Kevin McMullin grew up on the Jersey Shore. He spent many summers there and it’s a place and community he knows well. Low Tide is his first feature debut and focuses on Alan (Keean Johnson) and his friends Red (Alex Neustaedter) and Smitty (Daniel Zolghadri), young schoolkids on Summer vacation who spend their time breaking into vacation homes to steal valuables, funding dates at the boardwalk and lunches at the burger stand. When Alan and his younger brother Peter (Jaeden Martell) find a bag of gold coins, they try to hide the treasure from the others — but Red, suspicious and violently unpredictable, seems willing to do anything to get the money.
McMullin talks about how films like The Goonies and Rumble Fish inspired him, but he credits John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre, “If you’re doing anything about gold, you have to start there.”
McMullin also discusses how he worked with his cinematographer Andrew Ellmaker to capture high visuals and how they adapted to working with the elements to shoot the drama.
We all had a summer of mischief, and we’ve all been there on our vacation, doing things with friends and getting into trouble, so how did Low Tide begin for you?
I’m actually from the area that we shot in. I wrote it for that part of the Jersey Shore. I was really lucky that I got to grow up with both forest and water, so when I sat down to write a low-budget feature film, I thought I could inject a little production value by featuring this beautiful landscape. Past that, there’s a town on the Jersey Shore called Point Pleasant Beach with a lot of fishing harbors. A mile down the road is a touristy beach and Boardwalk, I think some resent the Summer tourists, but yet they depend on them economically and I thought that was a great contrast. For the film, the last image was a degenerative image of the entire screenplay, and I merged that together with this idea I had of misfit kids who are getting into trouble and local kids who would swipe stuff from tourists and they stumble across finding something more valuable.
I loved the idea of kids in Summer. I loved Alan being the voice of reason in that group, and there’s always one. Talk about crafting him.
Alan was the entry point. He’s pretty much the main character, and I settled on this relationship between brothers. I have an older brother who dragged me into mischief. I think the core of that relationship stemmed from personal stuff. I also wanted to subvert that relationship, so Peter, the younger brother supersedes his brother morally at least in the beginning. Peter keeps him from getting into trouble.
I love the visuals with what you did, and you’re working with the elements, water and sand. What was that like to be in that environment doing that?
It was a supremely low-budget movie, but I still wanted to retain a cinematic scope to it. We leaned a lot on these locations, but I feel there’s a reason why a lot of these low-budget films don’t shoot on the water or with sand, it’s difficult. That being said, even though we’re shooting in a heatwave, on a beach, in the middle of July, adversity tends to bring people closer together. I think it helped the cast and crew to bond. Everything stems from the kids and their attitude, and it was nothing but a joy for them to roll around and wrestle in the sand. They really set the tone for the entire crew. They were willing to jump into the water. Jaeden nailed it from take one. He wanted to do a few more takes, but we only had a couple of extra doubles of his jeans, it’s stuff like that where their enthusiasm supersedes our resources which is always the best balance on a low-budget film.
Andrew your cinematographer captured some really great colors in the film given the budget. Talk about working with him.
We went to Columbia together. We’re going on ten years, we’ve collaborated on short films. I moved into directing commercials and Andrew worked on the majority of those, so we have a great shorthand and working relationship. We took stock of the budget and figured that most movies in this budget range tend to go cinema verite style. It’s a style I love, but I didn’t think it was appropriate for this story. We wanted to inject a sense of wonder, so we harkened back to classical filmmaking; lockdown, tripod shots and formal framing, shot composition and shot progression. I storyboarded out the majority of the movie. That being said, it started to rain and a lot of the best-laid intentions went array. Andrew is just this fantastic visualist with this great aesthetic. He can digest the intention of all these shots and adapt to the resources and can photograph a really beautiful picture.
You talked about the heatwave, and it really did look hot during those scenes.
Oh, it was intense. While you’re living it, it’s a lot of suntan lotion and it’s tiring, but months later when you’re editing, you couldn’t have accomplished those visuals any other way. You can see with the actors, the atmosphere influences their environment. There was a lot of sweat, and a lot of it was real.
How did you find the perfect cast for the story?
Chronologically speaking, we had Lois Drabkin and Susan Shopmaker. The first interest on the casting side was Jaeden Martell; I’d been a big fan of his since St. Vincent when he was eight-years-old and acting opposite Bill Murray. I saw him grow up a bit in Midnight Special. I knew this kid could do anything and so we skyped, and he’s wise beyond his years. He wanted to do the movie. Once he was on board, I was in this enviable position seeing a lot of self-tapes and other auditions come in in context. Who’s this actor? Can this actor play Peter’s older brother? Keean Johnson sent in a self-tape and as you know he’s incredibly charismatic. He was playing Alan with this sense of impulsivity which I thought was a great foil to Jaeden’s inherent introspection and more of a pensive nature. After that, Alex Neustaedter sent in a self-tape. He plays Red and was intimidating in the best way. He did a different read than anyone else. It was very quiet. There were a lot of pauses, and I liked him playing the way he did, so then he was on board. Kristine Froseth was someone I met in person. She has this archetypal innocence about her and a strong backbone that the character needed. Shea Whigham plays the cop, and he’s this father figure to the parentless kids. A lot of times, especially if you’re a latchkey kid, you barely see them, and you’re out with your friends, we needed that character to embody a parental attitude. Shea is the nicest guy, and I can’t say enough good things about him.
Daniel Zolghadri was the very last people we found, it was the last day of casting and I got a call saying, I had to check it out. He made me laugh and tear up. I thought he could do anything, and that’s when I realized he would really imbue that character with real intelligence.
What films influenced you? It really gave me feelings of The Goonies, The Breakfast Club and those things?
Goonies is definitely at the top of my mind because it’s about a group of friends who unite in pursuit of treasure. Ours is about a group of friends who fall apart because they found it. Harking back to John Huston and the Treasure of Sierra Madre, if you’re doing anything about gold, you have to start there. I loved Rumble Fish, The Outsiders and The Last Picture Show, but I wanted to take those themes of greed and betrayal and apply them to youth protagonists, and this cast knocked it out of the park.
Low Tide is released on October 4, and is available on DirecTV.