When Indiewire’s Nigel Smith spoke with Susan Sarandon about her projects coming out this fall (“Arbitrage,” “Cloud Atlas”), she also mentioned her upcoming role in Michael Tully’s new film “Ping Pong Summer.” In the words of the screen goddess and part owner of the chain of ping-pong clubs SPiN, “[I]t’s kind of “The Karate Kid” with ping-pong and I’m Mr. Miyagi.”
Michael Tully (“Septien,” “Cocaine Angel”) grew up in Mount Airy, Maryland and would vacation with his family at Ocean City, Maryland. He started writing the script when he was in high school in the 90’s, and has been working on it on and off since then. Producer Michael Gottwald told Indiewire, “It’s gone through so many iterations and it’s finally happening!”
“Ping Pong Summer” is set in 1985 at the family beach town where Tully spent his childhood summers. At the heart of the film is a 13-year old boy from the Maryland suburbs obsessed with ping pong and hip hop. Finally on his eagerly anticipated family vacation, he meets a new best friend and a new worst enemy. Echoing Sarandon’s own assessment of the film, Gottwald added, “It’s the kind of PG comedy that doesn’t get made anymore. A lot of the humor comes from the family being embarrassing or an awkward first experience with romance. It’s a cross between ‘Karate Kid’ and National Lampoon’s ‘Vacation’.”
Sarandon actually met Tully through the Duplass brothers (“The Puffy Chair,” “Cyrus”). According to Gottwald, “Her interest in it was the thing that made it feel like the movie was finally real and that it was gonna happen. Everything started to come together right there. She responded to the role immediately.”
In addition to Sarandon, the film also stars John Hannah (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”), Lea Thompson (“Back to the Future”), Amy Sedaris (“Strangers with Candy”) and Robert Longstreet (“Pineapple Express”). The film also stars a cast of unknown local teens as the young boy (who will be played by Marcello Conte) and his friends. The casting should be in good hands, with Gottwald who produced and helped cast “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and Baltimore’s Pat Moran taking up the task.
The team is shooting on location in Ocean City. They began last week and are shooting into late October. When Gottwald decided to take on the project as a producer, he was eager to do something completely different from “Beasts.” “I wanted to take some of what we did on ‘Beasts’ and do it on a totally different project, especially with having a film be explicitly about a certain place.
“The Ocean City community is actually involved as investors. The city and county have invested money into the film. Everybody in Ocean City has a stake in the film. Beasts and this movie are a world away. It feels like we’re doing this with the community. Working with big-name actors and non-actors, working with the community; it’s a hybrid of ‘Beasts’ and the way most people make movies.
“For the story that [Tully] was telling, the ‘teenageness’ needed to feel real. We can find unknown kids without going to Hollywood that would work great in these parts. They’re local to this area – the lead’s aunt lives in Ocean City. There’s a character that’s the mayor’s daughter. That actress lives in Ocean City year-round. She’s awesome.”
As for dressing up Ocean City to look like the 80’s, Gottwald told Indiewire, “You’d be surprised. You walk through and there’s a lot of stuff that could pass for any era. It lends itself to this kind of filmmaking. It’s your classic Mid-Atlantic destination. Some places are folded into larger metro areas. Ocean City is quite a distrance from everywhere. Its neighbors are other beach towns. It’s really the most populist and popular one.
“Those [audience members] that used to go on vacation with their family as a kid. They’ll definitely see a parallel here.”