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An Interview with Film Writer-Director Mike Cramer on ‘Teenage Ghost Punk’ at the Spooky Movie International Horror Film Festival at AFI

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The Halloween season is upon us, and for parents looking for a good “family friendly” scare at the movies, be sure to check out Teenage Ghost Punk. Apart from some minor language, this witty and rocking ghost story is a perfect treat for teens and tweens – and it is a star vehicle for some impressive rising young talent. The film screens Sunday, October 10, 2014 as part of the Spooky Movie International Horror Film Festival at the AFI.

As soon as a wholesome high school cheerleader, her genius little brother and divorced mom move to a creaky old house outside Chicago, strange things start to occur: old punk records go missing, raging guitar riffs rattle the night. A little scared and a lot bewildered, the cheerleader recruits a bumbling paranormal investigation team and a quirky medium, only to discover on her own that her house is haunted — by the ghost of a charming teenage punk rocker and his fun loving spectral pals. When the past and present collide, how will she solve her future?

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Chicago based writer-director Mike Cramer on his new film. Cramer previously wrote and directed the award winning film Dear Mr. Fidrych.

Mike Cramer. Courtesy of Mike Cramer.

Mike Cramer. Courtesy of Dog and Stick Productions.

Andrew: What inspired you to make a movie about a teenage ghost who plays punk rock music?

Mike: I was thinking about how some movie characters can do and say things we never do or say in day-to-day life but that seem logical and realistic. Those characters have to live in a slightly different reality than ours. One night I was thinking about this while walking through my neighborhood in Oak Park, Illinois. Oak Park is one of Chicago’s oldest suburbs, and many of the houses are more than 100 years old. I often wonder about who has lived in them over the decades.

I started thinking that my neighborhood, with that history, might have a different reality – one inhabited by ghosts of some of the people who lived on these blocks years ago but still haunt them today. What if one of those ghosts is a kid who would have been close to my age, but is forever a teenager? What if that ghost loves punk rock, but is kind of stuck with his favorite music of the 1970s and ‘80s as the world moves on around him? What if a living person could have a special relationship with a non-living person who inhabits the same space? What kinds of questions would that raise? What other questions could it answer?

Is it true that the house you shot in is really haunted?

My friend Debbie, who owns the house, swears it’s haunted – by the ghost of the son of the 19th Century German immigrant craftsman who built it. The builder’s initials (“A.P.”) are carved into the house’s main beam – and they turn out to be the initials of our protagonist, Amanda Poplawski.

What’s the weirdest thing that happened during the shoot?

We didn’t hear any weird noises and we didn’t see anything levitate. But one night after a shoot at a different location, the homeowner’s wallet mysteriously disappeared and then wound up in a crawl space under our location house without any logical explanation.

Teenage Ghost Punk features lots of young actors we have never seen before. How are they so awesome?

Great local talent with good experience by age 17 (and younger!). Oak Park is teeming with creative types – architects, writers, musicians, painters – and the local middle schools and high school consistently mount outstanding stage productions. The town has a history of producing notable acting talent.

My son Jack (an actor/guitarist who I knew would play Brian) suggested asking Grace Madigan to audition for the role of Amanda. He had worked with her in a high school play or two. Grace looked impossibly young and had a mouth full of shiny braces (as I did when I was a geeky 10th grader), but she nailed her audition. By the time we started to shoot (almost six months later), she’d gotten rid of the braces and turned into an even better actor. Two of the other talented young women who auditioned for Amanda (Rachel Pospisil and Ella Gill) ended up playing Carly (Amanda’s best friend in her Michigan hometown) and Suzy Q (a ghostly flower child of the ‘60s).

I thought it was going to be hard to cast Amanda’s little brother, Adam, but when I asked around, several people (unacquainted with each other) highly recommended Noah Kitsos. We auditioned Noah and knew pretty quickly that we wouldn’t need to audition anyone else. At 14, he had already played numerous lead roles on stage. More importantly, Noah came equipped with the right curiosity, maturity, energy and a prodigious vocabulary required to play Adam.

Music permeates Teenage Ghost Punk, but I don’t recognize most of the songs. Talk about the music in this movie.

We created some new punk rock just for Teenage Ghost Punk. My son Jack and some of his incredibly talented friends – Keenan Benshop, Caleb Jordahl and Jonah Lazarus – got together in the studio and recorded as the Raging Specters (the band our spectral punk, Brian, played in as an ‘80s high school kid). They made two songs out of lyrics that I wrote into the screenplay – “I Haunt Your House” and “Halloween Night;” they wrote their own killer punk song, “Break Stuff;” and, for the closing credits, they arranged and recorded an awesome punk cover of “Auld Lang Syne” (with vocal help from Jake “Squatchie” Shadrake).

The movie also includes lots of great non-punk rock.

David Blamires, a Grammy-winning vocalist who is also a composer and multi-instrumentalist rocker, wrote most of the score. This includes folk-reggae-punk-influenced guitar pieces backing emotional scenes, quirky themes that accompany certain moments and characters, and bits of music to punctuate suspense and scary moments. David also recorded a faux pop anthem with his son Julian and daughter Natalie for us to use during the Halloween party scene. He was great fun to collaborate with.

Jake Shadrake, who plays Squatchie in the movie, is studying musical composition at NYU. I have no doubt he will soon be composing movie scores and symphonies. He contributed a gorgeous, haunting piano-cello-violin piece called “Lament of the Lost” that shows up several times on the soundtrack.

Raging Specters (Caleb Jordahl, Jack Cramer, Jonah Lazarus, Keenan Benshop). Photo courtesy of Mike Cramer.

Raging Specters (Caleb Jordahl, Jack Cramer, Jonah Lazarus, Keenan Benshop). Courtesy of Dog and Stick Productions.

Beyond that, we used some phenomenal songs in a variety of styles written and recorded by friends (and friends of friends). These include Chicago singer-songwriter Karen Anderson, and youthful Chicago-area alternative rockers Photon Pistol, Snake Oil Salesmen, Monkey Stealing Peach, and Uptown Mayhem. Julian Blamires – our score composer’s son and a DJ and electronic music artist – contributed some funky atmospheric pieces. And SLK (1980s Ann Arbor, MI ska legends) have given us permission to use their recently re-released song “Walk of the Mummy,” which I love.

Teenage Ghost Punk will screen as part of the Spooky  Movie Film Festival on October 12, 2014 at 7:10 PM at the AFI Silver Theatre – 8633 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. Tickets are available at the door and for purchase online.

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