Salem kid-turned Hollywood filmmaker Matthew Leslie is the producer and screenwriter of the new retro-horror flick Summer of 84. After working on films Straight Outta Compton and Ride Along 2, he teamed up with Turbo Kid directors François Simard, Anouk and Yoann-Karl Whissell for an Amblin-era inspired film of suburban dread, helping the team land their second Sundance hit.
We had the chance to speak with Matthew Leslie in advance of the Salem premiere of Summer of 84 on Thursday, August 23. Go deep into the production history, unravel the role of nostalgia and the impact of media in a time before the Internet and learn how his experience growing up on the North Shore helped shape the new film.
Kevin Lynch: What was your experience growing up in Salem and Ipswich?
Matthew Leslie: Yeah, well it's funny because that all really ties in nicely to what Summer of 84 is about. Growing up in Ipswich, I'm sure you're at least somewhat familiar with it, being so close to it, it's definitely a sleepy suburban seaside town. And growing up there, I didn't appreciate it for what it was. I go back now and I'm like, “Oh my God, this town is just beautiful and I'm so lucky.” The people are great. It's just such a great place to have grown up. But when you're growing up in a place like that, it's really quiet and kind of boring and you're like, there's got to be something going on. My mind would just race with all kinds of weird theories. I remember thinking about my neighbors. My buss would drop me off at the bottom of my street, every day, for years and years, and then I would walk up the street and there would be houses where I’d never seen the person who lives in that house. And I’d think, "Where is that person? Who is that person?" My mind would just go off and it's like, they're either a serial killer or a CIA spy. So, watching movies like The ‘Burbs, Fright Night, Stand By Me, Rear Window, and The Goonies, those movies were really the movies that had the most profound influence on me when I was younger, because it was so related to the place where I was living, it just felt like suburbia. You know, maybe there's something more going on, and that's really what’s at the heart Summer of 84. It's where that was all birthed from, you know?
KL: Do you relate to any one of the characters or is there a little bit of you in all of them?
ML: I think there's probably a little bit of me in all of them. I have a writing partner, Stephen J. Smith and he is from a similar place, but in Wisconsin, from a town called Waukesha. When we were conceiving of this idea, we're both realizing that even though I grew up on the east coast and he grew up in the Midwest, we had a very similar experience. And suburbia is kinda suburbia, no matter where you are. At least back then, you know, I think the Internet has changed things and kind of homogenized things, sort of leveled the playing field, so to speak. And so everywhere just feels kind of like you have access to information, but there are different pockets of suburbia. But really the experience is the same. We were both like, “OK, it's quiet, it's sleepy, we're a little bit bored. What else is going on?”
So when we were talking about these characters, I think what we realized is that there's bits and pieces of him and I in each of these characters, I would say, not one of them in particular. Each of the character's names are actually based on somebody that I grew up with in one way or another. Like in the character of Woody. One of my best friends growing up, his name was Aaron Woodworth. We called him Woody and he was just this big lovable dude, and when we were in eighth grade, he was already like a full grown man. He was six foot one and had a beard, and so that's kinda like who that was based on. I had a buddy in college named Mike Eaton and he went by Eats. One of my best friends growing up was this kid Jamie Armstrong, and our main character is Davey Armstrong. So we went with Davey because it felt like it's a similar vibe. Those are the kinds of things that we just kind of wanted to infuse that stuff into the movie to make it as personal as possible. And that's kind of where all that stuff came from.
KL: How did the character and geography of the Ipswich Area influence the script?
ML: Well, so as you know, we shot it in Vancouver, British Columbia, which was kind of a later development. We wrote the script to actually be Ipswich, Massachusetts. That's where the script takes place. My father grew up in Salem and his whole family was in Salem. My grandfather, my father, and his brothers owned a bait shop and so I grew up going worm digging and clam digging along the islands and along the shore of Ipswich, Salem, Beverly, and all those communities. So one of the things that I thought was really interesting is that there are islands -- I think they're called tidal islands, but they're islands where basically there's a dirt road onto them when it's low tide and when it's high tide the road is gone because it’s underwater. And I always thought that was such a creepy setting. So, I think so in terms of geography that's really there. And then there's also some of that in the Pacific Northwest. Act 3’s climax takes place on a tidal island and that's definitely something that had an influence on them. That's definitely something that Ipswich, Massachusetts had influence on.
Luckily in Vancouver and the surrounding area, there are islands that are like that. It's definitely different, but I think we made with it what we had to because it's not Ipswich, Massachusetts. But, I think the ending is still really cool. That idea that, you know, the road is there when it's low tide and at high tide it's gone and you're stuck on this island. I think Ipswich, Oregon, this fictional place that we set the movie, it's still a similar seaside community. We didn't have to really change anything in the script to make it work. Still, basically, it really is the same place, but on the other coast, is kind of how it feels, especially in the cities that we shot.
KL: The film is a clear homage to the era of dark adolescent films and novels that got crystallized at its peak with Amblin Entertainment and Stephen King. And especially now, we're seeing a resurgence of that era of storytelling and those kinds of characters. Beyond nostalgia, what do you think was so captivating about that time period in Hollywood history? How did that become a style at that time? What interests you about that?
ML: I think there's a lot of really cool thematic elements about society that are coursing through all that. Number one, I think when you get to be my age, I'm 38 now, you kind of reflect fondly upon your childhood. When you look at Stephen King's IT, I think that's what that is for him. I believe it's the 60s or the 50s, late 50s, that that takes place. It takes place for the adults in the 80s. I kinda think that when you reach the age that I am all the way until your forties or fifties, you kind of reflect upon a time. It's kinda like Midnight in Paris, that Woody Allen movie. No matter when you were born, you reflect upon the time that was 20 years earlier that you view as a nicer, better, simpler time. And to me, I think that's just the 80s. 1984, I was four years old and obviously I don't consciously remember 1984. But developmentally, I think something about it obviously stayed with me because the pop culture of that time just resonates with me in a way that I can't quite explain. So, I think that's a part of it.
One of the things I do remember about being a kid in 1984 was growing up in Ipswich, Massachusetts, there was a string of home robberies on my street. And I remember vividly that it was the time where it went from nobody locked their doors to everyone locks their doors now. So, there was something thematically about that end of innocence idea that we really wanted to tap into with the 80s. And then sort of as it parallels Davey’s end of innocence, our main character, because it felt like the end of the societal innocence and the end of Davey’s innocence. And again, that could be me projecting that onto the eighties as a kid who grew up in the eighties and reflects back upon it as this like simpler, better time. It may not really have been that, but that's how it felt for me. And that's what we were really kind of trying to tap into. It wasn't just a gimmicky thing that we set it in 1984. To us, as writers, It had a profound thematic relevance to the story. We thought that was important because we are not the guys that are going to write a story that takes place in any year other than the present unless it feels like it needs to be. Because then you're setting yourself up for problems.
KL: In the film, Davey’s father works for the news station, which addresses the role of media and how it can influence people's perception of their safety. Like the robberies, you probably hear about them in the news and the newspaper and how that might feed into sort of a fear. And now today, we've got the internet and social media which is that on steroids.
ML: That’s very perceptive of you. In the early 1980s, CNN sort of created the 24 hour news cycles. You were just constantly being bombarded with the news. And now, I mean, I don't want to get political in any way, shape or form, but with these school shootings it almost feels like the news cycle perpetuates more of them in a way. Like they happen in strings. So one happens and the news blasts it at us and then there's like a string of them. And then they stop for awhile, and then another one happens and the news pumps it out there, and it happens again. I think there's something to that idea that the news definitely has an effect on society. And that was the beginning of all that in the 1980s. Before that it was like, you let your kids go out and play until the streetlights came on and then you came home. Well, suddenly kids are missing on the milk carton. And you were hearing about missing kids on the news and I think neighborhood suburban paranoia started to creep in and I think that was a part of it was news cycle.
KL: Which, by the way, I really appreciated the Channel Six van, which I interpreted it as a shout out to Ninja Turtles. Is that right?
ML: Well, Channel Six ultimately was about clearances. We couldn't get other channels cleared, and so we ended up settling on Channel Six news. I was not a part of the ins and outs of why that was the news channel that got cleared legally. But, another happy accident actually, is that if you look at the newscaster, behind him, it says 666. Again, happy accident. It was not intentional, set decoration didn't do that on purpose. We didn't plan for it, but we were shooting it that day, and my producing partner on the movie, Jameson Parker, who works with Brightlight Pictures, who were our production services company, he's like, “Holy shit, dude, look!” and he pointed. I said, “Oh my God, that's amazing!” Totally unintentional, but it ended up just being one of those things that I think people will probably notice it.
KL: Speaking of media, today we have this massive output and fragmentation of media, whereas in the 80s it was sort of a consolidation. Cable was just becoming a thing, but there were only a few channels, and going to the movies. Do you think that 30 years from now kids will still have an affinity for nostalgia as we do now?
ML: That’s a really good question. I mean, I would have to assume so, I think. You know, it's funny, you always look at older people when you're young and you're like, I'm never going to be like that. But I think that there's just something innate about getting older that you reflect back upon younger people. It's harder to understand them because your experience was so different from theirs. I look back to the 60s and it had a very specific style. The 70s had a very specific style, the 80s, the 90s. But then you get to around 2000 when the Internet took over and everything just kind of feels homogenous to me. I don't feel like styles are changing that drastically. Pop culture evolves, but it just doesn't feel like it’s as stark. If you look at 1984 and then you look at like 1992, the way people dress and the way they did their hair and their clothes, everything was so different. That doesn't really seem like it happens anymore. And so I wonder if things change enough for people to notice, you know, for kids to notice those changes. I really don't know. I would assume so though, because I think I might not be picking up on the nuances of it because I'm older, but when you're a kid you can probably do so.
KL: With a film like this, well any period film really, production design is an important part of the process. I'm hoping you could speak a little bit about pre-production for the film, and what went into building a time machine of sorts.
ML: Our production designer, Justin Ludwig, had an amazing team, and they just did a great job. Brightlight Pictures is interesting, they were our production services company in Vancouver, and they make a ton of content up there. They've done different TV series and stuff, and they were doing, at the time, a show called Timeless. I didn't watch Timeless, but I know it had to do with time travel. So they happened to have all kinds of stuff just sitting there that was 80s period. Lamps, couches and TV sets, and even picture cars. We got really top notch stuff because of the resourcefulness and connectivity of Brightlight Pictures. They were able to say, this stuff is sitting here in storage, let's use it!
So, Justin Ludwig, and his team, were able to tap into all this stuff that we really didn't have the budget for. So our set decoration is unbelievable. Basically, we rented out a cul-de-sac in Langley, British Columbia. We had two houses that we had the rented out for basically a week and a half, two weeks. Then we had a couple other houses that we rented out for a day here or there for other stuff. But I'll never forget the place that is Mr. Mackey's house. When we walked into that house, the layout was fine, but it looked super modern. Really modern, with a quite feminine fireplace. We were like, “Okay, well that's not going to work for an 80s bachelor, but what are we gonna do?” And Justin said, “Don't worry about it, I got it.” I'll never forget the day we came in to look at the set that they had built, I was just mind blown. He built an entire facade over that fireplace, making another fireplace. I mean, they just transformed the place, they did such a good job. There is so much attention to detail, they just nailed it. I’ll also never forget the day I came into the production office, and they had a ColecoVision. I don't know how old you are, but as a 38 year old, when I was 5 or 6, I had a ColecoVision. It’s a really early video game system, and there was one sitting in front of me. I was like, “Holy shit, I didn't even know these things could still be found.” It was kind of a cool trip back down memory lane and some of my earliest memories of being a kid. They just really nailed it. There was nothing about that movie that wasn't authentic.
KL: Oh yeah, and it really comes through. The authenticity of the film is very clear. It's kind of bizarre, because it really does feel like a movie that may have just got lost over time and that we're only now getting access to it.
ML: That’s cool to hear you say that, because it was always our goal. One of the movies that was really influential on me when we were conceiving our movie is called The House of the Devil. Have you seen that one?
KL: I love that movie! We’re actually showing that at the festival this year.
ML: That's one of my top five favorite movies of all time. I’ve watched that movie 30 times since it came out, and I think it's a total masterpiece. It’s definitely Ti West’s best movie. I love The Innkeepers too, but I think Devil is his best movie. Just the way that is looks, it felt like I had just popped a VHS tape into my VCR and was watching it. And I remember thinking, I would really love to do that with one of these kinds of stories. That was always in the back of my mind when I was writing because, you know, it's hard to do that, and it's hard to get a financier to be okay with letting you do that.
Gunpowder & Sky was really supportive of that vision. When I attached the directors RKSS, Roadkill Superstar, they were like, “We fully agree that's what we want.” And they have a great Cinematographer, Jean Phillipe Bernier, who is also, by the way, one of half Le Matos, who composed our score. He's an amazing composer too. He’s a crazy cinematographer and composer… a rare talent. and everybody was on board with it, so we felt really lucky. Our movie is not overtly the VHS-y, but it definitely feels like a bygone era, and that was always the goal. So I'm glad to hear you say that.
KL: Yeah, I guess the only difference between the two films is that it feels like Summer of ‘84 is a film that maybe had a bigger budget than at the time. House of the Devil is more of an underground film in terms of feel. But the style, the dialect, the tone; what you're going for seems like it could have been maybe a small studio film of the time. It was still very authentic, maybe a little more polished and middle market festival than House of the Devil would have been.
ML: I think that if I remember correctly, House of the Devil's production budget was something like $600,000, or maybe it was $900,000. It’s somewhere between 6 and $900,000. I mean it's one location, but the producers should be very proud! They got Greta Gerwig in it when she was still up and coming. Jocelin Donahue, who stars in the movie, is amazing. It's just one of those movies that every time I watch it I'm blown away by how good it is, and how few people know it even exists.
KL: Yeah, it's one of my favorites too. And bringing up Greta Gerwig reminds me of the casting of that film, how dead on it was. She kinda reminded me of P. J. Soles from Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Carrie. She had that P.J. Soles vibe who could have played one of the camp counselors from Friday the 13th.
I feel your film has a similar thing with the casting. There's something about casting kids from the 80s. They have that sort of vibe. Can you speak to that? What were you looking for in the casting process?
ML: We obviously really believed in our costume designer, and our stylists. The people who are going to transform these kids into kids of the 80s. We were really just looking for a sensibility. Something that was inherently in each of these kids that made you go, oh yeah that’s Davey. Or, yeah that's definitely Farraday. And the one that we had the hardest time with was actually Woody. Graham Verchere, who plays Davey, as soon as you saw him, you were just like, holy shit, that's Davey. He has this precociousness to him, it’s a twinkle in his eye. First of all, Graham is brilliant. This kid has a photographic memory, he's great. And he comes from two ridiculously brilliant parents. His mom is a pediatric plastic surgeon. So she helps children with deformities, she's just amazing. And his father is a world renowned diabetes scientist. This kid has a photographic memory, he's great. They’re just like the best people ever.
So when we brought him in, we were like, yes that’s Davey. That's a very similar case with Cory Gruter-Andrew for the role of Farraday. We saw him and we were just like, yeah, this kid feels like Farraday. The funny thing about him though is that when he auditioned, he was one height, and then when we were actually shooting, he had sprouted. He was much taller and it was like, holy shit! He seemed like a little kid on the tape. And then when you saw him in person he was five inches taller. Not a little kid anymore.
Then in terms of the role of Eats, we had Judah Lewis. I don't know if you are familiar with his work prior, but he was definitely the most experienced of our kid actors. Judah starred in Demolition opposite Jake Gyllenhaal. Seriously, he is profoundly talented! His parents both come from the entertainment industry. His father's a really talented actor. His mom is an acting coach. She travels with Judah, and they're just the best people too. We really got lucky. All of our kids had amazing parents. Just really great people, and it was just so easy.
Judah also starred in The Babysitter. So while we were shooting, The Babysitter came out on Netflix. So he is a really solid score for us to play the role of Eats. He loved the role, and we couldn’t have been more grateful to have him, and he just nailed it. Kid is on his way to becoming a star.
But the role of Woody, we saw so many kids, we had multiple call backs. And the funny story about that is that one day we were at our wit's end. It was like, what are we going to do? We're going to have to choose between one of two kids who are honestly talented kids, but just didn’t feel right for the role. And so we were heartbroken about it. So I just decided to do a deep dive on IMDb and just sort through different kids. I happened to find this kid, Caleb Emery, and I reached out to his manager. I said that we'd like to have him audition on tape. I didn't hear back, so I just found him and DMed him on Instagram. I'm like, “Hey I know this is really sketchy but we're making an actual movie, so I'm wondering if you could do this?” So, Caleb put himself on tape, he was great, and we fell in love with him. It was at the last hour that we locked him in. He got the part, and he was great. It just felt like destiny that we would find him that way.
I know you didn't ask about the serial killer role with Rich Sommer, but that was another interesting part of the casting process. Every place that considered financing our movie, prior to Gunpowder & Sky, was like, look, you need to have a star in that role. Like a big name. Somebody you're instantly going recognize, or we’re not going to finance the movie. That typical thing of, if you don't have a star we can’t greenlight the movie. Gunpowder said, “We don't care, we just want a great actor. Somebody who's going to nail the role.” It's less about having an A-List name that everyone's going to be like, oh, I know who that is. For us, we were always kind of hoping that would be that case. Because if you get somebody huge playing that role, they bring their real-life persona. Like with Jon Hamm. You're going to say, oh, that's Jon Hamm. I'm sure he'd do a great job, he's a great actor, but you what I mean...
We ended up finding Rich Sommer who is one of these actors who's done a ton, he’s so talented, but he’s flown under the radar. If you saw him on the street, you probably wouldn't recognize them… you may if you're a Mad Men fan. He's honestly one of the most talented actors. I'm sure you saw the climactic scene. It's just a relief when you realize, “Oh my God, this guy is a pro.” He just killed that scene and gave us all goosebumps. He gave us exactly what we wanted. We felt really fortunate that we had a financier that was supportive and wanted us to get the best actor we could find and Rich Sommer is exactly what we were wanting. When we sent him the script, he flipped. He was like, “Oh my God, I never thought I'd be able to make the kind of movie I love and I never thought I'd get to make it because they all were made in the 80s and here I am getting to play this role!” So he was really excited about it.
The stars aligned with all the kids. Tiera Skovbye, who plays Nikki, is just like blowing up right now and doing so much cool stuff, and we got her right when that stuff was happening and she just nailed that role. Across the board, we were just fortunate, you know?
KL: With Rich Sommer, it's funny too, because has a really solid 80s filmography going now with Glow and Wet Hot American Summer.
ML: That's exactly right. Yeah, I forgot he was in Wet Hot American Summer. I still haven't seen that series or the movie I really have to watch them. We've talked about that on set, I’ve got check those out.
KL: The driving plot of this film is the suspense and mystery of living in suburbia with a killer in their midst. It reminded me of when I was younger. I remember camping out in the backyard woods with a friend and we had a small black and white TV/Radio that was breaking news that Andrew Cunanan (killer of Gianni Versace) was on the run. They're saying that he's on the loose and that he was last seen in New Hampshire. We were just like, holy crap. You mentioned the robbery, but I was wondering, could you speak more about the robberies or other real life news stories that influenced you.
ML: So, bubbling in the back of mine, and my writing partner Steve’s, pop culture minds are those kind of moments. Steve’s from Waukesha, Wisconsin, which is right down the road from Milwaukee. We were both like 11 or 12 when the Jeffrey Dahmer stuff hit. And I will never forget that news breaking. That fully disturbed me to such a degree that it created a fascination about serial killers, because what could drive somebody to do something like that? Living right under the noses of all these people, and they never suspected a thing. It started me digging down that path, finding out about killers like John Wayne Gacy, who was in large part who we modeled our guy after. Mr. Mackey is an amalgamation of him and others.
John Wayne Gacy being the one that lived in suburbia, seemed like a totally normal guy, but was killing kids and burying them underneath his house. Just terrifying! And obviously if you know anything about him, he liked to dress up as a clown and go to neighborhood parties. Just nightmarish stuff, you know? So, that was the kind of stuff that was rattling around in the back of our brains. And, I remember reading about a guy who was a serial killer in Florida who was a cop. I remember thinking, man, that's genius, like the bad guy version of Dexter. You're a cop killing people and you can plant evidence or whatever. You could easily get away with doing that if you are as smart as most serial killers usually are. I don't want to misspeak, but I think most serial killers have a really high IQ.
So we've mixed really high IQ with a being a cop. It feels like it can be a really devastating combination. That's what we wanted with our character of Wayne Mackey. A guy who seems like a pillar of the community, the guy that everyone just thinks is the best because he’s a cop. He's hiding this super dark secret and getting away with it because of his job. That was all the stuff that was going around in our brains when we were thinking of him. Obviously the robberies in my neighborhood when I was a child were thinking of because of the overarching theme of the end of innocence in suburbia. But the actual character of Mackey, those were definitely our influences. A charming guy who is like super manipulative and hiding monstrous true nature.
KL: The film was selected for Sundance. Congrats, that's huge! How is that experience?
ML: Thanks! It’s surreal. Honestly, going into the end of the year and early into the new year when those festivals are getting announced, like when you find out about Sundance and South by Southwest, we knew our film would be a Midnight Selection kind of a movie no matter what festival. But it felt like, just based on what the movie was, it felt more likely to me that we would get into South by Southwest, maybe get a rejection from Sundance. But RKSS, our directors, their debut movie called Turbo Kid, got accepted into Sundance and premiered there. They had built a great relationship with the Sundance community. I think that that probably had something to do with why our movie got selected. I think that they really find those filmmakers to be very talented and inspired and compelling. It was just a perfect storm of things that was why we got selected. And I'm incredibly grateful that we did! Because it's the kind of thing that'll forever recategorize me and my partner as writers. Now we can put that on our resume, and people will take us more seriously. That's one of the hardest things about getting started in Hollywood, getting people to take you seriously. Because you know, even in Newburyport and Salem, you go to any coffee shop and you're going to see somebody working on screenplay. In L.A., it's the same thing. Go to a coffee shop and every laptop is open and everyone’s working on screenplays. So you know, your competition isn't just people who are successful, it's everybody who isn't successful. And all the agents, who are the gatekeepers, and the managers who are like, “Yeah, I'm sure you're a screenwriter, dude.”
Getting yourself to that place is really challenging, and my writing partner and I have been fighting for that for a long time. And with this movie, I don’t think we have by any means “made it,” but I think it's a good first step for, you know, taking another step in the business and getting another movie made.
KL: It opens doors. You have a product that speaks for itself. Now you can point to it and say, look, it’s not just ideas on a page. It was executed and you can judge it for yourself.
ML: Yeah, exactly. So we're really, really proud and incredibly grateful because we'd been fighting for a long time to be screenwriters. But to have that actually come to fruition, and then to have that success, has been really fun. Now obviously, the reviews have been mostly positive, but we've got a few negative ones. That's been an interesting thing too because this industry is obstacle after obstacle. Can you get a movie made? OK you got the movie made. OK, did it get good reviews? OK, after that did it make good money? Every step of the way, there's a new set of obstacles.
KL: It's a miracle that a movie ever gets made, period.
ML: Oh, for sure! The stars aligned to such a degree for us to make this movie that not a day goes by where I don't reflect upon like how lucky we are that it got made. There's good and bad in everything. Good that we got it made. Bad that there were a couple of reviews that weren’t so positive. When you go and make a movie, you want people to see it. This is not a movie that's going to get a big theatrical distribution. We're going to play in a couple of dozen markets across the country from August 10th to August 24th. We've been playing different film festivals. A lot of people are going to see it on the big screen, but for most people they’re are going to watch it at home, on iTunes, or something like that.
My hope is that this movie is for some generation what The Goonies, The ‘Burbs, Fright Night, and Stand by Me, were for me. That was always our goal when we were writing this thing. We would love for this to be the kind of movie that has the effect on kids that those movies had on us. And I think that will be the case, and that's really what I'm focusing on now. Summer of 84 isn’t going to be a big box office hit, because we're just not going to be in that many theaters. When it gets to VOD, it’s going to take on a life of its own. And then my hope is that it really resonates with people, and differentiates itself from Stranger Things.
We wrote this back in 2015, before Stranger Things. We had already attached Roadkill Superstar, and we were pretty far down the path with those guys as directors. And you know, we saw the first trailer for Stranger Things, and out hearts just sank. Because you're like, oh my God, they're doing what we want to do, and they’re going to beat us to it. And that was really heartbreaking because it's proven to be the case. A lot of the negative reviews that we have had all compare us to Stranger Things. That's been kind of a bummer because Stranger Things, and It, had no influence on our movie whatsoever. It just so happens that ours came out after those two. And so people keep saying, “Oh, it's just like them!”, and it's really a bummer. But at the same time, it is what it is. I think it, it helped our movie get made, but it also hurt it as well. So it's like a double edged sword. But again, it is what it is. And you can't time when a movie comes out, and it's so hard to get a movie made. So it's been a learning experience.
KL: Honestly, if that’s the biggest criticism, it’s no reflection of you. So that’s pretty good!
ML: I appreciate that. I have nothing but gratitude for the whole process, and I think I've learned a ton. Again, it's my first entree into making a movie and realizing that every movie you make, and God willing I get to make more, there's criticism. That’s just part of the business, and everyone always talks about how you just sort of stop paying attention to it eventually. And this being my first movie, I've read a lot of reviews. You know what’s been cool though, honestly, is the fan reviews have been almost exclusively positive. The people who've seen the movie coming out of festivals truly have been super positive. So that's been really awesome. And that really is the goal, right? Like I don't really care if a couple of critics don't like it. I really care if the fans dislike it. And they seem like they really dig it.
KL: No film is for everyone. People can find always find something to complain about. But especially a film like this, it's made for people who share your vision and experience. All the films that you're talking about that were references growing up, they were films that got a life of their own on VHS. And how many of us know these films by going into the video store and renting them? Obviously the experience is different now, but home video is a huge opportunity.
ML: Yeah. Yeah. And you know, our trailer was number one for the past five days and now it's number three in popularity. It’s doing really well on iTunes. You know, we're right next to the Mission Impossible on the iTunes trailers home page.
KL: Can you tell us anything about The Harrowing?
It's sort of in the vein of Rosemary’s Baby, but it's got a big twist ending that I don't think anyone will see coming. I really, really hope that it gets made. It was optioned by a company called Cinelou Films. They made Cake, and Mr. Church. They had a movie come out last year called Phoenix Forgotten, a found footage movie about the Phoenix lights, a true events UFO story. We had a star circling the lead role for a little while, and it kind of fell out. So now we're back at a square one at the moment where we're trying to figure what we're going to do next. But, I'm hopeful that it gets made, because in my heart of hearts, I believe it’s the best script that we’ve written. It's a movie that would do really well at the box office, But like you said, it's really hard to get a movie made. You’ve got to have somebody who's willing to put the money up for it, and the stars have to align. So, we’ll see what happens. I'm really excited about it, but I don’t want to spoil it.
KL: I think you're in good company with being able to get another film to do as well.
ML: I really hope so. One of the reasons went with Cinelou, when they optioned the script, is because they were like, look we want to just make this movie. We're hoping that’s still going to come to fruition. We’ll see. But, I'll definitely keep you posted because it's I think it's something you would dig if you like Rosemary's Baby.
KL: That's another movie we're showing.
ML: Oh, that's amazing. That is one of my all time favorite movies, and I honestly thought Aronofsky’s Mother was going to be a contemporary Rosemary's Baby. OK, the guy who made Black Swan is gonna make his version of Rosemary’s Baby, and I was pretty disappointed by Mother. That is not what I thought it was going to be. But, I was also relieved because if he did that it would have screwed my movie. The Harrowing probably would never happen if the Mother was what I thought it might've been. So I'm really hopeful that we can get it made. I should know more about that in the next couple of months.
I read that you were part of the development of the script for Straight Outta Compton, and you worked on Ride Along 2.
KL: So what's your favorite Ice Cube or N.W.A. song?
ML: That's a good question. So I actually told Ice Cube the story that one of my first albums was Straight Outta Compton. I was like nine, and my mom confiscated it, because back then the parental advisory warning was a new thing. I bought an album by Slick Rick, I bought Public Enemy. I had all these cassette tapes, and I would hide them, but my mom found them, and I came home from school one day, and they were all confiscated. She was horrified and said I shouldn’t listen to them
KL: She was like, why couldn't they have been Playboy Magazines, like the other boys!
ML: Hahaha, yeah, exactly! So, in terms of what my favorite song is, that's a tough one, because I have so many favorites. Definitely one of the songs from Straight Outta Compton because that was the album that really introduced me to West coast rap.
KL: It’s like their business card, their mission statement song.
ML: Yeah, exactly. And it's announcing West coast hip hop, and West coast rap. Yeah, and Eazy-E was this crazy, interesting personality that no one had ever seen before.I will say this though, I was also a skater back then, and I remember getting harassed a lot by the cops because of it, so I loved the song Fuck the Police. It resonated with me, because as a skateboarder in Ipswich, Massachusetts, I was not treated great by cops. Like, I was like immediately a problem, I was someone was doing something bad because I was skateboarding. That's how insulated from the outside world Ipswich was back then. This kid’s a skater, he must be trouble.
KL: Well, you’ll be happy to know that Salem removed it’s ban on skateboarding, just last month.
ML: Nice, that’s awesome, that's really cool. But getting back to your question about my favorite NWA song, I would say, is Express Yourself. That one is a classic hip hop track.
Working on Straight Outta Compton was a trip. I got to work with Dr. Dre, with Ice Cube, the director F. Gary Gray, and with the producers. I was working for them at the time and getting to be at Dr. Dre’s house working on the script was surreal. It’s something I'll never forget, for sure. It was a real full circle moment considering I was ten, years old listening to that album. And now here I was at thirty five sitting in Dr. Dre’s living room, working on ideas for the movie. It's was so unreal.
Matthew Leslie will premiere Summer of 84 at CinemaSalem, Thursday, August 23rd wth a live Q&A.