Max Minghella Channels Love Of Catchy Pop Into ‘Teen Spirit,’ His Directorial Debut
“I heard ‘Dancing on My Own’ for the first time, and it struck me in multiple ways,” the star of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Social Network” said. “I think it’s incredibly cinematic. It’s both poppy and extremely sad, a very strange dichotomy. I wrote the sequence you see in the movie to that song, and then it kind of stemmed from there.”
Robyn’s 2010 smash features prominently in Minghella’s musical drama, a coming-of-age tale set against the backdrop of a singing reality competition series. The film follows Violet Valenski (played by Elle Fanning), a shy Polish teen who seeks an escape from her dreary life in rural England. Fortunately, she’s been blessed with an extraordinary set of pipes, and her talents soon catch the eye of a former opera singer (Zlatko Burić), who offers to serve as her mentor when she lands a spot on an “American Idol”-like competition in London.
Fanning gives “Dancing on My Own” an astonishing, note-perfect makeover in a key sequence (and did all of her own singing to boot). The rest of the “Teen Spirit” soundtrack is just as impressive, featuring versions of beloved songs by Annie Lennox, Ariana Grande and Ellie Goulding.
For his part, Minghella made no apologies for being so pop-oriented in his music tastes. “I like to go big, and I love the hits.”
Before the release of “Teen Spirit,” which hits theaters Friday after it made a 2018 Toronto Film Festival debut, Mingle spoke to HuffPost about taking no credit for Fanning’s remarkable performance and about his future ambitions behind the camera.
We live in a world now that’s so heavily dominated by reality TV. What made you think there was a coming-of-age story to be told within a competition series specifically?
I think the reality competition element of the film is, weirdly, the least important part of it. It’s the structure through which we experience the story, but I’m much more interested in what happens behind the curtain and what we’re not allowed to see on television. I’m a deeply voyeuristic person; I love hearing the things I’m not supposed to hear. And I think that my movie is really much more interested in the space off-camera than the space on.
Although “Teen Spirit” is set in England, the film is very much focused on a Polish woman and her family, who are very insular within their own community, which gives it a unique poignancy that it might not have had if you’d featured a British protagonist.
Growing up in England, I didn’t see a lot of English people. [Editor’s note: Minghella is the son of director Anthony Minghella, who was of Italian origin. His mother, Carolyn Jane Choa, was born in Hong Kong.] It’s a place that’s a conglomerate of ethnicities, and it’s weird how little we see that portrayed on film. It’s also very unusual for a British film to focus on different cultures. I felt like that was true to my experience. It’s much more distinct to me to talk about people who are outside of the bubble and not inside it.
The film boasts such a unique performance by Elle Fanning, who also did all of her own singing. What was it like working with her?
It was very humbling. Every day the entire crew felt extremely grateful to have this person captaining the ship and really carrying the movie along. It was an insane amount of work — every day she’d work 12-13 hour days, go home, do an hour of Polish lessons. She had to take three months of vocal training and do choreography almost every day. She was probably getting two hours of sleep every night and yet delivering one of the most nuanced performances by a young person I’ve ever seen. It’s a remarkable achievement. I take less than zero credit for it.
The musical sequences are such a strong element of the film. What was your visual concept there?
It all came from listening to music on my headphones and then dreaming — which I think we all do, right? We all listen to songs and let our imagination run wild. So it’s a slightly more focused version of that. It was just closing my eyes and listening to that extraordinary instrumental delight, writing down all the images that came to mind and then shooting them.
After “Teen Spirit,” can we look forward to seeing you behind the camera more in the future?
I’d love to keep getting to make movies. It’s so much fun. There’s often a big separation between the movies I’m excited to go and see and the movies I actually like, you know what I mean? I get excited to go see big blockbuster movies and then I tend not to enjoy them as much as I want to, and then I’ll fall in love with something I get dragged to. And “Teen Spirit” is, I think, bridging the gap between those two ideas.
I know how difficult it is for a film to get made, and it took us nearly 10 years to get “Teen Spirit” together. I’d love to do it again. We’ll see if we can. I don’t have any kind of specific ambitions in terms of a story that I need to tell or a genre I need to explore. It’s more about wanting to create big theatrical experiences that are worthy of going to movie theaters.
This interview has been edited and condensed.