The idea behind Max Minghella’s directorial debut, “Teen Spirit,” stemmed from a single song: Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.” That dance anthem set the foundation for Minghella’s indie pop musical, which also borrows hits from the catalogs of artists like Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, Ellie Goulding, and Annie Lennox to tell the story of a shy teenager who dreams of leaving her small European town to become a pop star.
Minghella, the British actor best known for playing Elisabeth Moss’ cryptic lover on Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” describes “Teen Spirit” as a different kind of fairy tale. The musically infused drama stars Elle Fanning as Violet Valenski, an ingenue who finds herself entering a British singing competition a la “American Idol.”
Ahead of the film’s release, Variety spoke with Minghella about why musical films are resonating with audiences, how he crafted the movie’s soundtrack, and casting Fanning.
Do you have plans for opening weekend?
Oh, god. [laughs] Trying not to suffer an anxiety attack? No, we’re going to be at the Arclight doing Q&As, meeting folks, and all of that. It’ll be nice, we’ll all be together.
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How did Elle Fanning come on board? Did you know she could sing?
The film was almost entirely Polish right up until we started filming. Honestly, we couldn’t find anyone to play the part. It was a huge list of requirements. They had to speak two languages fluently, be able to sing — not well, but brilliantly. They had extremely complicated choreography on a short timeline, they had to be comfortable riding horses, they had to carry every frame of this film. It was an endless menu. It was very difficult to find everyone to tick every box we needed. We decided to announce the movie without an actor, which was a bit of a suicide mission.
Elle’s team had heard about the announcement and were interested in the project. They’d been looking for something for her to do where she could sing. I met with her very cynically at first. I was a gigantic fan of hers, but I didn’t understand how she was going to play a Polish person, honestly. She had such clear ideas off the bat about who this person was. There was so many overlaps between Elle and this character that it made so much sense. She genuinely could pull off the vocal requirements. I’m not being hyperbolic, I don’t know if there’s another actor that could have pulled this off. It’s such a specific list of requirements, so I’m so glad we found her.
Was her character, Violet, based on anyone in specific?
I didn’t base it off any existing people. It was very much inspired by music. When I started writing the script, Robyn’s album “Body Talk” [was released] and I loved the dichotomy of this pop-y, anthemic sound that was very melancholic underneath it. Everything in this movie stemmed from that feeling. “Dancing on My Own,” her imagination on that song, is what the whole movie was built around.
Beyond “Dancing on My Own,” how did you select the rest of the soundtrack?
It really started with that song. That immediately set a clear tone about the music this kind of person would be performing. I didn’t want it to be schizophrenic, like it was a jukebox musical bouncing around to random hits. I wanted it to feel tonally cohesive, but I wanted each song to drive the movie forward, but not in a way that was too on the nose. Some of the songs aren’t my favorite songs, but you know what’s right for a scene.
Jack Antonoff worked on an original song for the movie. Did you know him before?
F— no. He’s literally my hero. I must have said 100 times like, “In my dream world, we’d get Jack Antonoff,” and everyone laughed at me. I don’t know how it happened, honestly. I was in Toronto shooting, and Jack had seen the movie somehow and really liked it. He wanted to meet for a drink, and he was really enthusiastic about the movie. I asked him if he wanted to do a song, and he showed me something that he and Carly Rae [Jepsen] had worked on. It was such a quick yes. I think even Jack was like, “I don’t know if this is the right song.” I was like, “No, this is literally what I’ve been looking for the entire time.” It’s a song that you’ll know how to sing the chorus within a minute and a half.
What was the biggest challenge in making your first film?
The biggest challenge was the time and money. We had a really ambitious project, we wanted to create a big spectacle that you had to see on the big screen. We didn’t have all the resources. I realized how much luck is involved. It’s a lot of luck.
Why are audiences responding to musical movies?
I think it has a lot to do with the theatrical experience. We’re getting to a time where there are fewer genres that will drive us collectively to see see a movie in a theater. There’s superhero movies and Disney movies and horror movies, and also apparently musical movies. It’s about the communal experience. What’s fascinating is how completely different each movie is. We used similar ingredients and made very different meals.