1985. Back to the Future. Popping a tape into a walkman. The inevitable, inescapable summer family trip. Writer/Director Michael Tully sends a forceful volley across the frayed net of my childhood with his new comedy PING PONG SUMMER. Set in Ocean City, Maryland, the film follows the awkward exploits of Rad Miracle, a thirteen-year-old boy with very little ‘game’ as he challenges the local townie to a Ping Pong showdown.
The film, which features a phenomenal ensemble of unknown teen actors from within a few hours drive from the setting alongside Susan Sarandon, Lea Thompson and John Hannah, was shot on location, using many of the locations that Tully himself visited on his family vacations. “There’s a lot of stuff that I would say is not autobiographical but its deeply personal,” he says, “like smelling the cassette tape. That was something I did, not like every night before I went to bed, but I could tell you like different rap tapes. Like I could say this is Profile records, that Cold Chillin’ records.”
The familiarity and comfort with its own characters’ intrinsic ineptitude is what makes PING PONG SUMMER so endearing. No one really has all their crap together at that age, and we constantly find ourselves in way over our heads. For Rad, who develops a crush on a girl addicted to mixing pixie sticks into her big gulp, Ping Pong gives him a chance to strut his stuff and gain a bit of notoriety. Tully says making the film was like “inserting my life into an 80’s movie. So many of the elements in here, the love interest, the bad guys, all that is kind of rooted in the movies I watched growing up.” The setting, lifted from his childhood, allowed him to revisit the past, with a bit of friendly nostalgia, but he was always careful that the time period didn’t overrun the film. The story is vigilantly told from the point of view of a “13-year-old in 1985 looking out at the world, not hindsight humor, and to that extent our references were like my family photos as opposed to ‘The Wedding Singer.” It was a delicate balance, he says, and “a really subjective thing watching the movie, some people it works for, some are like ‘this movie’s trying too hard’ some are like ‘I like the restraint.’” But even if this is a fiction, the film is very grounded in reality.
“There was a point in which I shied away, I didn’t even call it Ocean City in the script,” Tully remembers, “like what’s more generic than that – Water Town, it’ll be Water Town, Maryland.” As he worked on the script over the years, he got old enough to appreciate making it personal “The police uniform that John Hannah’s wearing is my dad’s police uniform,” says Tully, “he’s a retired Maryland state trooper from Ireland.” As the film became a reality, he found other memories making their way into the script: “two months before shooting my mom was like ‘do you remember when Dad took the police car on vacation to save on the tank of gas?’ and then you’re like ‘well that’s too absurd to put in a movie’ but you’re an idiot if you don’t put that in a movie.”
Shooting the film in the town that inspired it was crucial. Tully admits he thought prior to finalizing the production, “I’d rather just go to my death bed not having made it versus making it somewhere that is not Ocean City, Maryland.” The city itself was wealth of memories. “I went to the early bird special at Paul Revere Smorgasbord,” says the director, “that wasn’t my imagination, that’s like every day right now if you go to Ocean City, Maryland, that’s yours for the taking.” At a lunch with local business owners, one of them said “you gotta have the drunk tank clown.” Tully explains there was this clown in the eighties, always just outside the ‘official’ perimeter and it was just a drunk guy in a clown costume and “he would be really rude and get belligerent and security would have to walk him to his car at the end of the night which he probably shouldn’t have been driving because he was hammered.” So twenty years after thinking of the script, these fresh archetypical moments still found their way into the story.
“The last movie that had shot in Ocean City was … Violets are Blue” says Tully, referring to Jack Fisk’s 1986 Sissy Spacek film, “and not a day went by that someone didn’t come up to me and say ‘I was an extra in Violets are Blue’ and I was like ‘you guys need to make more movies.’” In addition, it is a lot easier to shoot a period film in a place that hasn’t changed much in the last twenty-five years than say, in New York City. It simply couldn’t be done at this budget level elsewhere.
One of the ways the production gave back to the local area was to use grass roots casting. Tully says he “said all along I wanted to use local talent – I love seeing unfamiliar faces on screen – and then to mix them with someone like Leah Thompson or Susan Sarandon.” They held open tryouts at malls and libraries in towns all around Ocean City and found a really funny group of fresh faces. “I just felt like we had to have kids from this area who grew up going to Ocean City to make the movie feel as awkward and honest as I wanted,” Tully remembers.
These actors quickly found themselves time travelling back to 1985, though Tully says he never really wanted them to approach it from that angle. “The thing was letting the production design and costume design do a lot of the heavy lifting,” he says, “then changing really just the slang to say ‘the moon looks def.’ Kids are still kids, they’re just like we were.”
Susan Sarandon was the perfect choice to play Rad’s Ping Pong mentor. The co-owner of Ping Pong franchise ‘Spin,’ Sarandon “sorta became this accidental champion for the game.” Tully explains, “for many years the ‘Miyagi’ character was written as a male,” but as the years passed and the script went through various iterations, “I just thought, ‘this is boring.’” The Director reached out to Jay Duplass (who had worked with Sarandon on JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME) and he went out on a limb and got it to her. “You can only imagine how many offers Susan Sarandon gets,” says Tully, “and the funny thing, for all 12 people who have seen SEPTIEN (Tully’s 2011 uncomfortable comedy), that was the movie she watched to sort of suss me out as a director, which is a pretty hilarious one to think ‘that’s going to be my calling card.” After they met, got along and “she took the plunge,” that’s when the film really started to come together.
We end our conversation discussing a film that sort of lives up the coast from PING PONG SUMMER, THE WAY, WAY BACK. Both films premiered at Sundance (one in 2013, the other in 2014) and follow teens on reluctant vacations discovering their identity. I enjoyed The Way, Way Back, but it’s a little like the memories of childhood I’m trying to avoid, rather than the ones the bring an instant smile to my face. Also, the elegant simplicity of Rad’s journey in PING PONG SUMMER makes it easier to relate to. This is not a kid who is going to change the world, or even his own family dynamic, he’s just able enough to change himself, and that’s what I remember about being thirteen. “I wanted to make a movie that’s true to my adolescent self and a love letter to that era of the movies I love and my own upbringing,” says Tully, “to have injected it with any sort of stakes whether it’s a near death or in the case of The Way, Way Back just miserable adults who don’t like each other and get married for the wrong reasons, that would have not been accurate or fair.” And I think one of the things that draws the audience into PING PONG SUMMER so effortlessly is how this family just feels like anybody’s family, and yet is so uniquely idiosyncratic in its eccentricities. For me, The Way, Way Back is kind of a ‘feel-bad summer movie,’ and I’d rather go back to Tully’s version of 1985. Says the director, “I guess I’m just happy that that wasn’t my experience growing up.”
Michael Tully’s PING PONG SUMMER opened theatrically across the US last weekend, as well as being available day and date on iTunes, Amazon and virtually every possible VOD and streaming service.