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Sundance: Susan Sarandon Obsessions Drive the Weird, Wild 'Ping Pong Summer'

Director Michael Tully realizes a dream project over 20 years in the making.

Michael Tully wears many hats: In 2006, he debuted his first feature film, Cocaine Angel, at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. For his 2011 feature Septien, a twisted, Southern Gothic family drama, Tully took on directing, writing and acting duties. And since 2008, the filmmaker has been head writer/editor of the indie-centric film website HammerToNail.com, reviewing and championing films of a similar ilk to his own.

What hasn't he done? Directed a long-gestating '80s throwback centered on the sport of ping pong -- a bucket list item he'll check off when his latest feature, Ping Pong Summer, premieres in the Sundance 2014 NEXT category. Starring John Hannah, Lea Thompson, Amy Sedaris and ping pong addict Susan Sarandon, Tully's latest film is described as Karate Kid-like … but with table tennis. If Septien added a wallop of weirdness when it played Sundance 2011, Ping Pong Summer should double down on Tully's imagination. Here, the director tells us how he put the project together, courted Sarandon and shot the film's tricky ping pong scenes.

Your last film, Septien, was a different breed of movie, toying with genre and tone to often abrasive degrees. So to hear your follow-up was a ping pong sports movie set in the '80s was both unexpected and totally reasonable.

[Nature Calls director] Todd Rohal called Ping Pong Summer the gateway drug to Septien. So he's kind of like, "Man, it's pretty tame or normal compared to Septien," and then some people are like, "Wow, that's weirder than Septien!" So I'm really just intrigued to see what happens.

Where did the idea come from?

I first had the idea for this movie in 1992 when I was a senior in high school, and back then it was a sort of period piece because it was an '80s movie, but it was just barely out of the '80s. And now obviously it's a Dirty Dancing-style real period piece. So I went to college at UMBC in Baltimore and got a film degree with the intention of "I'm graduating and I'm making Ping Pong Summer!" And that was in 1997 when I graduated, and every winter since 1997, in January or December, I would say, "I don't care how much money I have, it doesn't matter -- I'm making Ping Pong Summer. This is my debut; this is my Citizen Kane; it's what I was put on the map to do." And then by March, I'd be like, "OK, I have four dollars. I'm not doing it." And I'd rewrite it and rewrite it, every year at least once -- I rewrote this movie forever. And, it's just funny, the idea of it coming after Septien, even Cocaine Angel and Silver Jew. All of these other movies were just more doable on their terms -- even Septien, we shot it for under $100,000, much less than $100,000, committed to shooting on film. And that was just a reaction to seeing so many movies and writing about movies. I wanted to just try something that I would be like, "I don't think we're going to get rejected from a festival because there's another one like this in the pile" -- like the Capote syndrome. You know, like, "Oh, there's another movie about weird brothers on a farm?" So Ping Pong Summer is something that has been the reason I've wanted to make movies.

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Susan Sarandon is a huge ping pong advocate. Did she play an important part in pushing the movie forward?

She did! Initially the mentor figure, the kind of Mister Miyagi -- I wrote it for Werner Herzog to be the bleakest mentor in sports movie history. I just thought that would be funny. Years later, I just get bored with what I'm writing, and I thought, "Well, it's never a female," like that mentor figure, especially to a male, without there being some sort of warped sexuality going on. So we were thinking, "Well let's make her a female," and then we were thinking, "Well, what Oscar-winning actresses actually own a ping pong club?" It was like, "Her! Interesting."

So I wrote to Jay Duplass, who's a friend and he had directed Susan in Jeff, Who Lives at Home and I did a -- frankly I did a vetting. I was like, "Was she cool to work with? Is she nice?" Because I just don't want to work with psychopaths or crazy people. I have too many friends who have had nightmarish production experiences. And he just vouched for her right away. Jay was like, "She's totally cool. Send me the script. I'll check it out." And he actually responded to it and sent it to her. In hindsight, the Duplass recommendation was huge because just think of how many offers she's having to field. Susan got a little excited about the idea, and then I met with Susan right before Arbitrage at Sundance. And she watched Septien. If you told me a year ago that I'd be making Septien and that was my calling card for Susan Sarandon, I would have just been like, "Oh, here we go, great."

I was surprised to see the film in the NEXT category. After coming to Sundance with a number of films, I thought you'd be a lock for Competition.

In the past years there have been some period piece Competition films. I think it sets up a different expectation, whereas when we're in NEXT. I think those guys totally figured out the NEXT section by expanding to 10 movies last year and having It Felt Like Love and Computer Chess, and that for me was the most electrifying section. So this year, when Trevor [Groth, Sundance Director of Programming] called and we were talking about it, it just seemed like … the instinct is, when they started NEXT, I think it was a fiscal parameter, it was like $500,000 or less, or something. And our movie's low seven figures. It's still a comparatively very low-budget movie, but it doesn't seem like the initial definition of NEXT. But I think what they're doing -- especially this and last year, seeing Listen Up Philip, Alex [Ross Perry's] movie, and War Story, Mark Jackson's movie with Catherine Keener -- what they're doing is, it's becoming adventurous, the meeting between art house and entertainment.

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Septien felt like unfiltered personality. Do you see Ping Pong Summer being a similar extension of yourself?

It has been me all along. It's this 13- or 14-year-old who goes to Ocean City, Md., where I went growing up, and listens to rap music before License to Ill had dropped. So it was important to set the movie in 1985 because '86 is when the jocks in school would wear a Beastie Boys shirt and you were like, "Wait, you weren't doing that last year!" So all that stuff is super important. The Ocean City element, the hip-hop, and then playing ping pong -- I really love it. To this day I love playing ping pong. So it's all these things where Septien was more "let's pick some random movies and throw them in a blender of Spirit of the Beehive, Bad Ronald, and NFL films and see what happens." Then inject it with as much personal stuff -- not autobiographical, thankfully, but personal -- like football and sports, playing basketball and all that stuff. Whereas Ping Pong Summer is almost … it's not autobiographical, but it's deeply, deeply personal. And I just really hope when people watch it, they won't think, "Oh, these people are just trying to cash in and make a quirky Sundance movie that's cashing in on the '80s and ping pong." And you really don't know until you show it to the world whether they're going to dismiss it or not. But the reality is I made some money to make the movie that I've been talking about for 20 years, so pretty much the victory has already happened -- before we even premiere.

Is it a pain in the butt to shoot ping pong?

It was important to me to not do CGI or anything. I would rather them not be good at ping pong but really playing. That's just me. And the whole movie I think reflects that spirit of not trying to spruce it up. There's really no danger. A lot of the movies you see will just have a third act turn of "and then somebody almost dies." That doesn't really happen in this movie because that didn't reflect or respect my own upbringing. But the ping pong, we did a boot camp with the kids a month before. And they practiced and they got pretty good, but they're not totally awesome. It's 1985; it's an arcade. The bad guy is intimidating because he's a rich prick. It's not just about him being totally awesome. It's about his attitude of "I'm the rich guy in town." And we got a little bit from our producers. The film count was rising and rising for those days we were in there. But the editor Marc Vives, I'm totally in awe of what he did. He did most of that work to cut all that stuff together. I totally stand behind our decision not to have Matrix freeze-frame 360s and Balls of Fury, which I actually never saw because I was too close to ping pong.