Adam Salky for “Dare”

A number of years ago director Salky made a short film called “Dare” that dealt with the fragility of adolescent relationships. The director has now turned that film into his acclaimed feature debut, which premiered at Sundance and is finally opening in US cinemas this week.

The movie revolves around three high school seniors – an aspiring actress, her misfit best friend, and a loner – who become engaged in an intimate and complicated relationship. Salky talked to Paul Fischer in this exclusive interview.

Question: So, “Dare” began as a short.

Salky: It did.

Question: And what was the transition from short to feature?

Salky: Well, it was a couple things. Basically, David and I made this short together, and we had a great collaboration. I think that was the first – that was the first thing. And – you know, we were both in film school, and both – you know, went to film school to make feature films, not make short films. And basically, I think we really connected. And at the same time, the short film left you with this feeling of, ” What happens next?” Basically, the two boys, Ben and Johnny, have this sort of out of the ordinary encounter in a swimming pool involving some champagne. And you sort of get the feeling of like, ” My God, something really impactful happened between them that night, but what would it be like in school the next day?” So, those were the two things from my point of view. From David’s point of view, there was – the third character in the feature, Alexa, had a small – was a small part of the short film. And there was a moment of connection between Ben and Alexa, a moment of understanding, that was just a very short, slight moment in the short film that David felt that there was a lot more emotion behind. And so the jumping-off point was – for him, really through the character of Alexa.

Question: Now, I assume that the casting was quite different in the short film. Were there any crossovers?

Salky: Yes, there were. Actually, Adam Fleming, who plays Ben in the short film plays the detention room teacher in the feature. And we really tried very hard to get Michael Cassidy, who plays Johnny in the short film, into the feature. But unfortunately, he was doing a David Mamet play in LA, and couldn’t do it. And there is a character who has the final line in the movie, kind of a crucial line, that in many ways strikes at the heart of what Dare is about. And I won’t say what it is, but that character was originally written for Michael Cassidy to do a cameo, but he couldn’t do it.

Question: How hard is it to – what are the challenges to create a story that deals with adolescence, and does so in a very original way?

Salky: Well, good question. I think that – you know, the challenges that – you know, you don’t know – you know, most movies that deal with adolescence, especially movies that come from the studio system – you know, they’re working to make money, and they’re trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. So, that’s exactly why their movies don’t really deal with teenagers in a very real way, because – you know, they’re not sure that they can sell that. So, I think – you know, from just a general standpoint, you never know if your story is going to see the light of day, because it’s risky to really – in a film, to treat adolescence seriously.

Question: What surprised you the most about the process in getting this to a feature stage? I mean, what additional challenges were there, and what were the biggest surprises you faced?

Salky: I think the biggest challenge that any first-time feature filmmaker faces – that is a lot of Fs – is that you never really know if the movie will come together. So, like, for example, David and I worked for about 4 1/2 years to make this film. And every day, we just got up and we made to-do lists, and we sent e-mails, and we worked on the script. And we just – you know, all with the belief that this was the story that we wanted to tell, and somehow, by hook or by crook, we were gonna make it. But from a director’s point of view – like, at least – if the movie never got made, at least David would have the screenplay that he could show people. But if the movie never got made, like, I would ostensibly – like, it would – you know, you’re sort of like, trying to conjure something, you know? Like, you’re trying to make it something real. And I think that’s the biggest challenge, is just sort of persevering and getting up every day, and working to overcome the challenges. As far as the surprise? Good question. I’ll have to think on that for a second.

Question: Well, talk about the casting of this, and how hard was it for you to come up with the right actors that you envisaged to be in these roles.

Salky: Sure. Well, we had a fantastic casting director. His name is Kerry Barden. And that’s – that’s where we started. And in fact, he brought in Ashley Springer, who plays Ben, to do a reading of the film. Which is sort of a great part of the process, to – you know, when you’re in pre-production, and you’re working to make the script the best thing it can be, to hear it out loud. So that’s how we found Ashley. And Emmy and Zach are actually interesting stories. In both cases, we were actually sort of in the process of casting other actors. For Emmy, we were on the verge of making an offer to someone, and her manager called me and was basically like, ” Stop. Don’t cast anyone, Emmy wants to do the movie.” And she was in LA and we were in New York, so she sent in this incredible audition tape that she made herself on her computer, where basically she recorded – she did three scenes from the movie, about 15 minutes worth, and recorded the other characters as – she recorded the other characters on her computer in character. And then every time it was ready for her line, she would hit the space bar, and would deliver her line, as Alexa. So, not only was she good as Alexa, but she also was great as the other characters. And it was just the most amazing moment, where it was so clear that we had found our Alexa in that moment. And actually, that audition tape will be on the DVD.

Question: It’s interesting that you say that that character was sort of a peripheral character in the short. Because she strikes me as being one of the more interesting characters in this, particularly in the way that she changes and grows throughout the film. How much did you want to develop that character even further, once Emmy was cast?

Salky: Well, I think that – you know, Emmy brought a lot of what we were looking for in Alexa. So, Alexa is kind of the over-achieving good girl. And in a lot of ways, before Emmy made Dare, her – I think the image of her as an actress is one who plays, like, these – you know, has played a lot of kind of good girl characters. So already that provided an interesting dimension, where in so many ways Dare is about taking some conventions of the high school genre and turning them on their head. So immediately by casting Emmy, when you’re watching the beginning of the movie, you’re gonna have a certain set of expectations about her. But I think that after people see Dare, they’re gonna be very surprised by – you know, how adult, how mature, and how actually sexual she is in this movie. And also, Emmy is a very sophisticated person in real life. And the Alexa character, because she’s such an overachiever, and makes such good grades and all that, sort of has that built into her personality as well. So, Emmy really brought a lot to the role. She was perfect.

Question: What has this movie done now, for you? I mean, are you able to try and get your next feature of the ground with a little bit more ease than perhaps it was to get this one off the ground?

Salky: What the movie has done, and has created a lot – really, what the movie has done is created a lot of possibility in my life, professionally. And that’s a great thing. I mean, I had the fortunate experience of premiering a film at Sundance. Incredible. And – you know, and I did have that experience, of after one of the screenings, two people came up to me and thrust their business card – well, several people did. But two people came up to me and thrust their business card – you know, right in my hand, and said, ” Give me a call if you want to talk about your future.” And those two people are now my agents at ICM in LA. So, I did have that experience. And – you know. I mean, I think if we go back to one of the surprises, for a young filmmaker, first-time feature directors, I think that there’s a lot – a lot of people think that if you get your film in Sundance, and if you get agents, that – you know, all of the doors of the business will open up to you. And that is not entirely true. Although there’s a lot of possibility for me right now, I still have to, in some ways, be willing to work ten times harder than the next guy in order to get that shot. So – you know. I’m about to pitch on a big movie, and I’m writing a script that’s a thriller, kind of based on a true family story. And I’m not sitting back and – you know, waiting for opportunities to come to me. But if one does, I’m certainly not going to complain.

Question: So, you’re pitching a big studio movie?

Salky: Yes, I am.

Question: Is it something that you’ve written, or something that somebody has come to you with?

Salky: It’s something that someone else – actually, a writing team, has written, and would be produced on the studio level, yeah.

Question: What genre was it?

Salky: It would be a slightly inappropriate teen comedy.

Question: [LAUGHTER] R-rated, presumably, then.

Salky: Yeah. It feels R-rated. But, you know, sometimes the studio will dictate to you what that’s gonna be.