Keep an eye out for odd symbols dotted throughout, and keep an ear on the bird; there’s a secret mystery for the audience alone to solve sewn into the fabric of David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake, which premiered in Cannes’ official competition last night, and the director tells Deadline all the clues are there to solve it. Though it might take multiple viewings to catch them all. “You’ll probably have to see it a few more than two times to figure it all out,” he laughs.
Under the Silver Lake follows Andrew Garfield’s Sam around the City of Angels as he investigates the sudden disappearance of the girl next door he’d met just the night before. It’s a noir-tinged homage to Hollywood history, with shades of and references to Hitchcock, Lynch and Borzage, with a central mystery that the Mitchell says was painstakingly architected to work just so. Perhaps it’s no wonder that, on the way, he folded a second audience-only mystery into the film. But where it might lead, and what reward or revelation lies at its end, may take a while to become apparent. And, like the mystery in the film, solving it will likely involve dips into to many pop cultural inspirations at its core.
As Mitchell explains, there are also shades of autobiography and plenty of specific detail in this unique love letter to (and, perhaps, indictment of) Los Angeles and the many colorful characters that inhabit its hip Silver Lake neighborhood. And it’s another new direction for the director, whose debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover, offered a fresh take on the teen coming-of-age drama, and whose last film, It Follows, injected new blood into the horror genre.
What was the spark for this story?
I was sort of running myself ragged. I was on a writing streak. I was writing several scripts in a row. Sometimes I find myself in a moment in my life when I had a bunch of ideas, and I wanted to just churn out a bunch of stuff. And I was finishing one script, and I feel like maybe I wasn’t completely happy with that one. I felt like I was trying too hard to do a certain thing. And I was craving a certain freedom.
My wife and I were talking one day, it was near the end of finishing that script. We were talking about, what do we think is actually happening in those big houses up in the [Hollywood] hills up there? What really goes on? What strange things happen there? And just talking about, what could it be? And then about the idea of mysteries being there. And I had a few images and feelings about this story very quickly. And within a day or so, as I was writing the other thing, I kept stopping. I don’t usually do this, but I kept stopping because I imagined the songwriter and a bunch of other key pieces that are in the film. They all just came to me, and I literally sat down and just wrote them really quickly, right then.
I stopped then, because I was like, “OK, I have to finish the other thing.” I finished that script. And then as soon as that was done, I jumped right into writing Under the Silver Lake. And I was like obsessed when I wrote it. It was a near crazed state that I don’t normally get in when I’m writing, but it was a little intense. Drinking way too much coffee. My wife was like, “You’re a little bit crazy right now.” But, it wasn’t like a scary crazy, it was just a little intense.
I would share my pages with her. So, whatever I wrote that day, I’d share them. We would kind of laugh about it and enjoy it. We both kind of felt like, oh this is pretty cool. There is something really fun here. I just enjoyed the hell out of writing it and it was like, “I’m just going to write whatever the f–k I want.” That was where it really came from. And I finished it, I was really happy with it.
And then I didn’t realize, “OK there’s really nothing I can do with this right now.” This is before I had made It Follows. At that point, I had made Myth of the American Sleepover. And I had all kinds of unique scripts but I could tell no one would know how to process this from me after just Myth of the American Sleepover. Can you imagine going from Myth to Under the Silver Lake?
It’d have been a big step.
So, at that point, I just set it aside and didn’t do anything with it. I only showed it to a couple of people. And then we made It Follows. I actually had a different script too, that I really loved, that I tried to see if we could put together. And it wasn’t really happening, so I showed the script for this to a couple of people. I remember showing it to Julio [Perez IV], my editor and he flipped out for it. He was just like, “You’ve got to make this somehow.” And I was like, “Yeah, well we’ll see.”
After It Follows it just sort of took off. It all sort of fell into place eventually. And it was definitely tough. But we all made this commitment to make this crazy ass movie. We had a moment where we could make it. It may not have happened again. So we went for it.
Talking of the madness, was there an element of autobiography in the writing of this character? You said you had wondered about the houses on the hills, I wonder if this comes from a personal place of thinking about hidden mysteries out there in the world.
I definitely took some elements from the world around me and created this f–ked up version of life. But no, the character is definitely not me. There are personal elements in the film, but it’s not my behavior and it’s not my worldview. I imagined just a very distorted view of a world I knew. In a way, it’s personal and anti-personal. It’s like there are parts of me, but not just in Sam, but in many of the characters, both men and women, within the film. It’s hard for me to explain.
How much is it about your relationship with LA though? Because you have really captured a very singular notion of what life in Silver Lake feels like, or perhaps wants to be.
I was trying to be as specific as possible. In some of my other films I’ve tried to be vague about certain things—about certain elements of pop culture and time period—and this was about being specific. It’s specifically supposed to be happening in the summer of 2011. Although, it’s not a real summer 2011. It’s a fantasy; a nightmare version of it.
Why so specifically that?
It’s just a moment in time. At the time I wrote it, I was thinking about a period that I had witnessed that was just a bit of cultural thing within that area, in terms of the way people lived and reacted, and talked, and the things that people enjoyed. And I think that those things, they still exist, but they’ve become something else. They’re sort of like a copy of a copy in a way. And it felt like in a way there was something genuine. Although it was still kind of very odd and warped in its own way. But there was something genuine there, in the way any little cultural moment kind of comes and goes. So, we still kind of feel it, but it’s different.
Did you have fun figuring out the puzzle clues within the film?
That was a ton of work, a ton of work. I mean, you had to plan everything. And it’s just planning with many different people, many different departments, figuring out the logistics of making these things happen. It was a larger budget than I’ve had in the past, but still not quite enough to make these things go smoothly. We worked on every detail; every little thing was a long conversation with a great deal of planning in terms of the logistics of how to make these things work. And many of them all interlink. Like you have one thing, but then it connects to another. And that had to be a certain way, because a different thing had to work with it. And so, that’s what made it complicated in terms of having everything function. Having a map that lines up with the actual map, if you have Nintendo Power Magazine issue one, and you get the map that we had in production, it’s going to line up to yours.
You didn’t even fake the Nintendo Power Magazine map?
It was a real fold-out in the first issue. That map is in there. But all the clues in the movie, that you see him solve, they all actually work.
How did you settle on Andrew Garfield for Sam?
I just think he’s a great actor and I was excited about the idea of working with him. I just had this feeling that he could really be a great Sam. We needed somebody who had that certain charm and charisma to be able to portray someone that is likable and also doing horrible things in other places. And to be able to sort of pull the audience through in that sense. And I had a feeling that he could do that.
You really do wind up liking Sam in spite of the way he behaves. He’s kind of loveable.
But he’s doing horrible things [laughs]. There are so many elements of his behavior that are just completely offensive. There’s going to be a range of responses, yes. But, that’s why we wanted someone that had that level of charm. You need to still care and most, I think, probably do. But, I’m sure there’s some that might be too much for them.
I don’t think he does anything I ever fully philosophically disagreed with.
Well, he beats up children [laughs].
But they scratch graffiti into the hood of his car!
But, he really beats the shit out of those kids though. It’s truly criminal [laughs]. He punches a kid and shoves an egg in his face. I find it funny in the context of the movie. But, I also know for a fact that some people are just horrified by it. So, I think both responses are actually appropriate. I am no way offended if people are just shocked and bothered by it, while others are laughing. That’s, to me, great. I mean there’s a lot of things like that in the movie, where it depends on your personality and how you view the world, and how you’re viewing the film. It just depends. So, I don’t judge. People get to feel however they want.
There’ve been a couple of reactions that have criticized the male gaze of the film.
Someone had said to me, “Tell me about how you’re objectifying women in the film.” I said, “I’m not, this character is doing this.” He’s a voyeur. The character does a lot of terrible things and I’m not advocating these things. The movie, the actions of the character are not my own political beliefs. It’s not the way I view the world or the way I live my life. To me, I don’t think you should not be looking to this character for advice on how to live your life. If you’re doing that, you’re making a mistake. A terrible one.
I also think that it’s a fairly dark view of humanity across the board, both men and women. I don’t think it’s just the women in this film that are being portrayed in some negative ways. I think it’s also the men. Honestly, most of the characters in this movie. Not a whole ton of redeemable characters.
But again, if someone feels that way, that’s totally cool. I don’t agree, but people have the right to feel that way.
If it were your first movie, it might be worth wondering how much is the filmmaker, but there are strong women in both Myth and It Follows. I was intrigued to see that you feature scenes from Myth on the cinema screen at Hollywood Forever in the film.
It is Myth of the American Sleepover, but parts of it are recast with actors from Under the Silver Lake. It’s hard to explain. I don’t know that I can. Well, I guess I thought it was strange and interesting to reference the other work in there. And to make this sort of strange comment about the way in which genuine and sincere art can be warped by this whole system that we sort of operate within. You go into these things with very sincere intentions, and I think that it can have a tendency to warp you. And it’s in no way a commentary about anyone in particular. This is completely fictional, the characters and everything else. But, it’s about saying, “Look at this.” To me, Myth is very sweet and very genuine, and it’s taking this sweet and genuine thing and making it ugly. That, also, I’m sure, could be perceived as very offensive to some. But I found it interesting to make that comment.
It’s rare these days to see movies shot in Los Angeles, or rarer than it was. Your last two films were set in Michigan. Why LA?
There’s a long tradition of these LA locations and LA-based mysteries, for sure, so the film fits within that. I’ve always loved watching LA-based movies, even before I lived in LA, to see the area, to see the landmarks. And then those movies increased in enjoyment for me after living here and having a sense of what those spaces actually are. I enjoy the fact that the film contributes to that history of LA-based mystery detective films. I grew up in Michigan, but I’ve lived in LA a good number of years now, so Michigan’s home, and LA is home as well.
This is your third film and your third genre to play with. Is it important for you to mix up the kinds of movies you make?
I enjoy trying different things. I like to think that there is always some sort of thread that connects them. They come from me, and I think that someone watching each of these three films will still see the connective tissue.
But it’s fun to play around with genres and to experiment. The first film was a very sweet coming-of-age film, and then It Follows, while it’s also about young people, it’s a strange and disturbing horror film. I’m going to avoid even defining what this new movie is exactly, but it’s a mystery.
There are so many things that I write. I have many different scripts in many different genres and I intend to continue to explore and make different kinds of movies. I like the idea that someone might see something like The Myth of the American Sleepover and then be a little surprised when they see It Follows. I like that someone who sees It Follows might be a little surprised when they see Under the Silver Lake. I want to continue to do that as much as I can.
That doesn’t mean I won’t go back. I want to revisit things too, but over time. At some point, I might do another naturalistic drama. I might make another horror film. I might do another mystery. I have a lot of stories that I want to try and tell.
I’m just a huge fan of movies generally. So many different types, throughout the history of cinema. That’s where the joy of it, for me, comes from. Taking little bits of things from throughout film history, rearranging them, repurposing them and adding some of my own ideas to those things to try to make new things. Things that might be unique. Otherwise, it’s not interesting to me.
Is it also about giving yourself new challenges?
Yeah, it’s always scary and difficult, but that’s cool. When we were making It Follows, I remember there was this point where the script was written and Mike Gioulakis, the cinematographer, and I, we’d very thoroughly storyboarded the film and spent a lot of time talking about how we planned to put it together. We didn’t really have a lot of money. We didn’t have a ton of time. Resources were very limited and we felt we had to go into it with a very strong plan. I remember having the thought, as we were just about to start filming, that even though I’ve been a horror fan since I was a kid, and I’ve seen all these movies and learned about and studied this stuff, I’d never actually made one of these movies before. You go, “Sh*t,” and you have to keep your mouth shut and go do it. It’s a little bit scary and a little bit exciting.
What drives that?
I don’t know, except I think I have an incredible passion to create things that I feel might not be in the world if I don’t try to work to build them. I love filmmaking. I love writing. I love directing. I’m less interested in the idea of me as a director in the sense that it’s not just about doing a job or filling a role. It’s a job that I’ve wanted since I was young, but what it is for me is not so much about the position but about what it allows me to try to do.
It’s a lot of work. It has been years of work and it has also been years of just building to the point of even being able to do it. So I have to try to do something that’s a little different, because I don’t want to do something that’s going to exist anyway.
I don’t know that I can completely explain it other than, for me, it’s incredibly intense. I find that I don’t really give up. I work and push tirelessly and intensely, and over the years, there’s been a lot of self-sacrifices to be able to do that. But it comes from a deep love of movies.
Does it get easier as you build on previous successes?
Sure. We shot Myth for $30,000, and it had a large cast with a ton of locations. I think that one nearly killed us. Adele [Romanski] produced that one, and we were really in it. And it was at a time in which I had another full-time job. My friend Julio, who has edited all of my films, we were both working full-time jobs and working on the edit until the middle of the night.
By the time of It Follows, we’d had the success of Myth, and that allowed us some more money. Even so, it probably wasn’t enough. Few things ever are, but it was better. And this one, even more so. But of course, they also increase in terms of scope and scale, so they’ve all been really hard.
Myth doesn’t feel like a $30,000 movie.
We tried very hard to do something we felt would appear to be a much more expensive film. We aimed for that with It Follows, too, which was only about $1 million. Neither of them were really adequate budgets for the types of movie we were trying to make.
It’s absolutely an unhealthy way of approaching your life, but I’ve always had great teams around me. When you work with good people, and you do a lot of preparation, you can figure out creative ways to pull it off and make it work. It takes its toll—we get kicked in the ass along the way—but we take it on because we think it’s worth it. We care enough.
We’ve all seen Hearts of Darkness.
Right. I probably romanticize other people’s hellish experiences, while simultaneously knowing that my own are just truly that: hellish experiences that nobody really wants to go through. But we can all look to other people’s and see the romance and charm in them [laughs].
What’s the point in a movie’s lifespan in which you get to take that breath and let those stresses ebb away?
Much later [than post-production]. It Follows is now a fully-processed experience. With Under the Silver Lake, we still have to share the film with the world, and talk about it, to be able to process it all. It takes time. But I’m probably at the point now where I can enjoy it.
I enjoy the different takes on my movies. I think it’s cool that films mean different things to different people. I build them with that in mind, and I do my best to not put my own thoughts out there strongly, because I don’t want to say, “This is what this means; this is what this film is about.” I like the idea that they can be interpreted in multiple ways. And this new film, probably there’s even more of that, in the sense that it’s built specifically for multiple interpretations.
How long have you coveted a spot at Cannes for this movie?
I was always hoping that the film would play Cannes. It’s where I wanted it to premiere, even from developing the script. To me, it’s the right place to share it. Having had my previous films play at Critics’ Week was so important to me. Those screenings have done a lot for those films and for my career, and I have a very deep affection for the festival.
Having this film, which is a lot more ambitious, play in the main competition is everything I hoped for. It’s not so much about competing, but it’s about being in a section of the festival that represents a certain thing in terms of what film is. There’s this incredible history, and these amazing films have played there, so even to be a tiny part of that is a really meaningful thing for me.