Exclusive Interview with Director Michael Tully for ‘Ping Pong Summer’

– by Gig Patta

Gotta love the 80s.

“Ping Pong Summer” is a good tribute movie to those moviegoers who remember growing up in the 80s. It’s about a teenager who spends a summer at the beach in Ocean City in 1985. It combines the tributes of arcade games, young teen love, hip hop and of course—ping pong.

The film has great veteran actors like Susan Sarandon, Lea Thompson, Amy Sedaris and John Hannah. It also features the young actors of Marcello Conte, Myles Massey and Emmi Shockley.

Latino-Review had an extended exclusive phone interview with director Michael Tully. We discussed in significant detail about the production, the actors, the music and the love of the 1980s.

“Ping Pong Summer” is currently in limited release in certain theaters and also available on VOD.

Read the interview below.

Latino-Review: First of all, I want to thank you for doing this type of movie. I’m a child of the 80s so I remember everything.

Michael Tully: [Laughter]

Latino-Review: Where did you come up with the idea for this movie?

Michael Tully: The idea was gestating for a long time. I was a senior in high school and I wanted to be a writer. I was a senior back in 1992 back in that century called the 20th century for some of us who remember those years. I had this idea since I wanted to be a writer like Stephen King when I was an adolescent. Then I discovered movies. I realized movies combine writing, visual art and the music. It’s a one-stop place for creativity.

I was waking up to the art form and the idea of making movies. This title came to me as the first title I’ve came up with called, “Ping Pong Summer.” At the time, it was really a tribute to the movies I’ve grew up loving. Now you can call me a cinephile as I watch art cinemas and documentaries. At the time when I was 11 or 12, I was going to the video store and renting anything I could get my hands on. It wasn’t just event the “Karate Kid.” It included the knock-offs of the “Karate Kid” like “No Retreat, No Surrender” and “Rad.” I just loved those movies. That was the initial spark.

So we have “Ping Pong Summer.” We have “Corvette Summer.” I loved ping pong and grew up playing. Then it was what if I inserted my life into one of those 80s movies. And to combine that with my love of hip hop before it went main stream before Beastie Boys and Run DMC broke out. For ping pong, it wasn’t a tournament but more like a garage style of playing ping pong. It’s my casual love of the game.

The last piece of the puzzle was Ocean City, Maryland. I grew up going here. My parents were very responsible, so we didn’t get on planes and take big expensive trips. We would drive a few hours every summer for one week to Ocean City, Maryland. I loved it and I still love it.

It’s all to combine my personal experiences for that middle-class functional normal family and insert it into a 80s movie and see what happens.

Latino-Review: By the way, I was also a senior in 1992. [Laughter]

Michael Tully: Oh, then okay. So that’s the thing was that the movie was set, technically when we were eleven. I changed Rad to being thirteen that summer, because I feel like the summer between the middle and high school is really a big deal. [A teenager] going to the beach and before high school is bigger than going to college. It’s such a big deal.

I’m out of middle school and I’m going to high school. By making Rad a little bit older would make him fit into those parameters with the emotions and everything else still the same.

Latino-Review: How did you develop the characters? Did you base them on real friends and family during that time?

Michael Tully: No, it’s a combination. I would say the movie is not autobiographical. There are so much rooted in my movies. There are some specific content that were very personal. My dad is from Ireland and was a Maryland State Trooper to the extent the actor, John Hannah, is wearing my dad’s actual police uniform back in the 80s. So those things were specific. The family was definitely based on my family.

But, when it came to Stacy Summers, the pretty girl in town, Teddy Fryy and then the bad guys—that’s when my movie’s history is factored into the equation. So it’s with this combination with personal real life. When it came to the arc of the movie and the characters’ archetypes, it came from my love of 80s cinema at the time. Most of those characters were straight up from imagination and not really based on anyone from my own life.

Latino-Review: Your movie used first-time young talent whereas the older characters were played by respected veteran actors. Why did you go with that route?

Michael Tully: I think it’s like a dream for a director who loves all kinds of movies and loves non-actor performances and then loves actor performances. It’s the luxury to do it both ways. Movies are easier to make now to look better on lower budgets, but still hard or harder to get them off the ground.

It’s important to me to make the movie more authentic with the city, the place and the set by having the kids be cast from the area. I also think to raise a seven-figure budget is to have some recognizable names. You have to play that game.

One of things I want to do with casting is with Lea Thompson, for example, is to not make anything winky—but it automatically makes it feel like a real movie. It gives it credibility. And you still have a working still young actress who is really awesome and understanding of comedy.

The professional actors were really cool with the kids. They helped out when they needed it. They were respecting them and saying “You’re here for a reason.” And not like “I’ve been doing this for thirty years and here’s what you do.” Susan [Sarandon] would give little tips to Marcello [Conte] and Emmi [Shockley] on things along the way to help them become more comfortable.

It was a dream to have innocent sincere performances from faces that we haven’t seen before by the kids. It was really important for me to have as many discoveries in that regard. And then further the legitimacy with famous actors who are really good at what they do. It was a real luxury that the producers and the investors supported my vision for that.

Latino-Review: These kids weren’t even born during the 1980s. They never experienced with kind of stuff. Did you give them a crash course about the 1980s before you got started with everything?

Michael Tully: No, what I thought it was a smarter thing to do was to not overwhelm them. Maybe the slang was a little different, but kids are not totally different now. These kids are totally connected on to the Internet so it’s a different universe they live in today. But, they are still kids.

We did watch some breakdancing videos and some 80s movies. For me is when Myles [Massey] got into those tight shorts and the afro wig on—he felt transformed. It wasn’t a mind-state thing. It’s letting these kids be kids.

Then it’s about trusting your department heads like your makeup artists and costume designers make them feel like they’re in the 80s.  And then it was changing some words like “dope” into “fresh.” It wasn’t like saying “Back in the 80s, when you kiss a girl and you felt really shy—you felt really bad.” [Laughter] It’s like last week when you kissed a girl and you were shy—it’s not that different.

So it’s about making them feel comfortable and letting the department heads do the heavy lifting to make them feel like they’re in the 80s.

Latino-Review: So did you have to teach them on how to breakdance and how to play ping pong then?

Michael Tully: Yeah, we did a boot camp. A month before, we had the four male lead actors with a weekend boot camp in Rockville, Maryland.

In terms of the breakdance thing, it was funny cause at the end of the movie there’s a scene in which there’s doing the worm. It was doing the work forwards and backwards. It wasn’t scripted that way. We were trying to teach Marcello the worm as Myles and I could sort of do the worm. And he couldn’t figure it out. Then he went home to southern New Jersey and texted me that he figured it out. He said he could do it backwards, but can’t do it forwards. I never heard of that it my life. So we had to incorporate that into the script.

They did some rehearsing over the summer. So it’s basically just letting them play ping pong and let them feel comfortable as much as possible. And then Marcello did some things on his own. His mom sprung to get him some dance lessons. He learned the electric slide and to do the moon walk at the beginning of the movie. It was the breakdancing from his fantasy and then cut to the reality world. In the end, he became a great break dancer after all.

Latino-Review: So are you pretty good at breakdancing and ping pong yourself?

Michael Tully: No, I’m sort of okay. I’m okay with break dancing and I’m average good with ping pong like I’ve always been. It’s a mental game like tennis. If you have the mental toughness then you can be really good. I have the hand-eye coordination to be pretty good, but there are peopleout there who’s really on the game. So if you catch me on a good day, some people can say I’m really good. Then check in with me five minutes later—I’ll be hitting them into the net and screwing up. That will keep me from saying that I’m really, really good at ping pong. I consider myself definitely above average as a good casual player when I know what I’m doing.

Latino-Review: [Laughter] One of the things I loved about this movie is on how you emulated certain exciting scenes like the 1980s movies with the cinematography. Could you tell us more about this?

Michael Tully: Yeah, that was fun. Again, the movie was called “Ping Pong Summer.” It’s about ping pong, but that’s not all. It’s much about a family vacation and a kid who loves hip hop.

As we were breaking it down, we didn’t want to [bore] people with wall-to-wall ping pong games. So we have the showdown, the sculpt scene and a little scene when they’re practicing—so Wyatt Garfield, the cinematographer, and I try to come up with different techniques so it can feel like they were set pieces on to themselves. To do these freeze frames weren’t not only inspired by the 1980s, but the experimental movies from the 1970s. It was really fun to do that. And it came alive.

The idea was always there and in the editing room, Wyatt really brought it to life. Although we worked on it together, what he brought to the table was with the split screen stuff for the showdown and with Rad losing at the beginning [of the film]. He handcrafted that from this pile of footage.

We were thinking on ways that we won’t repeat ourselves. People will have the tendency to say, “I love those freeze frames! Why isn’t there more in the movie?” It sounds like a backhanded compliment. The problem is with some movies would look at it saying “That worked and let’s do it five more times.” For me, [by limiting] it will make it more re-watchable. So some people can remember the part with the freeze frames and go back to re-watch it.

So that was fun to create scenes that were rooted back in the 1980s movies. We wanted to make the movie like the artists did back in that era. In hindsight, we’re hoping some people will watch the movie three years from now and think it was made back in 1985.

Latino-Review: You know what’s also great in this movie—is the music. How did you manage to pick the most appropriate music for the movie? It fit perfectly in all the scenes.

Michael Tully: Thank you. The first credit should go to our composer, Michael Montes. Typically, you have a composer who could do one thing and stick with that scene, but changed it up with different scenes. For Rad, he went with the hip hop from that era. As for Stacy’s scene, it was more the ethereal dream pop from the John Hughes movies. Then the bad guys had these electro tunes from the Miami Vice. And Randi Jammer’s stuff had the more of the orchestral like from Stephen Spielberg’s “E.T.” He brought all that to the table.

Another thing about doing a low budget movie is that so many odds are stacked against you. On the top of that is clearing music. Music rights are just a nightmare. We had an incredible supervisor Jonathan McHugh. The producers did say that they’re willing to put more than a tenth of the budget towards the music claims.

I knew a lot of talented friends who could create knock-offs or tributes from the era. We do have the original anthem at the closing credits by Kevin Barnes. Just like every 80s movie, every movie has its own original anthem.

For me, it was really important to me to make this movie feel bigger. You don’t know if you can get it into Sundance, with distribution or into theaters, so everything you do is a hustle. There were a lot of ideas and creativity put into this project. We got some really iconic tracks from the era. Our music supervisor placed them and combined it with a talented music composer—now it feels like the whole soundtrack is from the 80s.

Latino-Review: Wow. It sounds like you got everything together pretty easily. So what was the most difficult thing to do on this production?

Michael Tully: I don’t know if things came together that easily. I started with this idea way back in 1992 and I graduated college in 1997. And I said, “Next summer! I’m making ‘Ping Pong Summer.’” Now it’s 2014 and we finally have it out. [Laughter] So getting the movie made, in the terms I’ve wanted, took a long time. For me, it’s about trying to catch up with the world.

As for production, it was a little stressful. Probably it was with the shooting in the car. It’s always rough when you’re crammed in a car with an A/C with a kid actor in the back who hasn’t done it before. I’m like two feet away from her face pretending to be Rad. It was very awkward.

We really had a blessed shoot. The weather was great. The community was super supportive. It really felt like summer camp. As stressful as everything is, I was actually pretty calm and going with the flow. A lot of productions don’t have that luxury. Maybe it’s the wanting to have it for so long and the world said, “Okay. We’ll let you have it.”

The other funny addendum to that is we wrapped on a Friday night/Saturday morning—and then on Monday morning Hurricane Sandy hit. After 20 years, our production beat that hurricane. That [storm] would’ve been a big problem.

Latino-Review: Did you get to keep any props from the movie?

Michael Tully: I got the boom boxes. Typically, the production gets to keep things. I’m friendly with the producers and it’s sort of like family affair. And I also have the Fun House sign, in which I get to keep it in my office in Austin, Texas. It’s pretty cool to have the neon sign from the arcade in the movie. So yeah, I got some pretty cool props out of it. I didn’t want to go crazy, but I’m a pretty happy man for the rest of my life.

Latino-Review: Could you talk about any of your upcoming projects after this?

Michael Tully: That’s the thing. You don’t want to jinx anything. The one thing is that my real dad from “Ping Pong Summer” is from Ireland. I do have a passport. Technically, I’m an Irish writer/director. I always wanted to make a movie in Ireland. The plan is that this fall and everything is on track to make a movie entirely different from “Ping Pong Summer.” This one will be a tribute to the psycho-dramas and psycho-thrillers from the 1970s like “Don’t Look Now” or “Wicker Man.” It wouldn’t be called a horror movie, but it definitely will be in the creepy section.

For me, it’ll be fun to go in one direction and then go 180 in the other direction. It’s to never repeat myself and get to work in genres I haven’t explored yet.

Latino-Review: Terrific. That’s awesome. Thanks for taking your time this afternoon to speak with me. Really. Good luck with the movie.

Michael Tully: Thank you so much. A big thank you for doing this.

“Ping Pong Summer” is currently in theaters in limited release and VOD.

Interviews, Film, LRM Exclusives Michael Tully, Ping Pong Summer