'Never Goin' Back': How A New Director Made the Ultimate 21st Century Stoner Comedy
Augustine Frizzell proves a go-for-broke storyteller in this comedy that involves a potential robbery and tons of drugs.
Only in the movies can bad behavior be considered justifiable, and in the case of Augustine Frizzell's debut feature, Never Goin' Back, there's quite a bit of it to go around. The scatological meets the pathological in this Texas story of two teenage girls (played by Camila Morrone and Maia Mitchell ) who live together, get high together, and work together at a dead-end diner that pays them just enough to cover the rent they share with the about-to-be-17-years-old Jessie's drugged out brother, Dustin, and his buddies. Life isn't great, but it could be worse.
To celebrate Jessie's impending 17th birthday, Angela books a surprise trip to the beaches of Galveston to be paid for with their rent money. No worries, the two women will just pick up a few extra shifts at the restaurant to cover the rent before it's due.
As bad luck would have it, Dustin's friend breaks in and robs the apartment, prompting two police officers to arrive, question the suspicious roommates, and find evidence of drugs in the girls' room that gets them thrown in jail....and the story only kicks off from there.
A road trip movie in which the plot stays local—the women travel from location-to-location, but the distance of their often on-foot travels feels slight—Frizzell excels at putting these well-meaning but confused stoners in situations that only heighten the stakes we didn't realize were even in play. One of the biggest running gags, for instance, involves an impending bowel movement that's ultimate payoff involves a gross-out triptych (the holy trinity of excrement, vomit, and semen) that would make John Waters blush. The two women desperately want to go on vacation, but life keeps getting in the way.
After premiering at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Never Goin' Back now opens theatrically next Friday, August 3rd, and No Film School sat down with writer/director Augustine Frizzell to discuss visualizing comedy, finding the right locations that match your characters, and how to deal with misguided, negative criticism.
No Film School: How did you first take to filmmaking?
Augustine Frizzell: When I was in my early 20s, I was a nanny, and around that time I started dabbling in acting. I'd done a couple of short films, and as a gift to the parents of the boy that I was a nanny for, I made this little short film with the boy and my daughter as a gift to the parents [laughs]. He played a racecar driver, and so we went to the go-karts and my daughter was the girl who was rooting him on. That was the first thing I made and I edited on iMovie or something.
So I made that, and I would make little videos for the parents, and then over the years, I just started making little shorts with my daughter and her friends. It was stupid stuff and I was never thinking about it under the guise of filmmaking. I just thought it was something fun to do.
We went to a conference one year for unschoolers, which is what I was doing at the time, a facet of homeschooling. The conference had a workshop teaching Final Cut Pro and it had free cameras. I learned how to edit there, and I just became obsessed with it and gathered up all the kids and did auditions. We did this crazy short film, Booktopia, over the course of the conference. We made it right there.
I learned how to use Final Cut and then didn't really think about it until much later when my husband [fellow filmmaker David Lowery] and I got together. I'd been writing for all of those years but I never had the resources. I thought to make an actual movie, it took a lot of money, which is true, and so I never even considered doing it. I was acting at the time and I loved acting and could make money doing it. That's where my focus. I then started hanging out on sets, volunteering, and finding any way that I could gain experience.
"I started watching as many as movies, spending days watching everything and then watching the filmmaker commentaries and reading as much as I could about filmmaking."
NFS: It was your film school...
Frizzell: Yeah, and I was watching everything because I'd always loved movies. I started watching as many as I could, spending days watching everything and then watching the filmmaker commentaries and reading as much as I could about filmmaking. I eventually made my first short and then I was hooked. I was like, "Alright, that's it. I just love this."
NFS: You shot an earlier version of Never Goin' Back film over 16 days in 2014 before eventually scrapping the project. Forgive my morbid curiosity, but could you speak on that experience and your decision to pull the plug?
Frizzell: While I was shooting, I knew it wasn't really going the way I wanted it to go. However, a lot of things are out of your control and once that train's moving....we cobbled together a film.
My husband was leaving to shoot a movie in New Zealand for six months and so I left with him. My daughter went along as well. I edited my film there. When we first arrived in New Zealand, I spent the first three weeks putting all the footage together and trying to make the SXSW deadline. I would be watching my film saying, "There's some good stuff here but this isn't the movie I like. It isn't the movie that I want to make."
NFS: You were finished with production on it?
Frizzell: I was finished with production, yeah. I had been thinking, "I could either submit the film and hope it gets in, but if it does I'm gonna have to come back to the United States and do reshoots and pick up some of the pieces." I showed it to my husband's producers, and they were like, "You don't have to submit it right now. In fact, you can wait a year. You can do some reshoots when you get back to the States and fix it. You wanted to make script changes. You're not happy with the story. Just remake it, and let us help you this time."
I had such a resolve to not use any of my husband's people, to strike out on my own and do my own thing. But then I was like, "That is so stupid." I should have just used their help as they know what they're doing, and we have similar tastes and a similar vision. To work with them would be amazing. Why had I turned them down?! So, when they were like, "Just redo it," I thought about it and at first said, "I can't." And then finally, I was like, "Yeah, I'm going to do it. Nobody's waiting for this, and because of that, there's no pressure. I don't owe anybody a movie, so why not?"
For the rest of the time spent in New Zealand, I sat the project down. When we came back to the US, I started writing and decided, "You know what? I should put some footage together, make a short, and do some reshoots so that it will be cohesive," and then that played a few festivals. The short's momentum helped to get things going again.
"The film is definitely specific in a way that I don't think registers with everybody, but I was fine with that."
NFS: I've described the movie as a road trip movie in which the plot stays local. The two women go to several places on their "journey," but their geographic boundaries are pretty tight. They go from their apartment to their jobs, to a house party, a supermarket, a local jail, etc. and yet it all feels very compact. How important was it to capture the proximity of one Dallas location to another for the viewer?
Frizzell: That was really important. In fact, it was so important that we traveled long distances to get to locations that looked like they were in that same zone. Some of these locations would be an hour away from each other, but I was very specific about how I wanted it to look. I wanted to make sure that every place we found felt authentic to the world of the story.
So yeah, it was a big consideration. I pulled pictures and random images from the internet and would say, "I need something similar to this," i.e. like the diner in Buffalo '66. The diner where our leads work needed to be similar to that and have to have that brown color. It couldn't be too shiny or from the 1950s. It couldn't be too sterile. It had to have a certain look to it. We worked liked that.
And regarding their house, it took forever to find that house. I really wanted to find one in the actual city, where the house that I lived in existed, and we found nothing. We scoured the metroplex and ended up finding it in Grand Prairie, which is 20 minutes from Dallas.
NFS: And what did Texas bring to this story both in its bountiful opportunities and, perhaps, limitations?
Frizzell: For me, it brought a vibe that I wanted to capture in the same way you would create a character in a film and how you'd want to find the right person to play it. That was really important to me, finding the place that influenced the characters, that impacted their daily lives.
It's hot there and you have to ride the bus...it's like unsavory characters hanging out. You're getting hit on by random people. That kind of world influenced my life (having lived it) and I think a lot of people who are from small towns like that feel it and understand that. If you're not, hopefully, you find some way in and can relate to it. It's definitely specific in a way that I don't think registers with everybody, but I was fine with that. I knew going in that it wasn't going to be for everybody, but I wanted it to feel as tactile as possible.
"The reveal has to be very specific. It has to involve a cut to make the joke work."
NFS: I wanted to ask how you discussed shooting comedy with your cinematographer, Greta Zozula. There are two scenes in the film that feature a funny, intimate convo between Angela and Jessie, only to later reveal that the oblivious women aren't alone at all; there's been a third party in plain sight overhearing them the entire time. How did you both work together to find those moments?
Frizzell: Yeah, just by referencing other films, I think. I'd seen it done as a comedy troupe with the big reveal, and it's a trope that's always made me laugh. I could see it in 10 movies and still laugh every time. I'm like, "Oh my God. I get to know you're in there." It was specific and based on other films that I'd seen.
I actually remember when we were shooting one of those moments, Greta asked, "What if we just kind of pull the camera back [in a single shot]?" That was an interesting idea, but in theory, but the reveal has to be very specific. It has to involve a cut to make the joke work. I only know that from having watched Taika Waititi. He does it in every one of his films. It's just like my favorite thing ever.
Greta also totally got where we should place our whip pans. We discussed where to include whip pans and she totally got that. She would reccommend, "Oh, this would be a good place for one." She was amazing. We had a lot of conversations and talked a lot about influential movies and stuff that we would try and use as an influence.
NFS: The flashbacks are situational in nature—the characters will reference something they'd much rather forget (the time they took to justifying their various absences by smacking each other and brutalizing their faces, allowing insects to crawl over their near-naked bodies, intentionally forcing themselves to throw up, etc.)—and it's cut so that the flashback is the joke. Were those comedic asides found in the edit?
Frizzell: The one that was found in the edit was the scene at the diner with the pancakes, and that one was something that I'd just been playing around with the footage and had an idea as to how I was going to cut it together (because it was written in the script). But that was really more of like an editorial thing, and I put that in.
It's funny because it's Camila's moment in the movie, and she watches it now like, "I had no idea that's how it was going to be. When we were acting it, I didn't know that's what you were going do with it, because I didn't see you getting that other footage." Some of it's editorial and some of it's very plotted out within the script.
"You can try and compromise to please a broad range of people, but there are still going to be people who don't like it. Just please yourself and hope that you find your crowd."
NFS: Speaking of that scene toward the end of the film as our leads are extra stoned and extra hungry, the sequence involving pancakes and a Michael Bolton song is hilariously cut. Does sound design play an important role in your appreciation for comedy?
Frizzell: It does and really it's just stuff that makes me giggle. Take Michael Bolton, for example. He's just funny. I remember seeing that special with The Lonely Island guys and realizing that Bolton had such a good sense of humor. I felt that to place one of his songs in this scene would be so sincere. You know, it's just like, that feeling of longing and the song needs to reference what that's like.
To be honest, initially we were going to use Glory of Love, that song fromThe Karate Kid II, as it's a song I feel epitomizes high school in a way for me. Have you seen The Karate Kid II? In that one, it's where Daniel experiences his first love, his first real love, and romance. I felt a real high school angst within that scene.
And so, that was the song we initially were going to use, but we just couldn't get the rights to it. We had to then think of what else could epitomize that feeling, and so it was....Michael Bolton. That was found after the fact, and it involved us just praying that we would get the rights to it.
NFS: Having now made that first feature the way you conceivably wanted to make it, were there elements going into the experience that you wish you had known beforehand? Or things you've taken away from the experience of now having gone through with it?
Frizzell: I think you get, well, not hardened, but, you have to know ahead of time that there are going to be a variety of responses to your work, because there always are. That's how art works and that's how media works. You know that ahead of time, of course, but when you actually witness it, it can be shocking.
I feel like my husband's best advice is "Delete Twitter and just continue forth. Do the thing you want to do because it's going to register with some people and for some, it won't." I learned that from making the first version of this film to making the second one, in that, I have to live with this film forever. There are going to be some people who see it and they're going to shit on it. They're not going to get it and they're not going to think it's funny. That's completely fine. They can go on with their lives and do whatever they want to do.
And then there are going to be people who just fucking love it, in the way that I love movies that are were hated. The initial thing was, after our movie played, I'd get reviews and then go and look at other films that I love, and look for its negative reviews and see, "Oh wait, it's not just me." All films have people who love them and who hate them. Some of my favorite movies are detested by critics and a lot of people don't like them.
Continuing forth, I will continue to make the thing that I will like. Why? Because I have to live with it. I have to do this press thing and I have to talk about and promote the movie. I have to accept my choices and so if I had made compromises to please the crowds or the masses, I would dislike the movie a lot, you know, because they're still going to dislike it.
You can try and compromise to please a broad range of people, but there are still going to be people who don't like it. Just please yourself and hope that you find your crowd.
NFS: It's hard to make something for a faceless group, a non-entity.
Frizzell: It is! It is! And all I have to think about are the people who don't like Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice, which are many people. And I'm like, "I fucking love Inherent Vice!" I love Dumb and Dumber too, but Inherent Vice is, to me, such a good film and yet people are like, "This movie is too dense. It's not funny." It's all these things. I can't say that Never Goin' Back is even kind of close to Inherent Vice, but it's just something that I like that other people don't, and I can understand why they don't like it. It's comforting.