Katherine Langford and Charlie Plummer in Spontaneous
One of the most fascinating things about watching new movies in the age of COVID is how many of them take advantage of current fears even though they were closed before the coronavirus hit. Films as different in style, budget and genre as I think of Ending Things, She Dies Tomorrow and Tenet, resonate in this historic moment in ways that would have been very different – and probably less effective – if they had would only have been released a few months earlier. Scriptwriter Brian Duffield's strikingly original and extremely moving teen comedy Spontaneous is the latest film to speak of the lingering discomfort and insecurity of going through a pandemic, and perhaps the strangest reassurance. The story follows the budding romance between two teenagers (Katherine Langford and Charlie Plummer) who fall in love while the world around them falls apart due to their classmates' phenomena exploding for no warning or reason. Duffield takes this outrageous, darkly-comical premise and roots it in reality in a way that allows him to create a tone different from what any teen movie I've ever seen. Spontaneous is a poignant growing up romance, annoying horror film, crafty satire, and apocalyptic science fiction film all rolled into one, but Duffield's total mastery of the craft prevents it from getting out of hand. The film is confident and coherent, and steadily evolves to a resolution that is as impressive as it is unexpected. The end result is something like Heathers with a heart or, as Duffield himself suggests below, a John Hughes film that David Cronenberg breaks into again and again. Such comparisons don't really do it justice, however, as, despite all recognizable influences, it ultimately leads to standing alone as one of the best high school films of recent years and one of the most impressive directorial debuts.
Spontaneous opens in cinemas on October 2nd and can be streamed on Premium VoD from October 6th. I spoke to Duffield about Zoom about the film a week before its release.
Filmmaker: One of the things that I really loved about Spontaneous was the really unique tone – it's very funny and kind of smart, but also really heartbreaking. What did you want when it came to the sound balance of the piece?
Brian Duffield: What I liked about Katherine's character in the book was that she felt very real. I feel like a lot of YA stuff can get overly intense with the characters getting philosophical and always reading poetry, and that never sounds quite right to me. Katherine's character in the book and hopefully in the movie felt really stupid, but also very real and relatable. Her tone was a little silly. Every time you think someone is saying something big and romantic in the movie, they fuck it and say the stupidest thing they can say because they think it's funny. But then there are all the serious things – something like 40 kids are dying in this movie, and it's not meant to be trivial or over the top. These are real people with crying parents and traumatized friends. Somehow, I felt like I had Katherine as the voice of the film and having her more on this Juno series enabled us to make a film where 40 children die without it being offensive.
Filmmaker: The visual style helps with that too, I think. How did you try to set the tone with your camera?
Duffield: I've thought a lot about Cronenberg and how perfectly he captures the sound in something like Naked Lunch, which is great and really fun, but he doesn't turn the camera around. Sometimes it's a locked camera capturing a ridiculous scene that everyone plays very real and real. I think humor is a big part of making things feel realistic. That's why I've always tried to find the balance to talk about grief that doesn't dive into the really depressing area of art film, but isn't so big and broad that people were offended and upset. The decision not to move the camera as much was initially driven by the constraints of our schedule and weather, but it was a good thing because I realized that with that premise, even the slightest camera movement made the audience nervous – it made you wonder if something bad was coming and I didn't want them to think I was always the type of guy standing around with a needle and balloon waiting for them to jump. That forced us to use a visual language that was very calm and specific and that seemed to serve the tone we were talking about.
Filmmaker: How does editing play a role in this?
Duffield: I had a great editor, Steve Edwards, who edited the show on Dear White People. I think this show is a masterclass when it comes to how fun it can be in a moment, and then turning a dime when a cop pointing his gun at a child and it's life changing and traumatic. This whiplash is really powerful and effective and the show never feels like they crossed the line of where it's a comedy and then this traumatic thing happens and they don't deserve the trauma. So an editor like Steve really helped set the tone, because sometimes just one line of dialogue can make it too sharp or too heavy. Then when you take it away you can breathe a little easier because you aren't going too far. You don't get too dark. Really, I just stole from Justin Simien and then let people I trusted know where the lines threw them from the movie.
There was a constant struggle throughout the writing, filming, and editing to keep it as cohesive as possible and … it sounds like a joke, but I wanted it to be the cutest film about grief possible. I wanted it to be tasty and not immediately turn people off. That's why I didn't let the kid explode, even though it's the first thing that happens in the story. I wanted people who weren't gore fans to know they could hang out with this movie, although that likely meant horror fans were disappointed that there was no more gore and blood. But I didn't want people to be worried and worried all the time that I would just fuck with them.
Filmmaker: What kind of conversations did you have with Katherine on that note? Her character is tricky in that her way of using humor to handle anything could be misunderstood as apathy or self-centeredness if misplayed.
Duffield: Yeah, it was very important that she not cut off as a psychopath or someone who doesn't care what is going on. It's more like I'm seeing this terrible thing – how can I distract myself from it? The trick is, how do you tell a joke and let the audience see that you are in hell at the same time? We've talked a lot about All That Jazz and Jason Reitman's Young Adult. Movies that are difficult but not depressing, which is a bizarre line. Charlize is so funny in Young Adult, but she's also in such obvious pain throughout the movie. Here it's like Katherine really wants to be the star of a John Hughes movie, then Cronenberg just keeps pushing on the set and ruining it. Katherine's accomplishment is what I'm most proud of in my entire career, but I can't find much credit for it other than having the common sense to cast it.
Filmmaker: Spontaneous has a completely different element than the “sweet film about grief” aspect. In this way, the film captures the fear of the world, which suddenly changes in a way that is beyond control or understanding. That speaks for the moment we're in, of course, but you filmed that a long time ago, right?
Duffield: Yes, the film was basically shot in 2018. There were two big curveballs that I first had as a director on this movie, and the first was that the company that made the movie imploded and very quickly sold us to make the movie. We spent two years in limbo trying to find a home for the film and it was very difficult.
We felt the effects of it; We got closed on the mail for a while and the whole time I felt like I had to get as much as possible because I didn't know if I would ever get the chance to go back. The second curveball was that we were shooting in Vancouver in January and our weather was terrible. We lost a lot of time in the snow and towards the end there is a crucial scene in a cemetery in which we had to sew three different parts together because we kept snowing. Most of this scene consists of two actors lying on a warehouse floor. We had 21 days to shoot and in this weather we just ran out of days; It was constant juggling where I thought as quickly as possible and sacrificed scenes that I could live without, and we had to lose scenes on the cut because the film was supposed to be in April and there was only snow everywhere. That even dictated some of the compositions, because the frame would be exactly the space from which we could quickly clear snow.
We just had to roll with it, but the nice thing is that it was what the movie was about – those things that happen that you really have no control over. I have no say in a studio that sells to a company and I obviously have no control over the weather, and it's like the film itself told me to calm down. The biggest thing I've learned as a director was how to improvise as best I could and I had to make a lot of compromises, which was difficult. There are many places where I would have liked to see more noticeable camera movement or more cinematic approaches, but I had to constantly recalibrate myself as the circumstances dictated. And now we all had to recalibrate as we imagined this year before the pandemic. So you're right that the film is momentary, although frustrating in some ways, because I know so much more about pandemic reactions now than I did when we made it! But given the current world, I'm really glad that it's a movie about what everyone is going through that isn't dark and depressing. There is some lightness and optimism about it. I didn't want it to be like talking about Kevin even though I love this movie. I wanted to acknowledge for children that life is difficult without being pessimistic or turning people off, which is a challenge.
As a director making your first film, there will always be a part of you who wants to show everything you can, but if I had made every elaborate camera move I wanted to do, I now see that it has been really harmful would be the movie. It was a good lesson for me to let things happen and be calm and let the story be the director instead of me – especially on a subject as sensitive as kids dying. We would have created the wrong emotion by doing things that we would have done without hesitation in any other film. You know, the directors I love the most are the ones who adapt to the movie they're making and that has been the big revelation for me – this is the type of director that I am. For some of the films I wrote that I didn't make, I often felt that part of the direction wasn't in the service of the story – it was more about the directors not wanting to give up their fancy toys. I always felt like a kid whose parents donated the toys I wanted to keep! Emotionally, I always felt protected by the films and felt that I knew what they needed as a writer, and here I could really understand what the film had to be.
Filmmaker: A movie about 40 exploding kids that ends up making you feel good and optimistic.
Duffield: (laughs) Exactly. I accept it.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streamed on Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.