When Rebecca Thomas took the stage at the IFC Theatre on March 4th for the New York City premiere of her first feature film Electrick Children, there was no lengthy thank you speech or superfluous explanation for what the audience was about to see. She uttered softly into the microphone, “I’m so nervous right now.” The audience responded with endearing laughter and applause.
A few days later, Thomas met with me to discuss the film at a bustling café in the West Village. The 28-year-old director, who might appear timid at first, offered a beaming smile and a quietly confident tone that makes her as engaging as she is relatable. Thomas seemed both relieved and exhausted after nearly a year of promoting the film, including premieres at 2012 Berlinale Film Festival and South by Southwest before it reached NYC.
“I feel like I’ve aged a lot since making the movie. I have so many grey hairs now I have to pull them out every morning,” she joked lightheartedly, sipping some tea.
For the last two years, Thomas had been consistently at work on writing and directing Electrick Children, her first feature-length film. The film tells the story of Rachel, a 15-year-old fundamentalist Mormon girl who believes she has experienced an immaculate conception after listening to a forbidden rock & roll tape. While Thomas was raised as a mainstream Mormon, the film is hardly an endorsement or reflection of her particular religious tenants. Instead, it proves to be a coming-of-age story more about a love for music and the power of faith—which Thomas and her protagonist Rachel both explore in individual ways.
Although Thomas began writing a rough version of the script before attending film school at Columbia University in 2011, it was a photography course she took during her final semester that inspired her to direct her first feature.
“The class was taught by a great photographer named Thomas Roma, who would take our photographs and tell us why they sucked and how we didn’t have enough courage,” Thomas laughed. “I was inspired by that class to gain the courage to want to say something.
By this point, Thomas had already completed several short films, the first of which “Nobody Knows You and Nobody Gives a Damn”—which she wrote and acted in—went to Sundance Film Festival in 2009.
“I already knew the consequences of having a short go to a festival and didn’t really want to do it again,” said Thomas. “If I was going to spend money, I was going to try to make a feature.”
After Thomas invited her friend Jessica Caldwell on as executive producer, the two began actively trying to fund the film via Kickstarter in May 2011.
“We thought we’d make it for $20,000 by raising half on Kickstarter and each taking out $5,000 loans,” said Thomas. “We planned to make this low budget film with help from our friends and if it totally fails, we figured we already had $175,000 in grad school loans, so what’s the difference adding another few thousand? We just said, “let’s do this.”
Caldwell randomly sent the link to executive producer Richard Neudstadter, whom she had previously met at an audition and was stunned when he personally contributed a quarter of the film’s total budget. Thomas followed up by sending the script to Neudstadter, who saw potential in the young director and offered to help make the film for a higher budget.
Virtually overnight, the micro-budget project between friends developed into a million dollar production thanks to an angel investor. “We were super lucky, it was like a miracle. Basically, a bunch of money fell into my lap and I was feeling a lot of faith. I thought, ‘I really love this story, I would have made it with or without money.’ ”
Thomas chose to keep much of the original production crew in tact, including her sister-in-law, Tennille Olsen and her brother, Will Thomas, who served as 1st and 2nd assistant cameras respectively. One major addition, however, was casting director Adrienne Stern who would help Thomas secure a star cast to bring her characters and her script to life.
“I couldn’t believe I was making a film with more crew and more talent than I could ever have imagined,” said Thomas. “It was so magical, I was already happy on the first day.”
One of the first auditions Stern and Thomas received was from veteran actor Billy Zane who earned the role of Paul—Rachel’s father and leader of the colony. Zane, who has worked with notables like James Cameron on Titanic and Robert Zemeckis on Back to the Future, claims that Thomas had an approach to directing that was all her own.
“Rebecca has the director gene,” said Zane. “She has the vision and confidence of relaxed specificity shared by few established directors I've had the great pleasure of working with.”
Liam Aiken, who previously starred alongside Susan Sarandon in Stepmom and as Klaus Baudelaire in The Series of Unfortunate Events, was cast as Mr. Will—Rachel’s rigidly obedient older brother who undergoes arguably the most drastic character transformation.
The other lead male role of Clyde—a struggling misfit who falls for Rachel—went to Rory Culkin, who Caldwell specifically suggested for the role. “I looked him up and thought he was perfect,” said Thomas. “So, we offered him the part and he said yes.”
Ironically, the film’s protagonist was the very last to be cast. Thomas and Stern had seen auditions from several hopefuls but none quite fit the specific image the director had for Rachel’s character. Julia Garner, the doe-eyed blonde indie actress, snagged the leading role just a week before production began.
“After seeing Julia Garner, I can’t remember who I imagined playing Rachel before,” said Thomas, “Julia has this sort of ethereal quality; she just kind of glows, she’s just very virginal and angel-like. When I saw her, I thought, ‘That’s it, that’s what I need!’ ”
While Julia Garner has landed several supporting roles in indie hits like Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Electrick Children marks the 19-year-old actress’s first starring role. Even though she did not have much time to prepare for her role, Garner said Thomas “immediately put her at ease” and was able to effectively communicate her vision for the role of Rachel.
“She is one of those directors who can direct anybody—she has a true gift,” Garner said. “I never felt when working with her that she was a first time director. She has an inner confidence and a natural ability to guide and direct her actors, yet always gives them freedom.”
Even though the mood on set was positive and synergetic, Thomas admits that initially it was nerve-wracking to work with such an experienced cast for her first feature.
“It was overwhelming to be working with a cast had years and years on me, in terms of experience,” said Thomas. “I was nervous everyday, to say the least, but I felt like there was a lot of love on set. Rory said to me once—the nicest thing someone’s ever said to me—‘I wish we could make this movie every year.’ ”
The loving atmosphere between cast and crew during shooting had to do with the emotion of the film and its protagonist’s story. “I think everybody sort of felt it,” said Thomas. “That’s what the movie is about; while there’s something dark boiling under, I do think Rachel’s perspective is so faithful and so loving. I hope I get to make another film and have it be as loving.”
Ultimately, Electrick Children tells the story of a young girl’s first experiences with love and music—discoveries that inspire a more organic understanding of her faith. Growing up as a fairly obedient Mormon child, Thomas found music to be a viable source of rebellion, which also became the driving idea behind the plot to her film. She recalls overhearing her older siblings’ choice punk and hip-hop music from a young age, an experience that partially inspired Rachel’s fascination with the forbidden cassette player in the film.
“I probably heard music that I shouldn’t have been listening to at a much earlier age because I shared a room with my sister,” said Thomas. “Hearing it when I was really little did give me big emotions—similar emotions as when I sang hymns in church.”
Rachel’s experience with listening to the music on the forbidden blue tape and the succeeding events drove her to question her faith, but never stray from it. Thomas has, too, wrestled with her faith in a similar manner. Asked if she was still a practicing Mormon, Thomas admits, “I don’t really know is probably the answer that is most accurate.” She added, “I still believe in God and can’t deny some of my experiences in that area.”
Although Thomas is already writing her next film—a doppelganger thriller set in New York City about a girl who meets her exact lookalike, Miss New York—she maintains a strong connection to the film that has solidified her as a serious director.
“Even though I still feel very connected to the film, it is much easier to talk about now that it is coming out in theaters,” admitted Thomas. “I feel less attached to it, but in that way, I’m almost more open about it.”
The initial script she had written for the film over four years ago now seems like a hazy, distant memory. Thomas cannot exactly recall how she originally envisioned the film, but she is genuinely happy with the outcome.
“Everything happened so fast that I sort of had this blind boldness, this courage,” said Thomas. “It almost feels like I haven’t made a film, like I’m about to make my first film because now I know all the mistakes I’ve made—somehow it all miraculously turned into something better than I could have imagined.”