Film: Santa Barbara Film Festival: Summerhood

Jacob Medjuck’s Summerhood Experiences

By Madelyn Ritrosky

Jacob Medjuck (left) directing Lucian Maisel (center) and Scott Beaudin on the set of SummerhoodPhoto:Jacob Medjuck (left) directing Lucian Maisel (center) and Scott Beaudin on the set of Summerhood.

Is that a teddy bear hanging from a swing?  The poster says it all, and I knew from the start that Summerhood, written and directed – heck, acted, produced, maybe even catered – by Jacob Medjuck, was not your typical cute-kids-save-the-day kind of movie.  In fact, it’s not exactly for the under-ten crowd.  
Medjuck was shooting for “an honest vision” of that awkward age, when preteens uncomfortably straddle the hump that will plunge them headlong and hormones-first into adolescence.  His own summer camp experiences were the fodder for kids testing the boundaries – in less than sweet ways. 
So the film is more appropriate for and undoubtedly more appreciated by adults, or at least older teenagers, who can relate and laugh now at their childhood insecurities and silly antics.  That’s the audience reaction that Medjuck noted:  “I'm surprisingly satisfied and really thrilled people enjoy themselves.  I never get over that.”     
The Canadian writer-director is brutally honest about his movie when he says, “Summerhood will be forever seen as a pioneer or as gone too far.  It's almost a live action South Park, and there's no ‘Leave it to Beaver’ wash on pre-teen romance here.  It's not vulgar, it's honest.  It’s how kids actually talk.  We'll see if that's too much for audiences.”
Summerhood had its world premiere at the 2008 Santa Barbara Film Festival, and then played other festivals, winning several awards.  Medjuck recently shared some of his experiences as an independent filmmaker struggling to make his vision a reality.
Originally from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Jacob Medjuck has lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, for ten years.  But as of 2009, he’s a brand new LA transplant.  He’s not entirely new to filmmaking, having worked as an animator on The Emperor’s New Groove and Joseph: King of Dreams.  But as a filmmaker himself, this is new territory – and he’s loving it.

Christopher MacDonald (second from right), who plays the assistant camp director, poses with the boysPhoto: Christopher MacDonald (second from right), who plays the assistant camp director, poses with the boys

*   *   *
How did you come up with the script?
Jacob:  The feature script only took eleven days to type up – but an entire childhood of experiences to endure first and to record.  I found my old diary and gave it to some kids to read out loud.  You could almost say I started writing the script 20 years ago.  We filled in the gaps with food fights and ‘80s music.

With so much raw and heartfelt source material, I originally conceived Summerhood as a TV series, but as I discovered, films are more easily assembled than series projects and generally retain more artistic intention.
The film took 31 days to shoot, but then two years to fix in post.  We shot SO MUCH hilarious and touching stuff that we had to ‘re-write’ the story in post-production.  A brilliant screenplay is 100 pages.  An epic is 120.  Anything over that is a novel.  We went to set with War and Peace.
We were in Nova Scotia, and with winter barreling toward us, we had to choose.  Momentum is the most precious currency independent films have in actually completing a project, so we packed up the catering truck and headed into the woods to shoot.

Photo right: Lucian Maisel as Fetus

How did you find your financing?
I went door to door for a year trying to raise money.  ‘Did you go to camp?  Was it fun?  Was it terrible?  What's the best/worst thing that happened to you?  This film is all about that.’
But no investor was allowed to read the screenplay.  People share the same emotions – they do not share the same pronouns.  I did not want someone who’d otherwise be interested pass because the name of a character wasn’t familiar or someone they grew up with.  I promised this:  the film would feel just like they remembered.
To present that clearly, I made a montage reel of old photographs, concept art and video set to music.
I understand some actors outgrew their roles…?
One of the tougher parts of the process was that in taking forever to assemble the financing, some of our actors became unavailable, even growing too old for the roles.  Imagine being 12 and finding out that you’re ‘too old’ all of a sudden.  It’s a mixed compliment.
How did you come to play the part of Careless?  Was co-director Tony Dean Smith added when you decided to act in the film?
I had 99 failed auditions as an actor/comic.  I really did give that a healthy shot – people just don't want to see me do that stuff.  When the brand actor we were after landed a plum studio gig just before shooting, there was little we could do.  On remote location in seaboard Canada, we were down to slim pickings.  My producer, Paul McNeill, had ‘an idea’…
Photo left: Jesse Camacho as Grandpa

Paul:  I have an idea.
Jacob:  You have a bad idea.
Paul:  We need someone who knows the words.
Jacob:  We need someone who won't ruin the movie.
Paul:  You've already been rehearsing with the kids, they respond to you.
Jacob:  Audiences will not respond to me.
Paul:  You can have it your way – not be in the movie… and not make a movie.
Jacob:  Measure me for wardrobe.
And yes, that’s when I got the fantastic idea to add a 2nd pair of eyes.  Surely someone uncredited has that job on gigantic films like Dances with Wolves or Braveheart
How much did the film diverge from your original script?
The shooting script was admittedly too long, and we shot everything (on time too).  But this led to extensive surgery in editing – not even shortening scenes or removing them made enough difference.  We literally had to remove characters, lead characters even.  Not only were their scenes cut, but we had to digitally paint them out of scenes.  It was a sad but necessary decision.  On the DVD commentary, I will walk people through the remarkable changes we made reconstructing the plot.  But I don’t want to rob audiences of enjoying the film as it exists now.
With all the hats you wore for this film, what was your favorite job?
I will always be a storyteller.  Whether by pointing, pencil, prose, puppet, or posture, I feel responsible in every medium to entertain.  Writing was indulgent therapy, reckless imagination.  I felt like the sorcerer’s apprentice. ‘Make it Day!  Make it night!’

Acting was visceral, fitness for my nervous system.  Writing was visceral too, at least the way I do it.  I rant dialogue out loud, yell into my Dictaphone and transcribe later. 

I am, however, without question, most at home directing.  Whether I'm any good is a separate issue entirely, but it's the shoe that fits most naturally.
Photo left: Reva Timbers (left), who plays Sundae, takes a break with other actors

How did John Cusack come to be your uncredited narrator?
For a year I tried making offers.  I sent letters.  I sent Camp 1989-themed care packages – mood rings, Big League Chew, '89 Playboys, unopened vintage Chicago baseball cards, a mix tape.  Nothing.  After I shot the film, I sent some footage to Michael London Productions (Sideways).  They liked the film and asked what I still needed.  I replied, ‘John Cusack’.  An hour later the William Morris Agency called and we were negotiating.
John Cusack was very generous with his participation and did a perfect job, but the ‘brand’ is worth $10 million.  Everyone can tell who the voice is anyway, so I saved $10 million and didn’t buy the credit.

The film seems to vacillate between traditional sexist language/images for laughs and using them in a more self-aware way.  Do you have some thoughts on this that you’d like to share?
Ah, my favorite part.  Growing up all the guys fumbled their way dealing with girls, and often times everyone just got hurt.  I always wish that little boys could behave a little better toward little girls.  I figured this was the best medium for me to get the message out, and I wrapped it in the filthiest jokes I knew.  To get the medicine down, make it taste like cherries.  I knew boys would eat this film up.  And they seem to be. 
How would you describe the film festival experience?
Summerhood movieSummerhood has played at 5 festivals and won 3 awards.  And we just got accepted (February 2009) into the Giffoni Film Festival in Salerno, Italy.  It’s probably the most prestigious children's fest on the planet.  The coolest part is the jury is all children. 
We are very fortunate to be getting such enthusiastic crowds.  But nowadays you have to prove that you can attract consistent audiences before getting picked up for theatrical distribution.  I'm hopeful.
What was your initial interest in film?  Animation?  Acting?  Filmmaking?
A combination, for sure.  The first two films I saw were Raiders of the Lost Ark and Superman.  Film was inspiring and adventures, while animation fascinated me.  I'd make flip books and stop motion movies until I wrecked several cameras.  But I thought it had to be one or the other, live or animation.  Then it clicked.  A screenplay doesn't care if it's live action or animation – story is story is story.  I had space for both in my heart.
What are you working on now?
I'm currently working on three scripts and enjoying every minute of it.

Photos courtesy of Jacob Medjuck.

Santa Barbara Film Festival 2008

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