Picture Day Director Kate Melville on High School and Awful Yearbook Photos
Picture Day, a refreshing new film by writer-director Kate Melville, debunks the typical clichÃ©s of high school movies: that high school is a make-it-or-break-it teenage experience and a four-year quest for popularity. The story follows Claire, the school's resident "slut," who is forced to repeat her senior year of high school. Along the way Claire struggles to define friendship, intimacy, and sex as she hangs out with a freshman she used to babysit and an older man she meets at a concert. We interviewed Melville, who started writing the film when she was a teenager, about embarrassing picture day photos, the movie and what she was like as a teenager.
So I'm just going to preface this whole interview by saying I am both a senior in high school and I really love this movie. Were you worried about being able to capture an 'authentic' teen voice or perspective when you were making the movie?
That's so cool. I actually started writing Picture Day when I was in high school. I was a teen playwright. Then tons of time passed and suddenly I'm directing it, so it's kind of this coming-of-age story that I've grown up with. Now I am 39. High school is the great equalizer in that, everybody goes through it. But it was a real hope for me that I wouldn't undermine the authenticity by getting older myself.
I feel like it's really hard to come by nowadays -- a genuine teenage voice. Was it strange to make a movie you started writing as a teenager? How did your adult self relate to your teenage self while you were making the movie?
In order to make a movie or tell an artistic story of yourself as a teenager while being one, you kind of had to get old enough to get access to a platform -- and by that point you weren't in it anymore. You weren't, like, living it. There's a real temptation to kind of package yourself, even as you get older -- to be like, 'Well that's what it was like,' to smooth it over and to tell yourself it was the best years of your life or whatever. I just tried to make something where Claire doesn't have any knowledge beyond her years, you know?
What were you like in high school?
I was always falling in love with people who had no idea I existed. I found the whole experience of high school very overwhelming. The kind of visual metaphor I like to give for the high school in Picture Day is that it's like a prison. We tried to make it crowded and overwhelming and the sounds to match that. I was definitely a sort of dorky writer kid. I think I spent a lot of time watching and I think Claire probably is who I wish I could be or I guess she says a lot of the things I didn't have the guts to say out loud.
Friendship is really the thing that I got out of high school. I didn't date a whole lot, but I'm not really sure where the heck the people I did date are right now. I made some really dear friends. I think your friendships are huge.That's why I wanted to tell a story where friendship was really the important value at the end.
Did you have any role models or people you really looked up to or idolized in high school?
Hmmm....Not necessarily role models. Friendships ended up being really, really, important. I think particularly for kids who aren't getting all of their needs met at home you can kind of figure a bunch of stuff out with your friends. I think for Claire, sex and sexuality are just part of who she is. Tatiana Maslany [who plays Claire] said this really hilarious thing in rehearsal -- sex is a conversation and Claire just talks to lots of people. I wasn't really interested in shaming her for that or having there be a big lesson in that. But what she does need to figure out is intimacy. That your actions have effects on other people. At times she's a little deliberately careless or thoughtless at how her actions are affecting [Henry]. Part of intimacy and trust is that you can have a big terrible fight with your friends and it can end with "of course I'll come get you." That was a big part of high school for me -- learning that you could really count on people and open up your feelings to your friends and that they could reciprocate that. And together, you could build something that was really meaningful and give you a really good start in life. I'm not sure if I answered your question. I'm trying to think of something cool. I guess the answer is that I was not cool in high school. I was likely unbearably pretentious. I liked a lot of Chekhov. If I was authentically my teenage self now I'd say Chekhov is my role model. I also wore bowler hats [laughs]. I was a serious drama dork.
What was your own picture day like? At my own school we don't do the whole individual portrait thing. It's just a really informal grade photo that gets snapped and we don't think about it again.
Oh, you don't do the one by one?
I had this one -- I keep putting it up on Twitter. I'll put it up again just for you. I have a perm and I look a lot like Tina Yothers from Family Ties. I'm wearing a mock-turtleneck. And I was super embarrassed by the photo. And then just last summer I was like, 'I have to frame this photo if I am making a movie called Picture Day.' We're putting all of these picture day photos on our website and its so fun because everyone is owning theirs again. People are trying to find the worst one as a way to celebrate all that was embarrassing about high school and reclaim it.
I think picture day is one of those high school events that people make such a big deal out of like with prom. There's a whole crazy preparation for it.
Totally! For me, too, picture day is a metaphor. I'm really into the combination of awkward-funny. Picture day was like the perfect realization of the awkward-funny of high school. But in high school it's all about the surface -- what you look like on the outside. So picture day is particularly cruel to people who are changing drastically every year. Your grade 9 and your grade 12 pictures are going to look really different.
Picture Day will be released to DVD in the U.S. May 21st.