Summer of '84, a straight-laced thriller about a group of teenagers who suspect the friendly neighborhood cop next door may also be a serial killer, opens in theaters Aug. 10. Horror fans will rejoice that although the movie -- which stars Graham Verchere (The Good Doctor), Judah Lewis (The Babysitter), Caleb Emery (American Vandal), and Rich Sommer (Mad Men) as the mysterious neighbor, and is directed by RKSS (Turbo Kid), a three-headed directorial team -- may be set in a nostalgic time, viewers won't be leaving the theater with warm fuzzies.
SYFY WIRE spoke with writer Stephen Smith and writer/producer Matt Leslie about the double-edged sword of setting their first movie in an increasingly crowded time period that's also found success for Stranger Things and IT.
This is your first writing credit for both of you. What inspired you to write a thriller like Summer of '84? Did you guys have your own creepy neighbors growing up?
Matt Leslie: I grew up in suburban Massachusetts. My school bus would drop me off at the foot of this road and I would have to walk past all these houses every day, and I started to notice I would see the same people. So I'd walked by houses where it's like, "I've never seen the guy who lives in that house." So in my mind, I would go wild with, "What does this guy do? Like, is he a CIA spy? Is He a serial killer? What's going on behind that door?"
Stephen Smith: I grew up in Milwaukee and it was right around the same time that the Dhamer stuff was going on. So it was just kind of in the background all the time when I was coming up, and so it was always in the back of your head, like, "There's that creepy house. Who's in there?" Oh, and by the way, we'd have this serial killer in the area that all the kids know about. So yeah.
Were your parents really protective? Were they cautious of you becoming a kid on a milk carton, and how are you feeling with your kids today?
SS: I think back then it didn't really seem to be that much of an issue. I remember when I was growing up in suburban Wisconsin, and even with the stuff in the background I was always free to just take my bike and go as long as like my parents had a vague idea of where I was going to be. We didn't have phones or anything back then, obviously, so it was just kind of like checking in if any big plans were changing, but for the most part we just kind of wandered around, and I think that was great.
And today with our kids, luckily we live in an area that's still kind of like that. So our neighborhood is actually full of kids, and you'll just see like a swarm of kids going up and down the street together, just hanging out at everybody's houses and going in and out and that kind of thing. But I think I'd be a little bit more suspicious of, or a little bit wary of sending them outside of our neighborhood where there's kind of like a safe zone.
There have been other movies about suspicious neighbors like Rear Window, Disturbia, Fright Night, Apt Pupil, The 'Burbs. Did you draw on any of these as inspiration, and what do you feel makes your movie stand out in this genre?
ML: I actually haven't seen Apt Pupil, but all those other movies that you named are definitely influences. I think subconsciously we didn't really pull any of those movies and reference them and be like, "Oh, this is what they did in Fright Night." It's just a part of the amalgamation of who we are and the movies that we loved growing up. This was just kind of what came out of that. In terms of what really sets ours apart? We wrote this thing in late 2014, early 2015. So it was before Stranger Things came out. It was before anybody knew about IT or any of these other movies. I think there was something about the eighties kind of concept at the time. I want to see a movie that is like where kids can talk the way kids actually talk, you know, and kids behave the way they actually behave. When I was 13, 14, 15, I swore like a truck driver. I think a lot of kids do because it's sort of when you first become independent. You're starting to spread your wings a little bit and testing the boundaries of who you are and what's acceptable, what's funny -- and so we wanted to write characters that behave that way. So I think there's that.
**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for Summer of '84 below**
And then there's also the ending, like we really wanted to go for it. We were like, well if you found out that your neighbor was a serial killer and you were right, it wouldn't probably end well for you. Like if you made this in a studio film, what would happen is they'd go, "Well you have to have a happy ending where the kid survived, and the serial killer gets caught." In real life, that would probably never happen. The serial killer has been doing this for a long time. They're obviously very successful, very intelligent, like terrifyingly intelligent, and you're just a kid who stumbled into this crazy thing and just happened to be right, like it's not going to go well for you. And we wanted to see that take on screen, because we'd never seen that. Those are the two things that really stood out as sort of a new voice to that genre.
We thought it was very, very relevant to today, because terrorism is now the new thing (to be afraid of). When we started writing, this was around the same time that there was a terrorist cell in an Orange County neighborhood that was discovered, and people now were all of a sudden like, "Oh my God, maybe my neighbor is a terrorist!" It just felt like it was all kind of coming back, but in a new way.
I got to work on Straight Outta Compton and one of the things I think made that movie so successful is that everything that we're talking about back in the 1980s and early '90s when NWA was coming out, it's all relevant again today. I think movies that are period pieces that are successful are successful because of being systematically relevant to today. And that's something we also really wanted to make sure that we tried to do.
You mentioned that you wrote this in late 2014, and that Stranger Things and IT weren't a thing at that time, but I know the production process is kind of lengthy. With the success of those two productions, was there any pressure that you felt to modify this at all to fit a supernatural element or go down a winding path?
ML: Well, it's funny. We had one studio that was interested that that was seriously considering making it. And one of their notes, it's like, "What if it was supernatural?" Instead, we were like, "Cool, but that's not this movie." We ended up not going that route because we really wanted to see this version of the movie get made.
SS: Yeah, I don't think we really changed anything in reaction to what was going on there. I think it gave us a little bit of buzz in the development world, like trying to send and package it up. And so I think that helped us get into production for sure. We have funny stories about how on a Friday we released the production still that had this sign in the yard for the Reagan/Bush '84 election. We thought it was really cool and everything. Then the following Monday, the Stranger Things Season 2 trailer hit and they have the exact same sign in it.
Technology has shifted since 1984 and we're more aware of what's going on with our friends and family through social media. How would this story be different today? Or how would it be the same?
SS: I think with technology being what it is and with social media being what it is, if you do suspect somebody of something, it's a quick google search to see what's their persona online, and I think you have access to their friends a little easier so you can figure it out. I think a lot of the dangerous scenarios that we put our kids in in this movie get a little bit negated by the fact 15-year-old kids would be running around with their smartphone, and so if anything is a little sketchy they're just a 9-1-1 one call away. Or they've got their camera on them at all times so they can record anything that happens and post it to social media. So I think, I think it would definitely be a different story. It would be trickier to do what they were doing and not get noticed, but also to really feel that same sense of danger in what they were doing.
I saw a Polybius arcade game in the movie and I swear I saw a reference to The 'Burbs. Are there any other Easter eggs that people should be on the lookout for?
SS: I'm glad you caught The 'Burbs thing because if you read this script for Summer of '84, in the moment when Davy and Eats go into the backyard, in the description line it actually says "Red Rover, Red Rover…" which is definitely a 'Burbs reference.
ML: We knew were going to have an arcade scene in the script that we wrote. It was at a roller rink and one of the things we found out when we were doing location scouting up in Vancouver is that there's nowhere to do that. They don't have a roller rink. They don't have anywhere like that and it would've been way too expensive to rent out a hockey rink and transform it. So we had to kind of go and find someplace else, and what we kind of settled on with the bowling alley. Our production designer found a Space Invaders and a Centipede, but we had room for one more, and they found this plain black arcade cabinet that was broken. Steve and I were writing a TV pilot called Polybius about that conspiracy theory or urban legend. And we said to the production designer Justin Ludwig, "Dude, here's what that arcade machines supposedly looked like, can you do this?" And he was like, "Hell yeah." He whipped it up and it looked amazing. And then we were just like, let's just put an out of order sign on it. We're shopping the TV pilot around now.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity