David Robert Mitchell made a tender and sweet coming-of-age story that has given the young writer/director some nice attention. His first feature, “The Myth of the American Sleepover”, had its world debut at the SXSW Film Festival in March where it received a special jury prize for Best Ensemble Cast, and has made its way to Cannes this week, screening in Critics Week.
Not unlike “Sleepover,” Mitchell is a charming and engaging person who’s pursued a particular aesthetic and feel for his film, which was about eight years in the making. And like most filmmakers getting their start, he took chances. The result was one of the more innovative teen dramas in recent memory.
“I definitely felt a certain amount of weight in wanting to do a good job,” Mitchell told indieWIRE on a sunny afternoon at the American Pavilion in Cannes this week. “There were a lot of things I wanted to accomplish with it and going into production was frightening, but I decided I had to just focus on the things I had control over. I wrote the script and I believed in it and I kept faithful to the story.”
“The Myth of the American Sleepover” follows four young people on the last night of summer. The teens, all played by first-time actors, cross paths one long night as they seek out love and adventure.
Mitchell sought out “real kids with screen presence” to fill the roles, most of them hailing from the suburban Detroit neighborhood where he grew up, and he developed the story via a combination of his own experiences and his own creative input.
“I wanted the audience to see these characters and not recognize them from elsewhere – just see them as people,” Mitchell said. “I thought people who don’t have a lot of experience [with acting] would bring something more natural to it… We wanted to find people who were a little bit different than what youd find in a Hollywood film.” The tone and feel of “Sleepover” is reminiscent of teen dramas before that heyday of high school films in the ’80s as embodied by John Hughes, though Mitchell said that those classics do mean a lot to him.
“I used the spine of ‘American Graffiti’ to tell a story that is a bit more gentle, natural and intimate,” Mitchell observed. “There are small moments that may not seem important but are actually very important. Sitting with a girl on the slide and wanting to kiss her. Inching a bit closer to someone. Hanging out on a summer evening with your friends in the backyard. There are the bigger moments too, of course, but there are also those quiet and gentle moments that are important.”
After finishing undergrad in Michigan, Mitchell decided to enroll in Florida State’s graduate film program after he decided to go into filmmaking – something he said he had wanted to do since junior high school. He had also started making shorts a few years later in high school.
“I had this deep desire to be surrounded by people who wanted to make movies as much as I did. I wanted something really intense. It’s everything to me.”
While at Florida State, he was already formulating the idea for “Sleepover” in addition to other projects. After completing his program in 2002, he moved to Los Angeles along with some classmates who ended up working on the film with him. He’s currently working on a script about a boy pursuing a girl that he says is “tonally similar to ‘Sleepover,'” in addition to a story about an L.A. woman in her 20s, which he described as a “simple character story.” “I also have other stories from when I was younger that I’d like to go back to, but maybe not right away,” he said.
“I like horror films and science fiction, but at the core, what I want to do are [stories] like ‘Sleepover.’ Maybe not always about teenagers, but something that is honest, personal and gentle at its core.”