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Rotterdam: Michael Tully talks Ping Pong Summer

The Austin-based director talks about his “deeply personal” 1980s-set feature, which has its European premiere in Rotterdam tonight as a Big Talk event (after premiering in Sundance last week).

You could call it fate that Michael Tully finished shooting his long-gestating love letter to Ocean City, Maryland, just hours before Hurricane Sandy hit.

“We wrapped Saturday morning at 2am with our 16mm camera strapped to the Ocean City pier. Monday morning the hurricane landed and the pier was gone,” he remembers.

That’s a poignant marker for a very personal film for Tully, the Austin-Texas-based director of Cocaine Angel, Silver Jew and Septien (the latter played in Park City at Midnight in 2011). Growing up in Maryland, Tully started writing this screenplay when he was still in high school – 22 years ago.

“I started writing it as a senior in high school in 1992,” Tully remembers. “And in 1997 after graduating from college, I had my film degree, I said ‘Now let’s make this happen.’ Even in 1992 this was a period piece.”

“It’s not necessarily autobiographical, but it’s deeply personal,” he says. “It was combining the movies that I grew up and loved with my own loves of hip hop, ping pong and Ocean City, MD.” There are lots of personal touches, such as John Hannah wearing Tully’s father’s old state trooper uniform.

The story follows 13-year-old Rad (played by newcomer Marcello Conte) who is obsessed with ping-pong and hip-hop music while on his family’s summer vacation.

Tully tried to pay homage to films of the era like The Karate Kid, Krush Groove or No Retreat, No Surrender, but without getting campy. “It’s not like The Wedding Singer, saying, ‘Weren’t the ‘80s funny!?,’ he says. “My style is to underplay humor, those films were stylistic and over the top with their humour.”

He hopes the film will appeal to those who lived through the ‘80s, or younger audiences of today. “We’ve been asking ourselves that ultimate question, do you have to be a kid of the ’80s to enjoy this film?…It seems like kids of today are really connecting to the kids in the film. The fact that he’s wearing parachute pants doesn’t matter… I didn’t direct them to act like they were being in the ‘80s. Kids are kids, and I didn’t direct them to act like they were being in the ’80s.”

He was adament not to cast stage kids from New York or LA. “Marcello and Myles [Massey] hadn’t acted before. The whole summer leading up to the shoot I spent time with them. We’d meet up, we’d do little games, through the summer, then we did rehearsals, it was a process to get them comfortable. We’re shooting on film so the stakes were higher.”

Susan Sarandon, who happens to co-own a ping pong club, plays a mentor-like figure to Rad. “She totally caught the groove of what we were doing,” Tully says. “Some of her best lines are right from her [not from the script].” She even watched Septien after reading the script. “Think about that as a calling card for susan Sarandon!,” Tully says with a laugh. “She seemed to appreciate the weirdness and strange tone.”

The professional cast also includes John Hannah, Lea Thompson, Robert Longstreet and Amy Sedaris.

Ping Pong Summer’s “low seven figure” budget is a jump up from his very-low-budget features, but Tully says it didn’t change his approach. “At no point in the making of the movie was I making decisions that didn’t feel creative and from the gut.”

His gut guided the soundtrack as well, trying to use songs from 1985 or earlier (although there is one from 1987). He wanted “songs that were recognisable but not like the K-Tel collection of hits.” Composer Michael Montes “knocked it out of the park” with his work, Tully adds. And Kevin Barnes of Of Montreal wrote the original anthem “Young Champion.”

Working in his home state of Maryland was a bonus, he says. “The town was unbelievable, it’s that Indian Summer perfect weather…The town of Ocean City is a pretty conservative town but the movie is oddly a wholesome kind of movie, that’s just the story I wanted to tell.”

That might surprise fans of his last film, Septien, a twisted Southern gothic story about a troubled and eccentric group of brothers. “Some people have said [Ping Pong Summer] is much tamer and more reserved than Septien, some people think it’s weirder. The content is more PG-rated but it still does very strange things. It’s just personal filmmaking.”

Next up for Tully is an Ireland-set story, Don’t Leave Home, which he says is more in the vein of British thrillers of the 1970s such as The Wicker Man.

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