(Feb. 15, 2013) Producer Michael Gottwald was one of several faces behind Ping Pong Summer, the independent film shot entirely in Ocean City this past year. But it was not Gottwald’s first major project. In fact, not all that long after filming wrapped for Ping Pong Summer at the end of October, it was announced that Gottwald’s previous film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, had been nominated for four Academy Awards.
While both films center heavily on their locations, they are quite different. Centering on a young man’s family vacation to Ocean City in 1985, and his passion for table tennis and hip-hop, Ping Pong Summer features mostly unknown child stars, but includes a few Hollywood heavyweights, including Susan Sarandon, in the adult roles.
Beasts of the Southern Wild, however, is formed around the “Bathtub,” a fantastical setting inspired by the Louisiana bayou. But it also stars a previously unknown child actor, Quvenzhané Wallis, who is now up for Best Actress for her performance.
Ocean City Today caught up with Gottwald and Ping Pong Summer co-producer Billy Peterson in anticipation of the Oscars on Feb. 24.
OCEAN CITY TODAY: So Beasts of the Southern Wild is now really critically acclaimed. You’re up for four Academy Awards, and I think if people were unsure about Ping Pong Summer being the “real deal,” so to speak, they see this and they’re really enthused. Not that they weren’t before, but I think it really bodes well for how Ping Pong Summer is going to turn out.
Going into Beasts, at what point did you realize that this was going to get the reception it did?
MICHAEL GOTTWALD: We made that movie very far away from anything, even talk, involving anything about that. Our goal always for that film was Sundance, and I think that’s often the case for independent films. You hope to go to something like Sundance, but I think that it’s the journey, so often, that exceeds your wildest dreams.
But I think Ping Pong Summer speaks for itself. It’s got an amazing script, a professional crew, and obviously some big names that people recognize. So it was definitely already a “legitimate” film. I hope that we presented ourselves in a way when we were there [in Ocean City] that gave that impression.
You always kind of have to keep your goals in mind. A festival is the kind of place where a film like Beasts takes off. It’s a lot different than when you’re making it with a big time studio — not that I have any experience with that — but they would’ve sort have charted the movie from day one. Independent film, you kind of cobble this thing together, get it done with the help of a community, and you hope for the best. You take it to the next step and go from there. And with Beasts we definitely hit something.
OCT: Do you get the same feeling, now that you’re done with shooting and into post-production with Ping Pong Summer, that you did with Beasts, as far as this all coming together?
MG: If Beasts has taught me anything, it’s to not hold yourself to certain expectations or not try to predict the future, because anything can happen. But I feel extremely good about the direction of Ping Pong Summer. Each film is different. Beasts was a very different kind of movie from Ping Pong Summer, and will be received by audiences differently given that it’s a very different type of movie.
Ping Pong Summer wants to make you laugh, and I think that people are going to laugh and going to connect with the characters, but it’s an altogether different kind of film. What you want for the audience’s viewing experience is very different.
With Beasts, the critics like the film, they responded to the film. With Ping Pong Summer it’s so much about audience enjoyment. Every movie has its different kind of craft, based on what kind of movie it is. If we had some sort of thriller and we tried to put it out there like a romantic comedy, it wouldn’t work.
OCT: With Beasts, the community is so integral to the feeling of the film, which draws so much from the setting itself. Is the whole idea of making a “community” film with Ping Pong Summer similar? Did you approach the location the same way?
MG: What attracted me to the project was certainly some overlap I saw with Beasts – on location, with support of the community, about a specific community. Beasts very much takes place in a creative, fantasy world, whereas the cool thing with Ping Pong Summer is that its explicitly about Ocean City, shot entirely in Ocean City, at places that are recognizable.
BILLY PETERSON: Yeah, Ocean City exists.
MG: The Bathtub is a created world, in Beasts. Part of the appeal of Ping Pong Summer is that they know Ocean City. And even if they haven’t been there, they probably have some sort of Ocean City in their life, they’ve had that kind of experience.
OCT: It’s a pretty universal cultural reference point.
MG: It’s about finding the universal in the specific, I think. But it’s absolutely what drew me to the project, having some kids from the area be in it, and mixing that with some recognizable faces for the adult roles. It’s very much about taking some liberties with a move world that I had never experienced. But that’s just where I personally come into it. Everybody comes in from a different place. Billy had a different experience than me, coming from a different world than me, Jeff, Michael, George, Brooke, Ryan, we all come at it from a different background. But it’s a great mix.
OCT: A lot of your staff and production team that worked on Beasts are the same folks that worked on Ping Pong Summer. Do you find yourself building up a team of people who do these location-centric, community type of shoots?
MG: There were a handful of people on Ping Pong Summer who had worked on Beasts. But then another thing that was cool about working on Ping Pong Summer with producers like Brooke and Ryan is that they brought people who they had worked with too and who they knew they could trust. So the crew became a combination of people from their world, people from Maryland, and my people from Louisiana, and some people here and there who were totally new to us and turned out to be awesome.
I think that’s pretty common. You want to hire the people who you know will get the job done, and I had worked with a few of them on Beasts, and I called them up.
OCT: Beasts was shot on 16mm like Ping Pong Summer was. What kind of challenges does that present as far as production goes? Does having physical film change the feel of the film?
MG: It’s probably a better question for Michael Tully. But I can say it’s about the kind of world you’re trying to create. Ping Pong Summer takes place almost 30 years ago. Films from that era kind of look different, feel different. With Beasts it was a different thing. It would’ve felt really weird to use digital technology behind the camera in this gritty, Bathtub world. But also texture-wise, we wanted it to have that feel that film does.
Certainly, it puts more of a premium on your work. You have to be mindful of how much film you’re shooting. It puts a premium on the takes you get with actors and with any kind of coordinated take you’re doing. When we were shooting at H2O, and it was just kind of a free-form dance party, we have to be mindful about how much we’re actually capturing. But the challenge of that is worth it, it’s worth it for the way that the movie works when you actually watch it, it just feel different.
OCT: Where is the movie now, as far as production?
MG: Michael and our editor are churning away at it, and it’s been really great. They’ve put together some great stuff. They’re deep into it.
OCT: Do you get the sense that Ping Pong Summer is the kind of movie that people are looking for, that appeals to whatever cultural climate is out there? I know this is a script that Michael [Tully] has said he could’ve tried to do any year for the past twenty years. What are the advantages of doing it now?
BP: I’ve sort of been reading what was going down at Sundance this year, and what’s interesting is that I think there is a plethora of dramatic films out there right now, from the independent world. What could be very refreshing is that Ping Pong Summer is coming out at this time, and it’s independent, and that makes it unique. I think it presents a really great option for audiences. There’s a lot of drama going on around us right now in the world. Which I think is a good barometer for what audiences are looking for, to look out and see what else is going on.
MG: A lot of times at these independent festivals there’s a lot of very dramatic stuff. But when there is a comedy that works, it’s very refreshing and audiences respond to it in a big way because when it comes from an independent film or an independent voice, it feels new. It’s not like a Hollywood big-budget comedy.
BP: Where they’re steering you in a certain direction.
MG: Right, where they know when they want you to laugh. It’s refreshing when you get that experience out of an independent voice.
OCT: From reading the script, the movie has its own very unique sense of humor that combines those elements of nostalgia and a sense of youth, and it’s not something where people are going to be able to see what jokes are coming.
MG: Exactly. And I think what you see in the script will be compounded by the way that we shot it and the way that the actors did their jobs, the amazing performances from our kids.
OCT: The kids that you used, using kids from the mid-Atlantic who matched the setting – looking back on it, did that choice of cast really help the authenticity? Would the movie have felt “off” if it centered on whatever Hollywood child star could’ve been incorporated?
MG: I think it was crucial. And that’s actually when I got on board with Mike, things were in motion with the script and he was considering this idea and it came from the way that he wanted to tell the story. It would not be the same story if he wanted to tell it with big-time movie stars in those kid roles. I don’t think that was ever on his radar, and I’m happy for that because I think it was an awesome way to work.
OCT: I understand that it’s meshed very well with having some big-name people in the adult roles; but maybe because those roles, ultimately, are less of a centerpiece.
MG: Exactly, and that’s cool because names like Susan Sarandon, Lea Thompson, John Hannah will get people into the theater, and then they’ll be taken on this ride by this hero who they’ve never really seen before, but I think they’re really going to love.
BP: I think that chemistry really adds to the unique experience of the film, the idea that people don’t really know what to expect. But if you think about it – Susan Sarandon in scenes alongside a boy from Maryland who’s never acted on a professional level – that’s just very unique. There’s something extremely authentic about it.
MG: Even when we would film Susan facing off with these two bullies, for example, and they’re just these totally new faces and then it’s Susan Sarandon staring them down, it’s just a complete cinematic surprise that really got me excited, even there on the spot.
OCT: It’s a dynamic that you really can’t replicate, I guess, when you’re talking about someone who’s really getting into a role for the first time.
MG: It’s a dynamic that’s entirely unique to Ping Pong Summer, at least in the work that I’ve done.
OCT: Beasts got a fair amount of theater exposure, probably more than you expected from what I gather. I remember Mike Tully, one of the first times he came down here, noticing that Beats was on at the Sun and Surf and he was making fun of you because you didn’t know where your movie was actually showing. Do you see Ping Pong Summer as being the kind of movie that could get a theater buzz even though it’s quirky and not mainstream?
MG: That’s what we hope for. Pulling off comedy that works is really tough, but if you do it the payoff can be enormous, depending on how the audience sees it. Like I said, I’ve learned not to set very firm expectations, but I think that we all think Ping Pong Summer is going in a great direction.
BP: We’re all super positive right now. We’ve felt that way all along really, through production, through pre-production, now through this post-production process, we’re all just very proud of it. Like Michael said, it’s just hard because you have no idea.
OCT: You have no idea how other people are going to see it, because your view has been warped by spending so much time on it. It becomes a completely different animal once there are fresh eyes on it.
MG: Just to connect a few dots — in Washington, D.C. today I’ll be doing a Q&A after a showing of Beasts, and in the audience will be Andy Riddle, who is one of our young stars in Ping Pong Summer, who is driving down to D.C. in order to see me at the Q&A. Which is really cool, you know. Worlds are colliding here in the Mid-Atlantic. That’s particularly special to me to have him in the audience at something that I was involved in before Ping Pong Summer, but where we used kind of the same casting method as we used to find him.
OCT: You obviously have a good rapport with everyone who’s become involved with this, which was particularly strong on the set from what I understand, even between the newcomers and the old hands.
MG: For the parents [of the young actors], they never really know what to expect, and I do my best to tell them, but the number one thing is “expect the unexpected,” because each film is a dynamic place. Going through it for the first time, you’ve never done anything like it before. It’s not like a normal work experience; it’s not like a normal school experience. There’s no prep work for it. But the parents on Ping Pong Summer were so good at rolling with the punches and figuring it out as we went along, and I’m thankful that we had them. We really lucked out as far as the parents of these kids. They’ve all been great.