Hillary and Anna-Elizabeth Shakespeare’s debut feature, Soundtrack To Sixteen, is a feel good coming-of-age story set in London. The film will be released in select cinemas in the UK from March 14th (distributed by Evolutionary Films).
Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge caught up with the Shakespeare sisters to learn more about the film, growing up in the 1990s, being inspired by nostalgic music, and much more.
Q: Can you introduce us to ‘Soundtrack To Sixteen’ and let us know what audiences can expect?
A: Soundtrack to Sixteen is a feel-good coming-of-age film that follows two awkward teens desperate to change things before they turn seventeen: Maisy is mortified she still hasn’t had her first kiss and Ben is realising he’s not as clever as he thought he was. Expect a noughties throwback that reminds you what it was like to be sixteen in all the good and bad ways!
Q: I understand Hillary first had the idea for this film when she was listening to 2000’s music on the bus. Can you tell us more about that moment and the nostalgic songs that helped inspire ‘Soundtrack To Sixteen’?
A: When I was sixteen, at first I hadn’t really discovered any music that spoke to me. I used to listen to pop music because my friends did, but I didn’t really feel any personal attachment to it. Then one day I was trading mini-discs (remember those?) with a friend and she’d accidentally mixed them up with her brother’s and I got one of his.
It had stuff like Sum 41, Blink-182, Bowling for Soup – all that noughties skater boy type of stuff on it and it changed my world. I never gave that mini-disc back and it’s pretty much all I listened to that year. So when I hear that music it really has a very strong association to those times for me. When I rediscovered it on that bus, I just had such a flashback to how it used to feel being sixteen at that time. I wanted to try and capture that in a film.
Q: Music is obviously a huge part of this story. What was the process like to put the right music to ‘Soundtrack To Sixteen’?
A: The challenge was finding songs that sounded like noughties classics but that we also had the budget for! In the end, we found 14 great emerging unsigned artists who had great original sounds but also fitted the vibe of that era. We enjoyed playing some of the more angsty tracks over the more dramatic moments in the film to add a layer of self-awareness to the teenage drama.
The score was composed by the duo Savage&Spies and really helped to set the tone from the outset in its light and playful style.
Q: Nostalgia and personal experience are driving forces behind the film. Can you talk about shaping this story for Maisy and Ben? How much of your teen years went into the film?
A: The story was definitely shaped by our school days. Maisy’s desperation to have her first kiss very much came from our girls’ school experience where boys were this alien thing and knowing one automatically made you cool. The romance she builds in her head with the family friend she mildly stalks was definitely something we used to do with boys who we’d only exchanged a few words with!
Also, at that age leaving behind friendships that are actually worthwhile for the fantasy of who you are I think happens a lot, especially at a girls’ school – in part because those old friends know you too well and can tell when you’re faking it. I think also the way the girls in the film put Maisy down all the time is a thing that’s especially bad at a girls’ school because there’s this kind of natural hierarchy that happens. Everyone is so afraid of being the one at the bottom of it that they try to make sure someone else is – and stays there.
Ben’s story is slightly less from personal experience, though we’re no stranger to the stress of A-levels and trying to meet your own expectations of academic success, so that’s something we explored in his side of the film.
Q: Bo Burnham’s ‘Eighth Grade’ did a marvellous job of showing us what it is like to grow up in the world of smartphones and YouTube. Do you think it was easier growing up back in the ‘90s?
A: I think there is a lot of common experience to coming-of-age no matter when you do it. It’s when you start becoming more self aware and suddenly there’s so much to embarrass you that feels like the end of the world. But I do think probably teenagers today have it even harder because it’s all happening on a public forum that is more lasting.
Most people (I hope) have forgotten all the stupid things I probably said as a teenager but now there’s this record people can shame each other for things they said ages ago and when you’re only just learning what your voice is, that must be very stressful. That’s why I actually think of Soundtrack to Sixteen as a kind of nostalgic throwback to an easier time.
Q: Can you tell us more about Maisy and Ben? What did you want to explore through them and their friendship in this film?
A: Maisy and Ben are quite similar people in some ways, but I think the main difference between the characters is that Maisy tends to overthink every situation whereas Ben glides through life a bit more. In the film, we go through Maisy’s transition from being in her head to getting better at acting without thinking – something she learns from Ben.
At the beginning of the film, the voice-over is more prominent and by the end it starts to interfere less as we see her act more on impulse. Having that friendship and a life outside of school is what gives her the perspective her life lacked before – if you stay inside your microcosm every tiny mistake you make every feels so important, so it’s when Maisy meets Ben that she realises none of the things she thought were so bad aren’t in the real world.
Q: As you mention, we hear inner monologues of both characters in the film. Why did you decide on this stylistic choice?
A: I think in a lot of coming-of-age films we see the characters lie or struggle to communicate, in our film the characters don’t really have this problem: they tend to say what they mean to an extent – their problem is more that they’re terrible decision-makers. I think some of the comedy of that comes from getting inside their heads and seeing why they think they’re so smart.
Q: There are some great sibling filmmaking teams out there. Can you tell us about your dynamic together?
A: We’ve always only worked as a duo so for us it feels very natural. Working with your sister is great because there’s always someone there to kick you into gear when you’re feeling tired or not up for it, or to cover for you when you need a break.
It also makes things a lot easier working with someone whose mind you can basically read because you can make quick decisions together by just exchanging a few glances! We don’t disagree much on our vision for things but when we do, we don’t mind fighting each other for it. Sometimes we’ve even come up with the same idea at the same time, which is weird.
The only downside can sometimes be that it’s hard to hang out without talking about work!