American Milkshake: Making a Movie about Race, Sex, and Blair in the 1990s
by Ted Jou '99
David Andalman ’97 premiered his first feature film, American Milkshake, at the Sundance Film Festival this year, where it was bought by cinema icon Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy) and is now available on iTunes and Comcast On Demand. Andalman '97 along with his collaborator, Mariko Munro, wrote, directed, and produced the film together. American Milkshake opened in theaters in 5 states at the beginning of September, and it generated enough buzz in the DC metro area to be picked up by the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring for a screening on November 30th at 9:30pm.
Andalman remembers falling in love with movies like Clerks, Reservoir Dogs, and Pulp Fiction, while growing up in Takoma Park and browsing the collection at Video Americain. Last summer, he returned to his hometown to shoot American Milkshake, a coming-of-age comedy based on his own experiences growing up in the diverse community of Montgomery Blair High School in the 1990s. He and Munro scouted locations in Montgomery County and enlisted extras off the street in Silver Spring. Both Silverchips and the Washington Post wrote stories about the filming.
American Milkshake follows the senior year of Jolie Jolson, a magnet student at West Branch High School whose main aspiration in life is to be as cool as the black kids on the basketball team. Although he is the film’s protagonist, Jolie is far from likeable, as he cheats on his girlfriend and reveals shallow racial prejudices while navigating the social barriers between his magnet friends and his basketball teammates. Heavy issues of race, sex, and class seem to hang in the air throughout the movie, which is set against the backdrop of the O.J. Simpson trial, Marion Barry’s legal troubles, the Million Man March, and other controversial events of the mid-90s. But Jolie seems to shrug in the face of any deep questions, and the audience is allowed to laugh at Jolie's naiveté. Andalman explains that he and Munro purposefully left many of these issues unresolved: “I don’t believe that films should have an ‘and the moral of the story is …’ I really just wanted to create a platform for people to start talking about these issues.” Andalman wanted American Milkshake to be as accessible as possible, so they made a comedy with “a biting tone in a light and fun movie.”
For anyone who was a teenager during the 1990s, American Milkshake is a fun trip down memory lane, and it will be especially familiar to those who spent time in the old Blair on Wayne Ave. Jolie is often talking about work he needs to do for an R&E project, and the climactic basketball game pits the West Branch Blazers against their rival, Eastbrook. The brick façade of the old Blair is unmistakable, and Jolie treasures his red-and-white varsity uniform. Andalman tried to do as much filming as possible at the old Blair, and while the story is fiction, he based a lot of the script on his own high school experiences. The characters were his memory of “five people mashed together” or a mix of people from newspaper articles or urban legends from the 90s. One unique character is Haroon, Jolie’s magnet friend in the movie. Andalman explicitly named him for Haroon Mokhtarzada ’97, his real-life classmate and friend, and the real Haroon appears in a brief scene in the movie. Andalman’s path to making movies was not an easy one, although he remembers starting very early, when his parents got a video camera one Christmas, and he started making his own short films, cutting from scene-to-scene without any editing: “It was just shoot, press record, and move on to the next scene.” At Blair, Andalman started a film and video club and actually did play on the basketball team. He remembers being so impressed with what his fellow classmates were doing, and Andalman remembers the Magnet as an "amazing” education: “It doesn’t really limit you to any field.”
Andalman wanted to pursue a liberal arts education, and he went to Oberlin College. Oberlin was affiliated with NYU’s Tisch film school, and Andalman took one semester at Tisch that stretched over a summer. He said that “[i]t wasn’t like work; it was like working and I didn’t even know it … That was the only semester where I ever got straight A’s in college.”
His first job after college was making public relations videos for DC Public Schools, where he developed his skills with professional video editing software. He then got an internship at a small commercial house in Boston, working on production for commercials and short features. He made his first short film, The Braggart (vimeo), in 2005, which premiered at the Austin Film Festival. Then in 2008, he made another short film, Takoma Park (vimeo), which was the beginning of the story that would become American Milkshake. After he finished Takoma Park, he expanded the script, but it was a few years later when he met his co-director in New York, and they committed to making a feature film. Andalman and Munro filmed for 22 days in the summer of 2012 with an eye towards the Sundance Film Festival. The timeline was very short, so they tried to create a polished version of the first ten minutes of the film for their submission. Sundance gave them a few more weeks to finish the movie, and Andalman remembers waiting on pins and needles for a decision. When his phone rang and a woman told him she was calling from Sundance, he “thought it was a prank call.” Right after the screening at Sundance, Andalman and Munro received an offer for the movie, and they signed a distribution deal with Phase 4 Films for the Kevin Smith Movie Club.