Tuesday, August 5, 2014

'Going Attractions' director April Wright chronicles the American Drive-In experience

[GOING ATTRACTIONS: THE DEFINITIVE STORY OF THE AMERICAN DRIVE-IN MOVIE screens Friday August 8th at 9:45 pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque. Filmmaker April Wright will answer audience questions after the screening.]

Interview by Bob Ignizio

'Going Attractions' director April Wright
Joe Bob Briggs once said, “The Drive-In will never die.” That said, despite a little bit of a resurgence in recent years, it's certainly seen better days. The new documentary GOING ATTRACTIONS: THE DEFINITIVE STORY OF THE AMERICAN DRIVE-IN MOVIE pretty much lives up to the claim in its subtitle, chronicling the rise and decline of this cinematic institution through interviews with people involved in just about every aspect of the drive-in business. As thorough a job as the film does, I still had a few questions for April and she was kind enough to answer them via email.


CLEVELAND MOVIE BLOG: Let's start with a little background on you. Where are you from, and what got you interested in filmmaking?
APRIL WRIGHT: I'm from northern Illinois and went to drive-ins there growing up. I had a movie family. My dad was always shooting 8mm home movies and my mother would talk to us about movies and what made them good. My brother and sister worked at our local movie theater. So I always knew I would work in the movie business at some point. But I pursued a business career first, then switched careers into filmmaking about 10 years ago.

CMB: This isn't your first film. You've done a number of shorts, written and produced a horror film, and directed a feature ('Layover'). What can you tell us about your earlier work, and what did you learn making scripted films that you were able to apply to doing a documentary?
AW: Actually this is my first film as a director! It just took me 7 years until it was completed and released. In the meantime there was a horror film called KILLER YACHT PARTY which was released by Troma that I wrote and produced. We shot that in fall 2005 which is when I was researching GOING ATTRACTIONS. I took my first road trip to shoot footage for GOING ATTRACTIONS in spring 2006. Then later I wrote/directed my first narrative feature LAYOVER and several short films all within the time I was making GOING ATTRACTIONS since it was a 7 year project!

CMB: What was the genesis of GOING ATTRACTIONS? Were you a big drive-in junkie growing up, and if so can you share your favorite personal drive-in memory?
AW: It's funny because I'm not a huge drive-in junkie. There are people out there who LOVE drive-ins passionately. My mother would take us to drive-ins as kids. I also went in high school and sometimes when I was in college. But I think for most Americans if you grew up between the 40s and the 80s, it was part of the common experience for everyone. So I was within that group. But I'm also fascinated by unusual architecture, so when a lot of drive-ins closed down in the 80s or 90s, I would go out of my way to drive by them and wonder "What happened? How could this be allowed to get in such poor condition? We still love cars, we still love movies - why aren't the drive-ins surviving?" I wanted to know for myself, so that was the genesis of the film - to find out what happened.

CMB: The screener DVD you sent also included your original trailer, which seems to take a dimmer view of the future of ozoners than the finished film. What changed between the time you cut the trailer and finished the film to make you end the story of drive-ins on a more hopeful note?
AW: When I started the film, I didn't know about the drive-in resurgence that's been happening since the early 2000s. The original trailer's perspective holds true as the total number of drive-ins continues to erode every year. And with the challenge of digital conversion the total number is likely to drop even more. However there is a bright spot that since 2000, over 35 old drive-ins have been restored and re-opened, and another 35 brand new ones have been built from scratch. So within an overall decline, there is a very aggressive resurgence and renewed interest in going to drive-ins.

CMB: How long did it take you to make the film, and did you have a fairly good idea going in what shape it would take, or did it grow organically as you interviewed more people?
AW: There had been a couple other documentary films that talk about drive-ins, but they were shorter or only visited a handful of states. I set out from the start to tell the definitive story of the drive-in. I wanted to visit every state. I wanted to cover every topic. I knew the different types of people I wanted to interview to cover all sides of the topic. I always saw the film as a biography - it's the life story of the drive-in. So yes, I knew this is what I wanted to make. However in 2005 when I was planning the film, I didn't know that it wouldn't be completed until 2013! It took several years of road trips to cover the whole US, and many years of post-production to edit and complete the technical steps. As you can see from the film, it's filled with thousands of images including old photographs and archival footage. It was quite a process to get everything formatted to High Definition. I think what happens as you're making a documentary, is that you build an obligation to your subjects. So even though it took a lot of time and money I hadn't planned for, you realize that you have to finish the film and make it the best film you can, because you owe that to the people who care about drive-ins and especially the people who own and run drive-ins today.

CMB: Even with a road map, I have to imagine when doing a documentary like this things just pop up that you never thought of including when you're talking to people. How hard is it to keep a film like this at a manageable length, and were there any scenes you had to cut that you still feel a twinge of regret about?
AW: I did have a general roadmap for the film because I did a great deal of research before starting to film it. Also, I went on the road and visited a number of drive-ins and locations before I did any interviews. So I mostly knew the story before I started, it was just a matter of filling in the details and different points of view and personal stories with the interviews. I did want it to be the definitive story, so I didn't want to leave any topics out, but there were a few minor things that didn't make it into the film. For example I did have a little section on Route 66 because there were a lot of drive-ins on the mother road, but that got dropped. All the major topics are in the film.

CMB: I'm one of those guys who is nostalgic for the sixties/seventies era of drive-ins when many of them were sort of the small town equivalent of big city "grindhouse" theaters, showing mostly horror and exploitation flicks. While there was a lot of crap, that situation also allowed for a lot of talented young filmmakers like Sam Raimi, Tobe Hooper, and all the Corman proteges you mention in your film to get their start. Do you think that kind of cinema is vanished forever from drive-in screens, or do you think like the drive-ins themselves it could make a comeback?
AW: That's a great question. As we cover in GOING ATTRACTIONS, there was an independent film movement in the U.S. in the 60s and 70s, and these films were not played in regular movie theaters. They were considered to be B-movies and played at what you would call art house or grindhouse theaters or drive-ins. A lot of the huge single screen movie palaces that were in city downtowns played exploitation or b-movies during these periods. It was such a fun time and an important time in film history because filmmakers could make what they wanted to without the studio oversight that comes with a bigger budget. There wasn't cable TV or VHS or DVD so these theaters and drive-ins were where you could see these movies. Today the drive-ins all play first run features from the studios, but a lot are starting to do retro nights once a week, or special dusk-to-dawn shows. So far they're playing a lot of family-friendly films, but I could see having special nights or special events with these films, as long as they're made available in a digital format.

CMB: Okay, you didn't actually touch on this in the movie, but I've got to ask anyway. According to the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association, Ohio is tied with New York in second place for most remaining drive-ins with 29 (Pennsylvania is number 1 with 30). That would seem almost counter-intuitive that the top three drive-in states are states with fairly short drive-in seasons. Any thoughts on why this area loves its drive-ins so much?
AW: Great question. I did ask this question and it's been answered; just not in the final cut of the film. The answer is simply population. The states with the most drive-ins historically were Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, followed by Texas and California. And yes, strangely the top states have summer drive-in season and are not open year round. At the peak they had the most, and today they still do.

CMB: Do you have your next project in mind, or are you just focusing on this one right now?
AW: I'm working on two related projects. One is a television show version of the movie to follow behind the scenes with the hard-working families who are keeping drive-ins alive and all the challenges of putting on the show each night. I'm also just getting started on the follow-up feature film which is a similar look at the "Indoor Single-Screen Movie Palaces."

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