Interview with Mike Cramer, director of ‘Teenage Ghost Punk’

Awhile back, I reviewed the fun, indie supernatural romantic comedy Teenage Ghost Punk. Recently, I was giving the opportunity to talk to its director, Mike Cramer. We talked about his films, the movies and filmmakers he loves and what the future holds for him. Check it out!

PopHorror: What made you want to direct films?

Mike Cramer: I wanted to direct because directing films is about 20 kinds of fun! But I first became a director because making a movie was the best way to tell a particular story I wanted to tell. I work by day as a lawyer, but I’ve always been driven by a need to create art and tell stories. Over the years, I’ve done improv comedy, political cartooning, and paintings and installations for art shows.

Several years back, I wanted to tell the story of a very quirky, charismatic baseball player from the 1970s – Mark “The Bird” Fidrych – through the eyes of a fan. I had seen lots of lawyers write excellent screenplays that never got made into movies, so when I wrote Dear Mr. Fidrych, I decided to make the movie myself. Making Dear Mr. Fidrych was lots of fun, and a major learning experience. The movie won some awards in a few festivals, and the film-making experience prompted me to want to make more movies.

PopHorror: What are some of your favorite films and directors?

Mike Cramer: So many. I really like Richard Linklater’s work, especially his super-realistic, quintessentially human movies like Boyhood and the Before Sunrise/Before Midnight trilogy. I love Wes Anderson’s catalog. He creates extremely detailed, specific environments and characters; they’re weird and cool, and they are just similar enough to – and different from – the environments we inhabit and the people we encounter. There is something really magical about them. It’s hard to single out one favorite Wes Anderson film, but Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Rushmore all leap to mind.

I also love a lot of movies by two alumni of Chicago’s improv comedy scene – Jon Favreau and Adam McKay. They both know how to combine really stupid humor with incredibly smart humor to brilliant, hilarious effect, like in Favreau’s Elf or McKay’s Step Brothers. They can also weave smart-ass humor into an action movie – Favreau’s Iron Man – or a more serious, topical film – McKay’s The Big Short. Harold Ramis was a brilliant writer and director. Groundhog Day and the original Ghostbusters are both magical. Finally, looking farther back, I love Hitchcock and Frank Capra. Capra’s movies are creative and beautiful, and although they recognize how terribly flawed human beings are, they have an unabashed sincerity and hopefulness that I love. I’ve probably seen Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life more times than other film.

PopHorror: Let’s talk about Dear Mr. Fidrych. What inspired the film?

Mike Cramer: The late Mark “The Bird” Fidrych was just one of the coolest, funniest, most heroic figures of the 1970s – especially for a nerdy Detroit kid who loved baseball. That’s Marty, the protagonist in Dear Mr. Fidrych; it was also me. I wanted to meet The Bird, get to know him a little bit, and tell his story through the eyes of a fan, and I got to do that.

PopHorror: Where did the idea for Teenage Ghost Punk come from?

Mike Cramer: I was walking around my neighborhood late at night thinking about all the generations of people who had lived in the neighborhood’s 100-year-old plus houses. I started thinking about ghosts, and how ghosts in movies are usually from the 1800s or earlier. I thought it’d be fun to do a ghostly love story where – instead of reliving the Civil War or rattling ancient chains – the main ghost plays punk rock on a Fender Telecaster. The movie naturally became about bridging gaps across generations, across culture and background, and across the divide between our world and whatever place or dimension ghosts may inhabit. It then also became about being able to let go and move on.

PopHorror: How did you find your lead actors for the film?

Mike Cramer: Chicago is full of acting talent. It’s the epicenter of improv; it’s got an incredible theatre scene and they shoot a decent number of TV shows and movies here. Oak Park, the leafy old suburb where TGP is set, is a diverse and creative community, home to lots of actors and musicians and really good middle school and high school theatre programs. I drew from those communities and got lucky with a really talented cast.

Adria Dawn, who plays the mom (Carol) worked in TV in LA for 10 years before coming back to Chicago to teach acting. She was one of about 20 women who auditioned for that part. I wrote the Ghost Punk role with my son, Jack Cramer, in mind. He is a talented actor who can play the guitar and really does love The Clash. I created the character of Squatchie for Jack’s friend and former bandmate Jake Shadrake, and wrote the part of Medium Madame Lidnar hoping Jake’s mom, Lynda Shadrake, would take the part. She’s a highly accomplished stage actress and comedian. Grace Madigan (Amanda) and Rachel Pospisil (Carly) had acted in school plays with Jack. They were just 10th graders when we shot the movie. We only auditioned one kid for the little brother (Adam), and that was Noah Kitsos. He just nailed it.

The male members of SPIT were part of a Chicago improv team called Octavarious. They created my favorite web series ever, I Made America – a time travel comedy about the founding fathers – before anyone ever heard of Hamilton. I met Courtney Blomquist, who plays Kourtney, the only woman in SPIT, when she waited on my wife and me at a restaurant. Most of the SPIT folks moved to LA after we shot, and SPIT member Keith Habersberger has become really popular on Buzzfeed. He makes really funny improvised reality videos.

PopHorror: What made you want to play the role of the detective?

Mike Cramer: Who hasn’t wanted to play a detective, right? I wanted to give myself a pretty small part, because I don’t much like to direct myself, and I thought it would be fun to play a detective who’s a real salt-of-the-earth Chicago guy.

PopHorror: What was it like shooting Teenage Ghost Punk? Was it difficult acting and directing?

Mike Cramer: Shooting was really fun because pretty much everyone in the cast and crew was fun and easy to work with. Pizzas were eaten; jokes were cracked; mild insults were hurled.

But it was also somewhat stressful because no shooting day or night was ever leisurely. We shot most of the movie on location in the house you see in the film, and, because of everyone’s busy schedules and our budget, we needed to be very fast and efficient. DP Derek Cox and co-producer Dan Finnen were fantastic in this environment. Fun, funny, and very professional, but able to work quickly and on the fly. In addition to always being on set with a lean but competent crew, Dan and Derek also both brought their own ideas and vision to the movie. It ended up being very collaborative and I think it’s definitely a better movie because they never hesitated to share ideas or provide input. Sometimes Derek and I would argue a little bit about a shot; sometimes we’d end up doing it my way but lots of times we ended up doing it Derek’s way.

I didn’t give myself a very taxing part to play. I love getting to play a part, but I do find it hard to direct myself. Much easier to direct other people.

PopHorror: I loved all the characters in the film. Which character is your favorite?

Mike Cramer: Thanks so much! I worked hard to create vivid characters. I wanted them all to be pretty realistic, even if they’re in unrealistic situations in a pretty silly movie.

It’s really hard to pick a favorite because I have affection for all of these characters. My wife tried to persuade me to write Barry (the sexual harasser at Carol’s workplace) out of the movie, but lots of people love him. Lots of people also love Squatchie. He’s just a really sincere guy who’s initially misunderstood – much like Brian the ghost. Like many fans who’ve commented, I really like the precocious Adam, with his weird hand-crafted colloquialisms and his collection of amusing t-shirts.

But we get to learn the most about the three main characters, and all three teach things to each other. Brian deals with what it really means to be a ghost. Amanda and her Mom – with some help from each other and Brian – point their lives in new and better directions. When Carol connects with her daughter and her own younger self, it enables her to move beyond her deep regrets and self doubt and start to let herself live. Amanda broadens her interests from cheerleading and high school jocks to punk rock, Hemingway, Shakespeare, and ghosts. You get the sense she’s only going to keep growing and getting more interesting.

PopHorror: Now that film has finally been released, the response has been pretty positive. How does that make you feel?

Mike Cramer: I love it. It’s really fun and gratifying to see the hard work equal out to positive user ratings on places like Amazon and IMDb, reviews coming from Scotland, England, and indie and horror critics across the US.

PopHorror: If you could work with anyone in the film industry, who would it be?

Mike Cramer: There are so many creative and talented people whom I’d be honored and thrilled to work. It is very hard to name one. I doubt Jimmy Stewart’s ghost is hanging around haunting anyone, but if he is, I’d love to work with him.

PopHorror: Any upcoming projects?

Mike Cramer: Oh, for sure. I’ve got basic outlines sketched out for about eight different screenplays, and I’m currently writing a project where I can really use my experience as a lawyer in creating the atmosphere, the characters and the story. No baseball. No ghosts. Something completely different.

About Charlie Cargile

Indianapolis based Horror journalist. Lover of most things Horror (especially Indie), Pop Punk and the strange and unusual.

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