“Banana Split” is the directorial debut film from director Benjamin Kasulke, with a screenplay written by the film’s main star Hannah Marks and Joey Power. The film follows April (Marks) who has spent the last two years of high school in a relationship with Nick (Dylan Sprouse), from the first frantic make-out session to final tear-stained breakup. In the aimless summer between graduation and college, the newly single April mends her heartbreak by striking up an unexpected friendship with an unlikely candidate: Nick’s new girlfriend, Clara (Liana Liberato).
Our writer Mique Watson jumped at the chance to speak to Benjamin regarding the film after reviewing the film for ITOL. Below, we hear from Benjamin about how he became involved in the project, what drew him to this story and these characters, and his transition from the role of cinematographer to the director’s chair.
**Note: Questions below by Mique Watson are in bold. Benjamin’s replies are in italic**
MW: What I appreciate most about this film is how it pushes back against the venomous trope of two girls finding reasons to hate one another because of the things which make them insecure. The alternative here was friendship; from where did you draw inspiration to tell a story of this sort?
BK: Yeah, that’s an awesome question. I, you know I got really lucky in that Hannah Marks and Joey Power co-wrote this script – based a lot of the mechanics of the girl’s friendship in a really autobiographical way for Hannah. She kind of lived this I think she had a boyfriend a long, long time ago and they split up and he started seeing someone new. I’m sure she could tell the story a lot better, but basically, she got really obsessed and had a great friendship with the new girl. I think it showed her at a really helpful time that yeah, it is a really good thing and really important to sort of prioritize friendships and leave some of that venomous meanness behind. You know? I think it’s a part of growing up. You just get to reprioritize what’s important in your life.
How long have you wanted to tell this story, and which particular aspects of it spoke the most to you?
Yeah, well you know as a screenwriter, Hannah’s sort of lived this and she’s been trying to get this film made for 4 and a half maybe 5 years at the point where I came on board. As soon as she handed me the script to read, I was really excited that the movie was written. And I didn’t know that she wanted me to help make it. I think she gave me the script to kind of give some notes, and she and I are good friends and had looked at each other’s work for a long time.
So, you know I read the script and I was just really excited that she had written something so funny and sweet and smart, I told her I really enjoyed it and then she asked me if I might be interested in directing it. As soon as there was a possibility of directing it, I was all in. I was so excited to tell this story. It just spoke a lot to me about women and friendships and growing up and had a lot of sweetness and a lot of really funny jokes and a lot of pain and drama that I thought was going to be really helpful to people that age too, you know, just to see somebody going through a situation that’s so kind of hard to deal with and to see somebody go through it in a way that was funny and sweet and sad and really ultimately depended on them kind of growing up and taking responsibility for their own actions.
It was noticeable to me that neither Clara nor April were defined by their relationship with Nick; this is another trope that was undercut here. With that being said: what would you say defined each character–what made each of them special to you?
Yeah, that’s a really good observation. At the script level, Hannah and Joey created a script that really specifically says we’re not going to talk about Nick. Clara and April don’t need to define themselves by the guy. And that was really important to us. But I think what really jumped out to me as something that felt universal with April was that she was sort of at that age, you know at 17/18 years old, almost crippled by anxiety, you know, but she could deal with it in a way that was really funny. And I always love when people can be comedic. I love when I have friends that are clearly really nervous or clearly really frustrated or bent out of shape and when their first instinct to dealing with an emotion they can’t quite handle in that moment is to be really funny, I love that.
It’s really, really charming, and of all the reactions someone could have to social anxiety, or existential angst, to lash out and be really funny is really endearing to me, and really sweet, and I think kind of universal. And then with Clara, when I was 18, I had none of the sort of self-assuredness that Clara has. Once you see the movie, you’ll sort of hear some backstory, that she turned 18 and was ready to leave her hometown because she just didn’t like it. And I was so nervous at that age I was definitely more of an April.
And so, to me, I would have totally looked up to someone like Clara who was you know self-assured enough to just say “No, I’m going to put everything I have in a car and I’m going to move to Los Angeles and just see what life is like and do what I want to do.” So, I think there’s a self-confidence in Clara, and there’s a sense of humour and a really approachable, honest kind of anxiety to April that really resonated with me.
I understand that you’ve spent most of your career working as a cinematographer; can you name anyone who you’ve worked with who might have inspired you to transition into the directors’ chair? If so, how did they inspire you?
Yeah, I totally can. I’ve worked with a lot of really great directors that all were either really, really good at their jobs, but there’s a handful that really showed me that there’s a real purpose to telling stories and that they’ve found a personal sort of joy, and maybe a sort of life’s work within the job of bringing a story to the screen. The ones that come to mind are Lynn Shelton whose made a lot of films, I’ve worked with a lot, she just loves actors and she loves creating stories and she loves examining small moments between human beings and trying to find a common ground between everyone.
Guy Maddin, who’s another director I’ve with a lot, who is just, he really is into creating special, kind of visual worlds. When I work with him we don’t make anything that looks like real life at all, it looks like a dream, or it looks like a really, really old movie that takes place a long time ago or it seems lost and from really far away…he’s into making these really exotic worlds which are super fun in and of itself, but then he’s able to find an emotional, sort of true place in it where almost anyone could watch one of his movies and they might not understand what they world they’re looking at is like, but they’ll understand the emotions and the sort of complicated inner lives of the people that are inside the movies. So those two are really wonderful.
And then Amy Heckerling, she’s made a lot of movies. She did “Clueless”, and she did a movie called “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, she just was a really wonderful way of dealing with teenagers and finding a universal sort of emotional approach to being a teenager and trying to find your way in the world.
And then the other filmmaker that does come to mind that I never really worked with but was really a guiding light with a lot of this stuff, is John Hughes. He was sort of like a baby boomer that told stories about Gen X teenagers and sort of showed the world that the emotional lives of teenagers were really valid and really complicated and that people at young ages were incredibly capable at defining who they were and what they wanted in the world and—yeah, those were the ones that really helped me out.
Who do you hope sees this film, and what is the one thing you hope they take away from it?
I mean, I kind of hope everybody sees this film. We sort of made it hoping that you know, there’s a sort of younger demographic–we wanted teens and we wanted young adults to really like it and I hope that it speaks to them and shows their experience in the world. I had hoped every step of the way that we were making something that was sort of universal.
As much as I love when we show the film, there’s a Q&A, I have 2 ladies come up to me afterwards that are like 21 and they say “oh my god, this totally happened to us in high school! We were dating some guy and we just became best friends, and we were upset for a little bit and we hated each other and then we totally put that aside and it helped us grow up.”
Like, that’s wonderful, but I also liked it when people that are in their 50s and 60s watch it and they’re like “you know, I see millennial kids all the time just glued to their phones and I think that they’re not thinking about their lives, that they’re just checked out, but what I realized now is that they’re actually going through all the same emotions that we went through as kids. It’s just different now because there’s social media and there’s a whole digital part of your life that’s out in the world.” And so, I kind of want everyone to see it, but for me it’s like, the big takeaways are like, it’s hard to grow up. It’s hard to say that I’m going to have a difficult, vulnerable and meaningful, long-term friendship with somebody and it’s going to have to be at the expense of giving rid of the young love and life.
So April has to get rid of this young boyfriend that she’s obsessed with, and that would probably be really easy to just keep getting back together with on this dramatic roller coaster with, but she has to get rid of that to embrace what’s probably going to be a lifelong friendship with Clara. They’re going to know each other until they’re old ladies. And that’s really important and it’s really hard to show somebody why that might be a good idea. I hope that people watch this and feel like, you know, it’s hard to grow up. It’s painful to grow up, but it’s worth trying to be an adult. And there’s no reason you don’t have to do that at 18 years old.
This film reminded me of recent films, namely, “Booksmart” and “Eighth Grade”; a new genre of teen movies which seem to have good role models. Is this something you’ve noticed, and was the lack of good role models in the past something that you sought to rectify with this film?
That is the best. I love being lumped in with those movies. Those moves are the best! Yeah, I feel like it’s tricky. I think there are lots of movies about teenagers, and there’s a lot of really good ones. I love “Superbad”, I love movies that are about friends trying to navigate a friendship at a point where it’s hard. Leaving the kind of cocoon of high school and going out into college and the world and real life…sometimes those friendships drift apart, and it’s sad and it’s difficult and movies that deal with that are really interesting to me. But most of those movies come at it from a guy perspective. And I think that’s just probably, there’s probably somebody at the studio saying like movies about funny dudes always seem to sell well, we’re not going to take a chance on a movie about young women.
So, it’s really wonderful to see movies like “Booksmart” and “Eighth Grade”. And you know, I feel like, maybe, I don’t know if it’s like a lack of role models, but I think that a funny movie about 2 guys grossing each other out, is awesome, it’s hilarious, but it doesn’t really leave a lot of room for the good role model. Because what makes those movies profitable is young dudes grossing each other out, you can’t wait to see what they do next. So if you make a film like “Booksmart” that’s really about 2 young women navigating a really solid friendship, but they’re really smart, precocious young women that are very well developed, you can’t help but have to have scenes where 2 big personalities need to work around each other and find common ground. So it’s not so much that there’s a lack of role models in all sorts of movies, I think it’s more like a comedy movie about teens functions really well in delivering what it thinks it should be to the audience, but only doing-well, mostly doing jokes.
When you get into a movie that’s about young women it’s really hard because you need to come to terms with the fact there’s a much more developed emotional life because you’ve written interesting young women, and interesting young women are usually very smart. And smart young women are usually very articulate about their emotions. And young people that are articulate about their emotions need to kind of fight with each other to be heard and to still struggle to be loving towards one another and platonically in love.
Lastly, besides banana splits, what are your favourite desserts?
Oh, that’s a great call. I love flan, I love tiramisu, I love…I get really into making sorbet at home with an ice cream maker…I love gelato, especially when I’m travelling. Yeah and some really killer gluten-free chocolate chip cookies—all of those things are equally awesome.
Check out the trailer here. BANANA SPLIT is available On Digital and On Demand March 27th.