'Hot Summer Nights': How a Black Listed First-Time Director and Producer 'Figured It Out Together'
Neither Elijah Bynum nor Ryan Friedkin had made a movie, but they are at the wheel of one of SXSW's most confident premieres.
At one point in time, Elijah Bynum thought nobody would make his movie. After being passed around nearly all of Hollywood, Hot Summer Nights made the 2013 Black List. While everyone loved the script, executives wouldn't take a chance on it.
Perhaps that's because Hot Summer Nights is both exactly what its title suggests—and the opposite. This dissonance affords the coming-of-age film a new, dynamic take on the genre. Though it has the self-aware tropes you might expect, Bynum's directorial debut takes an unexpected turn, shifting tone and gravity nearly as swiftly as a passing summer.
The film stars Daniel (Timothee Chalamet), a scrawny teenager who, after experiencing tragedy at home, is sent to spend the summer on Cape Cod with his aunt. ("What a cliché," he tells his mom.) After winning the good graces of the local small-time drug dealer, Daniel is inducted into a world of girls, partying, and drugs. But a few opportunistic decisions later, Daniel is heading down a dangerous collision course. In an ordinary teen summer movie, Daniel would learn some lessons the hard way, recover, and finish the summer just a little bit more mature. But this is no ordinary teen summer movie.
No Film School sat down with Bynum and Ryan Friedkin, producer from Imperative Entertainment, to discuss how the film eventually found its legs, the trials and tribulations of being a first-time director and first-time producer team on an ambitious movie, what to do when things don't go the way you planned, and more.
"No one wanted to make the film. I think it scared a lot of people off from a commercial standpoint. Like, what box do you put this in?" —Elijah Bynum
No Film School: Elijah, you had two films on the Black List. One of them was Hot Summer Nights. How did you eventually get it off the ground?
Elijah Bynum: After it made the Black List, I figured that was gonna be the best thing that happened to it. I was like, "All right, this is cool." And then people responded to it very well, but no one wanted to make the film. I think it scared a lot of people off from a commercial standpoint. Like, what box do you put this in? It demanded a pretty substantial budget for the kind of movie it was. Being an R-rated film with a teenage cast and having kind of a dark ending.... No one really knew what to do with it.
And then, luckily, I met with Imperative Entertainment, and they were 100% in from day one. They were supportive throughout, creatively and emotionally, and they put full faith and trust in me—which is asking for a lot because I didn't have any directing experience before. I hadn't made a short film or music video or commercial or anything, so they had nothing. I [told] them, "Give me a chance—I think I can make a pretty good movie." And they let me do it!
NFS: If I'd come in blind, I never would have guessed that you hadn't directed before. This is a really tight, stylized, confident film. Did you have a clear vision for it from the beginning?
Bynum: Well, first of all, I want to say I learned a lot about making movies from your website.
NFS: That's so great to hear!
Bynum: I'm not even kidding! I didn't go to film school, so I found this website called No Film School and was like, "All right, that seems appropriate. Let me read into this." It's really helpful.
And, of course, watching a lot of movies helped me have an idea of what works and what doesn't work. But I think, because I had the script in my head for so long, there was definitely a vision of what this might look like if I ever turned it into a movie. The more people I talked to about the script, the more I was able to try to articulate what I saw in my head. Then, I storyboarded shot-listed it and we tried as best we could to stick to that throughout production.
NFS: So production companies were afraid of your film because of the tone? The fact that it starts out as a comedy, then becomes very real?
Ryan Friedkin: There were two boxes: the Nicholas Sparks box or the Super Bad box.
Bynum: Right, it's either a straight-up comedy or a romance.
Friedkin: People are scared of things they can't provide examples of. They want to say, "This has happened before, it works, so we're gonna make it into something just like this again."
Bynum: It wasn't small enough to be a really gritty $250,000 Harmony Korine film. It felt like it was pushing the boundaries of being something bigger. Everyone that I met with was like, "We love this script; I hope somebody makes it one day."
NFS: The turn that the film takes is not like anything I've seen before in a coming-of-age film. Things get dark, fast. It's not what you expect. I think that will get people talking.
Bynum: I hope so. It was always our intention to watch the film lose its innocence as our main character lost his innocence. Coming-of-age movies have been done before; people are familiar with the tropes and the clichés. And our character even says, when his mom sends him off for the summer, "What a cliché."
"We were just trying to keep our heads above water every day." —Elijah Bynum
So I wanted the movie to be self-aware without being satire, or being obnoxiously, ironically self-aware. I wanted the characters to be aware on some level—not the actors, but the actual characters they're playing—to be aware of where they fit into the world. When you're a teenager, you go into the cafeteria and it's like, "This is where the punk kids sit. This where the cheerleaders sit." You are very easily put into a box at that age. Kids are smart and they know [where] they fit. They feel trapped by that.
Someone told me once that the filmmaking business is "hurry up and wait. Hurry up and wait." It's that cycle. It takes so long to get a movie off the ground, and then someone steps up and is like, "We're making this and we're making it in the summer." Things come together very quickly. After years of nothing happening, when someone's serious about making it, pieces can fall together almost overnight.
NFS: So you have to be ready.
Bynum: You have to be ready. Yes. In pre-production, we were getting our sea legs a little bit.
NFS: Elijah, how did you meet Ryan and bring him on board?
Friedkin: I work at Imperative. Basically, I was told that we're producing this movie. I read the script, loved it, and met Elijah. And I think we're both lucky because we're both younger. If I'd worked with a more established, 40-year-old director, I might have felt a little reluctant to chime in my thoughts or express myself. But [neither of us] had really done it before, so we were able to—
Bynum: We figured it out together. If I was paired with some heavyweight producer—
Friedkin: I'm not a heavyweight producer? [Laughs]
Bynum: [Laughs] You're on your way there! It would have been intimidating to a degree. So it was nice to have both of going, "This is actually happening—we're actually getting to make a movie." The script was youthful and exuberant. We were just trying to keep our heads above water every day. Ryan is a total wizard in the edit room, which is helpful.
Friedkin: It was a long post.
NFS: Can you talk me through some situations that you came up against where neither of you knew how something was going to pan out?
Friedkin: The entire film. [Laughs]
Bynum: Yes. Every 15 minutes.
Friedkin: Seriously, yes.
"We shot a very aggressive schedule. We crammed a lot. We were shooting seven pages a day." —Elijah Bynum
Bynum: Let me think of a good one. Well, the weather in Atlanta is very spotty, and we were there in the summer. When you're shooting outside, if we're shooting a close-up on you and then the reverse shot on me, ideally the light looks the same so the scene can cut together. But the clouds were always moving in and out. So, you'd be in the shade, I'd be in the sun, and we'd have to wait—we'd have to hold the camera for 20 minutes for the clouds to move.
And we shot a very aggressive schedule. We crammed a lot. We were shooting seven pages a day. We were moving very quickly and didn't have a lot of time to just sit around and wait for clouds to move. So that was a big learning curve.
Also, around 4 o'clock every day, a nice thunderstorm rolls into town. If we didn't get everything that day, we weren't able to go back and get it another day. That was it: here come the thunderstorms, shooting's over for today.
Friedkin: We owe that to Nate Kelly, line producer.
Bynum: He sleeps like 45 minutes a night. [Laughs]
NFS: [Laughs] How does he live?
Bynum: On jellybeans.
Friedkin: He's a Jedi line producer.
Bynum: I lost 30 pounds [on this shoot].
Friedkin: He did.
Bynum: Yes. And I couldn't eat. Then, the edit room was a whole different challenge because we had so much footage, and it was finding the right tonal balance. It was trial and error.
NFS: How different was the first cut from the final?
Friedkin: Well, the first cut was 2 hours and 45 minutes.
Bynum: A lot has been repositioned. A lot of scenes in the script are in a different order, and we've repurposed things. Scenes that at one point were about something else are now about a different thing. We don't want to give away the magic too much, but the same dialogue has been used in different ways.
NFS: What about working with your cinematographer? That's a complicated relationship that you have to navigate while you're still learning.
Bynum: The Argentinian Mad Man. That's what we called him. Javier Julia, we love that guy. He's amazing. He had never done an English-based film before.
Friedkin: He did Wild Tales.
Bynum: Bradley Thomas, one of our producers, was—
"We thought it was important, because everyone on the crew and on the set were so young, to hire someone who had a little more experience." —Elijah Bynum
Bynum: Adamant about hiring him. We thought it was important, because everyone on the crew and on the set were so young, to hire someone who had a little more experience. But he was in a very difficult position, in the sense that he's 5,000 miles from home. He didn't get to bring any of his crew up with him. English is not his first language. But he did an amazing job. DPs never like being rushed, but I was demanded, "I want it to look like this, and I want it to look like that, and you have 20 minutes to make it happen." So he was put in a very tough position. But the movie looks great. It really does. Hats off to him!
NFS: And you pulled off some complex shots. I remember at least two crane shots.
Bynum: Yes. And the crane was broken. Maybe we should have told that as our challenge story. This crane cost a fortune. It was late getting there, and the sun was going down. We finally got the shot set up. For this specific crane shot, a car had to drive a hundred yards and then hit a mark. And then the actors had to get out of the car, all in unison, and then hit a mark and then deliver a line, and the crane had to swoop down and hit its mark and frame it up. And when we rehearsed it, the wheel of the crane was broken.
Everyone started panicking. But we made it work, eventually. Someone on the camera crew was manually guiding it, just blindly guiding it down. We probably did three or four takes. And that's all we had time for before the sun set. But on the fourth take, it just accidentally all worked out. And that's the one we ended up using.
NFS: What did you learn about working with actors, as a first-time director?
Bynum: The most important thing is cast well. Once you do that, you're going to be in pretty good shape. We got really lucky with some tremendous young actors. It's hard to find young actors who can play a role honestly and subtly. And I think they all did a tremendous job. I also learned that each one of them has a very different and specific way they like being directed. For some of them, between each take I would go up there and we would talk about the take and adjust. Some of them want you to just sit back and not say much. Figuring out early on what they respond to is very important. And also, the producers did a smart thing, which is put them all in a house together. And luckily, they all got along very well.
"Smart actors have really good ideas, and sometimes you don't have all the answers as a director." —Elijah Bynum
It was as easy as flipping the camera on and just watching them be themselves. You have to trust them, 'cause smart actors have really good ideas, and sometimes you don't have all the answers as a director. A scene might not be working and your plan for the day might be going off its course. You have to be able to have faith in them and say, "This isn't working. What do you think we should try?" And then listening to their ideas and running with them. I think it's very important.
For example, you might have these two characters shouting at each other 'cause they're in a fight. And you'll do a few takes of it, and something just doesn't feel right. No one feels right. You can even look over at the grip and he's just like, "This is not going well." And then you'll pull the actors tp the side and they'll be like, "What if we're whispering? What if the fight isn't a yelling fight and instead we're talking under our breath, and it's much more passive-aggressive?" And you'll try that, and the light bulb goes off. All of a sudden it feels right.
It's also giving them the freedom to go off script here and there and improv and play off each other. You'll pour over the script for months trying to perfect the dialogue. To hand it over to an actor and let them go off topic, or go off script, it takes a little bit of faith. But if they're good, you just kind of let them do it. And they're usually right.
NFS: What advice would both of you have for first-time directors and first-time producers?
Friedkin: Be humble. Learn as much as you can. Trust your instincts.
Bynum: Yes. I think instinct plays a lot into it. For a first-time director, surround yourself with people who are going to support you, and who you can trust, and who have good ideas.
Also, as far as just trying to get the movie made in the first place...it sounds almost like a cliché now, but just stick to it. A lot of people along the way are going to tell you, "This is never going to get made," or "You'll never find the money to make this," or "No one will ever give you a chance." But if you really believe in what you've written and you really want to tell the story, and you stick to it, it might not look like the Cinderella version that's in your head, but you'll be able to find a way to tell it. Especially now, with new technology. I know Sean Baker shoots half his movies on his iPhone, which I think is very daring, but he's able to make it work. I think it's easier now than ever to make an independent film. So if you stick to it, and you're a little stubborn and hard-headed, and confident but humble, you'll find a way to make a movie.
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