Minnesota writer Benjamin Percy is best known for his horror novels, science fiction, picture books, and audio dramas. He’s also written screenplays, and now one of them, co-written by independent filmmaker James Ponsoldt, has been made into a movie.
Ponsoldt’s “Summering” begins locally on August 12.
It’s a story about coming of age that follows four girls about to enter middle school. On the last day of summer vacation they found a dead body. Then they decide to play the role of a detective to try to find out more about the life of the mysterious man.
Percy told Jacob Alloy of MPR News about the film’s inspiration.
What follows is a transcript of their conversation. Edited for length and clarity.
What inspired the movie?
Like every idiot father, I was really excited to introduce my kids to the stories that meant so much to me growing up. I have a daughter who is now 13 years old. Her name is Madeline. She was 11 years old at the beginning of this process.
I was showing her movies like “The Goonies”, “Stand by me” and “The Outsiders”. I used to read her books like “The Hobbit” and “Where Does the Red Fern Grow”. And she was always really grateful, saying how much she loved the stories, but she also softened that with constant criticism. “Where are the girls?” You will ask.
And one day I found her on the family computer, and she was furiously typing away. I asked her what she was going to do, and she indicated the title of the story, and it was “The Girl Hobbit”. And the first line, I’m slaying her, but she went something like, “This story may sound familiar to you, but it’s about a hobbit girl.”
In the same spirit of revision, James Ponsoldt and I set out to write “Summering.”
In something I read you mentioned that this is a love letter to your daughter?
This is correct. The movie, if you stick to the end of the credits, is for our girls. So you’ll see that they’re listed at the end, like Alice and Madeline. And they were very much involved in this whole process. I’ve talked to Madeleine about it from the start. She gave me feedback and ideas, and in a way, she felt like a co-author.
The dialogue reminds me of those difficult years before middle school. How did you pick up the core of it?
This is a story about a specific time period of the year. It’s the last weekend of summer before fall begins, before middle school begins. It is also a defining time of life. They’re moving from that safe little elementary school, to the wilds of middle school where we all know, things can be turbulent and confusing, both emotionally and physically.
So we wanted to channel the spirit of the medium… and that goes for the girls’ transformation over the course of the story. They grapple with the hard realities of adulthood, and in order to capture that spirit, we consulted the women in our lives. James and I realized that we have a lot of blind spots.
Only locally here in Minnesota, I connect with a lot of moms. I had for example Jessica Peterson White, owner of Content Books in Northfield, sitting and discussing the project from the time it first started and I consulted with her about the scripts as they were being drafted. I did the same with Michelle Martin, who is a teacher and taught Madeleine in the fourth and fifth grades. And these are just two examples of the dozens of women we asked to consult about the script and told them to be as brutally honest as possible.
This piece is your start as a screenwriter. How did you feel about making this transformation?
I’m a movie nerd. I’m a TV nerd. It has been an absolute pleasure to get to this point and like everything in my career it has been incremental. I started writing short stories, and I gave up short stories for magazines. Then she started publishing novels and comics and penetrated the world of podcasts and audio dramas.
Now I write TV shows like Urban Cowboy for Paramount Plus and I have Summering now. I now have a pilot writing about “The Ninth Metal”, that’s one of my novels. I’ve been working on this for a long time and have had a lot of rejection and none along the way, but this is one of the things that really helps you appreciate success when it comes.
While this movie has a lot of elements of horror and suspense, what is the reason to change the tone to an upcoming story, when you are so well known for its horror and suspense stories?
Certainly, there are elements of horror in this. You think you know what this movie is about, but then we pull the rug out from under you. As children, they imaginatively rehearse for adulthood and what does that mean if you engage in this fantasy rehearsal, but all the stories I’ve encountered feature women victimized in a horror or crime story, or absent women in an adventure story?
So, the whole thing is kind of challenging for that. But in terms of my typical catalog of stories, I’m known for writing thrillers. I’m known for writing horror and sci-fi, and it was really cool, to be honest, to show off a few different muscles. The past few years have been hard on everyone…This story has been medical for me, and therapeutic for James and me. As we wrote this, it was really fun to work in a different kind of situation, not just traffic in chaos. You know, it’s a sweet story. It is a hopeful story.
What is the one thing you want to transfer to him [audiences] About the movie?
Is this a kid movie? yes. Is this also a story for adults? Yes, and hopefully what happens is that this fluidity is multigenerational because it is as much about mothers as it is about daughters. Hopefully this multigenerational flow will result in a lot of good conversations when people leave the stage. Hopefully this is something that families really interact with.