On Saturday the 23 August two inaugural moments separated by eight decades are scheduled to converge when Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie (2013) screens at the first annual Reel East Film Festival in Oaklyn, Camden County, New Jersey. Is it a coincidence that Camden, NJ just happens to be the birthplace of the drive-in? More likely it is an orchestrated coincidence, and alongside the previous evening’s Brotherhood of the Popcorn (2014) that celebrates a more eccentric cinematic tradition, it offers two contrasting love letters to the movies.
In a filmography comprising four shorts and one narrative feature, April Wright’s first foray into documentary feature filmmaking Going Attractions is an exploration of the American spectatorial experience as a cultural product of post-World War II America. She constructs a familiar tale of the rise and fall of a phenomenon, and through her exploration it becomes clear that the quintessential American experience is not yet ready to surrender itself to the past and become a documented memory of yesteryear.
In conversation with Film International’s Paul Risker, Wright recalled her own childhood experiences of the drive-in, and those first moments of cinematic inspiration. In discussion of her filmmaking career she permanently disrupted any perceived chronology of her filmography, and contextualised the drive-in as not an exclusive product of culture owing to its engagement in a reciprocate relationship with American culture. But emerging from the conversation was an impression of Wright’s determination to tell this story that revealed anecdotes of the ongoing interaction between cinema and the society from which it derives.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there that one inspirational moment?
I had a movie family. While my dad was always shooting home movies, my mom would always talk to us about what made a good movie, and my brother and sister worked in our local movie house in the small town where we grew up. But we would always go to the movies, including drive-ins.
Can you recall your first memories of the drive-in?
I remember always going as a kid. My mother would throw us in the backseat. She’d make home-made popcorn which she would put in a paper bag because we were too broke for snack bar food, although we’d usually get ice cream from the snack bar. But in high school I went frequently – it was just a normal part of summer.
Following on from your narrative fiction shorts and your 2009 feature Layover, how would you describe the contrasting experience of directing your first documentary feature?
Going Attractions took me seven years to make, so I actually started the research in 2005, and took my first road trip in the spring of 2006 to see what remains of drive-ins that I might find. So it was actually my first film as a director. Then I made a narrative feature and several shorts in between as I was trying to complete Going Attractions. It was my long side project for many years, as many documentaries are!
A filmmaker remarked to me in a recent interview, “There definitely seems to be a strong command of the medium when the filmmaker has written it…. When you know it’s your baby and not someone else’s, I think you bleed a little more blood for that process.” With multiple credits as writer, director and producer, what are your feelings towards the way writing and directing offset and inform one another?
I’m not sure I totally agree with that statement. I started out as a writer, and some of the things that I write I know I can also direct. Other things I write, I know would be better in the hands of another director. So it completely depends on the material for me, and I’m not precious about everything I write, because I view it as a collaborative process.
However, with this documentary it’s very true that it’s my baby, because even though I had many collaborators over the years who helped me to make the film, I was the person who had to love it the most and stick with it – raise the money, learn to edit, and I didn’t know how much time and effort this particular film would take when I started it. But this one has been with me for a long time and it seems to have legs, so I think it will be with me for many years to come.
One thing I can say that’s different with a documentary is that you build an obligation to the subjects of your film. So yes, I’m a filmmaker making a movie, but for the subjects of your film, this is their life. In the case of Going Attractions, I felt an obligation to the people who own and operate drive-ins today, because it’s not just a nostalgic story, it’s their everyday livelihoods – I’m telling a story, but it’s their story. So I felt obligated to tell it in the best way I could, because I owed them that.
Of all the stories you could tell, why the story of the drive-in?
Originally, many years ago now in the late 90s when I wasn’t making films yet, I thought drive-ins would make an interesting documentary. At that time there were still about 1000 drive-ins left. Around 2005 when I had started making movies, the idea came up again, and at that time there were only about 500 drive-ins left. So I figured there was no time to waste – I needed to get on the road now, before they were all gone!
The music in Going Attractions is particularly striking. Whilst the documentary needs to be informative and well told, it is through the music that we discover the heart and soul of the documentary – the music capturing the spirit of the drive-in. How would you respond to this observation?
I really appreciate this question and that you recognize the important role that music plays in the film. I knew the spine of the story was chronological, because essentially the film is a biography – it’s the life story of the drive-in. I also realized early on that the story of the drive-in only makes sense if you put it into the wider context of what was happening in the US culturally, economically, and technologically in each era. So music in the film became a key way to signify that we were shifting into a new era.
Although we licensed a few songs, we didn’t have the budget to get those well-known songs. So I called on a musician friend Dave Glover, and my cousin and her husband, Rob and Kate Houle, who have bands and write their own music. They were talented enough to write brand new songs about drive-ins especially for this film, as well as writing an original score and sound-alike music to reflect each era. I’m so happy with what they did, and many people have been impressed with the music in the film. Other filmmakers should hire them!
One of the interviewees describes the drive-in as a distinctly American experience. If the drive-in had never existed how severely would it have impacted the American spectatorial experience?
I believe this is true because although there were also drive-ins in Canada, Australia along with those scattered about Europe, there were nowhere near the number of drive-ins as in the U.S. As explained in the film, their popularity was the outcome of a convergence of cultural factors in the 1940s following World War II, and their decline was due to a similar convergence of cultural factors in the19 80s. It’s hard for me to imagine the drive-in not existing, because you would have to imagine a completely different version of U.S history. The drive-in is iconic in American Culture because it was a by-product of the culture, and so I can’t separate the two.
How supportive were drive-ins of certain genres and individual filmmakers? In hindsight could the drive-in be considered a means for a range of films and filmmakers to discover an audience?
Going Attractions examines the major role that drive-ins played in film history, and includes an interview with famous B-movie filmmaker Roger Corman. In the 1960s an independent film movement happened in the US outside the studio system, fuelled by the early films of filmmakers that we now consider to be some of the greats – Jonathan Demme, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. Initially these independent films were considered rawer, more personal, and sometimes even raunchier than the big family films and musicals that studios were making at that time. These indie films played mostly in art house theatres and drive-ins. There were also certain genres of films that didn’t exist until they started being made especially for the drive-in audiences – biker films, beach movies, campy horror films. So the drive-in is integral to the history of U.S Cinema.
It is often said about film that whilst they are seemingly about one thing they are in fact about something else. This is true of Going Attractions which charts evolving social trends and the emergence of the youth movement, as well as the changing landscape of the film industry, and cinemas conflict with home entertainment.
Yes, Going Attractions is the story of how the United States has changed over the last 60 years, and in many ways not for the better. But it’s told through the perspective of understanding what happened to the drive-ins. So it’s a film about drive-ins of course, but the subtext is about changing culture and values, as well as potentially starting to see in hindsight the cultural impact of short-term financial decisions, and what can happen when we value shopping more than family-time.
Trends come and go. Could we realistically see a resurgence of the drive-in once again in the U.S. or is it likely to remain a more niche experience whose height of popularity was a product of by-gone eras?
We are at an interesting juncture right now, and the answer to this question is unknown. There are around 350 drive-ins in the United States today. However, since the year 2000 over 35 old drive-ins have been restored and reopened, and another 35 have been built from scratch. There are at least 7 new ones opening this year that I’m aware of, and the remaining drive-ins are doing very good business. So there is definitely a resurgence and renewed interest in drive-ins happening all over the country.
But at the same time, the drive-ins have been facing the expense of converting to digital projection. The remaining drive-ins are almost all family businesses, and these new projectors cost about $80,000 each, plus drive-ins have the added expense of building a climate-controlled projection room. Last time I counted, 200 drive-ins had made the conversion, but it’s unclear if the remaining 150 can afford to make the switch. So it’s likely the total number may go down despite the resurgence that is underway, but we should know more in the next five years.
The drive-in was notoriously the setting for Brian Trenchard-Smith’s classic 80’s Australian dystopian film Dead End Drive-In (1986). It possibly taps into the xenophobia or misrepresentation of youth that is not uncommon with certain myths or images of the drive-ins as they went through less reputable years. Trenchard-Smith, however, is not the only filmmaker to turn the drive-in into a cinematic hell. Peter Bogdonovich previously adopted a similar point of view with his directorial feature debut Targets (1968). It is almost fitting that the drive-in has been reimagined by the very art form it showcases, and which creates artificial worlds that are based on reality.
This observation makes a great point. Within Going Attractions we talk about how films in general tend to reflect what’s happening in society. Targets in 1968 definitely captured the emergence of a more violent society, and a civil unrest fuelled by events such as Vietnam and political assassinations. In Dead End Drive-In, the drive-ins were turned into concentration camps for the undesirable and unemployed – a great reflection of counter-culture at that time.
I recently saw the beginning of the film Poetic Justice from 1993, which has a gang-related shooting at the drive-in, which also reflects what was happening at that time in Los Angeles. Filmmakers tend to express things that are happening in the world, and in these cases it’s not about the drive-ins themselves, but the role of the drive-in, because these films definitely offer a reflection of their contemporary societies.
Going Attractions will play in the inaugural Reel East Film Festival. What does it mean to have an opportunity to play in the festival’s opening year?
I’m very excited to be part of the inaugural year of the Reel East Film Festival, because it is based in the same area of New Jersey where the drive-in began. The very first drive-in opened on June 6, 1933 in Camden, NJ, and it’s cool to be going back to that area with an opportunity to screen Going Attractions for an audience. Since I view the film as a biography – the life story of the drive-in, then this festival screening is like going back to the birthplace, and that in itself is very special.
If you could describe what made the drive-in such a unique experience for those uninitiated to the experience, how would you describe it?
Going to the drive-in is an expression of freedom. You’re having a shared experience with your friends and family outdoors, under the stars or in the privacy of your own car. It’s kid-friendly, and it’s not about the movie – it’s about the fun individual experience that you have with your group.
From before to after, how has Going Attractions impacted your view of the story and experience of the American drive-in?
When I started the film I didn’t know that drive-ins were having a resurgence, and so that in itself was a nice discovery. I also didn’t realize how passionate people are about the drive-in. But if you grew up in the U.S. anytime between the 1940s to the mid-80s, it was a common part of every American’s experience growing up. It’s strange that now we have generations for whom it’s not part of their childhood, and most people think that’s sad.
I’ve noticed quotes from a lot of famous people in the entertainment industry in recent years – for example, James Cameron said, “My film school was the drive-ins of Orange County”, and when he won the Oscar, Forest Whitaker said, “When I was a kid the only way I learned about films was from the back seat of my family’s car at the drive-in.” Brad Pitt has even spoken of how he was inspired to be an actor “after seeing Saturday Night Fever (1977) at his local drive-in in Missouri.” Hearing this you realize what an impact the drive-in had on several generations of Americans.
I knew it was part of my childhood when I started making the film, but I didn’t realize what a large and profound impact it had on so many people. I’m very thankful that I could document this story, and capture many of the remaining drive-ins on film while they are still here. Many of the drive-ins I visited for the film have since been demolished, which is very sad, but at least there are some new ones taking their place.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.