Berlinale Dispatch #2: Rebecca Thomas on Electrick Children

FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews
“About two or three days later, I got a phone call.” At the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival, Rebecca Thomas tells the Cinderella story behind her feature debut.

Maybe it was the contrast with press screenings filled with critics, or this audience’s youth, but the world premiere of Electrick Children was one of the most enjoyable screenings I’ve been to in years.

Rebecca Thomas’s first feature, which opened the Berlinale’s Generation 14plus youth section, is a coming-of-age tale with an extreme and often surreal twist.

Our heroine Rachel (Julia Garner) is a 15-year-old from a fundamentalist Mormon community in Utah who mysteriously becomes pregnant. Convinced that the singer on a forbidden cassette tape is the father, and staring down the barrel of a quickly arranged marriage, she escapes to Las Vegas to find him.

The dark edges of the film are glossed over but the whole is so satisfying that this can be forgiven. This is adolescence at its most rebellious and heart-wrenching: stealing the keys and driving away to freedom, falling in with the rough crowd, awkwardly seducing that guy you like (though here it’s because Rachel is convinced that long-haired, power chord playing Johnny is the father of her “Jesus baby”).

Then reality begins to hit. As Rachel loses her naiveté, she must choose between her new life and the one she left behind.

*   *   *

The story behind Electrick Children is nearly as good. Rebecca Thomas, a Columbia MFA student, started raising money for the film through Kickstarter (more on crowd-funding next dispatch), then found an angel investor who backed what became a US$2 million project. Another journalist and I met with Thomas for a roundtable interview about the wild ride to Berlin:

What was the inspiration for the project?

REBECCA THOMAS: Well, I’m Mormon. I grew up Mormon in Las Vegas and I had a lot of family living in southern Utah. As a child I visited and was always at the Walmart with my grandparents and would see these people dressed up in weird clothes buying things. I was curious about them. I soon learned that they were fundamentalist Mormons. That was confusing, because I was Mormon. I thought, “What’s the difference between those people and myself?”

When I got to college, I had the opportunity to do some documentary television work… So I went there and got to interview people, and stay at a few of the different places. A lot of them dress just like you and me and are totally normal. We could talk about normal things and we had overlapping belief systems.

So when it came to writing my first feature, I thought, I have to use this setting because a) it’s so beautiful and b) the situation these people are in is so dramatic… it just seemed like a perfect setting. And it was something that seemed similar to my own background so I could integrate some of my own feelings about God and existence and religion into the story.

I really wanted to retell the story of the Virgin Mary in a modern setting… This was the one place where I thought there could be somebody pure enough to claim that they had an immaculate conception. Someone naïve enough to actually think this thing really happened through listening to some device.

What was the total budget for the film and how much of it came from Kickstarter?

RT: I started the Kickstarter and I wanted to make this microbudget movie. I was raising $10,000 online and then I was going to take $10,000 out in loans.

… So I started raising money online. And soon, one day, mid-process of emailing everybody I knew and begging people for money, somebody donated $5000.

It was this guy named Richard Neustadter. When I was an actress, I had auditioned for one of the films he had produced. My producer had as well so we both knew who this guy was. I emailed Richard and said, “Thank you so much—this is a quarter of my budget, that’s such a huge thing for me. Would you like to read the script?” And he said, “Of course, I would love to.”

So I went home and I thought, “I have to make the script way better.” I went for like a week and was crafting the script and making sure it was very beautiful and I sent it back to him. About two or three days later, I got a phone call.

I didn’t know who it was but he said, “You’re going to need talents and you’re going to need lights. We got to get you a jenny, we got to get you lights. We’re going to make this.” So I said, “Who is this?” And he said, “This is Richard, I want to make your movie with you.”

… So we ended up making the movie for under $2 million dollars.

So about $10,000 from Kickstarter and then up to the nearly two million with your angel?

RT: Yes… and he helped produce the movie, so it was a very unique situation to say the least. That’s very rare.

Do you see this as a kids’ film?

RT: I see this as a film for teenagers and for people in their twenties. I think that they’ll like it. It’s sugar coated in a way. I wanted it to be fun… the subject matter could be really heavy and I wanted it to be a little bit more fun and human.

How important did you feel it was to have a few established or recognisable names associated with the film? [Billy Zane plays Rachel’s stepfather and Rory Culkin, brother of Macaulay, plays one of the teenage boy leads.]

RT: In a lower budget, it wasn’t important to me at all. In the higher budget version, it was important to me that they were talented. I mean, everyone we considered was talented—I felt like I could get what I needed from everyone we had on our list of people. And it was very important for obviously the producer who gave us money to be able to get a return and I wanted to give him that too.

So it was important to me, but I think the amazing thing about it was that the script was unique enough that it attracted the exact people right for the roles.

You mentioned you had a shortlist of songs to make a girl pregnant. [A cover of the Nerves’ ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ is used in the film.] I’d love to know what else was on that list.

RT: This is the most cheesy list. There were a number of Led Zeppelin songs on the list, a number of Jimmy Page songs on the list… yeah.

Nina Fowler’s dispatches for The Lumière Reader will continue throughout the Berlin International Film Festival, which runs from February 9-19.