The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Director Becca Gleason on her debut feature ‘Summer ’03’

Written by: Fiona Underhill, CC2K Staff Writer

Coming-of-age and teen comedies are having something of a comeback at the moment, particularly ones focusing on girl protagonists, thanks partly to Netflix films such as Kissing Booth, To All the Boys I Loved Before and Sierra Burgess is a Loser. Now comes Summer ’03 (starring Kissing Booth‘s Joey King) from writer-director Becca Gleason, which deals with the fallout felt by a family after a Grandmother’s shocking death-bed revelations. The movie comes out on Friday September 28th and CC2K spoke with Gleason on the day after the film’s premiere.

How autobiographical is Summer ‘03?

I’ve been telling people that there are “nuggets of truth in a sea of lies.” There are little bits and pieces of dialogue and plot points that definitely happened to me, but I would say the over-arching story is fictional. There is a lot of me in there. It makes me sound so much cooler – I don’t want to tell people what’s real and what’s not because then everyone will think that I’m much cooler than I am, because Jamie is so much cooler than me.

How about the fact that Jamie is from a Jewish and Catholic home – is that something from your own life?

Yes it is – my mother is Jewish and my father is Catholic but they both veered away from religion in their household once they moved out and got married and had me. They didn’t really want to raise me with any real religious background, I think it was just because they didn’t have fond memories of going to church or to temple. When I was growing up, I would go to church with my friends if I was sleeping over on a Saturday and they went to church on a Sunday sometimes and then they would drag me along. But for the most part I grew up sort of like Jamie. That question was always in the back of my mind. Not necessarily “what religion is right” but “why do people gravitate towards one over the other” and that was something that I wanted to explore through Jamie. And at the end of the day, Jamie realizes; “I think I’m good for now, if I need to go back and look at this again later in life, I can but I like having my options open” and that’s sort of how my philosophy became around that age. Where I was like; “I’ll do some research later, but for now, I think I’m good.”

Jamie’s Grandma plants the bombshell in Jamie’s cousin that he might be homosexual and that he should look into having that ‘fixed.’ This subject is having something of a ‘moment’ in film right now with The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Boy Erased. It is shocking that this is something people in America would still consider in this day and age – things like conversion therapy or sending your child away to have them ‘cured’ of homosexuality. Why did you decide to include this?

That kind of happened when I was constructing who Dotty was, this woman – a lot of what her issues were comes from how she grew up, the people she surrounded herself with, which obviously weren’t great people, like for example Herman. So when she raised these kids, I think Ned and Hope did what a lot of kids do when you have a ‘hard’ parent, you kind of go the opposite direction – so with their families, they’re very loving and supportive. But Dotty is definitely stuck in her own ways and because this takes place in 2003, which means Dotty was born a long, long time ago so that was more of a norm when she was growing up. It wasn’t OK to be homosexual and she never was able to learn the correct way – don’t send people away. That’s not how we will progress as a society, if we shun any certain type of person. Dotty was so old, she was never going to fix herself, so she felt like she had to fix everyone else. In Dylan’s case, he’s so young, he may or not be a homosexual, gender is a construct – he is just a confused young boy and she makes things so much worse for him. But I think deep down, she really thought she was helping and doing something good, because she didn’t know any better and that’s really what I wanted to say with her. We kind of give old people a pass sometimes and that’s not always a good thing – to give them a pass just because they’re old and set in their ways. Even though she dies, I don’t think anyone should forgive her for what she does to him. Jamie and her family will be supportive of Dylan, whatever comes to his life and his journey in his later years. After the movie is over, everything will be OK and maybe he can go to therapy and sit with a really nice therapist and talk through all the crazy stuff his Grandmother said to him when he was little.

Both the score and the soundtrack are real strengths of the film – was it a conscious decision to not really use pop music that was identifiable as being specific to the period, so there wasn’t really anything that lept out and you thought “oh yeah – it’s 2003” – you kind of went in a different direction with the music?

A lot of it is from 2003 but based on budgetary reasons, we couldn’t get Sean Paul, we couldn’t get Beyonce or Justin Timberlake. But the pop songs that we did use, like Chingy and Lumidee are the lesser known pop songs of 2003 and we used some indie rock, we had some old Broken Social Scene in there. And this is all testament to my amazing supervisor Brienne Rose – she just killed it and she really did make it feel ‘of the era’ I thought. As far as the score goes, my composer Nathan Matthew David is phenomenal and we really wanted to contrast the ugly pop music of that era with some beautiful melodic piano which I think he just nailed. He made this summery feel of being wandering and very impressionistic instead of the ugly pop songs, that I love so much. They’re not necessarily good songs, but they’re fun songs and it was really fun to kind of mix and match the score with the actual music.

The period details that you did decide to include – like the the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings references, the use of the cell phones and MSN messenger – were these plucked from your own life, what made you decide which details to include and which not to include?

Yeah – it was totally based on my life and thinking “what electronics did we use?” I had that phone, we all had that ugly Macintosh computer with those multi-colored backgrounds. In my summers, whenever a Harry Potter book came out, it was the biggest deal ever. I had to mention that because who wouldn’t be talking about that? I didn’t try to make it too overtly that we have to talk about all of these period-centric things but I wanted it to create this realistic atmosphere and vibe. Yes – you’re in the Summer of 2003 and these are the things that we would be using and we would be talking about. Getting your cell phone taken away is like the end of the world still, so a lot of it still works to this day. But some of it – I think the second people hear the sound of instant messenger, it just immediately transports them back. Because of course that’s what we were doing in between going out for ice cream, going and meeting up with friends, we were all just talking to each other on instant messenger, so I needed an instant messenger moment in there because it was the number one source of communication. A lot of it was trying to be as authentic as possible but not being over-the-top about it.

What did you use to shoot the movie? The look of it is impressive, particularly in the opening montage.

My cinematographer named Ben Hardwicke – he and I spent a really long time talking about it because obviously it was not a very large budget. So we used an Alexa Mini and we used these old lenses and we added a little grain in post to give it a little bit of the era. And our colorist was amazing and she also kind of aged it just enough to make it feel a little bit different to a normal indie comedy.

You’ve created a teenage girl who is flawed, who is quite self-destructive at times and you certainly don’t shy away from exploring her sexuality. So what is the final message you are trying to get across with this character – what were you trying to say with her?

I think what I was generally trying to say is that “we all fuck up and it’s OK.” Fucking up means different things to different people – she had a journey that was sexual, that was faith-based and I think a lot of it hinges on her not knowing who she is and then coming to terms with the fact that “it’s OK if I don’t know exactly who I am right now, I will figure it out one day, but as long as I’m good with the decisions that I make.” I don’t think she regrets anything that happened, I would hope not, because you have to learn to forgive yourself just like you have to learn to forgive other people. That was the main message that was the theme that I was going through with the movie as a whole. And Jamie – we are tethered to her, she is our POV, so this movie really hinges on her. So I think the themes kind of go hand-in-hand with her character.

Author: Fiona Underhill, CC2K Staff Writer

Brit living in Southern California.
Former teacher of Media and Film Studies.
Current film writer for, and others.

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