'XOXO' Director Christopher Louie Talks Bringing His Rave Roots to Netflix
The EDM-themed film stars Graham Phillips, Sarah Hyland, and Chris D'Elia.
Sitting in the office of his Glendale home, Christopher Louie is having trouble remembering the name of a song from his youth, so naturally he heads to Google and types in its lyrics. Seconds later, he’s pulled up dance-pop singer Jocelyn Enriquez’s 1997 single “Do You Miss Me?” on YouTube and is singing along, chuckling with nostalgia. “It’s so cheesy!” he exclaims. Nevertheless, it was the first track to hook him on electronic music as a teenager; as he recalls, he spent much of his time looping its acid breakdown between his radio’s two tape decks.
Nearly two decades later, Louie is presenting his love of dance music on a much larger scale. Tomorrow (Aug. 26), he’s releasing his directorial debut, XOXO, a Netflix original film following multiple strangers around a fictional music festival reminiscent of Electric Daisy Carnival. Pitched to execs as “Dazed and Confused at a rave,” it’s a modern coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of a now-multibillion-dollar industry that was once an underground haven to outsiders like Louie in his youth.
“That was always my intention: to make a movie that defined what it’s like to be in this culture in 2016,” says Louie, though he admits, “I don’t know what it’s like [now]; I’m not 18 going to festivals anymore, but I’d like to think that even having gone from little warehouses to massive 140,000-people arenas, that it’s the same feeling.”
Growing up in Orange County, Louie was a hardcore/punk fan before he found dance music. Hearing Enriquez’s song prompted him to further explore the genre; most of his music taste was informed by local radio stations, namely Swedish Egil’s Groove Radio and late-night Power 106. Soon after, he attended his first rave at the now-closed San Bernardino Masterdome. He was 14. “I had no idea what to expect,” he says. “It was just super-exciting, going in there; the energy and collective effervescence was unlike anything I’d ever felt before.”
Seeing DJs such as Paulina Taylor, Mind Control, and DJ DNA at work inspired him to take up the craft for himself. Like his idols, Louie played happy hardcore, meshing pitched-up female pop vocals with frenetic rhythms that left dance floors out of breath. He even briefly partnered with a friend, DJ Notorious, and together they utilized an ambitious four-turntable setup, resulting in what Louie calls a “happy hardcore Girl Talk.” Soon enough, he, too, was making ravers sweat from behind the decks at the Masterdome.
DJing soon led to Louie learning how to play other instruments, and from there, to making his own music. Shooting videos for his tracks, he says, ultimately became more fun than making music itself, so he started making them for others, eventually working with artists such as Kid Cudi, Gnarls Barkley, and Death Cab for Cutie. Though Louie stopped DJing for crowds, his love of dance music itself never strayed. Over the years, he kept attending shows and watched trends roll into each other, from electro and progressive house to dubstep and trap, as the genre commenced a stateside takeover through festival lineups and high-profile collaborations between producers and top 40 singers.
In 2012, long-running Belgian electronic festival Tomorrowland released a FOMO-filled, 20-minute aftermovie that amassed over 2.5 million views in 24 hours. Louie looked past the impeccable production and instead saw an opportunity: “I remember watching it and being like, this is f—ing crazy. This is my world that I’ve grown up in and held close to my heart, but on a global scale. I’d always wanted to make a movie, but now there’s a market for it.”
That next year, he wrote the story that would become XOXO, and in 2014 was working with a writer on a script. While its ensemble cast — including Modern Family’s Sarah Hyland, The Good Wife’s Graham Phillips, and Undateable’s Chris D’Elia — has star power, someone even more notable was working behind the scenes: BBC radio icon, DJ, and revered tastemaker Pete Tong, who signed on as the film’s music supervisor.
“Meeting Chris was what convinced me to get involved with XOXO,” Tong tells Billboard. “He’s a genuine fan and has history with the Southern Californian electronic scene. … He had a very clear vision of what he wanted to represent on the screen from day one.”
To Louie, authenticity was key, but it would also prove to be an obstacle when making the film. The portrayal of drug use deterred many potential financiers from taking on the project, until Netflix eventually picked it up. Likewise, major event promoters refused to associate with the production for fear of attracting negative press from the taboo subject matter. (Ultimately, XOXO was allowed to shoot at three festivals, though Louie won’t say which ones.) “The idea to water it down never occurred to me,” he says. “I was never going to do a movie without drugs, and I was never going to do it in a different way than I’d intended. It was trying to manage the system to let us tell that story authentically, using the real space. It was difficult.”
Less of a tall task was compiling the soundtrack, a vital component to a film about music. While writing the script, Louie became enamored of Michael Brun’s 2013 single “Halfway,” its youthful yet nostalgic sounds setting the overall tone of the film. When Tong came on, he set Louie up with Brun to create what would be the film’s anthemic lead song, “All I Ever Wanted.” Overall, the soundtrack is a strong representation of today’s electronic landscape, from crossover heavyweights such as Jack Ü, Disclosure and Galantis to newer names like Yotto, Icarus and Hitchhiker.
“It was always about a balance of the known and unknown,” Tong says, but money was also a factor. With such big-name artists on the bill, most of the film’s small budget was spent on song licensing, but Louie claims the soundtrack’s stacked roster is largely due to Tong’s relationships and taste-making abilities. In addition to his radio and DJ skills, he has past experience as music supervisor: He oversaw cult film classics including 24 Hour Party People, All Gone Pete Tong and Human Traffic, all of which offer a snapshot of dance culture during the late '90s and early oughts. However, as he wrote last year in an op-ed for Billboard, none of these films became dance music’s equivalent of Saturday Night Fever, which is credited for bringing disco mainstream.
Even last year, well into dance music’s U.S. resurgence — and well into production of XOXO — We Are Your Friends, the film starring Zac Efron as a DJ/producer aiming for the big time, was all but primed to cement the genre’s status in pop culture. But despite backing from Warner Bros. and enlisting artists such as Alesso, Dillon Francis and Nicky Romero for consultation and cameos, it proved a historical box-office failure.
How can XOXO get dance music films back on track? “Perception is so important,” replies Tong. While having a director with rave roots is a strong asset, where he feels the film will succeed is in capturing the relatable festival experiences of the fans themselves. “If it connects with people that [go to festivals],” he says, “it will have credibility.”
For Tong, XOXO’s success would be a big step in his long-term mission to see dance music and culture better represented in film and television. For Louie, meanwhile, it’s about defining a culture while also validating his life’s passion in his own way.
“Being part of this scene my whole life, and knowing the hurdles I went through to make the film exactly how I wanted to make it, at the end of the day, the people who are going to hate on it were going to hate on it anyway,” he says. “I’ve always had full confidence that the story I was going to tell was 100 percent authentic. So f— ‘em if they want to say negative shit. I grew up in this world. There’s nobody better to tell this story than me.”
This story first appeared on Billboard.com.