In Interview, Writer/Director Michael Tully Calls ‘Ping Pong Summer’ His ‘Heartfelt Love Letter To Ocean City’

“Ping Pong Summer” writer and director Michael Tully, center, is pictured with his family at last Friday’s local premiere of the movie at the Fox Sun N Surf 8 Cinema. Photo by Jeanette Deskiewicz “Ping Pong Summer” writer and director Michael Tully, center, is pictured with his family at last Friday’s local premiere of the movie at the Fox Sun N Surf 8 Cinema. Photo by Jeanette Deskiewicz

OCEAN CITY – From first introducing “Ping Pong Summer” to the Town of Ocean City in the summer of 2012 to the film hitting big screens today, Michael Tully sits down with The Dispatch to speak of all the milestones along the way.

Tully is the writer and director of “Ping Pong Summer,” a coming-of-age story set in the summer of 1985 about a ping pong and hip-hop obsessed teenage boy on a family vacation to Ocean City. Tully wrote the story and directed the film based on his own experiences on summer family vacations in the resort while growing up in Mt. Airy, Md.

In June of 2012, Ocean City was first introduced to the story of “Ping Pong Summer” when Tully and producers pitched the movie concept and sought the public’s help in financing it. In August of 2012, both Worcester County and Ocean City agreed to contribute $100,000 toward the production in the belief that the movie would be a boon for attracting visitors to the area.

The movie was shot entirely in the Ocean City area and wrapped up shooting on the day before Hurricane Sandy arrived in the resort in late October 2012. The film features many prominent and historic locations in Ocean City including, of course, the Boardwalk, Trimper’s, Old Pro Golf, Paul Revere’s Smorgasbord, Phillips, the King’s Arms Motel, the Greene Turtle, Hooper’s and many others. Also featured prominently in the film are many locals who served as extras, while Worcester Preparatory School student Emmi Shockley has a prominent role as the main character’s love interest.

Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon, who has starred in Dead Man Walking and Thelma and Louise, Lea Thompson, known for her lead role in Back to the Future and television series Caroline in the City, and John Hannah who starred in The Mummy and television series Spartacus, also star in the film among many others.

The film opened to rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival this year and has been shown on a limited basis and other venues and festivals. It is scheduled to open nationally today, June 6, in 15 cities including New York, Los Angeles and Boston, for example. Closer to home, the film will open for the public’s viewing in Ocean City, Bethany Beach and Rehoboth. In addition, the film will be released on-demand by cable providers.

“Ping Pong Summer” held a red carpet premiere in Ocean City at the Sun and Surf Theater last Saturday hosted by Gravitas Ventures, which is handling the release of the film and its premiere in the resort.

On Wednesday The Dispatch caught up with Tully on his adventure creating “Ping Pong Summer.”

 

Q: From the beginning you have said the nostalgia of Ocean City has been preserved, and it was important for you to capture the town as it was in the 80’s. Did you find that easy while filming, or did you find yourself having to tweak different locations?

A: With a low budget film, you sort of have to pick and choose your battles as far as what you going to build versus finding locations, so the Fun Hub arcade, which is the primary set, was a build for the team but the rest of it I knew we had to shoot somewhere that we wouldn’t have to do a ton of manipulating. I brought in to my production team family photos, and we were referencing those as much if not more than the typical things we would associate with, like other movies. We were just looking at my photos from childhood and the department heads were pretty shocked to discover that things really haven’t changed, at least at the locations. Many of the locations where we ended up shooting were all preserved.

A funny story is the first day we were shooting on the Boardwalk. By the end of the day, I didn’t know who was an extra and who was just there in Ocean City. At one point, I was looking around, and there were no cell phones, and even the shorts didn’t look as long as they are in the 21st Century, so I said, “Just start shooting.” It was fun for us.

 

Q: It was also important for you to hold local auditions to fill the younger character roles with local kids. Why was that?

A: I had been working on this movie for 20 years and it shaped and shifted so much but when it shook out when we sat down to finally make it I decided to keep in mind my own personal experience. The experience for me became, what would happen if you inserted a normal well-adjusted functional family into an 80’s movie, or any independent film period in 2014. We are taught that drama must have extreme conflict but that was the challenge because in my upbringing there was ups and downs but it was all in my head. I had a really loving and protecting family, so … I wanted to make a movie that was honest to my own upbringing and I think I did that.

 

Q: Some big names star in the movie, such as Susan Sarandon, Lea Thompson and John Hannah. Was it difficult to have them commit to a low budget film?

A: Everyone did work for far less than their usual salaries to make this movie because they liked the spirit and energy of it. Susan was the first name that we had attached, and when she committed based on her love of ping pong … that really legitimized our ability to go out to other agents and other actors.

When people saw Susan Sarandon is in it, they realize there has to be some sort of credibility to it. When I realized these big actors were coming to Ocean City to be in this little personal movie I made, it was a real trip but a good one.

 

Q: What was your reaction when you found out “Ping Pong Summer” was going to premiere at Sundance Film Festival?

A: It was a huge level of relief. So many people are cramming to finish their movies and they don’t know they get in until Thanksgiving weekend, but we had finished the movie in June of 2013. Because of my previous film had been in Sundance, I am friendly with those guys, and the one thing that is really cool but scary about Sundance is they want nothing more than to support their alumni but they are not going to program your movie just because you had a movie there before. I had this feeling from the summer, but as the months turned to fall and I kept seeing rough cuts of friends’ movies that were really awesome and I hadn’t heard from Sundance I had totally psyched myself out and was convinced we weren’t going to get in, and then a week before Thanksgiving I got the call that we were in.

It was a huge relief because it is truly like winning the lottery. There are thousands of movies that are submitted and only about 100 get in. I have been going every year since 2008 as a journalist, and one year as a filmmaker, and just to have those wide eyes of knowing I will be going back to Park City in the cold in the winter and showing everyone this heartfelt love letter to Ocean City, Md., was super exciting or me.

 

Q: It was said the film received a standing ovation at Sundance. What went through your head at that moment?

A: I was so insecure about it, so I decided not to watch it. I had watched it with about two crowds in theatre so I knew what the experience was like but to remain positive and optimistic I actually sat it out and sat in the green room and talked to our publicist and hung out. I would peak my head in every now and then and hear the crowd laughing and connecting, you could just tell the room was electric and people were smiling.

After 20 years, well technically 22 years since the title “Ping Pong Summer” came into my brain, it was just a huge relief, so more than just a proactive excitement. I was just breathing big, big breaths, an exhale of relief.

 

Q: Shortly after Sundance it was announced “Ping Pong Summer” had been acquired by Gravitas Ventures. How did it feel to find out your work was going to hit the big screen?

A: That was great as well. I write about movies for a living for a website called Hammer to Nail, so I have taken on this role to write and talk about other movies that don’t get much attention, and ours firmly qualifies in that realm. I know we have movie stars but we are still not one of these corporations, big studio, that has $100 million in advertising, and Gravitas is a smaller company but have a connection to the material as a lot of them are from Philly and know Ocean City really well, and their excitement for the movie and commitment on a humble but genuine sincere scale was really what won it out of the other offers.

Gravitas just felt right, and now that we are leading up to the release they have gone above and beyond the things they are contractually obligated to do, and that makes me really excited. With the way the world is heading with independent films, this is a real lottery win for us, and we should all be incredibly grateful and hopeful for what comes. I am not going to have any regrets.

 

Q: Last week was the big premiere of “Ping Pong Summer” in Ocean City. What was it like to witness the local crowd seeing their home town on the big screen?

A: Everybody had smiles. Joe Kroart from the Ocean City Gallery looked at me very sincerely and said, ‘you captured Ocean City’, so someone like Joe Kroart, who is an Ocean City institution, I could sense the sincerity in his eyes, and that to me was enough to make me feel really good.

It was a great night. To return to Ocean City for that it just felt like a really fun, good bookend. I really hope everyone in Ocean City will take the plunge and go see this movie because it is really a love letter to their town that I love earnestly and sincerely. There is no irony for my love of Ocean City.

 

Q: “Ping Pong Summer” will be released in theatres and Video on Demand (VOD) on Friday. Where will it be in theatres and what is coming up for the film next?

A: It will be shown on 17 screens but the big thing is the VOD world. As of Friday, everybody in the country will be able to be part of the conversation to talk about this movie but those VOD numbers are not reported publically, so really the box office still matters. For specialty releases that are not opening in hundreds of theatres across the country, it is very, very important to go see it in theatres that opening weekend.

For me the real heart and soul will be the movies played in the Maryland area, so we are going to be on two screens in Baltimore, at the AFI Silver just outside of Washington D.C., at the Sun and Surf in Ocean City, and in a few theatres in Delaware, such as Rehoboth. I feel those places are where our movie is going to perform well, and if we have a good showing that is when the distributor gets excited and tries to book more theatres. Throughout the summer, we are going to book other theatres like in Miami and Philadelphia but as far as immediately booking theaters in the next week, this weekend is crucial. So if you are not near one of these theatres in the area travel the 50 minute, drive to take the risk. Take your family, go to the theatre, buy a ticket, and support independent cinema made in Maryland.

 

Q: Both the Town of Ocean City and Worcester County committed $100,000 towards the funding of the film based on promises a return in investment will be seen through tourism, taxes and exposure. Do you believe those promises are being fulfilled?

A: I think between the VOD, theatrical, the deal we made out of Sundance, and the money we invested in the economy just based on all-you-can-eat crab feasts for the crew alone during the weeks of filming, I think we are probably getting pretty close. When all is said and done with what happens in the next month or two, I do think the city and county will feel like their investment was worthwhile.

We had 31 investors for this project, so whether it is the city or county, or the older woman in Annapolis, I feel a real personal obligation that I would love to see everyone get an investment return. The fact that Ocean City and Worcester County invested in this is almost a miracle and unprecedented, but I think we are getting pretty close and when all is said and done everyone who is was an investor in this movie will feel proud and reimbursed. That is my hope.

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