First time director Abe Sylvia speaks to Jeremy Kay about making Dirty Girl, a 1980s set road movie which premieres in Toronto’s Discovery section.

The 1980s-set road movie Dirty Girl features a classy ensemble of Mary Steenburgen, William H Macy, Milla Jovovich and Juno Temple as Danielle, a tough-as-nails high school student from Oklahoma who heads off in search of the father she never knew. It could be a break-out for Temple, as well as her co-star, newcomer Jeremy Dozier. WME represents North American rights and Salt is handling international sales.

What inspired the story?

I wrote it when I was in film school at UCLA. It wasn’t a class assignment. It’s really personal, about growing up in Oklahoma in the 80s and the people I saw. I remember my sister’s friends, who were like this pack of wild girls and were full of vim and vigour, and I thought they were fucking amazing. The rest is made up. For me the easiest thing is if I can play all the parts in my room, so that’s my litmus test.

How did the project come together?

It took six years. I got a manager off my first short in film school. I gave him the script and he passed it on to the producer Rob [Paris, who would become one of four on the project], and he had a relationship with Christine [Vachon] and Pam [Koffler, Killer Films partners]. A week later I was on a plane to go meet them but had to keep it to myself. I was in film school at the time and couldn’t tell my professors why I was going in case it didn’t work. It took some time to get it together but with the Killer name attached Rob was able to knock on doors.

Bill Macy was the first to come on board. He’s an actor magnet: people want to work with him, and that was really helpful to us. Killer had just done Motherhood with the financiers iDeal Partners and Pam sent iDeal the script. It took a year but that was our first piece of capital. Right up until the day we shot we weren’t sure if it was going to happen. I just tried to keep my blinkers on and we kind of willed it into existence. It was a go for a while but so many deals had to come into place that you never believed it would happen. Milla came aboard one month before we started and that really sealed it because she’s such an international star.

How does Oklahoma inform the tone?

Oklahoma is a hybrid. There are dashes of it throughout the movie. It was an Indian territory before the white people came over from Europe and you had the Oklahoma Land Run [in 1889], which was terrible. My point is it’s a very wholesome place to grow up: very religious, very Americana and very safe and ever year we would reenact the Oklahoma Land Run and only when I grew up did I realise this was sick. Culturally it’s a funny place because it doesn’t quite have an identity – it isn’t the South or the Midwest.”

You shot everything in Los Angeles – why there and not Oklahoma?

Oklahoma has great tax incentives but we had 44 speaking parts and when you go away you can’t afford to bring everybody and we didn’t want to be over there and have to rely on finding people for parts. Frankly it was the only reason we were able to get Mary Steenburgen, Bill Macy and Milla Jovovich, because they were able to go home at night. So staying [in Los Angeles] turned out to be much more economical.”

Temple carries the film. How did you get her?

She’s instinctual and totally skilled. She’s Cate Blanchett – she’s the real deal, a major actress. She’s totally versatile. You’ve got Julien Temple’s daughter playing white trash. [Laughs.] We read for probably 300 girls. She got the part the old fashioned way. We saw a lot of wonderful actresses and then she came in and it was magical right off the bat. I had seen her work in Atonement and The Other Boleyn Girl and I wasn’t sure she could play this white trash girl from Oklahoma, but she nailed it. Juno came in to meet the financiers and when all of us saw the tape we knew it was going to be a star-making performance.

She finds that balance between bitchy and vulnerable

We had to be really careful with that. When we were reading girls originally I said it would make me uncomfortable if we cast a real child, so we read a few girls who were 21 and 22 who would pass for a teen but they came across as too bitchy. We read some 14 and 15-year-olds who were hysterical but didn’t know why. Juno had that balance as someone who looked like a child playing dress-up.

How did you discover Jeremy Dozier?

He was a theatre student at the University Of Texas and we were seeing a lot of guys who were more established actors who were really funny but there was some heart missing. Their auditions were somehow too on the nose and yet they didn’t have the warmth, so our casting director send out a casting call across the country and Jeremy sent in an audition tape. The second I saw it I knew it was him. We flew him out here [Los Angeles] and he just nailed it – it was pitch perfect. His performance is so perfect that people almost don’t think he’s acting. He’s out here now trying to get the next gig. He is a total discovery.

Tell us about that 80s soundtrack

“These are all songs that speak personally to me. I collect records and have a huge vinyl collection. I wanted all the songs to be familiar but maybe a little forgotten. For example we knew we wanted to have a Joan Jett song but we didn’t want it to be I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll and instead chose Do you Wanna Touch Me. We got Lover Girl by Teena Marie and when you hear it you go, ‘Oh my god I love this song.’ I didn’t want it to be too obvious: everybody plays The Age Of Aquarius to signify it’s the 60s, for example. Melissa Manchester’s Don’t Cry Out Loud plays and she was very good to us. She’s the spirit of the movie.”