By Beverly Cohn
Scott Speer is a quadruple threat with a vast number of credits spanning music videos, television, film, and books. Too numerous to list, here are some highlights of his impressive resume: University of Southern California’s School of Cinema- Television graduate, Speer jump-started his career making music videos for which he won the 2006 MVPA Award for Directorial Debut of the Year, followed by his first MTV Video Music award for his work on “Bella Traicion.” He also received two Dove Awards from the Gospel Music Association. With his behind the camera experience, he transitioned to commercials working on major accounts including, Colgate, Sara Lee, and Buick. Having racked up numerous video producing and directing credits, Speer directed his first feature film – “Step Up Revolution.” His novels include: “Immortal City,” “Natural Born Angel,” “Immortal City: Battle Angel,” “Angel City Love,” and “Battle Angel: An Immortal City Novel.”
With myriad skills and acute sensitivity, Speer brings to the big screen “Midnight Sun” a beautifully made romantic drama from a screenplay by Eric Kirsten. Co-starring Rob Riggle and Quinn Shephard, the story revolves around Katie Price (Bella Thorne), a young girl with XP,* a rare genetic disease that is deadly if she is exposed to even a drop of sunlight. Housebound during daylight hours, for years she has watched Charlie (Patrick Schwarzenegger) skate past her window on his way to school and developed a crush on him. To break up the monotony of being shut in during the day, at night Katie takes her guitar to the railway station where she plays music for commuters. At last, she and Charlie meet and thus begins a magical summer of romance in its purest form, reminiscent of the innocent days of yesteryear.
Speer recently sat down with a select group of journalists to discuss the film, and the following has been edited for content and continuity for print purposes.
You skillfully avoided pathos or turning the film into a “pity party.”
Speer: Thank you for seeing that. The emotional tone or color of the movie was really important because when you talk to kids who actually have XP, they don’t want to be a disease. There are presently about 150 confirmed cases in the U.S. and they think of themselves as normal kids like Bella’s character of Katie. XP is a one in a million condition so we wanted to be very honest in how we presented this story.
Since it is so rare, what are the symptoms and how is it diagnosed?
Speer: The symptoms show up when kids are in the playground screaming and crying from pain following a severe sunburn, which is how they are diagnosed. There’s not a lot of information online so we had to contact people who actually have familiarity with XP. As we’ve begun promoting the movie, one of the websites that is an authority on XP, tweeted us and said that in the last 24 hours, they had gotten 100,00 hits. (Audible “wow.”) It made my day that we could help be part of awareness on some level. We never set out to make a documentary or a movie about a sickness, but it’s great that we can help with advocacy at the same time.
You really walked a fine line with this story as it could have denigrated into a soppy soap opera but it was anything but that. It is beautifully done – the directing is superb, the acting is superb, the cinematography is superb. That said, why did you want to tell this particular story?
Speer: Because I love love stories and because I love romantic dramas and I feel there are actually very few romantic dramas these days. It’s a genre that’s under represented. You know, there are a lot of romantic comedies, and there’s a lot of hybrids but if you go back to my favorite movies like “West Side Story,” or “Love Story,” or “Splendor in the Grass,” or think back to some of Betty Davis’ early work, there was a genre in Hollywood that was this cathartic romantic drama, and that’s what we set out to make.
What was your reaction when you first read Eric Kirsten’s script?
Speer: I cried and then called a producer who is a friend of mine and said that I thought we could do something very classical and special and great with this movie. From there it was about casting – can you find the leads who can give you that classic old Hollywood chemistry? Can you find that kind of quality from two people? That’s why we cast Patrick to co-star with Bella.
Do you think this movie will be Patrick’s big break?
Speer: I hope so. I hope you enjoyed him in the film. This is his first leading role, but he’s got all the tools he needs to do whatever he wants to do – whether it’s what his father did – action movies or something totally different. He’s a very different man from his father. I know as humble and proud of his legacy he is, he’s not trying to rely on his background for success. He really wants to be his own actor and I think he has that quality of the strong, silent type.
Did you see the Japanese film “Song to the Sun” on which Eric Kirsten’s screenplay was based?
Speer: I know the script was based on a Japanese film of the same name. I didn’t watch that film until after we wrapped because I wanted that movie and that filmmaker to have his movie and for us to have our movie. I thought that was the most respectful thing to do. Every movie is lightening in a bottle so trying to chase something is never the right idea. By the way, the Japanese film is different, but really a great movie.
What was your thinking behind not having a sex scene, which was refreshing?
Speer: (Laughs) As a filmmaker, my foundation is fairytales so every scene in the movie has to have a purpose and has to push our story along. So, if there’s a sex scene that’s called for, then wonderful, but just putting one in for the sake of putting one in doesn’t feel right.
Nathaniel Walcott’s musical score was spot on. How do you think music influences a character or a moment on film?
Speer: Thank you for bringing up the music. I love the music in the movie. I use music in everything I do – whether it’s movies or the work I did on MTV. I feel that music communicates as well or better than images and oftentimes if a character cannot articulate what they’re feeling, then a song can do that for them.
How did you decide on the songs Katie sings in the film?
Speer: We had always planned to tell the story through music as well as through the narrative and began looking for Katie’s sound. I listened to hundreds and hundreds of songs but what I was looking for was the same idea as when you’re sitting around a campfire and someone has a guitar and begins to play let’s say a Beyonce song or another pop song. The guitar sounds so much more enchanting and something raw. That was the quality I wanted for her songs. Once we found the music, then we dragged Bella into the studio and said that we were going to record four songs, but will only use one. She was terrified to record these songs. What you learn about her is that she’s a perfectionist and if she can’t do something right, she doesn’t want to do it at all. We wound up recording ten songs five of which are in the movie and now she’s doing a ton of her own music.
Were there any surprises during the shoot?
Speer: Yes. Always. This is filmmaking so what does go right? The biggest surprise for me was probably Pat and Bella’s chemistry in their performance. We had to shoot the sailboat scene on day two of production because we had only one week of sunshine in Vancouver. I had to put them in the boat with drones buzzing around getting the wide shots. They already knew their characters so well that they could just turn on the chemistry. That was one of the greatest surprises.
Speer: Another one was Rob Riggle who plays Katie’s father Jack. I don’t think anyone has ever seen dramatic scenes like this from Rob. It was a pleasure working with him. I think most people see him as this screwball comic. He can do that in his sleep and he’s great at that. He has two daughters and he read the part and said that he wanted to do it and put himself on tape, which he really didn’t have to do. I was already prepping the movie and he joined the cast and gave a wonderful performance.
Katie goes to her first concert. Do you remember yours?
Speer: I always wanted to portray that. I grew up in San Diego and this might not be the sexiest answer but Punk Rock was a big deal at the time. At my rival high school was a bunch of local kids who called themselves “Blink 182” and that was my first concert. It felt like magic – the light, the sound, the people, the sweat on the skin.
What were some of the films that impacted you as a youngster?
Speer: I was a little kid growing up on Steven Spielberg’s movies and crying at “ET,” crying at “The Lion King,” being scared out of my mind watching “Jurassic Park,” and then going back and watching “Jaws,” and being even more scared. (Laughter)
What age range will this film appeal to and what do you think the audience take away will be?
Speer: Obviously, our core will be teenagers but I hope we can bring in everyone. I wanted to make a movie about hope. Bella Thorne said, live your life like Katie Price. It’s a hopeful tribute to the power of love, the power of first love, the power of living your life to its fullest despite any perceived challenges. We don’t all have XP, but we all have challenges. At some point, everyone in this room has felt as though you were locked in a tower away from the world and wanting so much to be part of that world, but you can’t and you just watch it go by. That could be anything like moving to a new school in your senior year, which means losing all your friends and even a girlfriend. This film to me, is like a fairy tale in a way but ultimately, I was trying to make a hopeful, triumphant film that resonated with everybody.
Any special marketing plans?
Speer: The marketing department made “Midnight Sun” tissue boxes, which we gave out at some screenings. (Laughter) At first the audience wondered what that was about and then cut to the end of the movie, and everyone is using them. That’s when I feel like we’re really communicating and the more we do that the more we can communicate in other things, be it politics or anything else.
Thank you for making a sweet film. Hurry and do the next one.
Speer: Thank you so much for your kind words.
*XP: Xeroderma Pegmentosum