Kid Detectives, Adult Problems

As The Kid Detective becomes “a surprising darling” of a hit with our members, Jack Moulton talks to its Canadian writer-director Evan Morgan about broken projectors, the pressure of proving yourself, and what happens when precocious kids grow up.

The premise felt immediately funny but it also felt immediately sad and painful.” —⁠Evan Morgan

A growing number of indie films over the past decade recognize that ‘coming-of-age’ is not a teen-exclusive life event—indeed, that it often takes decades to work out who we are, versus who people perceive us to be. The Kid Detective takes that premise and steals off into the night with it, blending noir with indie slacker in an offbeat, genre-flipping tale of a washed-up, thirty-something private eye who was once a star solver of local mysteries.

Adam Brody (Ready or Not) stars as Abe Applebaum, the detective in question, who seizes a chance to step back into the small-town limelight when a young woman (Sophie Nélisse) asks him to help find her boyfriend’s murderer. Veep’s Sarah Sutherland also stars as Abe’s secretary, taking calls about lost cats and other inane mysteries.

Reviews on Letterboxd praise the “delicious premise” that explores “the darkness lurking beneath the surface of small-town America”. They also appreciate Brody’s “phenomenally pathetic” performance, and the unexpected swerve in the final twenty, noting that “sometimes movies don’t recover from a shift in tone in the third act… but here it all [falls] into place”.

The Kid Detective is the directing debut of Toronto filmmaker (and Letterboxd member) Evan Morgan, who first received attention for The Dirties (2013), an alternately funny and upsetting micro-budget dark comedy in found-footage style, which he produced, co-wrote and co-edited. Morgan’s work is drenched in pop culture: Abe’s talent for deduction is demonstrated by how he digests movie narratives; The Dirties, too, has endless movie references. So we were chuffed to quiz Morgan about the films that have played an important role in his life.

What was premiering The Kid Detective at the 2020 Toronto Film Festival like for you, under the current conditions?
Evan Morgan: We were in quite a rush to get the film finished for the online platform that they had made—I signed off on the final cut on Thursday and then I was reading a review of the movie by Saturday. I was still in that mode of trying to scrutinize everything and implement my final notes, and then all of a sudden the movie was done and I could never touch it again. It certainly was a surreal transition to make that quickly.

It was also extremely gratifying to see people respond to it for the first time. We knew that we weren’t making a movie that was for all tastes but when you’re reading the first response from the first person who’s ever reviewed it and they’re picking up on stuff you intended, you start to let your spine unclench a little bit. You can sort of finally say goodbye to the process of making something and enjoy the process of people interacting with it.

Have you been reading the Letterboxd reviews?
Obsessively. I’ve been refreshing Letterboxd all the time. I’ve been joking with my editor and composer a lot about how people posting their reviews on Letterboxd, on their YouTube channel, or other little outlets would never expect the filmmakers to be instantly reading their reviews.

You’re also a member! How do you use Letterboxd?
I’ve always been a big film nerd. Ever since I was a teenager I was making lists at the end of the year and obsessing over an order that would always change. A friend of mine, Matthew Miller, who produced The Dirties, recommended that I hop on Letterboxd and instantly I was going through the library rating and organizing everything, and it became a real slippery slope. I remember spending hours on it in the first week.

Now, after actually having made a movie that’s on a larger scale, I’ve found that my sensitivity has changed a lot in the last year. I’m less inclined to give a star rating. I’m happy just to catalog the film so I can reflect on it and just use the ‘like’ button. That’s been an interesting shift in my relationship with how I see movies after having finally completed this project.

I know this idea had been gestating a while for you, what was the seed of the story?
I’d written a short film in film school, which I never shot, that was about a child detective who was still a child and was solving grisly murders. I was obsessed with the first season of The OC and I thought Adam Brody was so funny. I was impressed with how he broke out of the formula of that show. I knew he was someone I really wanted to work with and we happened to cross paths at Sundance because The Dirties was premiering at Slamdance. It was clear to us that we shared a similar sense of humor and taste.

I was looking back on my old ideas and I saw an opportunity to re-conceive this one for him because I immediately identified with the protagonist. I’ve always known I wanted to be a filmmaker and thus had that sense of expectation where people would joke: “he’ll grow up to be the next Spielberg!” It’s incredible encouragement when you’re young but it also creates this unfortunate sense of pressure where you’re beholden to a future that you actually haven’t achieved or lived.

When I graduated film school, I was suddenly left in the space of my own apartment where now it was up to me to actually make this happen, to write and direct a feature film. The process acquires this unfortunate pressure because it’s not just about watching ideas unfold in front of me, I also have something to prove. I was at a point in my life where I was doing a lot of writing and not having great success in terms of actually finishing a script so this premise resonated with me and I saw an opportunity for people to connect to this character in their own way.

I revisited The Dirties after watching The Kid Detective and I finally understood why there were those huge The OC posters in Matt and Owen’s edit suite. I assume that was your idea?
Yeah, it was. We were all big fans of that show. The cultural references they made were things that were important to us at that particular moment and we loved Seth Cohen [Brody’s character]. When I ran into Adam at Sundance, I shared a link to The Dirties, forgetting that his face was in the background of about twenty minutes of our movie. We were back in our hotel that night and it suddenly just occurred to us—“wait a minute, shit. We should probably warn him that his face is a big character!”

How did you conduct your research into detective work?
What excited me about this premise was the character and not so much the genre. I think the genre is alluring in a sense that it’s so hallowed. The set pieces are so familiar in terms of the PI office, the receptionist and the glass of scotch. That stuff was all super cool and enticing, but I was never a big mystery person. I was intimidated by the process of writing because it felt very much outside of my wheelhouse.

The first thing I did was buy a bunch of Raymond Chandler books from the Philip Marlowe series. I read those super quickly and thought they were super funny. I also read a bunch of Encyclopedia Brown books. So, the world of The Kid Detective exists between these two realms. I started watching bad TV procedurals where the detectives try and find the victim within the span of 42-minutes just to absorb as much as I possibly could.

Here you have a whimsical directorial approach while the film reflects upon a cynical, changing world. In comparison, The Dirties also deals with young adult trauma but couldn’t be further from this in style. Can you talk about your use of juxtaposition this time around?
There was no more fun experience than shooting The Dirties. It really was a film made by four best friends having an endless sleepover in their parents’ basement. That’s where the energy, the life, and the humor of the film comes from. We were always relying on the darker component of the dramatic payoff to provide us with a structure so that we could goof around as much as we wanted knowing that it wasn’t all for nothing. Those dramatic stakes would provide it with a different kind of technical legitimacy. We didn’t have any money to make it but it didn’t have to look like a big Hollywood film because it was made by the characters.

It wasn’t a conscious decision to recreate the same dynamic with The Kid Detective in terms of dealing with dramatic issues in a very light way. The premise felt immediately funny but it also felt immediately sad and painful. I wanted to find a way to wrap them together without forfeiting the humor or the reality of the characters. It’s interesting how a lot of people are responding to the way the movie reveals itself to be dark because, for me, this was always inevitable. If you’re going to tell a story about a stunted adult, like a kid detective who never really grows up, the only way for the character to grow up is to confront something that is so sinister that it would break them from their selfishness.

Which detective movies most influenced The Kid Detective?
The biggest films that were in my head when I was writing this movie—and also in terms of our aesthetic—were Chinatown and Blue Velvet. Chinatown was a movie that I had more of a relationship with as a teenager than I did the older Humphrey Bogart movies like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. Blue Velvet also has a suburban setting that reveals this darker underbelly—two characters driving around in a convertible, interviewing people, and putting themselves in greater and greater risk. Those were the movies that we wanted you to be able to put the film on the shelf with.

Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994).
Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994).

Which film made you want to become a filmmaker?
This is an easy one for me. I was a very big fan of Jim Carrey when I was eleven and I remember seeing Ace Ventura: Pet Detective for the first time and having my mind blown. I didn’t even know what some of those jokes were referring to, but I was so delighted by his energy and the absurdity of that movie. It invited this ferocious interest in acting and consequentially, the world of film. I got really excited when I heard he was working on his first dramatic feature and that it was going to be directed by Peter Weir since I was already a fan of Dead Poets Society.

I remember going to see The Truman Show with my family on the first night that it played and the projector broke about an hour into the movie. I was broken—I knew that was I watching my favorite movie that I’d ever seen. I was absolutely blown away by the world and the story. After about 30 minutes, the theater staff came out and started offering vouchers to see it again but I wouldn’t let my parents leave—I said “no, we have to stay and finish it!” —⁠and then I was rewarded with what remains my favorite movie ending ever.

That was the point when my interest shifted from wanting to be in front of the camera and the center of attention. I was kind of the class clown as a child. If you’d asked at the time, I’d say I wanted to be a comedian. This was the moment where I decided I wanted to tell stories and start writing scripts.

Which coming-of-age protagonist did you relate to the most as a teenager?
Not super original, but I was obsessed with The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager. I don’t know if I necessarily saw my experience reflected in a movie—I’m sure it’s out there. Rushmore was another film that Adam and I used as a reference when we were pitching this movie, in how The Kid Detective exists between that and Chinatown. It’s also about a character dealing with his own expectations of himself and ultimately having to evolve out of his selfishness.

I think that there’s something about the coming-of-age genre that is very special to me and I continue to really appreciate and recognize it. I really enjoyed Adventureland, which came out about eleven years ago and it’s sort of underrated. I guess in its own way, Blue Velvet is a coming-of-age story too. Those are the ones that are the top of my list.

What are your favorite Canadian films that really could not be made anywhere else but Canada?
It seems I should have an immediate answer to that question. It just proves how bad Canadians are at celebrating themselves. There was a movie called Monsieur Lazhar that stars Sophie Nélisse, who’s the leading actress in our film. It was her first film role at eleven and it’s an incredibly sensitive and quiet movie that was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars that year. That’s a really amazing example of Canadian filmmaking at its best.

If you’ve had time to watch any films this year, what is your favorite film of 2020 so far?
This is another tough one for me because I was honestly so immersed in trying to complete The Kid Detective—we were editing intensely from the very beginning of the year and throughout the lockdown. I was so exhausted by that process that I lost track of what was happening in terms of new releases, so I watched quite a few old movies and there were a few movies I revisited.

The movie that probably had the biggest impact on me was Midsommar, from last year. I couldn’t believe the precision and how unshakable it was in terms of those images. It got me excited again in the way that sometimes you feel when you have to see a movie more than once in order to truly see it, because the first time you’re dispensing your expectations. Maybe you wanted to like it or maybe you didn’t want to like it, but the second time you don’t have the same anticipation, and as a result you notice things that you didn’t notice previously.


The Kid Detective’ is in select US theaters now.

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