I feel a certain pride when talking about directors from Quebec; Xavier Dolan and Denis Villeneuve are a few names that come to mind, but recently my attention has shifted to RKSS (RoadKill SuperStar). The trio, consisting of Anouk Whissel, François Simard and Yoann-Karl Whissel, started off making low-budget horror shorts with their friends, but later gained international recognition for their 2015 feature-length debut Turbo Kid.
Last week, RKSS premiered their second feature Summer of ‘84 at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Produced by Gunpowder & Sky, Summer of ‘84 is a dark thriller set in an American suburb. Although it’s not fantastical like Turbo Kid, the movie still carries the signature style of RKSS that I’ve come to love. I got a chance to speak to two thirds of RKSS before their final screening at Sundance. Being a huge fan of Turbo Kid, I tried to set aside all my nerd excitement and keep my cool over the phone.
Chris Aitkens for Nightmare on Film Street: What’s it like returning to the Sundance Film Festival now that you’re more established as directors? Do you feel like rockstars?
Anouk Whissel: Not really, but we feel less like impostors, because we felt like we were out of place the first time, that we wouldn’t belong here.
François Simard: The first time we were a bit more shy. My English wasn’t that great. But we did it! This year, we felt more pressure, mainly because we’re returning with a very different movie than Turbo Kid. We were very nervous with the expectations from people who had loved Turbo Kid. This movie is very grounded, it’s the most serious movie we done so far, so we didn’t know how people would react to it.
NOFS: You had the world premiere on January 22nd, what are some of the things you’ve been hearing back from audience members and critics?
FS: The premiere has been insane, it really surpassed my expectations. So we’re very happy. The fans seem to love it. And we knew that some would love it, some would hate it, but nobody is indifferent. We’re happy about that. We were surprised by some of the critics who were really mean, but we don’t do this for them, we do this for the fans, because we’re fans too.
AW: And we got some nice critics as well, but the crowd is really showing us a lot of love, and they’re staying for the Q&As and we got some super cool questions and they’re hanging out with us after, they really love it, so we’re really thankful.
FS: It was the same with Turbo Kid, you can’t please everyone. It’s part of the game. But so far, we’re so grateful to be here and it’s been a blast. Every screening has been sold out and I think the one tonight (the last screening) is sold out too.
NOFS: From what I read, you got the script before this whole 80s nostalgia craze hit its peak with Stranger Things. How did you come across the script and how long ago was this?
AW: We came across the script in the summer of 2015, it was before we knew Stranger Things was happening. When they released the first poster, we were really bummed out. We thought “Oh no, they did it first!”
FS: And we were working on the project for one year at the time. But we saw that there was an audience for that kind of nostalgia and we got the greenlight soon after, very easily.
AW: Yeah, the popularity of Stranger Things really helped with launching our project. I was refusing to watch it for some time because I was so afraid that they would be too much alike. When I actually watched it, I was surprised because it’s really different. I was happy, I could relax and enjoy it.
FS: The only thing we changed was the reference to Dungeons & Dragons. But the kids are older, they drink, they swear, they only talk about sex, like we did in the 80s. It’s an indie thriller, there’s no supernatural stuff. It’s grounded in reality, which for us, makes it more scary. The tone is very different, so it’s its own entity. We’ve gotten good feedback from fans of Stranger Things, they wanted to see something different and they were grateful for that.
NOFS: I’m curious; did you grow up in the suburbs?
AW: Yeah, we did, actually. That’s why we felt so compelled by the script, because we recognized our friends and we recognized our games. We really felt attached to them because these kids are us.
FS: The only difference was that we were talking French, but it’s pretty much the same suburb, the same life. I would add that the reason this story is set in the 80s, it’s not because it’s trendy, we’re not trying to capitalize on the success of IT or Stranger Things, it’s because in the 80s in the suburbs, feelings of safety started to fade away. There were more abductions.
AW: Yeah, they were talking more about it in the news, so people started being paranoid and locking their doors. In the mid-80s, that shift started to happen. That theme is at the core of the story, that’s why it’s set in the 80s.
NOFS: Being in the suburbs, did your imagination ever run wild because there’s nothing better to do there?
FS: Yeah, we had no internet, no Facebook or social media. We had to hang out outside.
AW: I think everyone has had that weird neighbor who nobody really knows, who usually doesn’t like kids.
FS: Yeah, your dog would bring you a bone and you would think “Oh my god! There’s a body buried somewhere.” And when we read the ending (we won’t spoil it), that’s why we jumped into the project. And we didn’t plan for our second feature to be set in the 80s. It’s really because it’s so hard to have a movie financed so you need to be working on different projects. Turbo Kid 2 is one of them. But we didn’t want to do a sequel right after the first, because then we would have to do the third and the fourth, and we didn’t want to be only known as the Turbo Kid guys. We’re happy to have something different and to explore. That being said, Turbo Kid is our baby and we can’t wait to work on the sequel.
NOFS: Going back to Summer of ‘84, I noticed a lot of 80s references like the punk bands and the kids talking about Gremlins. Did you have to do research to make sure it was as historically accurate as possible or were the references all from memory?
AW: I think at first, it was from memory, but we double-checked everything to make sure there weren’t any references to bands or anything that came after the summer of ‘84.
FS: Even for the cars, we had to check if the cars were made before ‘84. So everything is legit.
NOFS: I really liked the mood of the movie, it’s very haunting and uncertain, you never know what’s going to happen. I feel the mood comes across very well thanks to the soundtrack provided by Le Matos (who also did the soundtrack for Turbo Kid). What’s your relationship with Le Matos?
AW: JP Bernier is one of the members of Le Matos, and he’s one of our best friends and our director of photography as well. We started working with him in 2007, I think. It was a while back, and at that time, he didn’t have his band. He created that band with Jean-Nicholas Leupi later on, and from that moment, they started to score our short films as well. We have a very strong relationship with him. It’s natural for us to bring them on board, and because JP is involved in the early process as a DP, I think the music is so connected to the image.
FS: He’s actually the fourth member of the band (RKSS). We’re so happy to have him. When we were younger, in the early 2000s, we started making shorts and we didn’t know anything about the technical side. We met JP because of Despised Icon (the death metal band from Montreal) and he made music videos for them and I was a huge fan. He saw our shorts and he said the only thing we need is a good DP. Since then, he’s been with us and he’s a good friend and we’ll try to bring him on board for every project.
NOFS: I noticed the Full of Hell patch on François’ hat and I think I saw Anouk wearing a NAILS hat in another picture. Would you ever consider making a movie with a grind or extreme metal soundtrack?
FS: I would love to, but I don’t know if there’s money for that because extreme music is not for everybody.
AW: If we could find a project that fits, it would be crazy, for sure.
FS: We did a short called Le Bagman back in 2004, and all my favorite bands were in that movie. It’s very DIY, though.
NOFS: When it comes to the three of you acting as directors, have you figured out a system where each person has a separate job, where nobody is stepping on each other’s toes? How do you organize working with three directors?
AW: When we write, we write together and we argue a lot and we fight, but nobody sees it. That’s the only time we fight, behind closed doors. When we’re with our team, we don’t want chaos. We’re very strict with our preparation, we have our storyboards and we show up overprepared. So when we’re on set, we can split. Yoann-Karl is with this actors.
FS: He’s the one with the loudest mouth, so it’s a shame he’s not here.
AW: François edited all our short films. He sticks to the storyboard and he’s with JP the DP, just to make sure we’re not missing any shots for the edit. I’m the head of departments and the overseeing eye to make sure everything is following our vision and that we’re on the right track.
FS: On set, if somebody has a question and they don’t know who to ask, or if there’s a problem, we can take care of it, that’s why we split. Rich Sommer (who plays Officer Wayne Mackey) did test us, just to see if we have the same vision and the same answers. He asked the same question to each of us, without us knowing, but we gave him the same answer.
NOFS: As directors from Quebec, do you ever feel there’s a language barrier when you’re talking to the cast?
AW: Not really. I think it’s been going very well. I don’t think we’ve ever had problems getting people to understand us, even if we don’t have the best words every time, it’s never been a problem.
FS: But like I said, at first I was the one struggling with my English. We spent three weeks in New Zealand for the post-production of Turbo Kid and that really helped. Now I can express myself. But we always have storyboards, so at least we can explain what we want very easily to the whole crew, it’s the best way to go.
NOFS: I know you don’t want to be known as the Turbo Kid guys, but are there any details you can tell me about the next Turbo Kid movie?
FS: It’s at the writing stage right now. We want to work on it more to be sure that it’s the best script ever. I think we owe this to the fans, some have tons of tattoos and fan art and cosplay, so we need to take our time.
AW: What we can say is that it’s going to be a sequel, so we’re going to follow The Kid as he travels through the Wasteland after what happened with Apple.
FS: He wants to know what’s on the other side of the Wasteland and that’s where the story takes place. Like I said, we’ll do it once the script is good and when we have a decent budget to be able to take our time with it. Last time, every day we had to cut and we had to sacrifice. It’s a good thing to learn, but we had to cut on the gore, on the action, on the set pieces and the stunts, and we preserved the love story. I know for the sequel, it needs to be bigger, so we’ll need a much bigger budget.
Summer of ’84 had its world premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Keep your eyes peeled for future film festival announcements.