Chatting with April Wright of BACK TO THE DRIVE-IN

The film is another chapter in Wright’s love letter to her favorite moviegoing experience.

Back to the Drive-In is the latest from filmmaker April Wright, and is a sequel of sorts to her 2013 documentary Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie. While most would have probably thought the saga of the drive-in might have ended there, no one saw COVID coming. With it, drive-ins became the singular way for audiences to collectively experience the latest Hollywood blockbuster while still practicing social distancing. This added an abrupt new chapter in the history of the drive-in that Wright documented in her charming doc, now out on VOD.

Back to the Drive-In is an intimate look at a day in the life of a few once thriving drive-ins, post-2020. Given their growth spurt during COVID, we visit a few that are definitely readjusting to life now that multiplexes are opening back up. Wright does an excellent job at digging into the humanity of the people behind the screen to give us interviews and a quick state of the industry.

I was a big fan of Wright’s excellent documentary Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story, which led me to check out her drive-in docs. It was a lot of fun to discuss drive-ins and her next moves.

Cinapse: I love that your film isn’t just about drive-ins, but more of a message about keeping these institutions open. When and why did you decide to return to this subject?

April Wright: My very first documentary was the whole history, starting with the invention to the peak, to all the ups and downs over the years. So I thoroughly covered the historic angle and I wanted to, as the title implies, go back to the drive-in, to visit it again, to really look at the people who are behind the scenes, because I realized practically all the drive-ins that are left are family-owned businesses.

I wanted to show all of the passion and hard work and determination that goes into keeping them alive. I was planning on doing it even before COVID, but then when COVID hit, it actually added another layer to the story. I thought I should get on the road and try to show that it wasn’t all like it seemed in the press, like drive-ins were doing great. They were the only venue in town for a while, but there were a lot of other challenges going on behind the scenes that people didn’t realize. So I wanted to pull back the curtain.

Hopefully once people watch it, if they want drive-ins to stick around, they should understand that they need to get off their couches and go support them.

What do you think is special about the drive-in experience, and what differentiates it from the theatrical experience?

It is more of a total experience than when you go to an indoor theater, which of course I do a lot as well. But that’s primarily about seeing a movie and you can get your popcorn and some of them even serve drinks now.

But when you go to an outdoor theater, to a drive-in, it really is a whole evening out. Most drive-ins play double features. Usually the food is a lot better than the indoor theaters and there’s a lot more variety. Also, you can talk with the people that you’re with, so it is a more communal experience.

I just feel like when I go to a drive-in, I’m in a magical place where great things are going to happen. So it’s this elevated experience and for most people that I talk to, when I say I’m making movies on this topic, they tell me they remember going to the drive-in when they were a little kid.

So I think it just creates a shared memory in a different way.

Shooting this film sounds like the ultimate vacation, going from drive-in to drive-in. How did you decide which drive-ins you would focus on and plan that out through shooting?

Yeah, it actually was a pretty cool road trip and actually it’s kind of funny, because when I made my first drive-in documentary, I did drive across the country and back twice.

I’m from Chicago but I’m based in L.A., so I took the southern route and back one summer and then the next summer I took the northern route and back. So I had pretty thoroughly explored the country, went to as many drive-ins as I could. I went to every state except Alaska. I still haven’t been there yet. They did have drive-ins, but I just haven’t been there.

I ended up visiting over 500 drive-in locations, including open, closed, abandoned remnants, former sites to see what is there today.

When it came time to make this movie, I knew the lay of the land pretty well and I also, over the years, have had the opportunity to meet a lot of drive-in owners and just kind of keep tabs on the industry. I felt like it was important to show a good variety of different types of drive-ins and a different cross section, because I wanted to show different perspectives on what they were dealing with during the pandemic.

I was just trying to show all the different types of drive-ins, thinking I would hear really different things and surprisingly, even though they all have their own unique aspects, people started telling me the same stories. That they were having a hard time getting employees, that some of the customers were unruly, that they couldn’t get their popcorn containers. So it was kind of funny. As much as I tried to just show all these different points of view, I realized, oh, they’re all in the same struggle together.

It was cool to see the aesthetics of all the old drive-ins, but I also loved how you got to the core of the human story and how you structured the film, letting us experience a night in the life of these folks. Was that always the plan or did that come together in the edit?

I did kind of fall into that in the edit, because I think when I was heading out, like I said, I was trying to get different perspectives and so I thought I might be grouped around topics. But once I realized that the topics were kind of the same, you know, I also realized each drive-in kind of had its own mini storyline. One of the obvious ones was the Wellfleet Drive-In with the fog rolling in, and what impact was that going to have on the night? So that was a great plot line. Then the Harvest Moon was really about just the expanding family because they had a new baby and the other brother had gotten married, and so they were sort of moving into new generations. And the Brazos in Texas, that owner was wanting to sell the place. So she was much more, you know, reminiscing about all of her years owning this drive-in.

Do you have a favorite double feature that you remember seeing on the big screen back in the day?

Not really. People always ask me this. But we went to drive-ins a lot, so it was a very common part of my childhood, so there’s no specific movie that stands out. What I can really remember as a kid is just sort of the smell of the snack bar, the popcorn popping.

When I went back to one of my childhood drive-ins, which was the Keno in Kenosha, Wisconsin, I went to the snack bar and I was like, oh, how weird, this is different than I remembered. And I realized I was blending all the ones I went to as a kid in my mind together into sort of one big drive-in.

I used to love the playground they had in front of the screen, which I guess, from watching your documentary, was a pretty common thing.

My parents were divorced, so my mom took us a lot by herself, so she wouldn’t let us go up to the playground by ourselves. We had to stick together, so we never got to go play on the playground. It was very rare if we got to do that. It’s a spotty, vague memory, but I remember it having a train that went around the edge.

And of course we could never go on that because my mom wanted to keep sight on us. So there were a couple things that I always felt like I missed. Like I never really got to fully do the playground and I didn’t get to do the train ride. And then as I got older it was kind of like, did I make up the train ride? Was that really a thing? Like, that seems crazy now. Like there would be a train that would go around the drive-in. Well there was, so I didn’t make it up.

So what do you have planned next, a documentary or a narrative feature?

I’m working on a whole bunch of projects that are both narrative and documentary. But I’m gonna do [a documentary on] amusement parks that are regional or family-owned, sort of mom and pop amusement parks. There used to be so many of those. There’s a few left, but not as many as there used to be.

Wow, count me in! Knoebels has to be my favorite park in that category.

I went to Knoebels when I was shooting this documentary because I was shooting B-roll. I think that’s the best one that’s been family-owned and is still going. It also used to have a roller rink there as part of the park, and that’s another topic I’m doing, roller rinks. That was my family’s business that I grew up in. My family had a roller rink, and also bowling alleys. So, the mom and pop amusement parks, bowling alleys, and roller rinks are on my radar.

Also related to my previous film about stunt women, I’m helping a friend right now finish up a documentary about girl skateboarders who are making their mark in that industry.

You never know what’s gonna get the traction. You just have to put a lot of work in and lay the groundwork and then finally it’s like, oh, this project’s gonna happen. So I have a bunch going right now.

Back to the Drive-In is now available on VOD.

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