'Dirty Girl's Abe Sylvia on the seven-year wait, Melissa Manchester, 'Perpetual Motion' and the search for Dirty Debbie
Living in Los Angeles for as long as this pundit has (and no, we're not going there), the list of friends and acquaintances who are writing a screenplay or trying to get a movie off the ground is seemingly endless. Over the years, great scripts that were never produced passed through my hands and many of those budding filmmakers or screenwriters slowly transitioned to other full time gigs in the entertainment industry. Whether they have given up on those dreams is debatable (hopefully not), but there was always one friend who's journey to the big screen should be an inspiration in devotion for others, Abe Sylvia.
I first met Abe a little over six years ago and every time I'd run into him since the subject of his screenplay "Dirty Girl" would come up. He always answered honesty and with a smile. Most of the time Abe had to report a setback or another few months of waiting to get the project finally off the ground. And unlike a lot of other people I've met in the movie industry, it was clear his passion for the film was so strong he was not going to give up. At least that's what he projected to the rest of the world. With legendary indie production house Killer Film behind him, Abe finally got the money he needed to make his feature debut. Less than a year later it premiered at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival and was acquired only days later by The Weinstein Company. Now, after years of ups and downs, Abe's baby is finally arriving in theaters today in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.
"Dirty Girl" is a coming of age story meets road movie about two Norman, Oklahoma high school students, Danielle ("Atonement's" Juno Temple) and Clarke (newcomer Jeremy Dozier). Set in the late '80s, this misfit duo -- the misunderstood class slut and the painfully lonely gay teen -- end up on a journey to the glamorous city of Fresno, CA to try and find Danielle's long lost father. Along the way they meet a surprisingly friendly hustler/stripper (Nicholas D'Agosto) and scare the beejesus out of their parents (Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, Milla Jovovich).
Abe and I sat down last week to talk about his "Dirty Girl" adventure and it turned into quite the epic interview. So, if you've seen the movie or are about to, prepare to discover how involved Melissa Manchester really was, how the hypnotic stylings of Perpetual Motion were conceived and about the search for Danielle's long lost inspiration, Dirty Debbie. Oh, and you might get a few hints about how to keep your chin up while struggling to make that movie dream come true.
Ellwood: So, you put all these expectations into your head, like you’re going to go make your movie, you’re going to go sell your movie and then—
Sylvia: It actually happened.
Ellwood: How hard has it been to wait for a year?
Sylvia: For it to come out?
Sylvia: I mean, we’ve worked really hard on the movie since Toronto and I’m just really excited for it to come out. But hard? I’ve been working on the movie for seven years.
Ellwood: I know.
Sylvia: So the last year is like, “Oh, you know." It’s a recurring theme, it’s like it’s never going to be finished and now here we are. I mean, it was, you know, like when we first spoke about the movie—
Ellwood: It was a long time ago.
Sylvia: Probably it was like six-and-a-half years ago, easily. None of this has felt fast.
Ellwood: OK, so if you came up with this seven years ago, were you still in school then?
Sylvia: Yeah, I wrote it in film school. I wrote this script in a class.
Ellwood: And what was your inspiration for it?
Sylvia: It was kind of a combination of things. I think there was a girl in my middle school we called “Dirty Debbie” and I was always really fascinated by her and she was 16 and we were all 12 and she seemed to know more about the world than the rest of us and she seemed so much happier than the rest of us. And I think some of my most significant, most special relationships have been with women who had a mouth on them. And I love a great chick. And I think that that particular fascination that I think that like, gay men have for that kind of girl, that Clark has for not only Danielle, but for all of the women who are in the soundtrack, I wanted to make a movie about that specific connection.
Ellwood: But you weren't Clark as a kid were you?
Sylvia: I was, indeed.
Ellwood: You were?
Sylvia: I was, yeah.
Ellwood: But you were a dancer, you were on Broadway in your 20's...
Sylvia: I was a dancer later.
Ellwood: Oh, got it.
Sylvia: I spent a lot of years jumping up and down in my room with a few extra pounds on me, for sure. My parents were very progressive, though, they weren’t at all like Mary (Steenburgen) and Dwight (Yoakam)'s characters. They were very cool people.
Ellwood: Did your parents see the movie and [think] “Was this what you thought about us?”
Sylvia: No, because very clearly my father didn’t beat me.
Ellwood: Oh, good, thank God. [Laughs.]
Sylvia: My parents were, you know, encouraging every theatrical whim I had. So, I couldn’t have had more supportive parents.
Ellwood: Well, one of the most entertaining things about the movie is the music. And you, unlike many other movies set in the ‘80’s, you went to a certain number of artists that aren’t always actually included in retro ‘80’s movies.
Sylvia: You know, I hate in movies when, they’d go to the section where it’s the ‘60’s, and they’d, of course they’d play the "Dawning of the Age of Aquarius." You know, like, “It’s the ‘60’s moment here comes Aquarius.” So, we didn’t use Madonna. We didn’t use Cyndi Lauper. We used artists like Melissa Manchester and Tina Marie and Sheena Easton and [songs] that we’ve stored these songs in our collective conscious so that when they come up, you, I mean -- any time the movie screens with a new audience, when The Outfield starts singing "Your Love" there’s a collective gasp because people in some ways have stored that song in their heart and they haven’t sung it to themselves in a while.
Ellwood: One great thing is -- and you told me this beforehand and I saw it in the movie -- is you got Melissa Manchester to play...
Sylvia: She’s playing piano when they sing "Don’t Cry Out Loud."
Ellwood: And people in the audience, they don't recognize her—
Sylvia: She’s the muse of the movie and so she’s like this angel, you know? Well, honestly, she is, I mean, [her songs] score all of Clark’s big moments and in really sort of unexpected ways. I had not met her, we’ve been emailing, and I said, “God, it would be really fun [if she was playing the piano while they sing the song]." First I asked the kids, I said, “OK, I’ve been emailing with Melissa Manchester, I want to make sure you’re OK singing 'Don’t Cry Out Loud' in front of her.” Because that’s a big thing. I mean, the kids, they can carry a tune, but they’re not power balladeers, you know? And they were like, “Rock on.” That's just how kind of fearless Jeremy and Juno were. They were like, “We will sing 'Don’t Cry Out Loud' right in front of Melissa Manchester and we will butcher it with a smile on our face.” So, she came and not only was she sort of this angel sort of handing off her song to Juno, she also "appears" when Juno leaves Clark by the side of the road with his dad, the one new song of Melissa’s in the movie that she wrote for that moment. It’s sort of like this angel from the future coming to encourage Danielle to keep going.
Ellwood: When did you ask her to write a new song?
Sylvia: I have been asking that woman favors for the last year. It’s like I just keep pushing my luck. First I was like, “Can we use a picture of you?" "Could you call Carole Bayer Sager and ask her to like, you know, help us out with the publishing on 'Don’t Cry Out Loud?'" :Could you come and do, you know, a cameo in our movie?" "Would you write me a song?” Like it just kind of kept building, “Would you come to Toronto and play at the party?” And she just keeps saying, “Yes.” I mean, she’s just the best.
Ellwood: Well, that’s awesome.
Ellwood: Can you talk about getting someone like Juno for this role? Because she’s this little British pixie, you would never in everything else she’s done think she could play something like this…
Ellwood: If I’d probably read this script thinking, “Oh, sure. Put her on our audition list."
Sylvia: It’s interesting. We read everybody under the sun for the part and the language is so specific and she has to be this girl-woman. She has to come off like a little girl, but have an edge too that is convincing. And so we read girls that were a little too old for the part playing younger and that didn’t quite work because [the actresses] just kind of came off as a bitch. Then we read girls that were too young and it was a little uncomfortable with what they were doing with the material. And then what I found is a lot of actors don’t know what to do with heightened language. And I think maybe there’s something about her being British and sort of the theatrical background and she brings this authentic punk pedigree.
Sylvia: But it wasn’t always like, you know, straight-up attachment. She came in and read and she knocked it out of the park. It was the old fashioned way. We actually read actors for our movie, which doesn’t always happen. Now, the parents, no, we didn’t read them, but for Juno and Jeremy, we wanted to make sure that those two kids had a solid handle on their parts and had great chemistry together.
Ellwood: But you’d known about Jeremy for a while, like didn’t you have him in the mix earlier than Juno?
Sylvia: Jeremy, the second I saw his tape, I knew it was him. We read probably 300 boys in L.A. And then we opened it up because we just weren’t quite finding what we wanted. You know, sometimes guys who are bigger actors [physically] and they come to L.A. and they’re like, “Oh, I’m the character guy.” And so you get their headshots and they’ve got their six different looks, like, “There’s me eating a burger,” “This is what I look like with glasses,” “This is my tough guy in overalls look.” And it sort of perverts what’s sort of essential and great about them.
Sylvia: And this tape came in from Jeremy and he made it in his dorm room. I think maybe there was something about how homespun the effort was that it was just completely charming and yet it was clear that he was a skilled actor, he was studying theater in Texas. He’d been shows his whole life and he was just visceral and naturally open-hearted. So, I knew the second I saw it. Now, from that moment, our financing fell through like three more times between the moment I saw that tape and we finally got to shoot, so we couldn’t tell him he had the part.
Ellwood: Oh, wow.
Sylvia: Because I didn’t want to, you know, get his hopes up. And obviously we had to get approvals from like whatever money came in. They had to see the tape and sign off, too, so I didn’t want to string him, you know, sort we…well, we did string him along, but I didn’t tell him that. I knew in my head that it was going to be him.
Ellwood: And well, so speaking about that, seven years to make the movie. I remember like running into you so many times and asking...
Sylvia: "How’s the movie going?" You know what it is? It’s that thing where, it’s like if you’re a writer, I started to feel like that guy who is always working on their novel. You know, like you’re at a party and you’re in L.A. and like, “How’s your movie going?” It’s like, “Well, my novel’s going, you know, still writing, working on my novel.” That was kind of how my movie was to me.
Ellwood: But now that you’ve made it you can look back at such a long and crazy journey. What’s that moment where you’re like, “I can’t believe that we got that, I can’t believe that." It could’ve been during shooting, it could’ve been, you know, Tim [McGraw] coming in at the last minute. That moment when you turned to your producer and you go, “How the hell did we pull that part off?”
Sylvia: God, there are so many of those moments. I think on set it was the scene at the drive-in. Pulling all those elements together, I mean, we made the movie for $1.50. And to be at a drive-in movie theater. We didn’t know if the projector was going to actually have enough [kick] to get on that screen. I was cutting the QuickTime movie of that B-roll footage [which appears on the huge screen] that morning and we hadn’t tested it. And I was like, “This is going to be a big ass cluster [expletive] if it doesn’t work.” And the boys were definitely rehearsed, but then the second the song came up and it was lit and then the movie hit the screen [like it was supposed to]. And I wanted that particular scene. I wanted to give somebody like Clark his romantic movie moment and put him into the movie visually as well.
Sylvia: So, what you have on the screen are all of these very traditional female and male images that you’re used to seeing in movies. And so that’s why we set it in a movie theater and so that Joel, when he stands up on the car, he’s actually in the movie and giving Clark his movie moment. And it was this very heady thing that I was going for and I wanted it to just be really beautiful and it was one of our biggest days. We had three cameras going, we had the projector, we had the music, all of these things had to sync up and you could feel the entire crew knowing that we were doing something special at that moment. And after the first take everyone just applauded and then we kept shooting for six hours. [Laughs.] But that was a real ah-ha moment. It’s like that’s our movie in a nutshell, that we’re doing something special.
Ellwood: And Joel’s the stripper?
Sylvia: Nick D’Agosto, yeah.
Ellwood: How hard was it to teach him how to do all the choreography?
Sylvia: Nick’s a natural mover and he was totally gung-ho about it. We took him into a dance studio and we put him through his paces. He didn’t have a lot of experience with gay go-go boys. So, the choreographer and I had to sort of explain and it was like, “These guys are just totally into themselves.”
Ellwood: Yes! Exactly.
Sylvia: “And they dance in their own world and they let you, they let you watch them,” and he totally, he just got it. And we built that on him, you know, we built that on his body movements."
Ellwood: That moment where he says, “It’s all about ME” and I’m thinking about every...
Sylvia: Every stripper you’ve ever seen.
Ellwood: Oh, my God, it’s all about them.
Sylvia: Dance in your own world. Don’t share.
Ellwood: That’s such a great observation; I don’t know where you got that, but it was good.
Sylvia: That’s what I tell my dance students when I see us dance. I’m like, “You will be a more interesting dancer if you’re not worried about showing off, if you are letting the audience watch you.” I’ve been teaching that to my dance students for years.
Ellwood: The least interesting dancers in the film, or, I mean, I’m sorry, they’re very interesting are the—
Sylvia: "Perpetual Motion?"
Ellwood: Perpetual Motion. The girls performing at the talent show at the end of the movie. And I’m curious, it’s not about the choreography and the costumes - which are awesome. But, where did you actually get those girls?
Sylvia: They are Pepperdine students. They knew they were in a movie called "Dirty Girl," but I don’t think they know exactly how foul mouthed the movie is. I hope they like it, because their parents probably do not approve. [Laughs.]
Ellwood: Were they in on the joke? Do they get—
Sylvia: Oh, they totally got it. It’s not really about them, but those girls so nailed it. And what I told them, you know, before we started shooting it, I just said, “You guys are those girls who get together and you win every year.”
Ellwood: And they think they look great and they—
Sylvia: They do! They do look great! They were a little mortified by the cut on the leotard, I have to be honest. They were openly mortified. But they also owned it. Those girls in the ‘80’s, they wore, they rocked the granny-cut leotards.
Ellwood: Speaking of costumes there is some great stuff in here. Where did your costumer get all this stuff?
Sylvia: Mary Claire Hannan pulled a rabbit out of a hat, you know, because we are a little movie and she was having to dress 40-50 period extras at a time. We shot very shortly after the writer’s strike and things were just gearing up. To get somebody of her caliber on a little movie, I mean, the woman did "Jackie Brown," "Pulp Fiction" and "Reservoir Dogs." We had Tarantino’s gal doing it. And so I sat down with her and I had my sister’s ‘80’s yearbook from Norman, Oklahoma.
Sylvia: And said, “This is what the kids need to look like.” So, she went right off of those books. And then with Juno’s look we wanted her to be a little bit outside the norm. Our image for her was Cherie Currie from The Runaways, which is a little bit earlier than the ‘80’s. She doesn’t have a lot of money, she’s wearing Sue-Ann’s clothes from the ‘70’s and she’s rocking a vintage look, because she’s doing the best with what she has. Like every other character in the movie is like, “You’re just making the best of your limited resources.” Which is why she, that’s why she like, looks the way she looks.
Ellwood: I think she looks great with that, with the blow-dry hair.
Sylvia: That was a lot of work. They didn’t wash her hair for the entire shoot, because she has such kinky hair, she’s very, she has a blonde fro. Our hair woman did Juno on "Year One" so she knew Juno’s hair really well and she said, “Here’s what we’re going to do.” She didn’t get to wash her hair for three weeks. Every night they wrapped it up and she went to bed with this thing on her head to keep it straight at night because we didn’t have the time to do three hours in the chair every morning. So, every morning she’d come in in her turban and they’d unwrap her hair and they’d fluff her up and we’d go.
Ellwood: Now that you’ve gone through this whole process, what’s the number one thing that you’ve learned for your next film? The thing that you think, “Screw that next time.” Is there anything that you think, “Going forward I want to make sure this happens.” Even while writing the screenplay or while wrapping it up in post.
Sylvia: Yeah. I want to take a second to think about that. It’s a really good question.
Ellwood: Any aspiring filmmaker, someone who’s going to make their first film, they always want to hear from someone else, “What should I look out for that maybe I didn’t look out for before?” It could even be, “Don’t give up.” Just as you didn’t give up.
Sylvia: Well, yeah, I’ll take that answer. I took no for an answer sometimes in the process. Not while we were shooting, but leading up to it. And luckily I was surrounded by some tenacious producers who had as much riding on this as I did and when things fell apart, which they did several times over the five-and-a-half years, I would just be like, “It’s never going to happen." And then, I would rally, but I had a producer, you know, Rob Paris, would be like, “Here’s the new plan.” Every time, “Here’s the new plan.”
Ellwood: Oh, that’s awesome.
Ellwood: I've got two more questions. First, When Danielle sits down with her soon-to-be stepbrother on the couch...
Sylvia: Oh, did she really [expletive] him?
Ellwood: Really? [Laughs.]
Ellwood: Because he doesn’t react, so I assume—
Sylvia: No, totally. And I think our whole back story was "Yeah, she totally screwed him because she early on wanted [to break up her mom and his dad up]. I said, “Juno, you [expletive] him and you hated it. You didn’t like him.”
Ellwood: Ah, OK.
Sylvia: She’s so disgusted by him. It was a tactic to get rid of this guy and it didn’t work, and now she’s going to bring it up.
Ellwood: So, that’s great, I’m glad to get it.
Sylvia: No, absolutely. She really lowered her standards.
Ellwood: Second, is there an NC-17 "Dirty Girl" out there somewhere in your mind that if you could really put it on screen you would?
Sylvia: Um-um. No, the movie’s too tenderhearted at its core, ultimately.
Ellwood: Maybe a book series.
Sylvia: Well, my whole idea is that I want to do a series of young adult novels based on Clark and Danielle’s adventures after the movie. Not another movie, not a TV show, but it’s just like, who are these kids in Norman, Oklahoma, the next day?
Ellwood: Actually, how old are they?
Sylvia: I like to think that Clark is a sophomore. And Danielle is a junior. So, 15 and 16.
Ellwood: OK. So, you definitely could see two or three books about them?
Sylvia: Oh, yeah, and then they go to junior college together. Clark goes to junior college and Danielle has to get a job at Sonic.
Ellwood: You’ve obviously thought this out [Laughs.]
Sylvia: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Ellwood: Well, that’s actually my real last question. Where are they in 2011?
Sylvia: I have this interesting experience. [I went to school with this girl nicknamed] Dirty Debbie who Danielle was kind of inspired by. I am going to look up for her on Facebook just to kind of like secretly stalk her and I know that any of my junior high school friends who hear about [it] would be like, “I can’t believe somebody made a movie about Dirty Debbie.” And Dirty Debbie knew that we called her Dirty Debbie.
Ellwood: Oh, wow.
Sylvia: So, if this gets back to her, she’s going to know and she should own it. And it was inspired -- do not sue us! None of the stuff is true, but she was an iconic figure. I don’t know what happened to her. I hope she’s really, really happy.
Ellwood: Will you tell me what happens when you find Dirty Debbie?
Sylvia: Oh, completely. Completely.
"Dirty Girl" is now playing in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
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