Michael Tully began writing Ping Pong Summer, a comedy equally inspired by his own youthful memories of summer vacations spent at the beach resort of Ocean City, Maryland and eighties movies that he loved like The Karate Kid, in 1992 when he was still a teenager. Four years later, he registered his screenplay with the Writers Guild of America, and he still remembers his excitement when he received his registration back in the mail—”I was just like, ‘I’m a screenwriter! I’m brilliant,” he laughs—only to be instantly deflated when he opened the envelope to read, “Title: Oing Oing Summer.”
A decade later, in 2006, Tully (who is also the editor of Keyframe affiliate HammertoNail) made his feature directing debut, Cocaine Angel. and Filmmaker Magazine hailed him as one of “25 New Faces of Independent Film.” In 2007, he directed Silver Jew, a documentary, and in 2011, he directed, co-wrote, and starred in Septien, a darkly funny twist on the Southern Gothic. Through it all, he kept honing Ping Pong Summer, pulling out the script and writing a new draft each winter, certain that he was finally going to make the film that summer.
That summer finally arrived. Tully traveled back to Ocean City to spin the tale of Rad Miracle (Marcello Conte), a fourteen-year-old fan of parachute pants and rap music, for whom a ping pong tournament against the town bully becomes a rite of passage. Former eighties It Girl Lea Thompson, the star of Some Kind of Wonderful and Back to the Future, plays Rad’s mom, John Hannah is his dad, and Susan Sarandon is Rad’s Mr. Miyagi-like coach in this personal coming-of-age comedy. Ping Pong Summer, which opens in theaters and VOD this week, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and recently played the San Francisco International Film Festival where I caught up Tully to talk about finally seeing a dream realized.
Keyframe: Does Ocean City realize that you’ve made them the best promotional film ever?
Michael Tully: Apparently, they figured that out before we actually made the movie, because Maryland has a pretty good state tax rebate of twenty or twenty-five percent. We were factoring that into our production budget, that we had about $200,000 coming from the state, but right before we started shooting, something got screwed up. The funds got swallowed by House of Cards, the big Netflix show, so we didn’t have that money that we thought we were going to get. But the tourism board in Ocean City—the city and the county each have a tourism board and they each invested $100,000 in our movie, which for an independent movie, is insane. We had to go to a city council meeting in Ocean City; it was like a low-rent A Few Good Men, where the producer and the Maryland film commission guy, our buddy Jack Gerbis, had to present a case that this is a high-risk investment, but why it’s going to be good for the community. I realized halfway through that everyone sitting in this room has read this screenplay, and you think about even people in the film world don’t read scripts. One of the guys with a real Maryland accent was like, ‘Yeah, I read it on the train this morning and thought it was kind of sweet and funny.’ I’m just like, ‘What are people thinking with this movie?’ But, yeah, they were proud of it and supported it every step of the way.
Keyframe: Talk about writing the script. What motivated you to stick with it through so many drafts?
Tully: I had some flirtations along the way that really drove me to write multiple drafts. There was a flirtation with Hollywood when I was way too young. I wouldn’t have been able to direct it, so I’m really happy it didn’t work out…It became kind of a Rorschach test for me, like who I was in my life. For many years, I shied away from the personal. I don’t know if I learned that really in film school. They say ‘write what you know,’ but there’s a difference between just diarrhea coming out on the page and incorporating something that’s personal. So for many years, I didn’t even call it Ocean City. I was like, ‘What’s more generic two words than ‘Ocean City’—’Water Town.’ So, OK, they go to Water Town.’ I was making it a fictionalized beach town. Then I kind of lived long enough to realize, why would I not do Ocean City and have all of those personal elements? The fear is if you’re too specific, you’re not going to reach an audience, but as a viewer, I think the more specific you are, to me,that’s really enlightening and educating.
Keyframe: And Ocean City is so very specific. When Rad’s family drives into town, all of the tourist trappings outside the car window, signal that Ping Pong Summer is going to take place in a special world.
Tully: For me, I think, whether you’re on board with the movie, there’s a really good barometer very quickly in the entry into Ocean City. You have your lead character who is wide-eyed and thinks he’s entering into nirvana and all it is is an all-you-can-eat buffet and a hotel and another restaurant and another hotel. I read reviews or talk to people and I can tell right away whether they understand that that’s not ironic. It’s very sincere and it’s being seen through that character’s eyes, whereas if you’re just judging it, of course, you’re going to be, ‘What’s he so wigged out about?’ Shooting in Ocean City was a dream. I still get, when I cross that bridge into that town, there is nothing ironic about my appreciation of it.
Keyframe: How important was it to get someone like a Lea Thompson for this movie? Kids seeing it won’t know, but for a certain generation, her presence is an instant connection to that era.
Tully: My last movie starred me with a beard and that’s not really a way to get an adult audience to feel the credibility of your movie, so for this one to have a Lea Thompson—we didn’t want it to be stunt casting, like in that sense of her winking, but the great thing about Lea is she’s still alive and very well and young and beautiful and a great comedic actress. We wanted the recognition. When you’re making a low-budget movie, you have too many chips against you to not make it a ‘real’ movie. Like my parents who don’t go to movies, with the first movie I made, they were like, ‘It’s kind of like a movie, but it’s not a ‘real’ movie,’ but they can’t explain why. So that was one element, that casting, to have the authority of a Lea Thompson, John Hannah, Susan Sarandon, and then clearing the music rights, and then shooting on film. Those things, I think, make it feel like a real movie.
Keyframe: Shooting on film also makes it look like it was shot in 1985.
Tully: Yeah. I think to make a movie feel like an artifact—Computer Chess, Andrew Bujalski‘s movie, that was just beyond, that was to the extreme of artifact filmmaking. That was a really big model for me. Two other movies I referenced are House of the Devil, Ti West’s horror movie from a few years ago, and Shane Meadows’ This Is England. That was actually our big production model. We are not in England; it’s a sunny day, so, of course, the look isn’t going to be exactly like that, but the ability to make it feel like the texture—digital is great, but when you’re talking about emulsion and chemicals, and circles versus squares, you can’t fake it. You can put the trick grain over the image and it still doesn’t feel like film.
Keyframe: So, did you ever have those parachute pants?
Tully: I didn’t have those pants, but the Nike pop-top, I did have. The parachute pants just became, as I was writing the script, almost like an elementary school plot device or narrative arc, because he puts them in the drawer at the end of the first act. It’s not inept storytelling, but it’s like thirteen-year-old storytelling, the arc of that. But that Nike pop-top, when we got that cleared by our costume designer—she had a friend at Nike—for me, at that point, it isn’t product placement, it’s giving the movie street credibility.
Keyframe: One of the things I think is really unusual about Ping Pong Summer is that it is basically about a functional family. Rad has really solid support. Can you speak to that?
Tully: It’s like anti-drama. You go to film school and right away, on day one, they’re like, ‘Don’t make a movie about this, because you’re going to lose your audience.’ My sister watched the movie and was like, ‘This is a love letter to Mom and Dad.’ That’s where I was tapping into my feelings about my parents. I guess you could say it’s autobiographical in that regard, in having loving parents. But when you talk about the idea of drama and three-act structure, in these eighties movies, in any movie now, especially the Hollywood structure, the victory movie, you’re supposed to be stacking the odds right up to the championship. He’s got to win this, there’s nothing else, this is all he’s living for. And I have the dad give him a heart-to-heart talk, ‘We’ll love you, know matter what.’ That’s the opposite of what you’re supposed to do, but I just felt like, ‘Let’s do that. Let’s put that in the world.’ I want to make dark, creepy, weird movies. My last one was, but for this, it was the most honest way to be true to the story.