in an overhead shot that captures that idea that they’re two halves of the same whole, but very different parts. How did that come together?

That was actually a fun discussion that I had with our costume designer Brianna [Quick], and we actually repeated that idea in one of Sammy’s flashbacks [where] she’s wearing the same dress that Emily is wearing at the night they go to the rave. We wanted to create this dynamic for the viewer [by] having them share clothes because there’s something about them when you’re that age especially and when you forge such a deep and quick friendship with somebody, there’s kind of no boundaries anymore. That was the impetus for that wardrobe choice and as far as the shot, the way that we rigged that shot up above the bed made a nice tableau of how they’ve become so close so quickly. Then you immediately go into that montage where they’re best friends and [after] you’ve already seen the opening shot of the movie, you know when everything looks perfect, something really horrible is about to happen.

Greta’s one of my very favorite cinematographers – what was it like working out the camera language with her?

Yeah, Greta’s amazing and it was a challenging film, especially what she and her whole department was able to execute on 20 days of shooting. We shot the film anamorphic, [which] provided a lot of interesting opportunities as far as the scope of the imagery and the nostalgic feel that brought to the movie. But people will ask me, what are you most proud of cinematically about the film? And I think it’s the sequence arriving at the rave party through what I consider the midpoint of the film, we shot that over five different locations in three different nights. It was really difficult, but Greta nailed it and it looks really beautiful. Even the nightmare sequence that follows, people are like, “Oh my God, it’s so cool you did that with this strange ethereal sunrise,” and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s because we were running out of darkness,” but in the end, we were really proud of it because it evokes this very strange, otherworldly quality.

You throw quite a rave – was that a crazy day of shooting?

It was actually an overnight, so we shot everything in that whole night sequence, with the exception of the actual stuff on the side of the road, and the nightmare sequence that night, so it was heavy lifting. We had the MOVI cam and our A camera and what’s interesting is if you go on our Instagram page, we posted a video shortly after our festival premiere of what it actually looked like to be shooting background, [which] I think people always find so funny because it looks like there’s so many more people than there actually are in the sequence. But I really credit our camera team as well as our AD team with just being really adept at circulating people and moving to make it seem much more packed space than it actually was. It was quite an intense evening.

You’ve worn a number of different hats over the years — you actually started out as a reporter, was directing always a goal or was it something you got more excited about in your other work behind the scenes?

That’s actually something Greta and I talked about in the middle of this movie, we both found out we had gone to the same teenager film summer camp when we were in high school. I fall into the camp of people who had to try everything else out that I was interested in before committing to this because I fell in love with this when I was pretty young and knew I wanted to do it, but it’s a hard road. This industry is tough and I knew that going into it, but it’s something that I always wanted to do and my experience as a reporter, it helped me learn just generally about story and thinking on your feet and how to execute things on a budget and introduced me and exposed me to a lot of interesting people that further convinced me that this is the path I wanted to take.

When you were finally on the set of your first feature as a director, did it just feel right?

Definitely. It was hard, but the good kind of hard and I had so many wonderful collaborators surrounding me, making it happen and I remember my dad called me on my birthday, which was second to last day of our shoot and he wished me a happy birthday. And he said, “Are you working today?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’m working today.” [laughs] And he’s like, “Well, I hope you get to have some fun.” And I said, “This is the best birthday of my life. I’m directing a movie. What else could I want to be doing right now?”

“What Breaks the Ice” will open on October 1st in select theaters, including the Laemmle Newhall outside of Los Angeles, and become available on iTunes.