Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

When I first sat down to watch True Adolescents, I only knew a few things about it: that Director and Writer Craig Johnson is a Washington native, that The Blakes were featured as the main character’s band, that Mark Duplass starred in it – and that it had been labeled by some as “mumblecore”.

By the time the end credits rolled I loved it so much that I jumped at the chance to interview the Director and the Producer (Thomas Woodrow) to find out more. We talked about everything from Indie budgets to archetypes – plus the reasons why True Adolescents is definitely not mumblecore.

Did you pick Mark Duplass specifically for this role? Or was it just something that happened by accident?

Craig: Well, I wrote the script without an actor in mind. When we were talking about how we were going to make it, we thought we might be doing it just super lo-fi – like running out with a video camera on the fly. So, I watched a movie called The Puffy Chair that Mark made and starred in, as an example of lo-fi filmmaking. I remember though, you [Thomas] said; “Keep an eye on this lead actor because he actually might be right for our movie”. And, like 20 minutes in I remember pausing the movie, calling up Tom and being like “This guy is PERFECT”…

Thomas: He’s it!

Craig: …which was crazy, since it was so early in the process of developing the movie, that we found someone that was so right on. Turned out, he had met Mark before. They hard worked on a short film years ago, so they had a connection. We were able to get the script to Mark directly, and he got back to us right away. He dug the script, and we had a few a conversations.

Thomas: Well the great thing was, in terms of putting the movie together, is that there was kind of a critical moment quite early on when we had like a little chunk of money and knew we could literally make this movie, even if we didn’t get any more money – I mean, it would have been a very different movie if we’d made it that size – and it was right around that same time that we started talking to Mark. His thing was, if you will commit to making the movie with what you have now (even if you don’t get any more), and you will commit to a date, then I will put aside the time.

And so, at that moment it was like “Okay, we’re Greenlit, I guess – we’re making the movie”. And then from there until we shot, it was just a matter of putting together more money to hit our optimum budget, and be able to shoot film, get a larger crew and all. So, we were able to do that, kind of because he was cool enough to commit to us and because we had that little chunk of change.

I was also reading that you had developed the story about these characters in the woods first, and then the rest of it grew around that.

Craig: Exactly. I’ve got my little “writer/director notebook of ideas” and I flipped back and I had written this one scene about a dude and a kid on a camping trip, kind of arguing about something. And the way it was written, the grown-up was being way more immature than the kid. So that dynamic is kind of what kicked off the whole thing. Then as I was actually developing the story, it really became about that guy and his journey. As I call it “the coming-of-age of a 34-year-old rocker”. But he was always paired with an actual 14-year-old kid, which ended up becoming two. So there’s all kind of traditional coming-of-age stuff going on with the kids, but then also, there’s the stuff going on with him.

You obviously know a lot of Seattle rockers – because the way it was written and the way Mark performed it, I felt like it was dead on. Not that I’m saying everyone is the same, but I definitely feel like I know guys like Sam.

Craig: Well, it’s funny to hear you say that, because you’re not the first to say it, especially in this region. When we were first approaching people, having them read the script, and talking about the music world that is so specific to Seattle – I mean, I’m a Washington state native, I lived in Seattle for 8 years, I grew up in Bellingham, I’m very aware of the world I wanted it feel like. So, when we were approaching everyone from bands to people who worked in the music industry…

Thomas: Even just crew – just people in Seattle, in general.

Craig: Their response to the script was either “Dude, I know that guy, I dated that guy, or I am that guy”. People related to it. It’s just real – I mean, it’s an archetype, but I think it applies, not only to Indie rockers, but to Indie filmmakers and just artists in general. You hit a phase in your life where it’s like – is your big break around the corner, or are you just spinning your wheels? You know, my own anxieties are part of the character. When I wrote it, I was turning 30, I was just out grad film school – not sure if I would be making this movie, or making any movie, ever. So, there’s parts of me and certainly parts of Seattle friends of mine who are in bands in him, and just…guys I know.

Yeah, one of my favorite parts is when the kid says “Why don’t you get a job at a record store?” and he’s like “Uhh…that’s not for me”.

Craig: Exactly. Maybe he’ll come around to that in a few years. Well…the movie has an ending that we actually nixed. We actually shot.

Thomas: It just had a more literal explanation about what does happen to Sam.

Craig: And I don’t want to say what it was  – but we did a couple of screenings for small groups when we were cutting the movie, and people were just like “We don’t need to know that”. Whereas, where we left it – it just gives you a good sense of what’s happening with him.

Actually, I’m really, really glad you guys did cut it. Because part of what really made me love the movie was where and how you ended it.

Craig: Oh, I’m so glad you think that.

I think it’s also really key that Sam isn’t a bad guy – he’s just a guy. Maybe he’s not perfect, but he’s  not a total asshole to everyone either.

Craig: That’s what so great about what Mark brings to the roll. Even given the script, there’s a way to play it wrong where the guy’s an insufferable asshole. But Mark is so charming, and you can tell he’s got this underlying sweetness, and he’s trying hard. And anything asshole about the character comes from a really deep sense of insecurity.

Right, he’s just trying to be cool.

Craig: He’s just trying so hard to be cool. To the point where he gets his feelings hurt because 14-year-olds don’t wanna hang out with him. Your heart kinda breaks for the guy. There’s also, I gotta admit, a little archetype I’m playing with too, which is the “uptight slacker”. The guy who actually gets stressed out about being cool. It’s a Type A thing for him. One of those guys who’s like; “Can we all just fucking chill??? Dude”.

So, how did you two get on this project together? Have you been friends for awhile?

Craig: We went to NYU graduate film school together, and although we were in different classes, we were acquaintances and knew each other, we just didn’t know each other really well. Technically, True Adolescents is my t
hesis film for NYU, which blew my mind a little bit. I wrote it while I was still working on what my thesis would be, and did a reading of it at school. The Chair of NYU was really supportive of my doing this film, and at the same time Tom was graduating as a Producing Major and looking for…

Thomas: It was this weird thing where I had done this other bigger film in Europe, and they [NYU] were like, “Well, you have to actually create a board and budget for a script and hand that in”. So I said, well, give me a script and I’ll do it. And so, they came forward with the script for True Adolescents and said here’s one you might actually be interested in for more than just this. I contacted Craig and did do the board and budget and that’s when I realized, “Hey, we can actually do this”. Not only that, but it was great.

Craig: We went out and had a beer after he’d read the script, and talked about how we might do it, and decided that we could do it on two different budget levels. We could of done it much lower-fi than we ended up with. I mean, we basically Greenlit ourselves, so that was really liberating. And the nice end to that story is that we ended up getting our optimum budget, so we were able to do it on the larger end of the Indie scale. I mean in the realm of movies, it was still a tiny budget, but it was like Titanic for us.

As far as locations go, I definitely recognized, of course, The Comet. And was the other bar The Funhouse?

Thomas: And the Redwood.

Craig: Yeah. The Redwood bar is there. We did an exterior of Café Vita but it’s not the actual Café Vita interior. I can’t wait for some of the Seattle people to say; “That’s not Café Vita!” We cheated a little bit. But for the most part, I’m so familiar with the area. We got into specifics about the kind of rocker Sam was, it got into very specific details about the Seattle garage music scene. It got into what venues would he play at? Where exactly he would play on Capital Hill. Would he be in what kind of band? And we were so lucky to find The Blakes, who we realized would fit Sam’s really rockin’, kinda 60s throwback kinda guy.

Our music supervisor Sandy Wilson, who works for a local label called Light in the Attic knows tons of bands. And he knew The Blakes, and so when we talked about having an actual band be in the movie and play the band that the lead character’s in, he said; “What about these guys?” and I thought, oh my god. They’re perfect. And I remember the first time we met them at the Twlight Exit. They walked in…

Thomas: We just felt like a couple of squares.

Craig: …like dumpy nerds! Yeah. I felt like Mick Jagger circa 1966 and his buddies were coming in – and they were all “Hey man, you guys doin’ a movie?” sitting there, looking cool, ordering their whisky on the rocks, at like noon. I felt like; (raising voice and sitting straight up) “Yes I am! We’re filmmakers from New York City and we’re doing this movie and we would like you to be our rock stars in it”. I was nervous.

Thomas: Yeah, sort of star-struck and didn’t know how to act.

Craig: And they were great! They were so great. And it turns out Snow Keim who actually has this little scene at the end of the movie is a great natural actor. He had a bigger part in it, honestly, that he was great in and we unfortunately had to cut it out because of time. There’s this whole subplot where he’s actually sleeping with Sam’s girlfriend, but we just had to cut it. Snow was awesome in it, though.

Thomas: Yeah, he was really great.

And how do you guys feel about the “mumblecore” label?

Craig: Well – Mark Duplass, who’s more associated with it, he says it only means so much. We as Indie filmmakers love all the press we can get. I mean, we’ll take it if people want to write about mumblecore. But this film is not mumblecore – even by the loosest of definitions. The only association with it, actually, is that Mark Duplass is in it.

I love where the movement comes from – which is, as an Indie filmmalker you spend a lot of time not making films, because they’re too expensive or whatever, and the whole mumblecore thing comes from just wanting to make a movie. Get your friends together, let’s do it for cheap, and do it in two months.

Thomas: There’s also an aspect that we do share with it a little bit, which I think is a very valuable part of the movement, which is just our generation speaking to itself, in its own vernacular. This is how we look, this is how we talk, this is what we’re concerned with, and even in what I think is a very universal story like True Adolescents, this coming-of-age of this character – just having that couched in our world, in a way that’s familiar to us makes it resonate. Just to see yourself mirrored on screen is very gratifying.

Craig: I definitely took some queues [from it]. One of the things I love about what mumblecore does do well is the way it observes micro-human behavior. There’s definitely moments where I wanted to feel more observational in True Adolescents, but the story is much more classic in its narrative arc, in its three-act structure, and it is scripted. Even though we were loose, because I wanted to riff on the lines a little bit to add spontaneity and a more natural feeling to it.

Great explanation, good to know. Is there anything else you want to tell people about True Adolescents?

Craig: It’s really just so exciting to be here for our first time.

Thomas: Yeah, it’s come full circle.

Craig: It is like coming full circle, and what we’re just starting to hear from people who have seen the film is that they feel like we did capture something accurate about Seattle, and how it feels and how the music scene feels. Authenticity is a big deal in Indie culture, and we wanted it to feel real. And people are starting to tell us that it feels real, and that’s a big deal too. Even though people might still say “That’s not the interior of Café Vita!”.

Well, it’s great that you guys are obviously very excited about it. And hopefully you’ll carry that excitement through to the next film and the next film and the next, and you won’t get tired of it.

Thomas: It’s so hard to actually make a film, that if we get that jaded, it would only be if we were too lucky or something.

Craig: Right, exactly. This is one of the one’s where I think I’m going to be the most nervous. They’ll be a lot of people there, a lot of crew members who are seeing it for the first time…

Thomas: It is a blast being able to bring it back to them.

Craig: Some of the cast members are seeing it for the first time, I have tons of family members seeing it for the first time. So, you know, I’ll definitely be kind of in the back row, biting my nails.

You guys also put together an awesome soundtrack. For the last question, I was wondering if you could share what you guys are listening to right now?

Craig: Let’s see. I’ve been listening to a guy named Loney, Dear. Who is actually on Sub Pop. He’s amazing. It’s this crazy, soaring pop. Check him out, I’m listening to him tons. I’m listening to Midlake – they’re also kind of Indie Pop. And I’m totally into Grizzly Bear. They’re awesome.

Thomas: Um…

Craig: You’re listening to Christina Aguilera. And Britney! (laughing) Oh – also, I wake up in the morning and turn on the Ting Tings. They get my morning started.

Yeah, right. Thanks. I actually can’t stop listening to Andrew Bird. Just been loving him recently. I threw in 69 Love Songs a couple days ago and was like “Oh I forgot about this! This is incredible”.

Craig: Oh! Bon Iver. Do you know Bon Iver? He’s kind of Andrew Bird-esque. One of those guys that it could just be his voice and a guitar, but it’s so unique.

Thomas: Also, Fiery Furnaces, New York-based. And then there’s this one that I keep coming back to, it’s one guy from Iceland and his wife – they’re called Mugison. He is crazy-insane. He plays like 97,000 instruments and does it all himself.

Craig: I’m going nuts for the new Sigur Ros album, speaking of Iceland. I listen to that like non-stop. I had to take a break, actually…