Dirty Girl - Director Abe Sylvia
Director and Writer Abe Sylvia © 2011 Weinstein

In 1986, Abe Sylvia was attending Whittier Middle School in Norman, Oklahoma, when he noticed 16-year old ‘Dirty Debbie,’ who didn’t give a damn about her ‘bad reputation.’ Sylvia was an overweight, closet gay, with dreams of becoming a dancer, and was impressed by Debbie’s sexual abandon.

Twenty-five years later, Sylvia is reliving his past with his new movie Dirty Girl, which tells the story of Danielle (Juno Temple), the dirty girl at Norman High School who, because of her behavior, is banished to a remedial class, where she is paired in a parenting project with Clarke (Jeremy Dozier)), a shy, closet-case with no friends.

All Danielle wants is to meet the father, Danny Briggs (Tim McGraw), she never knew, and when she discovers he’s living in California she decides to take a road trip. Clarke tags along, attempting to escape his father, Joseph (Dwight Yokam), who has threatened to send him to military school.

This movie straddles a fine line between drawing from the ‘80s and feeling like an ‘80s film.

Dirty Girl - Jeremy Dozier and Juno Temple
Clarke (Jeremy Dozier) and Danielle (Juno Temple) © 2011 Weinstein

That was our goal. I had my sister’s yearbook from Norman Oklahoma, 1988, and I handed it to my designers and I said, ‘This is what the movie looks like. This is what the people look like.’

With the look of the film, we shot it on 16 millimeter and we shot with ‘80s lenses. Things have gotten so crisp in films, they lack texture to me, and I wanted the film to feel slightly analogue and I think that that adds to the scrappiness of it.

Can you talk about casting the two leads, as it was so important that they had a great rapport? What did you see in them when they first auditioned that made you feel they were right for the roles?

We only had one chemistry read, but I had a hunch that Juno and Jeremy were going to work great together. We made our choices the old fashioned way, everybody read, there were no blind offers, we needed to make sure that this text and these accents [were right]. A lot of actors can’t play period, it’s a weird thing to say, but they feel too contemporary. We needed the kids to feel classic, like ‘every kid,’ in the way Tom Hanks feels like an ‘every man.’

How did you choose the music for the movie?

Dirty Girl - Mary Steenburgen and Dwight Yoakum
Peggy (Mary Steenburgen) and Joseph (Dwight Yoakum) © 2011 Weinstein

The music muse for Dirty Girl is Melissa Manchester. She is Clarke’s guiding light, his rock. Melissa’s music is what allows him to face each day anew with hope in his heart.

The depth and breadth of her body of work has made it possible to score Clarke’s biggest emotional moments in colorful, exciting, unexpected ways. Midnight Blue, a song for lovers, plays as Clarke has his first private moment alone doing homework with Danielle. He tries unsuccessfully to create a romantic mood with Through the Eyes of Love.

Perhaps, most beautifully, Melissa’s very personal song about her grandmother Jenny scores a scene in which Clarke, Joel and Danielle swap stories about how they have never experienced the kind of parental affection that Melissa so warmly sings about. And we finish with her classic Don’t Cry Out Loud, performed by Clarke and Danielle.

Are you a big county music fan, because you’ve cast Dwight Yokam and Tim McGraw in this?

Dirty Girl - Jeremy Dozier and Juno Temple
Danny Briggs (Tim McGraw) © 2011 Weinstein

I definitely wanted to get as many people who were regionally appropriate … and then we have a Brit, Juno, playing our lead!

Dwight has proven time and time again that he can be completely edgy and scary as in Panic Room and Sling Blade, and he’s so funny in Wedding Crashers and Four Christmases. It’s that great mix of being absolutely terrifying and funny, it’s a really hard balance to strike.

With Tim McGraw, he was my first choice for the part all along. Once we had the financing I said, ‘I’d like to go after Tim, because he’s a great actor.’ This is going to sound odd, but somehow people actually know what I mean when I say, ‘He needed to be that guy who breaks up with you and you say, ‘Thank you.’’

He had to be charismatic and he had to be this ideal dad, and even as he’s breaking her heart, Danielle had to understand. And that’s a fine balance and I think Tim strikes it perfectly.

We sent him the script, and [gave him the day we were going to shoot his scene]. I got the call, and his agent said, ‘Here’s the thing. Tim is going on vacation a week before he would shoot this, do you mind if the character has a tan?’ And I thought, ‘Is that a yes? I think that’s a yes!’

What are you trying to say to kids with this movie who don’t feel like they fit in?

Dirty Girl - Milla Jovovich and Mary Steenburgen
Sue-Ann (Milla Jovovich) and Peggy (Mary Steenburgen) © 2011 Weinstein

I think that every kid no matter how much they fit in feels like an outsider, and I think that’s the process of growing up. I think every kid feels like, ‘the world doesn’t get me,’ even if they’re popular.

In the movie what we try to do is have all the adults that surround Danielle and Clarke at the beginning of the film be slightly heightened, be a little ridiculous, because the kids are very natural.

Then as the kids grow up and they get their hearts broken, and they realize life is not necessarily what they thought it was going to be, the parents start to humanize a little bit.

What happened to your Danielle?

I had so many Danielle’s in my life. Dirty Debbie was just the beginning, that was the first time I saw that kind of reckless, sexual abandon. I don’t know what happened to her, I should look her up on Facebook, I guess, and see!

As a gay man I’ve had so many fantastic primary relationships with women who had a mouth on them. All of my good friends were and are iconoclastic women. I have an appreciation, an adoration and a love for what these people bring into my life.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.