Director Abe Sylvia and star Jeremy Dozier talk Dirty Girl, on DVD today
Dirty Girl is the story of Danielle (Juno Temple), the dirty girl of Norman High School in Norman, Oklahoma, circa 1987. Her reputation takes an unexpected hit when her misbehavior gets her banished to a remedial class, where she is paired on a parenting project with Clarke (Jeremy Dozier), an innocent closet-case with no friends.
When her mother (Milla Jovovich) announces her engagement to her family-minded boyfriend (William H. Macy), mortified Danielle vows to get to California to find the father she's never met! Clarke is desperate to escape being sent to military school by his homophobic dad (Dwight Yoakam) and repressed mom (Mary Steenburgen), prompting the two mismatched misfits to make their getaway: on a cross-country road trip that leads to an unexpected and serendipitous friendship.
As Dirty Girl makes its way to DVD this Tuesday, January 17th, we caught up with first time director Abe Sylvia and his leading man, first time actor Jeremy Dozier, to discuss their shared experiences in making this unique road trip movie.
Here is our conversation.
Why did you feel it was important to set this movie in the 80s? Was it because of the social media aspects that have taken over the classroom here in 2012?
Abe Sylvia: There are a lot of answers to that question. I grew up in the 80s in Okalahoma. It was a very specific time and place. Just on a subconscious level. That is where the story existed for me. Additionally, I felt that the movie I wanted had a fairy tale quality to it. I wanted to set it in a slightly different time period. That gives you allowances to go to the kooky places that this film goes to. The movie really plays with genre and tone. If this were set in 2012, there wouldn't be as many allowances for that. Though, my short answer to that is...When I went around to the financiers, they ask, "Does it have to be the 80s? It's going to be so expensive!" I said, "Look, if we set this now, and these kids run away, there is going to be an Amber Alert." (Laughs) They would be home within twenty minutes. That became my get out of jail card with the financiers. I was like, "Look! They would have cell phones, and the internet, and GPS." I wanted the film to feel analog. But the real answer to your question is, oh...Because that's where I wanted it to be. (Laughs) There was no real reason.
Did you point out to the financiers that, if you drive down any road where high school kids are hanging out today, it actually looks very 1987?
Abe Sylvia: Yeah. The 80s are making a big comeback the way the 50s did in the 80s. In the 80s, it was all about 50s day, when I was in Junior High. Everyone was obsessed with Grease and Happy Days. Now we're having that same experience with the 1980s. Which is scary. It means I'm that old...But, yeah...It seems to be on trend.
Kids nowadays are in love with the 80s. I've talked to quite a few teenagers, and they always sight certain 80s movies as their favorite, as opposed to what's playing at the theater as we speak...
Abe Sylvia: Which is interesting to me, because my favorite movies are all from the 60s and 70s...
Of that time period, which films do you think had the biggest impact on Dirty Girl?
Abe Sylvia: I have to step out of the 60s and 70s, and say that my biggest inspiration is Pedro Almodóvar. He is more of an influence from the 80s, 90s, and now...But he is probably my biggest influence. Just his ability to play with genre and tone, and do it in a sort of in-your-face manner. He is able to put slapstick next to melodrama, next to comedy. And have it all be part of a fluid whole. I'm inspired by that work. I think it's an entirely queer sensibility, which is something that occurs naturally for me. We only allow for that tone shift if the film is European, or British. As soon as something is set in America, we don't have a lot of tolerance for that kind of variance. I would say he is my biggest influence. My biggest influence from the 70s, maybe its from the 80s...Is All That Jazz. Again, that is a movie that plays with time and space, and genre.
Dirty Girl plays with elements of the road trip genre. How challenging, or not challenging was it to put a fresh spin on some of those old tropes?
Abe Sylvia: The structure of my movie is different. It's a big two-act movie. It's not a traditional three-act movie. It's structured like a Broadway musical, in that its two big acts, then there is the coda that wraps it all up at the end. I think somewhere in there...Look, this isn't a road movie where these kids hit the road on page six. Which usually happens. They hit the road maybe thirty minutes into the movie. It's a teen movie that turns into a road trip movie, which then turns into a family melodrama. Then it turns back into a teen comedy. I didn't really stick to the road movie tropes. Although, playing with the structure, I knew there had to be various signifiers along the way. To make people feel structurally comfortable with the film, even as it jumps around. Obviously, one of the things you have to do in a road movie is pick up a hitchhiker. I knew we were going to make a movie called Dirty Girl, but the Dirty Girl was never going to have sex in the movie. (Laughs) The love scene with the hitchhiker was going to be with a gay boy. Those kinds of decisions flipped it. And the specificity of the time and place is also what flipped it. I think some of the references, letting all of those desperate elements play out into a fluid whole. I think that, more than anything, that's what flipped it.
When you play with the traditional three-act beat structure, do you ever find that certain audience members are confused or put off by the movie? And perhaps, they can't even explain why?
Abe Sylvia: Yes, I would say absolutely. A lot of movies are developed within an inch of their life. Its like, how many movies can you go to, where you can get up and go to the bathroom, and know I am not going to miss anything (laughs)? And you are right. There is an apprehension when people suddenly think, "I have no idea where this is going. It makes me uncomfortable." People want that assurance. They definitely want that in an American film. We know where this is headed. We know this is all going to work out in the end. This is a movie where a girl is chasing a father that she has never known. Its like, she gets there, and he sends her away. We're definitely playing with some expectations there. She gets what she needs in the end, when Clarke comes back. Because he is her metaphorical daddy. To your point, absolutely. In American films that have certain characters that we recognize, there are certain value judgments that are made, to whether or not a film is succeeding by a set of rules. That is something I am interested in playing with, and wrestling with. I don't write with that traditional structure in mind. I tend to write organically. I do definitely make sure all of the dots are connected with the characters. And that everybody has an arch. Its not like I said, "This is the way I'm going to go." It's just something that is happening naturally. As soon as you say, "This is my MO." The movie becomes more about what you are trying to do, not what the movie is actually about. This is how I like to work.
Having to pair off in class is a vivid memory from my own high school experience. I always knew I was going to get paired with the absolute last person I wanted to be working with. Is that something that sticks out in your mind from high school as a bad experience?
Abe Sylvia: Oh, yeah. Anytime you have to pair up kids, you are asking for trouble. Its like, here are two kids that would be the most non-traditional parents. You throw them together and say, "Now you guys are parents." I thought that idea was funny. The whole movie is about parenting. The whole movie is about asking, "What is a good choice?" As human beings, we are all an amalgamation of our choices. Some of our bad choices have led us to some of the best results. Thematically, that is what the movie is about. That is what all of the characters are grappling with.
This is your first feature film, and its Jeremy's first feature film role. What were you able to pull from each other in collaborating on this?
Abe Sylvia: Both of us were able to bring fresh eyes and a determination to not fuck it up. We definitely shared that. Jeremy was always so on point. Everyday we would get to set, and he was off book, he had a point of view, and he was ready to go. I think he was bound and determined to not be the problem on set. Not that we had a lot problems, but in his mind, he was like, "I'm the least experienced person here. I'm going to prove that I belong here." I think that we shared that. I was coming to work, surrounded by crewmembers that had a lot more experience than me. I needed to prove that I belong here. And that I needed to be running this shift. There was a bit of a kindred spirit in that regard. Yeah. I knew I had made the right choice. As proud of him as I was, I was proud of myself in fighting for him, to get him cast. This movie was going to live and die by Jeremy Dozier and Juno Temple's performances. To have the two of them knock it out of the park was great.
Did you get to do anything fun for this upcoming DVD release?
Jeremy Dozier: No. I think what is going to be fun about this movie is that all of my friends and family in Texas are finally going to get to see it. They've heard of the film. Some of them have been there through the entire process. Now they will finally get to see it. I am excited about that. What is so great about the movie coming out on DVD is that it's a film that is so pertinent to today. With all the gay teen suicides, and all of the bullying that goes on. This movie has a really great message.
The world of high school in 1987 is completely foreign to what it is now. Was it weird for someone as young as you to see how life was lived in the classroom more than twenty-five years ago?
Jeremy Dozier: Yeah. It was very weird. The movie was set in that time period, because if a teen ran away today, there are so many ways that you could try and track them down. Through the phone, Amber Alerts...Back then, we didn't have any of those things. So it's weird to go back to a time before Facebook and all of that. I personally can't image that. So it was interesting researching the 80s. Getting to see what was popular back then. Especially in terms of music, and all of that stuff.
Kids are also a lot more open about their sexuality here in 2012. Back in 1987, kids didn't open up about being gay. It was deemed unacceptable. Maybe you had a rare case of a student coming out, but most gay teens stayed in the closet back in the 80s.
Jeremy Dozier: Mm-hmm. Right. I completely agree. I think the progress we've made is great. This story is a little different. These two kids are forced to pair up. They are forced to hang out with each other. Through hanging out together, they realize they have more in common than they had originally thought. They end up becoming really good friends. Over the course of the movie, they help create the best parts of each other, and the best parts of themselves. It's about finding someone that loves them just as they are. Neither of them have really had that before. So they build this great friendship, which they know will last. They will be together all of their lives. I think one of the great messages of the film is, "Don't be defined by what other people define you as." Especially in high school. That's one of the great things about these two characters. They are in that awkward period of time where you are trying to find out who you are as opposed to who you want to be, based on what other people think of you. I worked really hard to build Clarke from the ground up. From his dialect, to his accent and speech pattern, to his body language, to his look. What really struck me about Clarke is the transformation he makes over the course of the film. From this shy, abused kid to this out and proud guy who learns to love himself, and stand up to his dad. I wanted to track that over the course of the film. In the beginning, he has this mantra. If you can't be seen, you can't be heard. He hides under all of these layers of clothes, and this hood. Throughout the course of the film, he sheds those layers. He becomes more confidant in who he is.
This is your first feature film role, and its Abe's first directorial feature. What were you able to pull from each other in collaborating on this?
Jeremy Dozier: Working with Abe Sylvia was great. He has such a unified vision. Such passion for the project, which resonated through everyone on set. It excites all of the cast and the crew. There was a lot of creativity. Abe had a lot of ideas, but he was also open to us coming to him with ideas. There are a lot of instances in the film where ideas that I had, made their way in. For instance, in that car scene, right after we pick up Joel, the hitchhiker, Joel and I are in the back seat playing with Skittles. That was an idea I came to Abe about. He loved it, and we stuck it in. This was a really collaborative film. Where he allowed everyone to do what they did best. It really enhanced the final product.
Can you take me through your first day on set, and what your feelings were about the whole thing?
Jeremy Dozier: I was lucky. The first day we shot, we shot the end sequence, with Juno Temple and I driving around in a car. And its kind of slow motion. It runs over the titles. That is what I shot the first day, so there was no dialogue. We were in the car, listening to the radio, with Abe on a truck in front of us, screaming out directions. It was a fun, easy day. It was a short day for me. I eased into it that way. The first day of actually shooting a scene, we did all of the stuff at Clarke's house. I did all of my scenes with Dwight Yoakam and Mary Steenburgen. That was kind of nerve wracking, because they are an Oscar winner and a country music superstar. He is from Texas. To work with a country music legend was huge. But they were great. They were so nice. Dwight is nothing like his character. He is so funny and down to earth. We would sit around and tell stories, and laugh. Mary was very nice, and said that she knew what it was like to be in my shoes. Her first film was opposite Jack Nicholson, and he was directing. She knew what it was like to be the new kid on set. We bonded over that. Between them, and Abe, they all really put me at ease. They allowed me the freedom to go there and do the part.
Dwight's acting is a little different. What were you able to take away from him in terms of his approach to the craft?
Jeremy Dozier: What's interesting about Dwight is that he figures out his scenes through improv. So we would run through the scene before hand. He would feel out the peaks and valleys of a scene. He would try out different lines. He would try and find the line reading that was the most natural. I really liked that about his approach. It was very much about working off the other actor, and reacting to what was happening in the scene, and after it.
You and Juno have a very relaxed, real rapport with each other. How did you guys arrive at that?
Jeremy Dozier: It happened naturally. The first time I met her was at the chemistry read. Afterwards, we rode the elevator down together. We were chatting. She said she didn't drive. That she was going to take a taxi home. I told her, I know its raining out. Its cold. I can give you a ride. I didn't think she would take me up on it. Because we were complete strangers. But she did. So I drove her home. We talked all the way home. We clicked instantly. After that, we had two weeks of rehearsals, where we learned all the dancing and singing. We made fools out of ourselves in front of each other. We broke down a lot of barriers, and it helped us bond. By the time we got on set, we were best friends. The chemistry was already there. We would go before the cameras and just play. And feel it out. It worked out great.