Something about Maryland summers speaks to filmmakers. Last year, we wrote about Matt Porterfield’sI Used to Be Darker (see “I Used to Be Darker,” Feature, May 8, 2013), which started out in Ocean City and found its way to Baltimore, all the while reveling in the cinematic qualities of the warmest season. Maryland native and filmmaker Michael Tully spent his summers in Ocean City as a kid; since 1992, he’s been developing an idea for a film based around those mid-’80s shore visits. The result—well over 20 years in the making—combines the over-the-top comedy of summer movies like National Lampoon’s Vacation and Wet Hot American Summer with the comparatively understated humor of The Karate Kid. Ping Pong Summer, featuring marquee names like Susan Sarandon and Lea Thompson, throws us back to 1985 with its grainy film quality; carefully curated, hip-hop-heavy soundtrack; and a vintage T-shirt montage that even children of the ’90s will appreciate. City Paper spoke with Tully over the phone about getting his movie made after more than two decades of plotting.
City Paper: I have to admit right off the bat that I grew up going to Ocean City, New Jersey.
Michael Tully: Oh . . . well, maybe this conversation is under protest a little, but I guess that’s OK. Our lead [Marcello Conte], actually, he’s from Cape May, so he’s from near Ocean City, New Jersey. Whereas our lead gal [Emmi Shockley] is from Ocean City, Maryland, but I don’t know, I feel like all these Delmarva-ish beach towns—we’re all in it together.
CP: That’s funny, you found two kids who were from beach towns. Was that a requirement?
MT: Well, I wanted local. I wanted Maryland-area kids. Once the script started going out into the world, we were getting video auditions from kids who were on TV shows and stuff, and I just really didn’t want to do that. I almost wanted to err on the side of—I’m sure a lot of people watch a movie and are maybe not as connected for certain reasons and thinking, Wait, these don’t seem like real kid actors—and that was the entire point, especially for Rad and Teddy, was to have kind of like awkward, regular kids in these roles.
CP: So tell me the story about the movie. I’ve read that it’s kind of something you conceived of in 1992.
MT: [laughs] Yeah. I keep trying to figure out if it’s like a lesson—an inspiring lesson in persistence or an embarrassing lesson in tenacity gone humiliating, but yeah, I had the idea in 1992 and I always wanted to be a writer. I think the transition for me happened when I was a freshman in college, even though when I was in high school, I started in with this interest in writing it sort of as a movie. I just thought, What if I combined my own personal upbringing and put it in an ’80s movie?, because I would love all those. I didn’t become like a cinephile until I was in college and beyond, so I was just going to Erol’s Video and renting National Lampoon’s Vacation andTrading Places and One Crazy Summer, and those were the movies that got me fired up. And The Karate Kid, of course. So, yeah I had the idea in 1992-ish and then it was a kind of vague period piece and very recent—but every winter, I’d say, “I’m making Ping Pong Summer next summer.” And then by March I would say, “I don’t have enough money to do this properly,” and then it only took 22 years, so . . . [laughs] that’s how it works sometimes. But the goal was really just to see what the experiment would be if I inserted my own middle-class, normal, well-adjusted upbringing as a central Marylander into an ’80s movie, and fortunately I guess, for the investors and for the producers—people who weren’t even from Ocean City necessarily—they thought there was enough of a universal connection to the material that it would play to people all over and not just people who were from Maryland and got every single little reference.
CP: Is this the first film that you’ve primarily written as well as directed?
MT: Yeah, I mean Septien, the last one, I—Cocaine Angel, the first one, I didn’t write at all, and then we had a music documentary which, you know, that was its own thing. And then Septien, yeah, I did get credit on the script, but I did write it in collaboration with Onur Tukel and Robert Longstreet, so this is the one that’s really my baby. And then I have a new one I’m going into production with, so it’s again mostly from my brain. But yeah, so this is the one, and it’s funny because you can say I have a lot of scripts that I wrote, but this definitely is, you know, embarrassingly personal in some ways because it’s combining all of these things at once. And for years I rejected the specificity of it. But at one point I just realized that the world is giving you all these tales, like my mom said a few months before shooting, she goes, “You remember that your father was so cheap that he took the police car on vacation when he wasn’t supposed to . . . to save on a tank of gas?” And my wife was like, “Dude, you’re writing a comedy script and you don’t have that in your movie? Like, what are you doing?” So, things like that, I realized, you need to embrace those opportunities.
CP: Right. The opening sequence is hilarious and very specific. Was that something that was autobiographical?
MT: [laughs] Nope. Mercifully, that one I cannot take the credit for. He’s credited as associate producer on the film, Andrew Krucoff, who’s another Marylander—he’s from Crofton, and he was an investor in Septien and was also an investor in this movie. That terrible nightmare/hilarious scenario of hard-boiling an egg in the microwave was allbecause of him. That really happened to him when he was an adolescent, and he said he had to go to swim practice the next day with this gross aloe gel smeared all over his face and he was embarrassed. I just thought that, when I heard that story, that was kind of a perfect way into our world, ’cause we were trying to make a movie that isn’t just hyper-cool, everything is a reference, like, “Remember that? Remember that?” I mean, that is in there, but we’re really trying to tell it from a first-person point of view perspective in ’85, and make it feel like a lost movie or an artifact from that era, so for me, that was just a perfect window into it. Because it really did happen to someone, and at that age, microwaves were new and novel concepts and, you know, maybe the kid was bright—Andrew—in having that thought, and then it all went terribly wrong, which everyone will see in the movie. [laughs] But it did hard-boil. I mean that really happened. It hard boiled, he peeled it, and bit into it, and it exploded in his face.
CP: It’s great, and then the way it transitions into the opening credits—those are really fun in themselves.
MT: Yeah, that was a reference. I mean, Teddy Blanks, the [title] designer, he’s really great. He’s New York-based. But that was a sort of a tribute to Wild Style, which was one of the hip-hop movies from that era that I loved. I was just like, “What if we combined a beach movie with a coming-of-age movie, a sports movie, and then threw in a hip-hop movie as well, like Krush Groove and Beat Street and Wild Style, and all the movies I was watching as a suburban Marylander, just voraciously sucking up any hip-hop culture I could from that alien landscape out in Frederick, Maryland?”
CP: Right. So you mentioned the film, you wanted it to be like something that was out of the ’80s, and I thought you really achieved that well, especially with the film quality, the visual quality. How do you do that?
MT: Well, you know I think you just answered the question. You shoot on film, which is [laughs] a very basic concept that people just already—I’m really, you know, I’m a cinephile. I love movies. I’m happy for the digital revolution. But I think we’re just turning our backs on celluloid in a really freakishly quick way. It’s really hard to even project movies on film anymore. And the question . . . all productions [have], it comes to that point in pre-production where you have the meeting with the producers and you say, “Are we gonna shoot on film or are we gonna shoot on digital?” and nowadays that question—even a year ago that was a question, but now it’s like that’s not even a question. You don’t even have that anymore. You just assume you’re shooting digital. But for me, I remember I was on a big conference call with six or seven producers, and I just said, “You know, I would be personally insecure presenting this movie at a festival to an audience saying we made—we tried to make an artifact from 1985 and we didn’t shoot on film.” And right away, to their credit, very quickly they just said, “OK, that’s the decision. We’re gonna work within it.” And it proved to be pretty negligible—the difference, I guess, between making that real expensive shooting on film is that we shot on Super 16-millimeter, which I actually would have preferred even if we had all the money in the world. I would have preferred to shoot Super 16 to 35[-millimeter], just ’cause it’s a little bit grainier and a little rougher around the edges, so you see the celluloid spinning around a little bit more than if we were shooting in really clear, high-contrast 35-millimeter. People seem to be responding to that but not even being able to express why—like normal audiences who aren’t really hyper-attuned to movies. They’re just like, “It felt like a movie from that era,” and it’s the texture. And then we can of course get into the great costume design by Stephanie Lewis, and makeup and hair and all that stuff. But I really think it starts with the actual texture of shooting on celluloid.
CP: Yeah, the curation of—I loved the T-shirt [vignette] [Michael laughs]. That was great. The other really specific scene or sequence that I loved and I’m really curious about is when they go to the aunt and uncle’s house?
CP: That is just hilarious [laughs].
MT: Yeah, you know that was totally . . . that is not any way personal. That’s one of the sort of movie, you know, the whole, “Did this really happen?” My father was a state police office. Like John Hannah in the movie is wearing my dad’s Maryland State Police uniform. So there’s a lot of things that are taken from my life. The aunt and uncle, it was just sort of these characters I had in mind. And maybe that’s sort of a riff on the National Lampoon’s Vacation with [Cousin] Eddie and all that stuff. I just like the idea . . . I didn’t have any family we had to visit when we went to Ocean City, but just that thought of, you go to the weird relatives and then halfway through the meal you’re kind of like, “Wait, why did we agree to come here again?” and then once you get in the car, you’re just like, everyone’s driving home in silence like, “We’re not gonna talk about that until next year when we have to actually see them again.” Robert Longstreet and Amy Sedaris are so legendarily good, [laughs] I’d say, as a film viewer and not as the director, I just love them and their performances. You’re tempted to wish that the whole movie was about them, but I think in keeping with the spirit, it kinda makes sense. You know, they’re not gonna go show up at the Fun Hub showdown. There’s no way Uncle Jim is gonna put on a shirt and go indoors. They’re just living at that weird house forever and that’s what they do.
CP: Yeah. And you had some really big names in the film. How did you go about getting them on board?
MT: Yeah, that was—I mean it’s a miracle when you’re trying to make a low-budget movie, which it still was—for me, it was way bigger, more money than anything I’ve ever worked with before—but it really started with Susan Sarandon. And when we thought about doing the mentor character, the Mr. Miyagi, we just thought it would be more interesting to make it a female because those roles are always played by the unshaven alcoholic guy. So it’s like, how can we do this a little bit differently? And then when we were thinking about what actress of that sort of age range has won an Oscar, another great actor who can do drama and comedy, and then also who happens to be the co-owner of a ping pong franchise, and Susan Sarandon’s name was at the top of the list. I don’t know if you know that. She’s the co-owner of SPiN, a ping-pong franchise. So that was kind of our in, but the reality was I wrote Jay Duplass, who’s a filmmaker friend, and I asked him—I kind of vetted her, you know, I just prefer to work with people who are friendly and on the level and aren’t gonna sort of poison the crew and the atmosphere, because I wanted it to be a really fun shoot, especially since we were working with kids who had never acted onscreen before. I just did not want to have some sort of awkward hierarchy or anything. And Jay vouched for Susan and said she was awesome to work with. And then he vouched for us. He reached out to her with the script and the project and just said, “A friend’s making a movie,” and then when Susan came on board, I think it made the project seem a lot more real and enabled us to reach out to, like, a John Hannah, an Amy Sedaris, and a Lea Thompson, to get them on board. And then I think they just sort of responded to the material, thought it could be a fun movie, and here we are, you know? It’s like really cool to see the poster. I forget, and then I’ll look at the poster and be like, “Oh wait, that’s Ping Pong Summer and it has all those big names on it. That’s really cool.”
CP: Yeah, that must be a kick in the head for something that you were thinking about for 24 years to see it come together.
MT: Yeah, I mean, almost even more surreal was the soundtrack. When I first made a sort of pseudo-soundtrack for this movie, it was on cassette. And I was just sort of duping, making tapes, and then it was CDs I was burning, and then it was playlists. So the week before Sundance, we finalized. We cleared the rights to have an actual soundtrack, and I was sitting there listening where it’s Fat Boys “Stick ’Em,” Mary Jane Girls, New Edition . . . and Whodini’s “Friends” was one song that—I would say every soundtrack that I made since 1992, that song was on the soundtrack. So to know that it’s real and it’s happening and [that] there’s gonna be an official vinyl release of the soundtrack with that song on it, it’s really, really a nice feeling. It’s a little bit dizzying, but it’s also very cool.