The restaurant Lamill sits on a stretch of Silver Lake Boulevard that cuts in between two hills, each summit teeming with the mansions of multimillionaires. On any given weekday, the restaurant is mostly populated by strivers who gaze up at those houses, then back down at their laptops.
They’re trying to crack a code that consumed David Robert Mitchell when he first moved to Hollywood to be a director. “After several years, I realized that if I didn’t make something happen myself, I was never going to do what I wanted to do in my life,” Mitchell said on a recent afternoon at Lamill. “No one’s going to just hand me the keys.”
Mitchell has now directed three films, including the recently released “Under the Silver Lake,” a sun-soaked, subversive noir that stars Andrew Garfield as Sam, a young man on the margins of Hollywood who tries to unravel the mystery of what happened to his missing neighbor (Riley Keough).
Sam’s path isn’t easy, and the journey of “Under the Silver Lake” has been just as circuitous. Delayed twice after a planned bow last summer, the film emerged in a handful of theaters last weekend, then was rushed onto digital platforms this week. Rumors flew that Mitchell and his studio, A24, were at loggerheads over recutting the two-hour, 20-minute film, which had gotten a mixed reception when it debuted at Cannes.
Mitchell rebuts those rumors: The version released this month is the same one he turned in last year. “I’m sure there’s some people who might like the movie a little bit more if it were such-and-such length or a little shorter, but that’s not the point of this film,” Mitchell said. “This is it, and there’s no changing it.” (The mixed reception continued with the reviews this month: In The New York Times, A.O. Scott called it “an example of intellectual timidity”; Owen Gleiberman of Variety said it was “full of hypnotic and arresting sequences.”
If there had been an easier way forward for “Under the Silver Lake,” perhaps that would have gone against Mitchell’s own tendencies. “I’m often somewhat worried about myself that I tend to be drawn to situations that are going to be incredibly difficult,” he said, smiling sheepishly. “I’d like to find some level of moderation with that, just for my own sanity.”
The boyish Mitchell is 44 but looks younger, and when I first met him five years ago after the debut of his horror hit, “It Follows,” he was wearing braces. It isn’t difficult to imagine him in his early 20s, when Mitchell graduated from Florida State University and moved west with stars in his eyes. “I thought I would be able to make a feature immediately. I was so foolish,” he said. “I had to find work and figure out how to survive and it was hard.”
It’s remained hard ever since, even as Mitchell finally saved up enough money to work his way behind the camera. His first feature, “The Myth of the American Sleepover” (2011), was made for only $30,000 with an unknown cast of teenagers, and “it was terrifying,” he said. “We didn’t know, is our crew going to show up? Is there anyone that’s just going to walk away from this? I don’t know of any other way to say it other than the feeling I had was fear.”
The film debuted at South by Southwest to upbeat notices, but Mitchell and his collaborators returned to Los Angeles, where little had changed for them. “After we had made ‘Myth,’ we were all basically really broke,” Mitchell said. “If we had a good review, we would joke, ‘My God, can we exchange that for some cash somewhere?’”
His next film, the artsy, low-budget “It Follows” in 2014, was a more unqualified success: rave reviews in Cannes and more than $20 million worldwide at the box office. Still, Mitchell remained inclined to reject the easiest path forward: Though producers were interested in turning “It Follows” into a lucrative horror franchise, Mitchell had no interest in repeating himself.
“I just want to push in a different direction, always,” he said.
Instead, Mitchell put his muscle behind “Under the Silver Lake,” a sprawling, 160-page script he’d written before “It Follows” had given him any chits to cash. Once animated by similar dreams of success in the film business, the lead character, Sam, now floats listlessly but finds renewed purpose as an amateur detective. After all, a sleuth and a Hollywood wannabe have a lot in common: Each is searching for his big break.
An oddball prone to flashes of creepy behavior, Sam cuts a poignant figure as his dashed Hollywood dreams come to light. “That’s where it moves away from anything that I ever felt, which is that feeling of what happens if someone really, truly, gives up?” Mitchell said. “What happens if somebody really is unable to find the desire to try?”
For Garfield, who had spent several years playing virtuous heroes, like those in “Hacksaw Ridge” and the “Spider-Man” films, “Under the Silver Lake” presented a new challenge: Could he channel the carrot-on-a-stick anxiety that hangs over Hollywood like a layer of smog? “Even I feel it, and I’m obviously a very privileged person in the opportunities I’ve had,” Garfield said in a phone interview. “You can feel your position on the hierarchy very acutely here.”
Mitchell started shooting “Under the Silver Lake” in fall 2016 for more money than his prior two films put together, but that didn’t make the production any easier. The script was long with a large cast and many locations. And the director could be exacting.
“There were days when we had to hold off on filming because a specific prop wasn’t exactly right,” Garfield said. “In my experience on a set, it doesn’t often happen that you hold the scene because a cereal box isn’t exactly the patina you imagined it to be when you were writing the script.”
Still, Mitchell’s stubbornness didn’t deter Garfield. “Anyone who has that specificity of vision and uncompromising nature, I’m turned on by it,” he said. “There’s a small handful of directors who get to create their vision and not compromise, and what I love about David as a young filmmaker is that he’s vying to be one of those directors.”
When “Under the Silver Lake” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May, Mitchell’s movie proved polarizing. “In all honesty, the Cannes experience was wonderful and terrible,” he said. “But it was always intended to be a kind of a bold film, so for me to shy away from that and to be hurt by some negativity, I think it would probably be a little bit silly.”
That mixed reception contributed to a series of delays, but now, long after “Under the Silver Lake” has been released in other countries, it can finally be watched by the Hollywood dreamers it sends up. Might the film’s reputation be burnished by the people here, who are better able to connect with Sam’s cracked quest than critics at Cannes?
“I’ve talked about this with a couple of friends,” Mitchell said. “Maybe this will grow on people, and they’ll appreciate it more years from now.” He paused, then shrugged. “Or maybe not.” At least the harder path would be more familiar.
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