What was the first song you ever listened to? Did it make you pregnant? That’s what happens to young Mormon girl Rachel (Julia Garner) in Electrick Children. Her family in shock, she runs away from the fundamentalist Utah commune and into Las Vegas, followed by her brother, Mr. Wills (Liam Aiken), to find the father of her magical foetus. There she meets teenage loser Clyde (Rory Culkin).
Fused with an honest love of music and faith, it’s a beautiful piece of magic realism from debut director Rebecca Thomas.
How much of it is based on her own childhood as a Mormon? Does music really have the ability to knock you up? And what does all of this have to do with Billy Zane? The talented and lovely Becca sits down and tells me about mermaids, Mormons and the powerful playlist she has hidden away on her iPod…
What was the first song she ever listened to?
“I think it was… I’m not sure! I listened to a lot of The Beach Boys. Does that count as rock and roll?” I assure her it does. “My dad was obsessed with The Beach Boys and The Beatles, so those were the first two things I really fell in love with.”
I’ve never heard of The Beach Boys knocking anybody up over the airwaves. Is that why she went with “Don’t Leave Me Hanging on the Telephone” as her magical maguffin? After watching the film, it certainly laid its seed in my brain – I had the song stuck in my head for weeks. She laughs. “Yeah, it can do that!”
So how does one go about picking an impregnating piece of music? “There was a secret list…” she lowers her voice. “I haven’t revealed it to anyone, but it’s called 'Songs that Could Get a Girl Pregnant...'"
A playlist on her iPod? Isn’t that a bit dangerous? What if it comes on while she’s on the bus? “It is, but it’s very powerful, I don’t play it to people! 'Don’t Leave Me Hanging' was about 8 or 9 on this list of 15 songs. It was a recommendation from someone. I had this initial concept about a girl getting pregnant via music and so I made this list and the song, like you say, just gets stuck in your head. It seemed so simple, it had a great bass line and it was a good pop song – it bridged the gap between Rachel and Mr. Will and the modern-day music that kind of punk kids listened to.”
One of the most striking scenes in the film – there are several – is when Rachel first listens to The Nerves’ track. The camera pans up around her legs as she secretly dances in a basement. It’s a very personal moment. How much of the tale comes from Becca’s own experience?
“Well, I was raised Mormon, but I wasn’t raised fundamentalist Mormon. Still, I managed to see some fundamentalist Mormonism in my undergrad years, so I decided this was a dramatic version of my own experience. I grew up in Las Vegas and I went to normal schools, I watched TV, played Nintendo like everybody else… So yeah, it’s infused with my own personal take on things but it’s a fictional story."
Was it her own curiosity as an undergrad, then, that led her to set a film in a fundamental commune? Is it something she wanted to explore?
“Yeah, these places are really interesting! Partly because my religion and the religion practiced in these communities sprung from the same initial person but now one is fundamentalist and mine is fairly mainstream.” She speaks with a childlike enthusiasm that’s infectious. I’m already enjoying the interview so much I’ve started absent-mindedly doodling on my face with a pen.
“So I would visit these communities and find such an overlap in what we believe,” she continues. “But they chose to take it to such an extreme level. Even the locations and how they lived in the desert. It seemed so beautiful on the one level, because you’re so close to nature but it’s also so scary because you’re so far from life.”
She really does capture the beauty of the location – and its isolation. Electrick Children seems to join a string of films right now, like Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Sound of My Voice, set in these remote, intense places. Are they a fertile breeding ground for interesting stories?
“Yeah, they are. When you take people to middle of nowhere and they’re cut off from society and cell phones, I think some dramatic things happen. I think that’s why horror movies are commonly set in the middle of the woods…”
There’s certainly an intimidating feel to the opening scenes with their darkly lensed interiors and gritty outdoors – a strong contrast to the bright lights and sounds of Las Vegas. But throughout this journey of discovery, Rachel’s faith is never really questioned. It’s something that other filmmakers wouldn’t do, I suggest. Rather than play it for cynical laughs, this is sympathetic. More engaging.
“Totally! I didn’t think it would be accurate to have her completely lose her faith. Especially at 15. At that age, you wouldn’t make an A to Z transition – maybe an A to B, or A to A.5! – and so by the end, she still believes but there’s this slight doubt…”
*SEMI-SPOILER QUESTION* The film never offers a definite answer, but does she personally think that Rachel’s conception is immaculate?
Becca pauses. “No. When I was writing it, I always listened to Rachel. It’s such a subjective story. She believes that it’s true – and it didn’t matter who the father was, it mattered that she believed it.”
I nod. That’s exactly the answer I was hoping for. “I gave some other options,” she adds, “but it was more about her transition of faith than about the pregnancy.” *SEMI-SPOILER QUESTION*
That natural, earnest perspective makes Rachel’s naïve character incredibly endearing. It’s not something many actresses could pull off. Was it hard to find a young woman who could be pure enough to take on this role of a modern-day Mary?
Becca laughs. “Oh my word, you have no idea! I already had very little time to cast. I wanted to shoot in September and we were casting in August so it was really tricky. Oh man, I cast one girl, then another girl… I really put my production through some hellish moments!”
When abouts did Julia Gardner arrive? “We were probably, like, 6 days before production was even going to start when I found her and I had been asking people, guys who were auditioning, if they knew a girl who was virginal, non-sexual, who had a bold nature… But all the girls I saw were too Nickelodeon or too Disney. They were too young and inexperienced or too old and sexual.”
I think of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, or Hannah Montana. That wouldn’t work at all.
“Finally, someone recommended Julia Gardner to me and I had never heard of her, so I looked on her IMDb page – and there she was, she was stunning. She acted in a short of my friend’s and he said she hadn’t done much but that she’d be perfect for the role. So she came on just 5 days before! We flew her out to Utah and fitted her and then she just walked onto set.”
Presumably it was a different process to find Billy Zane (who plays Rachel’s father). Did having his name help with getting attention for the film?
“Definitely. It really helps to get people to watch it. Billy came on a couple of weeks before and he was just a friend of a casting director. She was like ‘I dunno if you’ve considered Billy…’ so I sent him the script to see if he liked it – and he did. So I said ‘Of course, we’d love to have Billy!’”
It’s strange to see the star of Titanic and Dead Calm in a Mormon commune, wearing glasses and preaching chastity. This, after all, is The Phantom from The Phantom. “It’s a great performance,” Becca agrees. “It really surprises people!”
While we’re on the subject of generating interest in the project, how hard was it to fund?
“I decided I wanted to make a micro-budget film. I put up a Kickstarter campaign for $10,000 and took out another $10,000 on loan, but through that I was able to find an angel investor, who came in and decided he wanted to produce for us and make it on a bigger budget. I couldn’t say no to that! Immediately, the production was amplified – it was amazing. My only condition was that we shoot in September, and he was like 'I think that’s crazy, we should put it off a bit…' and I was like 'I’m going to make it with or without you!' So yeah, it was shot last September and it was a four-week production. We had four six-day weeks. And we shot in Utah, Las Vegas and California.”
In a way, her film’s arrived at the perfect point. Mitt Romney’s running for President, The Book of Mormon has won buckets of Tony Awards and is heading to London. Is now the right time to bring up the Mormon elephant in the room?
“I definitely felt that it would be easier to talk about because other people were talking about it,” she says. “And The Book of Mormon is a great musical, I loved it! So for me, it was like ‘Oh, I can do this too.’”
She pauses, her voice slightly slower for the first time. I put my pen down. “I’m honestly a bit nervous about what Mormons will think about it… Mainstream Mormons try really hard to differentiate themselves from fundamental Mormons, and I think it’s very easy to say ‘This is a Mormon community,’ and it gets confusing, especially because Mormons are trying to make sure people understand the religion very clearly.” She takes a breath. “It’s not out in America yet, but I think I already feel like a simmering of backlash from Mormons! But I don’t think it’ll be very strong. You’ve seen the film, it’s very tame really.”
I agree. It’s very sympathetic, I offer again. An honest portrayal of one girl’s evolving faith.
“Exactly. Plus I think the Fundamentlist Mormon context makes it specific enough that it’s believable, but you can kind of substitute any other thing almost for it.”
While she may be nervous about the Mormon response, Electrick Children has been converting audiences all over the world. The film premiered in Berlin and SXSW this year to great audience reception. Deservedly so. Did Becca expect that this time last year?
“Oh my, I had no idea!” she exclaims – that childlike excitement is back. You can still hear the surprise in her voice. I realise I’ve started doodling on my face again. “So we started production in September, locked picture by the end of December and all of a sudden we were in Berlin! I still feel a step behind in all of the progress of the film... To be there premiering with 1,000 people and then having them like the film was a dream come true. It hasn’t really come through to me whether this has all actually happened!”
So does she feel like the girl who’s come out of the proverbial desert community and into Vegas?
She laughs. “Exactly! And I’m off hiding in the bathroom!”
So what’s lined up for the future? Has she thought about other films at all?
“I have a couple of projects I’m writing right now. I’m up for directing other people’s scripts – I think I would love that even more than doing my own scripts.”
Why? “It can get kind of convoluted,” she says.
Then she’s off again, bubbling with ideas. “But I’m writing a project called Senni AK-47. Another kind of magical realist film about a mermaid, who lives alone under the sea and she gets caught up in a tsunami and she lands up on the shore of Japan. And a kid comes along and finds her and thinks she’s an action anime hero who’s there to help Japan after the tsunami!”
I stop doodling. This sounds absolutely AMAZING. I ask for more details. “I spent some time in there, about 18 months, as a Mormon missionary and I speak Japanese. I love Japan – a lot!”
Becca certainly has a knack for injecting pockets of the extraordinary into everyday locations., a spark of wonder in a low-budget world. I was discussing magic realism with someone the other day, I tell her. They argued it didn’t really happen in film. Electrick Children was one of my examples that it did. She’s flattered by the mention.
Is there anything else on the cards for her as a director? “I also have this horror thriller set in New York, it’s like a super low budget indie kind of thing.”
The two completely different tones of her next projects confirm something I’ve suspected all interview: Rebecca Thomas is a talented new filmmaker with a head packed full of immaculately conceived ideas.
I can’t wait to see which baby pops out first.