How actor-turned-director Max Minghella created his musical Cinderella story, Teen Spirit
The Handmaid's Tale star merged his "melancholic personality" with his love of pop on his debut feature film
In 2011, British actor Max Minghella starred alongside George Clooney in the political drama The Ides of March. After the filming, Minghella recalled a strange comment from Clooney, one he couldn't discern as a compliment or not: "He kept telling me that I had to direct a film. He was quite insistent about it, and it meant a lot to me, but I don't know why he said that."
After all, there was no way Clooney knew Minghella had secretly begun writing a script to a film. That script, which took 10 years to complete and shoot, would become his directorial debut, Teen Spirit, out April 19.
Minghella, perhaps best known now for his role as Nick Blaine on The Handmaid's Tale, said he didn't always have the ambition to direct a film. (His father, Anthony, is an Oscar-winning director, who has directed films such as The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley.) But the story of Teen Spirit, a coming-of-age tale about a teenage girl (played by Elle Fanning) who enters a televised singing competition, was an idea that he kept revisiting.
"It's very much inspired by those traditional Cinderella stories, merged with my very melancholic personality," he explained, during a Toronto International Film Festival roundtable interview back in September 2018, when the film made its premiere. "There's a lot of Disney movies that I thought about while making this film, a lot of Lizzie McGuire in this film, and a lot of High School Musical in this film."
The references Minghella lists are apparent in the film, but not obvious. Teen Spirit is, in many ways, the opposite of a Disney flick. It explores the dark underbelly of fame and the entertainment industry, both in protagonist Violet's relentless pursuit of winning this competition but also in industry gatekeepers who exploit young people's hunger for success.
At the center of it all, though, is the relationship between Violet and her coach/mentor, Vlad (played by Zlatko Buric). Vlad, a retired opera singer who gets roped into Violet's world as a fake relative who signs off on her audition slip when her mother refuses to, provides important insight along the way, keeping Violet focused on the prize at hand. He's a figure who acts as a composite of many people in Minghella's life: "My life has been very informed by key friendships and mentors, people who have been very patient and very supportive of me, and Vlad is an amalgamation of those people."
A movie like Teen Spirit, of course, relies heavily on music, and the soundtrack Minghella was able to round up — thanks to producer Fred Berger's relationship with Interscope Records after his success on the film La La Land — is a delight for pop fans. Grimes, Tegan and Sara, Katy Perry, Sigrid, Ellie Goulding, Robyn and an original song by Carly Rae Jepsen and Jack Antonoff are all featured in the film, with Fanning performing all her covers. For Minghella, who said pop music is "a medicine in life," it was a dream for him to be able to fit all that music in. But he did have some reservations about Fanning's ability to pull off this ambitious feat, especially since this is her first major role to involve extensive singing.
"I knew she could sing, but we didn't know if she was going to get her voice to where she got it," he said. Fanning, according to Minghella, aggressively pursued the role and submitted a video of her performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival to prove she had what it took to transform into a pop star.
And with intense daily singing lessons, Minghella said Fanning really "stepped up and it allowed us to be a lot more ambitious with the movie than I was ever planning on being." That included performing songs like Robyn's "Dancing on my Own" and Sigrid's "Don't Kill my Vibe" live. On Fanning's part, she has said that she drew lots of inspiration from watching Katy Perry and Taylor Swift videos as well as channelling her inner Kanye West and Rihanna, especially in the film's big finale number.
The result is an exhilarating journey that isn't afraid to interrogate, but also have fun with, the glitz and glam of the music world. Shot beautifully, almost as if it was an extended music video fever dream, Minghella proves that he has the skills and vision to pull off a feature film. And even though he didn't always have the ambition to tackle filmmaking, he said the experience was rather instinctive. "I find it a much more natural mechanism than acting," he mused. "When I go back to set now as an actor I realize I have to reach a little bit further to find the tools to do it. There's something about directing that just feels organic."