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An Afternoon with Filmmaker Elijah Bynum: The Prodigy Behind Hot Summer Nights

on May 23, 2017, 12:00am

Photo by​ Heather Kaplan

Film festivals are an unpredictable slog. With so many screenings offered at any given hour, the margin for disappointment is fairly wide, which explains why critics traditionally leave each year loving two or three films tops. But then there are the films that legitimately shock you to your core, the ones that come out of left field, delivering a forceful hook to the head that’s tantalizing and exciting all at once. Those are the ones that make the trip worth it.

Hot Summer Nights is one such film. Elijah Bynum’s directorial debut, which premiered at this past Spring’s South by Southwest Film Festival, is a staggering accomplishment, especially since the young screenwriter and filmmaker had zero experience in either field prior to making the film. It’s a simmering anti-coming-of-age drama that moves with the muscular confidence of an early Paul Thomas Anderson production, and kind of looks like one, too.

Set in Cape Cod, Massachusetts during the Summer of 1991, the film follows a seemingly quiet and timid teenager named Daniel (Timothée Chalamet), who’s sent upstate for the season by his mother in what he even admits is a total cliché. After finding some work at a beat-up gas station, he soon befriends his co-worker, a small town hunk named Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe), who gets him involved in some shady sidejobs that involve copious amounts of drugs.

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Daniel and Hunter don’t roll around, toss out dollar bills, and tear through merchandise — they chase their summer dreams as any one of us would at the time. Hunter has a summer fling with the daughter (Maia Mitchell) of a slick-back cop (Thomas Jane), while Daniel finds first-time love with Cape Cod’s dream girl McKayla (Maika Monroe). Everything’s dandy until it’s not and that’s what makes Hot Summer Nights such a stirring and vivid presentation. The stakes are real.

Without sounding too hyperbolic, Bynum’s work on Hot Summer Nights is absolutely prodigious. Given the scope, the style, and the weight of this film — not to mention, it’s two-hour runtime — it’s unreal that he was able to pull it off given his empty resume. Again, these are the type of stories you want at a film festival, which is why Consequence of Sound reached out and spoke to both Bynum and producer Ryan Friedkin shortly after its worldwide premiere.

Why 1991? Did you experience Hurricane Bob yourself? Was it something that drew you to that?

Elijah Bynum: I personally didn’t experience it. I was only four years old, but I grew up in Massachusetts, so I had heard of it. You know, people who were a little older than me had talked about it cause it’s the biggest hurricane in New England history. We don’t typically get hurricanes that far up the coast, so there’s definitely some legends surrounding that. When I was writing, I had always wanted to set it in the past for a number of reasons thematically. Just through the research, I found that hurricane in 1991 and there haven’t been too many films based in that specific time period, so it felt like a very special time and that’s why we went with it.

It’s kind of a weird time period, though. It’s not the ’80s, but it’s not the 90’s, either. Time is kind of figuring itself out.

Bynum: Well that’s what we ran into a little bit in not just wardrobe but music, too. It’s in this kind of weird dead zone, where it’s not the ’80s music – like Bruce Springsteen and Rick Springfield – but it’s also not like Nirvana. So, there was a lot of discussion, and we ended up just trying to pick music that felt right emotionally for the character. And again, the whole movie was less about being grounded in reality and more about what it feels like to be a teenager who’s just running around and going off instinct. So, we chose music that felt like it was based off instinct.

hot summer nights An Afternoon with Filmmaker Elijah Bynum: The Prodigy Behind Hot Summer Nights

What was the impetus behind some of these songs? Were they what you were listening to while writing?

Bynum: Yeah, some of it was from when I was writing. A lot of it we just played on set. For instance, there is a Jonathan Richman song in the middle of the movie that we had no intention of using until we got in the edit room and we were just trying different stuff out in the edit room and it just worked and we ran with it.

How did you get the budget to pull off something like this?

Bynum: Well, it was a long journey, until I met Imperative Entertainment, and then it happened very quickly. I had written the script in 2012 — I had never written anything with an intention of directing — and I wanted to tell a cool story that I had kind of witnessed in college. Then it made the Black List, which was great, and it went away. We put it on the shelf, moved on, and then I met with Imperative Entertainment and those guys over there were just as supportive as you could possibly want producers to be. I met with them in the Fall, and by the Spring we were pre-production, which is just a dream come true.

It’s a new company and you never feel that they’re just churning out products. It’s not like, “Alright, we have to make this movie, turn it out, make a profit, now let’s make the next movie.” There’s a lot of care and passion that goes into it. So, they have a filmmakers mentality versus a businessman mentality. They’re definitely businessmen at the end of the day, but it comes from a creative place first. Not only are they creative and supportive financially, but creatively and emotionally. It always felt like we were on the same team, we were never at odds. It wasn’t like “what’s best for the bottom line” or “what’s gonna sell the most tickets,” it was always what’s gonna make the best movie. That goes a long way and hopefully it shows up on screen.

How did Peter Farrelly get involved?

Ryan Friedkin: So, Bradley Thomas, who’s one of the partners at Imperative, he produced all the Farrelly brother movies – Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something about Mary – and when Elijah came and met with them, I think Bradley, he knew he’d never directed a film before, hadn’t been on a set before.

Not even shorts or anything like that?

Bynum: No short or commercial or music video. So again, they put so much faith in me and trust.

That’s quite prodigious.

Ryan Friedkin: Obviously, if he hadn’t written it, no one in their right mind would have let him direct it. But I’m a firm believer in writer-directors. It makes life so much more easier. A director always likes a script. But I also think getting first drafts in from a writer-director is such a higher level than someone who just churns it out over a few weeks. Their whole life is in the movie, their whole career is at stake, and so in every waking moment, he was thinking about this movie. So back to Peter, Bradley sort of had the idea to have Peter take him under his wing a little bit and just do a little work on the script and give him some notes and guide him in the discussion in the beginning. And Peter is one of the great guys of the world. He’s an amazing, supportive guy.

Once it was on the Black List, did you have a feeling the gears were going to start moving?

Bynum: No. The production companies around town, they all liked the script, but nobody wanted to touch it cause it’s a tough movie. You can’t make it for like $100,000 dollars. It demanded a pretty big budget, but it also has enough elements in it that aren’t very commercial. With a teenage cast, a dark ending, it’s a period piece, and kind of a drama and a lot of things that scared people away who responded to the script very highly. Luckily, we found someone who was like, “Fuck it, let’s give it a shot and I’m really glad they did.”

Okay, so going into this, you haven’t done shorts, you haven’t done any films … was it all just in your head?

Bynum: For a while, I tried to get the movie made with another director, and we sat down with a few really talented, mostly music video directors, who were looking for a first feature. And they’d come in and they’d meet and I realized that they probably didn’t appreciate this, but I was telling them how I envisioned it. And the more I talked about that, the more I felt like I have this movie more or less in my head and I know how I would shoot these scenes and how the camera should move or if I were to direct it this is what I would do… Saying that enough times sort of gave me the confidence where I felt like maybe, just maybe, given the right chance, I could take a crack at it. So, yes, it was in my head, and then I storyboarded it, and shot list it, planned it out, and tried to execute it as closely as possible.

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Did you talk to any other filmmakers to kind of get some tips?

Bynum: Yeah, I have a really great film buddy named Justin Lerner who eats, breathes, and sleeps cinema. He was an integral part in this. His best advice was, “Don’t make a movie this big your first go around,” and I understand why. At first, I didn’t want to hear it, but when we were on set and there were just so many moving parts and the clock is always creeping up on you, I understood why he was like, “You might want to bite off something a little more manageable,” but he’s been great and very supportive. He came into the editing room and gave great notes.

The framing device for this film is wonderful, coming from the point of view of a random character. You don’t know this person, he’s always off screen, and that makes the film’s narrative more like an urban legend. You know, like something passed down through oral tradition, which is so relatable. You mentioned this was a story from college. How much did you have to embellish?

Bynum: It was mostly just the seed. It wasn’t a story I heard, it was kind of a story I witnessed: the entire rise and fall of a friendship.

Was it in Cape Cod?

Bynum: It was at Amherst, so it was a different part of the state. All the Cape Cod stuff is completely fictional, but Daniel and Hunter, and the drug dealing narrative, were based off two kids in college. All the rest was stuff we came up with afterwards, but it was all framed around this very interesting, kind of romantically tragic rise and fall of a drug empire and a friendship that rose very quickly and fell very quickly. It took place in real life for over a year, but we condensed it down into three months.

I don’t know. There’s just something about being a teenager; your hormones are rushing around. Everything is much more intense than it actually is: the cool kids are way cooler than they actually are, the girls are hotter than they really are, everything is just so intense and embellished that it felt appropriate.

The cross-generational narrative is key, too. You have the younger kids talking about the teenagers, the teenagers commenting on the adults, and the adults looking back on it all. It actually reminded me of the way Stephen King frames some of his novels, specifically ‘Salem’s Lot. But that could have been because of the New England setting. [Laughs.]

Bynum: Well, Stand by Me was a huge influence, and Stephen King is one of the greatest writers in the last 50 years. I think there’s a way he taps into things that are very visceral and emotional and also just very American. I think the story, in a way, is this bygone American era that adds the nostalgia without it feeling pastiche necessarily.

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There’s nobody walking around saying, “Hey, did you hear this Nirvana band coming out in a month?”

Bynum: Yeah, we were very careful to avoid that, but we also wanted to bring you into the world, which is why you do see stuff like Terminator 2 and Street Fighter.

Yeah, but you created the world around those references. One of the biggest pitfalls of the many more modern period pieces is that they all too often lean on pop culture to sell the setting. But that’s not the case with Hot Summer Nights, and mostly because it’s supported by so many short stories woven into the main narrative, which is what really reminded me of King.

Bynum: It makes things feel bigger. Even if you meet Ricky Orwell and his gum for 20 seconds, it makes the world feel lived-in, which was important for us.

I’ve read in past interviews with you that there’s a note in your office that reads, “Don’t be boring.” Now, that could work for or against a screenwriter, mostly because there might always be an impetus to keep adding and thinking of more things. When it came to building this world, how hard was it to paint the story without too many layers or too broad of strokes?

Bynum: Well, there had to be some level of self-discipline in the writing process and then in the edit room. Because, like the Ricky Orwell tangents, I love doing that kind of stuff and I would have gone on forever doing more and more of it. Eventually, people are like, “Okay get to the story,” so there’s a good amount that was in the writing room floor and then the editing room floor because you have to hone in. But that’s always fun, telling the little side character stories.

It also adds another point of view to the characters. You see that they’re larger than life to some people, but probably not to themselves. For instance, Maika Monroe’s McKayla likely doesn’t see herself as the talk of the town.

Bynum: I think the last thing Hunter Strawberry would want to hear is that people idolize him, and I think that’s what makes it special. The reason that the child narrator works is because you’re at that point in your life where these characters do feel larger than life. And the interesting thing is that from an older perspective, like a 40-year-old audience member watching this, everyone knew a Hunter Strawberry and a McKayla Strawberry. For the most part, you know what life looks like for them when they’re not young and the coolest kid in town anymore.

There’s something very tragic about that, and I think Hunter and McKayla are very self aware of the archetypes that they are and to this society — the box they’ve been put in. It’s like, “I’m the cool bad boy that none of your parents want you hanging out with, and I’ll probably end up never make it out of this town.” Again, for a 13-year-old, that’s the coolest guy ever, but for the 40-year-old looking back, it’s a tragedy, and that’s what we wanted to tap into…

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You really do capture that evolution, though, from wide-eyed kids to cynical teenagers to wizened adults. Then again, it helps having someone like Thomas Jane around to do the heavy lifting. It goes without saying that we’re huge, huge fans of his work over here. It’s still a goddamn crime he missed the opportunity to be in The Walking Dead.

Friedkin: And Mad Men.

Bynum: They wanted him on Mad Men?

Friedkin: Yeah, for Don Draper. His agent called and said, “Thomas Jane doesn’t do TV.”

He was pretty phenomenal in Hung.

Bynum: I’ll do TV if I get to have a big dick.

[Laughs.] Do you feel that traditional oral stories are still a thing today? 

Bynum: I think it’s dying out a little bit. I think people were allowed to be much more mysterious back in the day, you know?

Friedkin: I think now all these kids’ heroes are like the Kardashians or whoever they see on Instagram. Whereas back in the day, even when we were growing up, there were still those kids — it was just before Twitter and Instagram.

Bynum: Yeah, like you were saying, the Kardashians are on Snapchat, and it almost feels like in a weird, fucked up way like, “Oh, I’m friends with Kylie, let’s see what she’s wearing today.” Whereas, not even one generation ago, the stories you heard were about the kid the next town over who drove the Mustang and was dating the cheerleader. I think there’s something a little more special about that because it’s one step removed. And yeah, I think it’s dying out, which is again why I wanted to set the movie in the past because it was like the last tip of a time period where those kinds of stories still existed.

What some people tend to forget is how everyone is traditionally nostalgic for something 20 years prior, and what was interesting about the ’80s is how a lot of the early ’60s aesthetics were huge. Naturally, that bled into the ’90s, though it didn’t take long for the nostalgia to shift into the ’70s. Your film seemingly captures this weird phenomenon. 

Bynum: Well, the vibe — like when Hunter and Amy first meet at the diner and the Shangri-Las are playing — is total ’50s. The girl sitting there at the roller rink…

Friedkin: And also in that scene, it has that small town vibe where one girl says she’s a whore and one girl says she’s so pretty.

Bynum: The gossip. Eating French fries and drinking a Coke on a Saturday night. Shameless nostalgia.

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Did you grow up in a small town.?

Bynum: Small-ish, pretty small.

Did that help in figuring things out?

Bynum:  Oh yeah, a lot of the stories were pulled from things I had heard. And then there were always the older kids that you would hear about. Like I heard he did this, I heard he did that, so yeah that was definitely from stuff I grew up with.

Did you hang out with any older kids growing up?

Bynum: I don’t know, I wanted to. You could like see them show up and everyone would move to the side.

Are you at all nervous people might not relate to this?

Bynum: Yeah, we talked about it a lot in the writers’ room like, “Who is the audience for this? Are the millennials gonna respond to this?” We were always more interested in the people who were teenagers in 1991 — so those in their 30s or 40s now — and I hope they respond to it because the movie slows down and gets into some heavier stuff.

But really, we wanted to make it for anyone because I think there’s something universal about being young, whether or not you grew up in a time where you had a pay phone or you grew up in a time where you used Twitter. There’s still something universal about being young — the cool older kids, the hot older girls that you’re scared to talk to — and I don’t think that will ever go away.

No, it’s just between the lines now. The way we search through Facebook profiles, which are all self-curated portraits of people that might not actually be that at all. 

Bynum: “Oh, you’re not really what your Instagram says you are!” It’s a different variation of “I heard Hunter do this, I heard Hunter do that,” and it’s not really as true as people say it is.

Despite the story being set in New England, the film was shot in Atlanta, which has become the Mecca of filmmaking these days. How difficult was it to create those signature Northern settings in the South?

Bynum: Well, one of our producers, Dan Friedkin, happens to know how to fly a helicopter and many other things. So, all that aerial footage, that’s from Cape Cod. He went up there and shot that, and it looks incredible, and I think it really saved our ass a lot. Not only to make the movie feel bigger, but to drop you into this sun-bleached world.

Friedkin: We shot on the beach, too. So, when they’re in the crab shack, when Hunter is of doing the false interrogation, that was on Tybee Island, a three-hour drive from Atlanta on the coast. So, that kind of passed for it. But the rest of it…

Bynum: That’s why a lot of stuff is shot really tight. If they see the fried chicken place over there, it’s gonna give us away.

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Setting up the scene for 1991 must have also been difficult. There aren’t too many vintage arcades around.

Bynum: We looked for like a month and a half to find that.

Friedkin: Which is crazy because they’re starting to come back again.

Bynum: But the ones that are coming back have brand new games and the games look like they were built in 2010. So, to find an arcade that has old games from the late ’80s and early ’90s was very difficult.

Did you have to build it?

Bynum: No, we just found some arcade in rural Georgia somewhere. It was very cool, we lucked out with that one.

What was the most challenging part for you as a first-time director?

Bynum: I think just realizing how quickly the 12-hour shooting day goes by. It goes by very quickly. We did a really good job of planning this thing — we planned it within an inch of its life — but it doesn’t matter how well you planned. The day starts and your phone starts ringing or people start coming up to you and saying things like, “So, this thing we talked about is not gonna happen anymore, we got to do an audible.”

You can’t go and throw a fit or start feeling bad for yourself, which, admittedly, the first week of production I was doing. I was just ranting and raving all the time about how everything is going wrong. But that’s part of making a movie. You could probably have a hundred million dollar budget and you’re still going to run into roadblocks. That was the biggest challenge: learning to adapt on the fly and finding things that other people would consider setbacks and recognizing them as opportunities.

Winging it, basically.

Bynum: Winging it or either being like, “Its not going to be this, but what if it’s that.” The most exciting part is when you’re on Plan B or Plan C and it’s better than Plan A ever was. It wouldn’t have happened if something didn’t go wrong, and that was the really exciting part. Also just being able to trust your actors, because good actors are really smart and have really smart ideas. And sometimes you can just go to them and be like, “This isn’t working. What do you think?” And just trusting what they have to say and letting them do their thing allows good things come out of it.

How long was the casting process for this? Did you kinda have a sense of maybe who you were going after?

Bynum: Ryan wanted Timothée [Chalamet] from the beginning. He was like, “Timothy is Daniel,” and I was like, “That’s great.” So, Timothy had that role basically from day one, but unfortunately, we tortured him a little bit and stretched out [the casting process] for four months, but he was always it.

Friedkin: We knew him mostly from Homeland, and then Interstellar came out right as we were starting to cast.

Bynum: It’s hard because the role on the page seems obvious, but his trajectory from awkward goofy boy to drug runner is a pretty big arc to try and do believably. And he did a great job with that. With Maika [Monroe], we had all seen It Follows, it came out when we were casting, and we were like, “That’s it.”

Friedkin: Hunter was the hardest.

Bynum: Hunter was the hardest because it could have gone so terribly.

Friedkin: [Alex Roe] hadn’t really been in anything — his two films were sort of in post — and we saw him and obviously he looks good enough to be Hunter, but he had a great tape and when he showed up on set his acting abilities were even higher than that.

Bynum: Everyone was blown away.

Friedkin: I remember a moment. The first time he shot was on the beach, and the second was a crab shack, and Elijah and I looked at each other and were like, “Okay, we’re okay.”

That’s a great feeling.

Friedkin: Do you want to tell him about Dex?

Bynum: Well, I had seen Emory [Cohen] first in A Place Beyond the Pines and I was like, “Who is this guy? He’s a genius. If I ever get to make a movie, I want Emory Cohen to be in it.” Somehow, he got the script and responded to Dex’s role, which was interesting — because I had always imagined Dex as someone older, someone in their 50s — but Ryan was like, “How about Emory for Dex?” And god, I’m glad we went with it because he was so much fun to work with, and in post, we were like, “Should we do a re-shoot and write a new scene for him?” He was that good.

Friedkin: I think he makes the character a little less of a cliché because to have the 30-year-old or whatever he is be the villain in the film is risky.

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He does feel like an equal to Alex Roe’s Hunter.

Bynum: It’s like what Hunter could have been, and that’s what Hunter sees in him at the end I think, and Hunter is like, “I don’t want it, if this is what I’m going to become, I don’t want to be it.” So, I thought that was very interesting, and it wasn’t something in the script that was intended. It just came out of the casting, and now it works.

Friedkin: Emory showed up in Atlanta for the casting and we were talking about the role and he was like, “I’m gonna do this John Malkovich thing,” and we were like, “Uh…,” but then the camera started rolling and it was amazing.

It’s such a fine line because he could have easily become one of those smarmy villains…

Bynum: Or the mustached twirling villain. And I think he walked the line, but never quite crossed it. I think all the characters did really. Because the intention was to write these characters that felt familiar, the character was supposed to be aware of who they were. So, it’s a tricky tone to balance. Even someone like who Maia Mitchell was playing. Her role was very small, but when she’s on camera, she’s interesting to watch and adds something there that, again, could have been a very forgettable character.

There are so many characters to follow and love.

Friedkin: That’s one of my favorite things about the script. Often times, my favorite character in everything he writes is this guy who has one scene. The cousin who runs for the door, this guy is amazing. Ricky Orwell! I mean, there are no boring characters which I think really makes the whole film go up. Going back to Thomas Jane, Boogie Nights is one of our favorites and his character isn’t in a handful of scenes, but we talk about his character all the time.

Supporting characters really do make a movie. It’s why folks like Rob Lowe can secretly steal moments in broad comedies like Wayne’s World or Tommy’s Boy. Boogie Nights is a perfect example, though, and certainly something that came to mind while watching Hot Summer Nights. What other works would you say you cut your teeth with?

Bynum: Martin Scorsese is a big one. You can feel the influence of that in there. Paul Thomas Anderson is another one, the Coen brothers, David Fincher. And then, lately, I’ve been a big fan of Harmony Corinne. I think what Nicholas Winding Refn is doing right now is interesting. We’re both big Lars Von Trier fans, too. He’s the man.

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Yeah, his movies are always a joy to see when you’re under the influence.

Bynum: He’s fearless, people who just go for it. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s magical, you know? Paolo Sorentino is making really interesting stuff, too. And then all the classic guys that influenced everyone, from Kurasowa to Orson Wells, of course, and Stanley Kubrick. The legends.

Now that you’ve finished this film, what’s next?

Bynum: There’s one I’m writing right now that I’m almost done with that hopefully I get to make next. Ryan has read an early draft. We’re doing a quick rewrite on it.

Friedkin: We’re very excited about it.

Do you have an idea of what kind of films you want to make?

Bynum: Well, those guys we just talked about …. what they do is make movies that have a very unique vision and point of view and I think they’re going to last the test of time. They’re special and they’re unique in a way, and I’d love to be able to make movies like that — that people react to in a very specific way.

Well, that’s the best you can do.

Bynum: Yeah, I’m going to keep going until they tell me I can’t anymore.

Would you want to even shake up genres?

Bynum: A good story is a good story. So, whatever genre it’s in.

Friedkin: Well, I think that’s probably the best line to go on.

Hot Summer Nights will next appear at June’s Greenwich International Film Festival and Nantucket International Film Festival.

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