April Wright has not only loved films from a young age, but she is also deeply invested in the experiences of watching cinema. Wright has directed a narrative feature film, several short films, and four feature length documentaries. In 2013 she released her first doc, Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Movie. Well, once the Covid Pandemic caused movie theaters to shut down, drive-ins across America were brought back to life. Wright documented this resurgence in Back to the Drive-In. Wanting to learn more about Back to the Drive-In, I was able to interview Wright for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: I last interviewed you in 2019 about Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace. Since then, how have you been? Any superpowers?
April Wright: Let’s see… between 2019 and now… nothing has really changed, right? (ha!) I’ve been hanging in there. The pandemic came in the midst of the theatrical and film festival run of “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace,” which delayed the whole schedule. We had a VOD release and our broadcast premiere on Turner Classic Movies in late 2020. I think it’s still playing on various airlines around the world, and we are working on the digital/streaming release now. I also directed a doc called “Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story” which Shout Factory released in the US during the pandemic. Superpowers, no… other than learning how to be more patient and to accept how much of this industry is out of your control.
Yanes: Like all of us, you have had to deal with the pandemic and its impacts. How did you hold up?
Wright: While the pandemic and its ripple effects have been really terrible overall, and we’re still experiencing all the downstream impacts… the one positive for me was that I had often wished I had more time to get to the projects on my backburner. So, it was nice to finally have time to develop new film and television projects, to write and rewrite scripts. I was able to be very productive in that way during the pandemic, including making my new doc Back to the Drive-in. I did my best to focus on the positive aspects as much as possible, but it’s been a very tough couple years for everyone, myself included.
Yanes: Reflecting on Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace, how do you think you improved as a creator from crafting that documentary?
Wright: This is a great question because I’d like to think I get better and better with each film. My other three documentaries were about the history of a topic related to a specific (and somewhat not commonly known) aspect of cinema history: Drive-ins, Movie Palaces, and Stuntwomen. Back to the Drive-in is not historic at all, it’s about the present-day challenges of drive-in families, and their resilience and determination to keep their drive-ins alive after the pandemic. While I brought the experience of my previous docs, the style of this one is different, mostly verité. But I was able to get it completed quickly because I used the same team (composer, audio guy and post house) as the Movie Palaces doc. We all know how to work together so their amazing creativity and professional skills are what helped to get this one across the finish line.
Yanes: When the pandemic started, there was quite a bit of news coverage around drive-ins coming back to life. When did you know you wanted to create a documentary about this occurrence?
Wright: I knew I wanted to do a follow-up to my original drive-in documentary Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie (2013) for years. That one covered the history, the new one would focus on the unique families who work so hard and have so much passion to keep their drive-ins alive for their communities and future generations to enjoy. I went to the drive-in owners conference in Florida in Feb 2020 to see which drive-ins might want to be included in the new doc. The owners were discussing various ideas to get the word out that drive-ins still exist. We talked about maybe hiring a publicist or PR firm. Brad Pitt had just won the Oscar and in his acceptance speech talked about how he grew up going to drive-ins. Was there some way to leverage this? Well, a month later the pandemic hit, everything shut down, and the drive-ins got their wish – not in a way anyone could have predicted, but suddenly drive-ins became the only show in town, literally. They were headlines in national – and international – news. Everyone went “Back to the Drive-in,” pop-up temporary drive-ins happened in parking lots, and in addition to showing movies, drive-ins hosted concerts, graduations, church services, stand-up comedy, dance recitals – you name it!
So, it seemed like drive-ins were back, doing well, certain to survive, crushing it financially. But in reality, at reduced capacities, with Covid snack bar limitations, additional cleaning requirements, a lack of new studio movies and same date streaming – things weren’t as they seemed. So, my documentary’s focus hadn’t changed, but Covid added a layer to the story, and by summer 2021 when other things were opening back up, the drive-ins were actually having a rough time. It’s always a lot of work for these families to keep their drive-ins going, but coming out of the pandemic it’s been even harder. I wanted to show what’s going on behind the scenes. But also I wanted to show the passion, optimism, resilience and determination the owners have, because I think what they’re going through applies to so many of us trying to get through to the other side of the pandemic.
Yanes: Drive-ins take up a lot of space. I noticed a few of the drive-ins you covered had mini-golf courses and or play grounds. Which drive-ins do you think utilized their space the best?
Wright: When most drive-ins were built after WWII, playgrounds were standard. It was the baby boom and drive-ins wanted families to come early, have dinner at the drive-in, let the kids play, so other activities were always part of the draw especially during daylight savings when the first movie can’t get on screen until sunset. Plus, concessions is where drive-ins make their money, ticket sales go mostly to the studios.
So, when you visit drive-ins, go early, get set up, play, eat, enjoy the time before the show. It’s not about using the space, it’s about the total experience by design, and although many playgrounds were taken out during the years insurance skyrocketed for recreational businesses in our country (mostly in the 70s / early 80s), some playgrounds remain, or there are new playgrounds being added, mini golf, other games. Each drive-in does what they can to add to the attraction – as you see in the film – things like bands, cocktails, themed nights – since the drive-ins are family owned, many experiment with different things including special items on their snack bar menus.
Wright: Yes, the Harvest Moon has a wind tower. Almost all the remaining drive-ins are family-owned. Even if there are multiple locations, or companies, they are family-owned companies. And I’m talking about authentic, purpose-built drive-ins, not temporary pop-ups. Because they are family businesses, each is unique and reflects the owners and this is what I tried to show in my doc “Back to the Drive-in.” I visited 11 drive-ins in 8 states. Some had been around since the 50s, some had been dormant for years and re-opened, one was brand-new built from scratch and had only been open a few weeks in 2021 when I visited. Some had only one screen, some had many screens, one family built a drive-in in their backyard.
Some have grass, some gravel, some pavement. Some still have speakers for the retro experience, while several others have the newest state-of-the-art laser projectors that most indoor theaters don’t even have yet. Most play new movies, some also play retro titles, one plays specialty movies where you can see films like The Big Lewbowski while enjoying a “dude” cookie and a White Russian. A couple of them sell alcohol. Some have special food items like funnel cake. One owner is ready to retire, one drive-in has already been sold but continues to operate… for now. So each drive-in has unique aspects to the experience. Each reflects its owners and the local area, and each has things that make it special.
Yanes: Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Movie came out in 2013. Did filming Back to the Drive-in force to re-contextualize your 2013 release? Specifically, are there elements of Going Attractions that hit you differently now?
Wright: Everything in my first drive-in documentary holds up from an information and historic perspective, so the history hasn’t changed. For me the biggest change / improvement is my tools as a filmmaker. The first film was mostly shot in 2005 and 2006 so it was shot standard def and up-ressed to HD. It included a lot of photos and archival materiel too. Back to the Drive-in was shot in 4K. And now we have hi quality drones. Going Attractions drive-in doc would have been way better if I could’ve shot all those drive-ins in the movie with aerial drone photography.
Unfortunately, a large number of drive-ins I visited for that first doc are no longer around, and it would be nice if I could’ve captured them from the air. I do think of all the ways I could make it better from a technical perspective, but despite the flaws, people really love that movie.
Yanes: So many of the people interviewed for Back to the Drive-in, they love the experience of a drive-in. Why do you think people so romanticize this type of entertainment?
Wright: It’s true. One of the owners even says drive-ins are romantic. But I think that’s true beyond the idea of drive-in dating, it’s the whole environment that’s intimate, and exciting, and free, and fun, and nostalgic. One person says going to a drive-in is like going back in time, where the problems of the word fade away while you’re in there, and that’s true too. Movies transport us to different places and times and experiences. And seeing a movie at a drive-in transports you even more. It’s special. It’s an escape. It’s an experience. It’s creating a memory. I think I romanticize drive-ins too, so that’s probably part of why it comes across so much as a theme in the film. We need more places that make us feel this way.
Yanes: For you, is there a drive-in memory that you love?
Wright: People always ask if I have any specific drive-in memories that made me interested in this topic. There’s not one specific memory, because we went to drive-ins all the time when I was a kid, all the way through high school. Of course, I went to indoor theatres too, but if there was a choice to see something at a drive-in or an indoor theatre, I’d choose the drive-in. And likewise related to my movie palace doc, if I had a choice between a multiplex and a rundown movie palace, which most of them were, I’d go to the old movie palace whenever I could – because to me, the environment adds to the experience.
But while making this doc, I was talking to one guy about how my mom would make popcorn at home, put it in a paper bag to take to the drive-in, and put melted butter on it. His mom did the same thing to save money! We both remembered being in the backseat with the smell of popcorn and those greasy paper bags with butter leaking through. Now that is a distinct memory. I can still smell it. Because it was part of our drive-in ritual. Now disclaimer, we also bought hot dogs, ice cream, drinks, candy, etc in the snack bar. I don’t want to endorse bringing your own food. And fresh popped popcorn in the snack bar is way better and won’t grease up your car’s interior. But that’s a deep memory for me.
Yanes: When people finish watching Back to the Drive-In what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Wright: After watching the movie – I want everyone to actually go Back to the Drive-in! If you went during the pandemic, don’t stop going now that there’s other stuff to do. Don’t let it be just a Covid thing. They are all owned by families who really care about keeping this experience alive for all of us, for the kids, for their communities. I wanted people to have a greater understanding of what it takes to keep a drive-in going, and a little appreciation for how special these places are and why we should continue to support them.
And when you go, maybe treat their employees and each other a little nicer. Go back to your local drive-in and make some great memories with friends and family this summer! This website doesn’t have every drive-in listed, but it’s a great start to find authentic drive-ins in your area. https://www.authenticdriveins.com/
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Wright: I am working on a bunch of new projects; independent films that I’ll be directing, television series, and new documentaries! In my “Going Attractions” series while traveling the country to make this new drive-in doc, I also shot footage of roller rinks, bowling alleys, and family-owned amusement parks to be my next three topics to cover the full history. I’ll be gathering the interviews and editing to get each of those docs out sometime in the future. Each doc is a labor of love!