He plays Nick in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and has appeared in The Ides of March and worked with David Fincher in The Social Network. Now Max Minghella steps behind the camera to direct Teen Spirit.
The film stars Elle Fanning as Violet, a teenager who goes from singing down the local pub to auditioning for Teen Spirit, Britain’s hottest singing competition show. Minghella takes us behind the scenes of competition reality shows through Violet’s journey. Autumn Durald’s cinematography lights each frame to optimum effect, capturing Elle Fanning’s captivating performance. Yes, she can sing, dance; and yes, she speak with a jolly good British accent. I caught up with Minghella about his music choices and finding his perfect Violet.
I love that you set this on the Isle of Wight. That ferry boat brought back all the memories.
You’re so funny. Even British people don’t know that the Isle of Wight is a thing. It’s our best kept secret.
Ha! Everyone, especially Americans who watch this might want to go there.
And they’re going to be very disappointed.
I grew up watching Pop Idol and every other incarnation of that show that followed. Are you a secret Simon Cowell, Pop Idol, The Voice fan?
Like you, I love those shows but it’s funny how little I thought about that in making this movie. I was really excited to do a different kind of musical. I’d been thinking a lot about that Robyn song and I knew I wanted to do a musical where there were songs that people knew. I’m somebody that when I go to a concert I don’t really like to hear the new album, I like hearing the hits.
I love musicals but I sometimes struggle with the logic of them and the spontaneous singing. I was looking for an excuse to have music that people were familiar with and to find a motivation for people to perform.
The structure of the singing competition really stems from there and once that was established, I became so much more interested in what I wasn’t allowed to see on those shows as opposed to what I was being shown. So, all of my research and fascination was geared towards going behind the curtain on a show like Pop Idol as opposed to being in front of it.
One of my favorite shots when she’s about to perform in the final. You follow her from the dressing room to stage and you just stay with her, following and tracking her. You see so much in that scene.
That was such an important shot to me. There are a lot of long takes in the film and I hope nobody notices. But the one shot I wanted them to notice was that one, especially the most ostentatious piece of filmmaking. It’s very deliberate. It’s uncomfortable. I wanted the audience to be uncomfortable. Whatever I could do to help them align with this person and what they’re going through at that moment. That was really important to me and I worked on the sound design of that scene for so long. I flew back to Berlin at one point just to do another pass on that walk.
It’s so important because the whole ending of the movie relies on you going into that final performance with a degree of anxiety that you need to elicit.
Then you have the great music choices, how did you pick out the perfect songs? Max, you have me obsessed with Robyn after that.
As a Brit, I think you can probably appreciate some of the songs.
Whigfield – Saturday Night and getting to put that in. The music was quite straightforward honestly. Dancing On My Own was the first seed of the whole film and once you know that the song is going to be in the movie, then everything has to link to that and tonally link to it. I didn’t want it to feel like a schizophrenic playlist. All of the music was really tied to that tone.
Different scenes have very different requirements. For the club sequence, we wanted it to feel really upsetting and disturbing. Jamie and I talked about it a lot. It was where we debated a lot. We really felt that Barbie Girl is probably the most disturbing pop song we’ve ever heard. It’s funny, but it’s a really horrible song. That was important to us.
Better off alone – there’s something really nightmarish about that music that was really helpful and it does so much work for the movie.
Talk about working with your DP and lighting the scenes.
We worked really closely. She is obsessed with lighting and I’m obsessed with framing. So, we have almost completely separate interests and when it comes to shooting it works out really really well.
I know very little about lighting and would certainly be completely fucked if she wasn’t around. She doesn’t care where I put the camera and we work pretty well. I can take no credit for how beautifully she lit all those scenes.
How did you discover Elle and her talents? She’s got to speak Polish, deliver a convincing British accent and at the same time sing.
The script was originally almost entirely in Polish. We’d been looking exclusively at Polish actors, but as you said it was impossible to find someone who could speak two languages fluently and sing and dance and play the age range and be able to carry every inch of the frame like this playing a nuanced character. It’s too many things to ask of somebody. We felt fucked. There was a point where we thought we wouldn’t be able to make the movie and Elle reached out to us about it and it didn’t make sense. I was her biggest fan and yet, I didn’t understand how an American was going to play this part. Talking to her, it was instant. It was so clear that she was this person. She understood Violet on such a deep level so the fact that she could sing and dance and was comfortable doing that British dialect, all of that was great and super useful. It ultimately was her proximity to this person that was the most validating and the most confident for me.
Vlad is a great character. As a viewer, you think he’s going to be dark but he’s not and he turns out to have this great dynamic with Violet almost as a father-type figure.
The part was written for him. The first two ideas were Dancing on My Own and Zlatko Burić. I just think he’s extraordinary and unique. I felt confident that if we could build the story around him then the story would be interesting.
This is your directorial dream and you spent a long time getting behind the camera and seeing it come to fruition. What has that been like for you?
It’s odd. There have been these landmark moments and it all becomes a big blur. My biggest joy has been meeting my collaborators and how much I’ve learned from working with them. When I look back on the experience of it, that’s been the most striking memory. It’s all these people I didn’t know who are now parts of my life. I feel like Violet meeting 100 Vlads.
You’ve worked with many great directors. Whose styles influenced you?
I was lucky enough to work with David Fincher and what I loved about that experience was that efficiency of the day. I’m a practical person and I’m a Virgo. I like things to run well and he’s very good at getting the most out of those 12 hours that you have on the set and using that time in the best way and I really tried to implement some of that stuff that I picked from being on his sets.
Everybody is their own person and everybody has their own taste. I think the most useful thing is to keep practicing.
We’re fellow Virgos.
Oh no, I’m sorry.
It’s a blessing and a curse.
It is a fucking curse. If you ever look at those Love Relationship charts for Virgos. We’re doomed.
Now that you’ve done this, the world is your oyster. What genre would you like to dive into next?
I just want to eat oysters. I don’t know. I think it’s a dichotomy sometimes between the kind of movies I’m excited to go and watch against the ones I do like. I get really excited to watch the big movies but I don’t love them. The ones I love at the end of the year are the ones I got dragged to. I’d like to make movies that bridge the gap between them somehow and I think Teen Spirit is an attempt to do that.
On the surface, it’s a very commercial movie and a fun movie and should be fairly accessible. I hope the experience of watching it is nourishing someone and soulful and doesn’t patronize the audience or speak down to their intelligence. I’d like to keep making movies like that. I am drawn to stories about women. I’ve been reading scripts about women and it’s very difficult for me to get excited about scripts about men.