It’s been three years since producer Adele Romanski was in the blue collar suburbs just north of Detroit with writer and director David Robert Mitchell trying to capture the fleeting moments of romantic yearning of a group of teens savoring their last night of summer freedom. So she appreciates that now, as their micro-budget feature The Myth of the American Sleepover is finally making its way to theaters, it’s being compared to other insightful adolescent films like Dazed & Confused – and especially American Graffiti.
The later is one of Mitchell’s favorite films, but there’s also a direct connection: her boyfriend, Myth cinematographer James Laxton, is the son of American Graffiti costume designer Aggie Guerard Rodgers. “I appreciate that strange full-circleness of it,” Romanski says from New York, where The Myth of the American Sleepover opened on Friday. (The film is available on demand on July 27 and opens in Los Angeles on July 29 and Detroit on August 5.)
Myth is the result of paths crossing a decade ago at Florida State University, where Adele Romanski, David Robert Mitchell and James Laxton were all students in the film studies program. Romanski was in her first year of undergrad studies when she met Mitchell, who was in his final year of grad school. Although both were only in Tallahassee for a year simultaneously, they struck up a friendship, and kept in touch as each took jobs as film editors, both eventually settling in Los Angeles.
Mitchell had been making shorts, and his FSU thesis film Virgin, which was featured in festivals across the country, made a big impression on Romanski. “He had Myth as his script to make next as he was meeting people in Los Angeles,” she explains. “It was met with a fair amount of praise and compliments, but nobody was willing to step in and back it financially. So it sort of sat for a while, then he sent it to me. I think he wrote it in 2002 and I read it in 2005, and said, ‘Let’s go make this movie’.”
Two things were required for Adele Romanski to make that statement:
I have to love the script and I have to be a huge fan of the director. Every time somebody sends me something, I want to say, ‘Of course, let me help you realize your vision.’ Because that for me is really what it’s about: helping directors make something that means everything to them. So the impulse is to say yes to everyone. And I kind of have to remind myself that it can be a long road, and I’m going to be ostensibly married to this person for the next two to five years. So do I feel so strongly about the material and the director that that’s going to be okay?
The Myth of the American Sleepover – the first feature for both producer and director – turned out to be one of those long-term commitments, as well as a textbook case of indie filmmaking ingenuity. “That script was originally written – and intended to be made – for a lot of money,” Romanski says, “and so it was sort of a backwards process of reassessing how to do this for less. To be honest, we were way out of scope, but somehow found a way to make it work.” The challenges were daunting: a tight 28 day filming schedule with more than 40 locations; four out of five weeks were summer night shoots; and it featured a large ensemble cast, most of whom were inexperienced performers.
They headed to Detroit, even though their $30,000 budget fell below the qualifications for Michigan’s then generous film incentives program. But they benefited from an industry just revving up in a state hungry for jobs. “The resources were definitely there,” Romanski explains, “we were able to crew up and get our gear. A byproduct of the incentives was that people wanted to get into the film industry. So we had a crew that was relatively inexperienced, but they were willing to come and work on this movie for free. For them it was about getting the experience so they could then become a part of the bigger film movement that was happening at the time.”
Detroit offered the additional resources of family connections, not just for David Robert Mitchell, but Adele Romanski as well. The 28-year-old was born in Sarasota, Florida, but for several generations, her family has lived in Detroit. “It’s a friendly area,” she says, “and not to be jaded, but people in L.A. or New York are so savvy about things like locations and fees. But people [in Detroit] weren’t really looking for fees, they were just excited to be part of the project, and definitely the local ties helped. David and I sat down and typed up this really long list of everything we need – these are the locations we’re looking for, we need help with food, we’re looking for this one particular prop item, this kind of car – and then we shared this list with friends and family, and little by little, we got things checked off.”
“I think it’s about exploiting the resources you have,” Romanski explains, “and working with your means. People ask me a lot, ‘How did you did you make a movie for so little money? How can I make a movie for nothing, too?’ I don’t think it’s about what you’re spending the money on as much as figuring out ways not to spend money.”
“The best example that I’m really proud of is that Labor Day parade,” she continues. “We knew we didn’t have money to stage a parade, so instead I called the Clawson Fourth of July Parade, which David knew about because he’d always go to it as a kid. So I asked, ‘could we insert a float or two into your parade and film it for our movie?…We got this amazing parade at the end of the movie. So try to think just really far outside the box.”
That thinking got Adele Romanski a nomination for the Piaget Producers Award at this year’s Film Independent Spirit Awards. The Myth of the American Sleepover also offered her the opportunity to work on location with James Laxton, whose dreamy widescreen images contrast nicely with the naturalism of the young cast (90% of whom were from Michigan). The pair also worked together on City on a Hill (with Romanski as editor), a feature directed by actress Amy Seimetz, who appears in Myth.
When Adele Romanski joined Laxton on the festival circuit with another movie he shot, Medicine for Melancholy, that they met filmmaker Mark Duplass (Baghead, Cyrus) and his wife, actress Katie Aselton (The Puffy Chair). Romanski would go on to produce Aselton’s 2010 feature debut, The Freebie, and last month they wrapped location shooting in Maine on her second film, a ‘girl-based thriller’ called Black Rock. Mitchell and Romanski are also at work on a follow-up to Myth called Ella Walks the Beach, about a woman ‘testing the waters of being single’ after a breakup.
“One of the more personally validating things that I experienced recently,” she says, “is having multiple collaborations with a director. I’ve got to say, I love working with my directors again. You come to it with such a deeper understanding of the person and how they work – in stress, to feedback and criticism – and what really makes them tick. You have a short hand, and it’s really fulfilling.”
With the other projects she is currently working on, Romanski hasn’t been able to complete post-production on her own film, Leave Me Like You Found Me, about a couple reuniting on a camping trip: “It was sort of an experiment. I went into the woods with two actors and five crew people – including myself – and we all slept in a big tent for two weeks and shot a movie discreetly. It’s been a slow road because when you’re cutting, you’ve got to totally submerse yourself in that. You can’t put it on a timetable – you have to get in the zone.”
No matter the locale, from the sprawling Detroit suburbs of The Myth of the American Sleepover to the intimacy of The Freebie (shot primarily at the Duplass’ Los Angeles home), from the rugged shores of Maine to a dense national forest in California, there has been a common philosophy on all of Adele Romanski’s sets. “When you don’t have money,” she explains, “you really have to know that everybody – cast and crew – is 100% a part of the team, and feels invested in what’s happening in order for it to be successful and a positive experience.”