Matt Leslie & Stephen J. Smith
Summer of '85
Teenager Davey Armstrong is a conspiracy theorist who begins to suspect that a neighbouring police officer is a serial killer. With help from three friends, Davey launches a daring investigation that soon turns dangerous. Summer vacation, teen boys with little to do, a cul-de-sac and a suspicious neighbour Summer of 84 might have tread similar territory but its genuine uniqueness makes it stand out.
We spoke to screenwriters Matt Leslie & Stephen J. Smith about their breakout hit.
Hi Matt & Steve as filmmakers is the current lockdown providing you with some creative inspirations?
Matt: Honestly, lockdown has been rough for us. We’re set to direct our first feature film, THE KNOCKING, and we were supposed to go into production on April 13th. Obviously, that’s not happening now — we’re pushed to at least late-June now, hopefully not later. It’s been beneficial in some ways though. For example, it’s giving us more time to create shot lists and storyboards for the film, and it’s allowing us more time to cast the film, which is always a tricky process. We’re making the best of it for sure, and have been discussing the possibility of beginning our next feature script.
Steve: I’ve always been a sponge for creative material, and being in lockdown has allowed me to watch more movies and do more reading, so I’m soaking up all that new stuff and it’s refilling the creative well. Just watching the news and all the various conspiracies floating around about the origins of the virus and how it has spread worldwide so quickly fills your head with a ton of stories too. But I also have a toddler and a school age daughter who are trapped in the house with me, so it’s been pretty busy… and loud.
What was the experience like for you both premiering Summer of '84 at Sundance Film Festival?
Matt: It was surreal. We had zero expectations of premiering there. I mean, we hoped it would premiere at a prestigious festival like Sundance or SXSW or TIFF, but you just never know. When we found out, it was late November and I still remember I was sitting on my couch, writing, when I got the call from Gunpowder & Sky (our financier/studio). The actual experience of attending Sundance was amazing. Sitting in a theatre packed with 500 ravenous, excited attendees and premiering your film for them is something I’ll also never forget. And once you’ve had a film premiere at Sundance, they do a good job of involving you in their community, which is very rewarding for your growth as a filmmaker and for networking. We really hope to have another film there some day.
Steve: For me, it was even more surreal because I had to miss the premiere entirely. The afternoon before our movie was going to debut, I got a call from home that my wife was in labor with our son (who wasn’t due for another few weeks), so I hopped on an emergency flight out and flew home to meet our new baby (who was born while I was in the security line at the airport). So while Matt was at the screening, I was holding my newborn son in a hospital room watching all the Instagram posts pouring in from the premiere. That said, even having a film at Sundance—especially our first produced one—was an incredible experience. It was so validating after the years of hard work to create it, and so inspiring to be surrounded by some of the most talented filmmakers in the world and meeting a ton of new people who share your passion for the craft. I am looking forward to actually being present the next time we premiere a film there.
At Molins Film Festival you both got nominated for the Jury Prize Best Screenplay, did you expect you would get this type of recognition for your film?
Matt: We’ve had zero expectations throughout this process. We’ve learned expectations aren’t a good thing, because this business constantly shatters any expectations you may have. We just pour our hearts and souls into what we write and hope each project is well received. Thankfully, SUMMER OF ’84 got made and even got some critical buzz, like at Molins. All icing on the cake. But Molins is such a world-class genre festival, that it was really an honour to be nominated for the Jury Prize for Best Screenplay there.
Steve: It was a complete shock to us. When we came up with the idea for SUMMER OF ’84 and wrote the script, it was just a story we thought would be fun to work on with a killer twist on a familiar genre. To have that story be nominated for such a prestigious award and see all the outpouring of love for the film from Molins and from around the world was something we never could have expected. Now the pressure’s on to make sure we keep delivering films that entertain audiences and receive that level of recognition. Spoiler alert: we will.
"On a whim, I pitched them our concept and they flipped for it."
What was your favourite horror film growing up?
Matt: I don’t think I really had a favourite growing up because I wasn’t really allowed to watch scary films. Not until I was in my teens. But I keenly remember sneaking to watch a couple scary films. My parents would sit in the living room facing the TV (obviously), which was facing away from the hallway. So I’d sneak down the hallway and quietly watch from behind them without them knowing. One time, they were watching AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, and that film scared me to death. I had nightmares for weeks. Maybe years. I watched SILENCE OF THE LAMBS the same sneaky way, and that film just paralysed me with fear. That iconic pitch black scene near the end where Buffalo Bill has his night vision headset on while Clarice is stumbling around in his basement blind may have scared me more than any scene in cinema. It’s a perfect scene and honestly a perfect movie.
Steve: I’m actually in the same camp as Matt. I wasn’t really allowed to watch scary movies, and because of that, they had this mystique to them that actually made me not want to watch them. I remember being at the video store and just marvelling at the VHS box art for horror movies, my imagination running wild with what those movies were like. But once I started, I was hooked. 1996 was my year of awakening. It was all the original SCREAM’s fault. But my favourites quickly became some of the more classic, slower burn titles, like THE EXORCIST and ROSEMARY’S BABY. Something about psychological and religious-themed horror really sticks with me and has since back then.
With so many horror/mystery films being made how did you manage to make Summer of '84 so unique?
Matt: Thank you for saying it’s unique. What’s funny is that we sort of aimed to make a film that you thought you knew, so that when the ending happened, you’d be caught off guard and totally floored. To us, the ending was what we wanted to add to the neighbourhood paranoia sub-genre. Because we’d never seen a realistic or plausible ending to a film like this. In DISTURBIA, Shia LaBeouf’s character Kale takes down a serial killer who’s been doing his thing successfully for years. It struck us as the “Hollywood ending,” and one that just rang so false. Kale would never have won that battle to us. And that has been the case for movies in this sub-genre since it was created — FRIGHT NIGHT, REAR WINDOW, THE BURBS, etc. With SUMMER OF ’84, we wanted to create an ending that audiences wouldn’t expect because it defied the “Hollywood ending.” Hopefully, we achieved that.
Steve: In addition to the shock ending, we also wanted to tap into how we remember talking to our friends at that age. It was all sex jokes and taunts and claiming to do things you never did to sound cool. And tons of curse words, the weirder the better, because they were cool and not allowed. We didn’t want to filter our dialogue and clean it up, we wanted it to sound authentic and hopefully stand out.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you both met and how did Summer of 84 come about?
Matt: Steve and I met in like 2008 or 2009 at a screenwriting group in Los Angeles. We both really enjoyed each other’s feedback and ideas and continued with the group for a few years. We’d also bump into each other at what I refer to as the “underbelly of screenwriting,” which is the sort of predacious gurus who charge people money to learn the craft in various workshops and expos and stuff like that. Every time I’d bump into Steve, I really liked him and his attitude and could tell he was taking the craft as seriously as I was. We were both just trying to learn as much as we could.
Steve: In 2010, I had to move from L.A. back to my home state of Wisconsin for work, but I was determined not to let that keep me from writing. That fall, I came across a screenwriting contest called The Script-a-thon where you wrote a script in 30 days and submit to the judges. I called up Matt and suggested we co-write a script for the contest. We’d been talking about writing something together, but never had before, and it was a quick way to test out the collaboration. The contest that year had something like 1,200 submissions…and we won the Grand Prize. We had a blast writing together, and discovered our voice on the page was so similar that it was seamless when we split up the work and then brought the pages back together. We’ve written everything together since then, and we have a great rapport. Big key to that is stripping away our egos so the best idea always wins, and we’re fully honest with each other when an idea isn’t working.
Matt: SUMMER OF ’84 came about in 2014. I pitched the loose idea to Steve and he dug it.
Steve: This was obviously a couple years before STRANGER THINGS was even announced, and no one had really done anything retro-80s yet. We quickly wrote a treatment and knew we had our next script ready to be written.
Matt: At the time, I was a development executive for Scott Bernstein (Producer, STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON) and I had a general meeting with RKSS, the directing trio who eventually helmed SUMMER OF ’84. In that meeting with them, I asked what their favourite films are and they began citing the films we referenced for SUMMER OF ’84 — films like THE BURBS and FRIGHT NIGHT and THE GOONIES and THE LOST BOYS, etc. On a whim, I pitched them our concept and they flipped for it. Once we finished the script, they read it and attached. From there, there were a series of highs and lows. The lowest was when STRANGER THINGS came out. Suddenly, some of the interest we had in the project fizzled. It was pretty devastating because the script was getting a lot of buzz. Eventually, we met with Gunpowder & Sky, our financier and studio, and they just really got it. The rest is history.
During the writing process how much did the story change before you started filming?
Matt: The story didn’t change at all. Most of the differences between the script and the actual movie were due to locations issues. Meaning, for example, the scene in the film that takes place in a bowling alley was scripted to be in a rollerskating rink. But there weren’t any roller rinks in Vancouver, BC where we shot the film, so it had to change. We actually wrote and shot a cold open for the film, but it just didn’t come out as great as everyone had hoped, so it wound up on the cutting room floor. In that scene, we open on a teenage boy running for his life through the woods. He bursts through some bushes and immediately falls into the water. He gets to the surface, confused, wondering where the hell he is. He swims to shore and looks out into the vast distance of water before him and realizes he’s nowhere near home. He begins running but he’s quickly attacked from behind and knocked unconscious. From his unconscious face, we match cut to a picture of that “missing” teenage boy on the front page of the newspaper that Davey Armstrong, our protagonist, is holding as he stuffs it into a mailbox. It sets up the tidal island that the boys wind up on at the end of the film, which we loved, but in filmmaking, not everything works out as you plan.
Steve: We were very blessed that RKSS really had no notes on the script from day one. They were fully fans of the material, and it was a great collaboration between all of us to bring it to the screen. I think the only scenes that didn’t make it into the movie were in the first ten pages of the script. The cold open and one early scene with Nikki where she finds out Davey has a crush on her and that opens her up to the friendship they share throughout the movie. That was really it. Any other changes were simply driven by location availability or out of necessity with the quick shoot (the movie was shot in 23 days).
What was your favourite scene for you to write?
Matt: My favourite scene(s) that I wrote in that film was exactly what I described above where the kid’s running for his life on a tidal island in the middle of nowhere, and the scene that follows where Davey’s delivering the newspaper. Because those were the first scenes I wrote in the script, and I could feel the energy of them. I was so excited that we were writing this story and couldn’t wait to keep writing, which is a great feeling. I’m sure there are other scenes that are maybe stronger that I wrote, but I remember those the most vividly. But my favourite scene in the whole film is one that Steve wrote, so I’ll let him tell you about the part where Mackey tells Davey how it’s gonna be near the end of the film.
Steve: The final scene between Davey and Mackey on the island was definitely a fun one to write. Given what happens just prior to that scene, we knew we’d have the audience already in shock and hanging on every word of that last monologue from Mackey. So I dug in and truly channeled Mackey on that one. When Matt and I did the treatment for the script, the idea of that scene was always “what would be worse than dying?” I did three drafts of Mackey’s monologue, each time trying to ratchet up how Mackey basically rips away whatever life Davey could have had and ensures Davey will be living in fear and regret from that moment on.
What would you say have been the biggest lessons you've taken from making Summer of 84?
Matt: It was amazing working with the directors, RKSS, but I think our biggest takeaway from filming SUMMER OF ’84 was that Steve and I really wanted to direct. It was our first time being on the set of a film we wrote and we found ourselves wishing we were at the helm. Thankfully, RKSS did a fantastic job and were great to collaborate with, but the directing bug had bit us.
Steve: For me, it was also my first movie set experience, and we were there for the entire shoot. So I got a crash course in how your words on the page become an actual film, and how to rework your script on the fly when a location’s not exactly what you pictured or you’re running out of time on the shoot day and have to condense a scene to make it work within that short window. Now we have a better understanding of the process after we write FADE OUT, and can write our scripts setting them up for better success in production, and ultimately on the screen.
How much did your experience on Summer of '84 prepare you for co-directing and writing your next film The Knocking?
Matt: I think our experience on SUMMER OF ’84 really taught us the collaborative nature of filmmaking. You have to work closely with every department, from production design to costume design to cinematography to lighting to ADs, and on and on. It really takes a village, as they say, and we learned intimately how that works. So many things can go wrong, so you’ve really all gotta be pulling toward the same goal, which means communication is key. You’ve also gotta be kind to everyone, because your crew are the ones who really make things happen. Sounds like it should be obvious, but I’ve been on plenty of movie sets where people are mean or backstabbing and it causes so many problems.
Steve: I think it also demystified the directing process for us. RKSS did an awesome job, and because we were there side-by-side with them the whole time, we learned a ton about every step of what they were doing throughout the filmmaking process. Going into THE KNOCKING, we have a far better understanding of how to make your vision a reality than we would have had without our experience on the set of SUMMER.
Is there anything you can tell me about The Knocking?
Matt: Yeah, we can’t wait to shoot it! Ha…THE KNOCKING comes from a long line of Faustian bargain/deal with the devil stories, but we're doing something with it that no one’s seen. We feel pretty strongly that horror fans will love what we’re cooking up. We’ve got a great producing team behind us, the script is finished, and we’re casting now. Once this pandemic subsides, we’ll be off to the races.
Steve: Remember what I said about psychological and religious-themed horror being my favourite? THE KNOCKING is exactly that type of project.
Have you always had a passion for film?
Matt: I’ve always been a film fanatic, but I really didn’t think it was something I could do for a living because I grew up in a small town north of Boston, MA. No one pursued film back there in the 90s, because Hollywood was so far away. But I wound up moving out there when my wife booked a job, and suddenly I was in the place where movies are made. So I started screenwriting on the side, which as we mentioned is when Steve and I met.
Steve: I’ve always loved visual storytelling. Since I was about six years old, I’ve really been obsessed with the experience of watching movies. When I was in high school, I wrote and shot a feature-length horror movie for my senior thesis project that starred me and my best friends. This was before smartphones, by the way, so it was done on a terrible little high 8 camcorder and we didn’t even have the technology available to edit it properly until a few years later. But it was a blast, and got me hooked on the idea of making more.
How important is the collaborative nature of filmmaking?
Matt: It’s everything. Scorsese, Spielberg, the Coen brothers, Christopher Nolan — all visionaries who would be incapable of bringing their work to life without the army of people who enable them. Steve and I are lucky to be partners, I think, because every time we connect for work, we have to collaborate. If we didn’t, we’d fail. So we’re constantly reminded of the power and value of collaboration. Being on set is just an extension of that idea.
Steve: Everything Matt said is true. Everyone recognises the names of the directors and actors and sometimes screenwriters, but it’s really the combined effort of dozens, if not hundreds, of people that go into making a film. And everyone involved needs to be working toward the same vision to make it happen.
What has been the best piece of advice you've been given?
Matt: Be kind. Simple but profound and undeniably true.
Steve: Be persistent and develop a thick skin. This is mainly because so many people in the business didn’t hear the advice that Matt just gave, and they all think their opinion is the best one.
And finally, is there any advice you would offer an aspiring screenwriter?
Matt: This business is one of the toughest in the world, and if you wanna succeed, you better get used to failing. Sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true. For every success we’ve had, we’ve had dozens and dozens of failures. You can’t be delicate or precious, or you’ll get chewed up and spit out. It takes perseverance to get a win in Hollywood. If filmmaking isn’t your purpose, that will reveal itself and you’ll move on to do something else with your life. You’ve gotta love it and wake up for it every day or it ain’t happening.
Steve: Spend just as much time learning the business side of screenwriting as the creative side. Writing is the part that excites you and you want to dive into it and learn everything about it, as you should. But the reality is, after you’ve written your script, there’s this entire business end to the craft that’s just as important, and almost no one studies it when they’re first starting up. There’s so much you need to know about how things unfold after the writing’s done. Find out the steps it takes to pitch your script to executives, make the script sale, go through negotiations, get the movie produced, get it distributed, etc. Learn the people and the companies who you’ll be pitching, selling and working with. Think of your script like a product you’re selling in addition to a great story. You end up putting far more time into all the business aspects of screenwriting, and you’re way ahead of the game if you know that part of it well by the time you get your first deal. Doesn’t hurt to score a kicka** creative partner to face it all together either. Just sayin’.