TFR talk to the writer and director of Electrick Children, Rebecca Thomas, about fundamentalist Mormonism, casting Julia Garner, and Japanese mermaids…
Rebecca Thomas, brings a certain authenticity to her slightly surreal venture into the world of fundamentalist Mormonism and Las Vegas rock’n’roll. “I grew up as a mainstream Mormon from Las Vegas, which is kind of weird. Utah is really close by, so when I would visit them I would always see fundamentalist Mormons… I went and did some documentary work, interviewed them, got a little closer to them and learned their stories. It’s such a dramatic setting and I can relate to it, so I decided it would make a really great film.”
It certainly does that – some of the film’s most tense and suspense-driven moments take place within the Mormon home of Rachel, the lead, played by Julia Garner – who, it has to be said, gives the standout performance of this film. She stars opposite Rory Culkin, who Thomas describes as one of her first choices for the role of Clyde, as he is “just totally the character”. Rachel, on the other hand, was rather more difficult to cast, says Thomas. “It was hard to find a girl like her who was innocent and non-sexual. You sort of just believe her and like her – it was really important that you don’t think that she’s just insane.”
Indeed, much of the plot is reliant on Rachel’s naivety – that, and a recurring track popularised by Blondie back in the Seventies: Hanging On the Telephone. “That song was intentional,” she tells me. “It wasn’t the first song that I wanted, but I had a list. I love that song and we eventually got a cover done by Derek Pressnall [of Flowers Forever and Tilly And The Wall]. It’s just a simple pop-rock song – it got stuck in my head, that was one of the reasons I use it.” It might track you’ll remember but, in fact, the film features a range of music that make for a notable soundtrack. “We worked with Team Love Records, which is a record label run by Nate Krenkel [with Bright Eyes frontman, Conor Oberst], so we got most of our music licensed through them.” Electrick Children has already received comparisons to Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, and whilst the soundtrack might not be quite so nostalgic, there is certainly something similar about the notion of falling in love with new people, places and music. Rachel might look like a young and conservative Penny Lane, but she’s William Miller through and through.
Despite the similarities, Electrick Children was made on a fraction of the budget which was used to create Crowe’s classic – perhaps understandably since it’s Thomas’ first feature film. “Initially, I wanted to make a micro-budget version of the project for like $20,000, so I started online fund-raising on a site called kickstarter.com,” she explains. However, the final cut ended up costing a little over $1 million. “This guy, Richard Neustadter, basically gave us $5,000. I was like, ‘That was really nice, I don’t even know this person!’ I asked him if he wanted to read the script… He loved it and he said, “I’ll give you $20,000 and you can make it on your own, or we can make this for a bigger price and I’ll come on as a producer and help you.”
With Neustadter on board and her lead roles cast, Thomas was set to make something of an ambitious début as a director. Despite having appeared in her own short film, Nobody Knows You, Nobody Gives a Damn, back in 2009, she admits she doesn’t plan to cast herself again any time soon as she feels that it’s “weird trying to edit yourself, it’s kind of painful.” When it comes to future script writing and filmmaking, on the other hand, she’s full of enthusiasm. “I’m writing a horror/thriller right now, set in New York. In the future, I have [an idea for] another magical realist mermaid movie set in Japan. It’s really difficult to write and it can be really lonely, but it’s so nice to be able to live in the abstract for a little while and play with the character and plots. It’s very experimental and fun.”
She’s clearly a writer who invests in a lot in the characters – so much so that she’s prepared to stand by them, even when their judgements appear somewhat dubious. How does she explain how her protagonist came to be pregnant, for example? “I chose to believe Rachel… I wanted the focus to be more on how her faith transitioned.” Despite the ambiguity, there’s never the sense that Thomas hasn’t thought this through – simply that it is not the point which she’s trying to make. This is not a film which sets out to highlight flaws in the Mormon lifestyle or in Las Vegas living for that matter. Instead, it is a sweet study of loyalty and independence; a tale of discovering new worlds whilst holding true to your beliefs – a stance which will serve Thomas herself when it comes to her future film projects.
Take a look at our review of Electrick Children, here.