Interview with Neil Triffett, writer/director of EMO the Musical

Neil Triffett discusses his high school comedy EMO the Musical, which screened at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival.

After a run of short films, Austrlian writer/director Neil Triffett made his feature debut with this year’s EMO the Musical, a witty and utterly charming comedy about an emo kid navigating life at a new high school and a forbidden love affair. The film screened at the 71st Edinburgh International Film Festival and I caught up with Triffett to discuss the inspiration for his emo-based musical and the challenges of getting such a story to the screen.

I gather you’re around the same age as me, so emo must have been peaking when you were in late high school or college. Was that a scene that you were into at the time?

I went to a small rural school, so we only heard bits and pieces about Emo culture, mainly from the newspapers at the time. When I hit year 11, I moved to a bigger school, and saw my first Emo there. They were really out there visually, it was a shock for a country kid.

What was it about emo that particularly appealed to you, and where did the idea to pit them against Christians come from?

I liked that Emos offered a different choice in how to be a teenager. They weren’t obsessed with being happy all the time, and they were OK if their sexuality wasn’t obvious. That, along with their music, made adults uncomfortable; parents just couldn’t wrap their heads around what their kids were doing. In my music room at school we had a group of Christians and a group of Emos, and I think that’s where the idea of pitting those two groups against each other came from. They weren’t at war like in the film, but there was a tension of ideas there. In some ways, Emos are almost the opposite of Christians – they’re not optimistic, happy or interested in purity. But they’re just as emotional.

It strikes me that, even back in 2013 when you made the short that this film is based on, emo had kind of faded away already. Is this a project you’ve had in the works for a while or was there another reason you wanted to revisit emo?

I feel there hasn’t been a better youth movement, or at least a movement that has been as confronting to parents, since Emos. Hipsters are hollow in comparison. Everyone hated them, from jocks to goths, which shows how successful they were. No youth group has come close to matching that since. However, in the years that have passed, the rest of society has swallowed up aspects of Emo culture; footballers have Emo hair-cuts, young people listen to Emo bands again, boys are more in touch with their emotions. In development we were asked about the currency of Emo culture but anyone who read the script got that it wasn’t important that Emo’s have taken a step back culturally; they’re just a stand-in for any group with out-there ideas. Even though Emos aren’t as present today, their ideas, like not being happy all the time, are still urgent to discuss.

EMO is a brilliant entry into the teen movie genre. Are there any high school comedies in particular that you drew inspiration from? Any favourites of the genre?

I’m always glad that audiences see EMO as a high school movie rather than a musical, because high school films were definitely our touch-point. We’ve always referred to EMO as Mean Girls, just with emos. So that was an inspiration. I also watched Easy A, Election, and Hairspray a lot during writing.

When it came to researching the emo scene and working on the music for the film, what was that process like?

There are four Emo characters in the film, and we have four different versions of Emo culture amongst them, but we knew not everyone will be happy with our representation of Emos in the film. We received many comments on the short film about our Emo representation, so I had interaction with the internet and took thoughts on board, I also mined my Emo friendship base to discuss their experiences. But we were also careful not to be too gentle with Emos. They’re not perfect, and that’s why they’re exciting. To not reference their more out-there ideas, such as a confronting attitude to death and sexuality, would not just have been boring, it would have been incorrect. Many of the Emos that watch the film get the criticisms but understand it’s coming from a place of love and respect for the group. With writing the songs, I tackled many of the Christian and folk songs alone or with the help of another musician, Charlotte Nicdao, but for the Emo numbers I was lucky to have the help of our song producer, Craig Pilkington, who has a bit of punk in his back-story.

Were there any specific bands that you looked to? I think My Chemical Romance is the only one that gets namechecked in the film.

I listened to My Chemical Romance a lot. It’s definitely the more pop-side of Emo music that we tried to replicate in the film, as that’s the most current and accessible music for audiences now. Some songs are Paramore inspired, others have a bit of Panic! in them, but I think our biggest touchstone was Jimmy Eat World. We have one big Emo party song in the film and that’s definitely a Jimmy Eat World number.

While it appealed to me right away, the concept of an emo-based musical could be considered quite niche, on paper at least. What challenges did you face in trying to get the film off the ground? Was the previous short crucial to getting it made?

The short was really helpful in making people understand that it wasn’t a film just for Emos. Though an Emo audience can access and enjoy the movie, it’s not designed specifically for them. From the short and the script, people immediately understood that it’s a film about young people trying to fit in, and that’s something everyone can relate to. The film talks about Christianity an equal amount, but luckily I was never asked if it was a film for Christians.

EMO received a great reaction at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and has been screening in Australia too. What does the future hold for the film, in terms of release?

We’ve been in some great festivals world-wide, including Edinburgh, the Berlinale, Inside Out in Toronto, and Melbourne International. We’ve also just finished a specialised theatrical run here in Australia. We’re ramping up to be released online, which is super exciting, as I think that’s where most people will find us. That’s definitely where the young folk are at.

What are you working on next? Do you plan to work on more musicals in the future?

I’ve got another musical in development but it needs more work before I can take it seriously. I’m back scripting, and I’m jumping between three or four new ideas, waiting to see which rises to the surface. Also, after working on a musical for so long, I kind of formed an allergic reaction to music – but the desire to sit down at the piano has just returned to me, so writing songs again is something I’m really enjoying.

You can read my review of EMO the Musical here and look out for it landing online in the near future.