For those readers between the ages of 35 and 45, it’s not unlikely that you, like me, still remember where you were when you heard the news of his death over 20 years ago. By the spring of his untimely passing, Kurt Cobain had already lived to see himself become a cultural icon. His music was the spirit of a generation, and with his death came a sprawl of mourning that stretched across international borders.
In As You Are, writer/director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, takes us back to that unforgettable period in history, and recalls the experience of hearing the music stop by way of a car radio and a trio of new friends, bonded by the devastating news of Cobain’s suicide and the counter culture movement he embodied.
Joris-Peyrafitte builds his narrative around the film’s three protagonists, Mark (Charlie Heaton) and Jack (Owen Campbell)—the respective sons of two single parents forging a romantic relationship—along with classmate and new friend Sarah, played by the The Hunger Games,’ Amandla Stenberg. Sitting on the threshold of their youth, Mark, Sarah and Jack live for the day, until the days ahead come to look bleak and worries of the future take hold and spark action. With sensitive grace and introspective patience, the director examines how both the collective and individual tribulations of the group, lead the three towards a shared coming of age that culminates in a crime, recalled in flashbacks, triggered by police interrogation.
Wrought with the type of door-slamming frustrations, complicated relationships and passion-stricken desires we all remember from high school, As You Are, is a friend of raw reality. Joris-Peyrafitte’s characters are, each one, crowned with their own unique halo of angst, with the writing dexterously avoiding empty cookie cutter melancholy, ultimately separating As You Are from the commercial trappings common to its genre.
“Miles is an incredible director because he provides such a supportive space for everyone on set to do their best work,” shares the film’s star, Amandla Stenberg. “He manages to maintain and pursue a clear vision, while also being a close friend. He’s awesome.”
Having learned his craft from indie heavy hitters the likes of Kelly Reichardt (her film, Night Moves, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning was nominated for the Golden Lion at the 2013 Venice Film Festival) and So Yong Kim (the director behind this year’s Lovesong, starring Jena Malone and Riley Keough, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance), while studying at Bard College—not far from his hometown of Albany, New York—atypical storylines with razor sharp wow-factors, are a natural inclination of the director’s. Even still, as Joris-Peyrafitte tells me, however polished your skills may be, on set, there’s always an opportunity to further hone one’s talent. “When I was making As You Are, I became painfully aware that I knew about 95% less about filmmaking than I thought I did,” admits the humble director. “Luckily, I think that’s normal, and you surround yourself with people you can learn from. That’s what has me really excited now. I love the process of making movies so much, and I’m stoked to work with new people and learn as much as I can from them.”
For the first time director, Sundance seemed like the obvious choice for the world premiere of a film about teenage outliers. He explains, “Sundance does what it has always done and always claimed to do: It creates a space where voices from the fringes…or in my case, the complete outside…of the industry are handled with as much grace and respect as films from within.” Evidently, festival audiences felt equally as warm towards the young filmmaker, as he did towards Sundance, honouring his with this year’s U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award.
More than one film critic has noted that Joris-Peyrafitte has crafted As You Are with the skill of a veteran filmmaker, making us think of another young creative powerhouse, Canadian, Xavier Dolan, the director/actor behind critically acclaimed features such as Mommy and Lawrence Anyways. And like Dolan (who most recently directed Adele’s “Hello” music video), Joris-Peyrafitte has a natural talent for showcasing music as a supporting character within his film. In fact, Joris-Peyrafitte, along with Patrick Higgins, composed As You Are’s original score. The director’s special relationship with music is not surprising given he got his start behind the camera making music videos, for bands including My Goodness, Eric Slick and Skinnybones.
While we await news of As You Are’s wider release dates, we take a moment to get to know the director behind—what we believe is—one of 2016’s most captivating films, so far. Below, Joris-Peyrafitte on his debut filmmaking experience, the origins of his script and how walking may have newly changed his life.
So to start, how was it premiering As You Are at Sundance this year?
The short and dirty is that it was a dream come true. Growing up, a lot of the films that connected with me the most were films that came out of Sundance. When I was in middle school, my idea of “making it” was to make a film with those laurels on it. Obviously, making As You Are as my first movie, it never seemed possible that we would get in… let alone in competition. So, needless to say, I was bewildered, terrified, elated and overall flabbergasted, when we did get in.
It really does seems like the perfect home for your film. With this being your first feature, what’s your perspective on breaking into the Hollywood film industry?
I try not to pay too much attention to it to be honest. Not because of any disdain or animosity, but more the whole mechanism spooks me a bit. It seems so big and intense, and I kind of just want to make the films I want to make.
On that note, let’s talk about your film. Where did you first get the concept for the story? It treads into some pretty dark subject matter?
It was really born out of real relationships I had with friends growing up in that part of New York State. Those feelings of uncertainty or the attempt to place or articulate the “love” I felt for people was really hard.
Yeah, I would say that’s a big part of the film, just wrestling with different emotions and trying to understand them as they present themselves.
At the heart of it, that’s what the story is about for me. Some of the bigger anecdotal stuff came from either my own experiences, those of my co-writer and collaborator of 15 years, Madison Harrison, or of other friends or stories we heard growing up. So they were all very personal to us.
Can you relate to your characters’ teenage experience?
My [own] teenage experience was on the surface quite different, but emotionally exactly the same.
And Kurt Cobain, did you have a personal connection with that aspect of the story?
I remember hearing stories of my older brother, Joseph (who was a producer on the film), wearing black for days and days after Kurt’s death. That was something that stuck out to me when I was a little kid, before I ever got into Nirvana. Soon after, my brother went to college and left me his boombox. [Then], one fateful day Madison and I hit play on the CD that had been left in there, [and] what followed was those first chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It was a pretty spooky and intense moment for us.
And then in terms of the film, what inspired you to include him in the narrative?
When putting the story together, I wanted the tonal shift of the film to be marked temporally… an external shift in the culture. Kurt’s passing was that moment.
How has it been since the film premiered? You’re getting some incredible reviews.
It’s been a really exciting time. From hearing how people are responding to it as a whole, to all the attention that cast is getting, I really couldn’t ask for more.
With one film under your belt now, you must be eager to get started on your next one. Any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
Mother’s Milk is gonna be the next thing. I won’t go into too much detail, but it’s a kind of neo-noir thriller that follows a woman in her 50s and a 17-year-old pregnant girl in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Intriguing! Who is someone you would like to collaborate with?
As far as actors go, I’d have to say the pinnacle for me would be John Goodman. I could watch that guy do literally anything and be transfixed. Same goes for Ben Mendelsohn. He blows my mind every time.
With audiences just getting to know you, is there anything about yourself that they may not know, that you think might be of interest?
I’ve really gotten into walking recently. In fact, my new goal in life might be never to drive again. That’s all.