Ben Percy jumps to the big screen to honor his daughter

Kids walk down a trail in the forest.
Summering stars (from left to right) Madalen Mills, Lia Barnett, Sanai Victoria and Eden Grace Redfield.
Courtesy of Bleecker Street

Minnesota writer Benjamin Percy is known for his horror and science fiction novels, comic books and audio dramas. He’s also written screenplays and now one of them, co-written by indie film maker James Ponsoldt, has been made into a movie.

“Summering,” directed by Ponsoldt, opens locally on Aug. 12.

It is a coming-of-age story that follows four girls who are on the cusp of entering middle school. On the last day of summer break they find a corpse. They then decide to play detective to try and learn more about the mystery man’s life.

Percy told MPR News’ Jacob Aloi about the film’s inspiration.

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The following is a transcript of their conversation. It has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired the film?

Like every dork dad, I've been really excited to introduce my kids to the stories that meant a lot to me growing up. I have a daughter who is now 13. Her name's Madeline. She was 11 at the beginning of this process.

I was showing her movies like “The Goonies” and “Stand by me” and “The Outsiders.” And I was reading her books like “The Hobbit” and “Where the Red Fern Grows.” And she was always really appreciative, saying how much she loved the stories, but also tempered that with a constant criticism. “Where are the girls?” she would ask. 

And one day I found her at the family computer, and she was typing furiously away. And I asked her what she was up to, and she pointed to the title of the story, and it was “The Girl Hobbit.” And the first line, I'm butchering it, but it went something like this, “this story might seem familiar to you, but it's about a girl Hobbit.”

It was in that same spirit of revisionism that James Ponsoldt and I set out to write “Summering.”

In something I read, you mentioned that this is a love letter to your daughter?

That's right. The movie, if you stick around for the end of the credits, is dedicated to our daughters. So you'll see that they're listed at the end, as Alice and Madeline. And they were very much participants in this whole process. I spoke to Madeline about it from the very beginning. She gave me feedback and ideas, and in a way, felt like a coauthor.

The dialogue reminds me of those awkward years leading up to middle school. How did you capture the essence of it? 

This is a story about a liminal time of year. It’s the last weekend of summer before fall begins, before middle school kicks off. It's also a liminal time of life. They are moving from this safe little nest elementary school, into the wilds of middle school where we all know, things can be turbulent and confusing, emotionally and physically.

So we wanted to channel this spirit of in-between… and that applies to the girls' transformation over the course of the story. They are rubbing up against the hard truths of adulthood, and in order to capture that spirit we consulted the women in our lives. James and I recognized that we have a lot of blind spots.

Just locally here in Minnesota, I reached out to a lot of moms. I had for instance, Jessica Peterson White, the owner of Content Books in Northfield sit down and discuss the project from the time when it was first germinating and I had her consult on the scripts as they were drafted. I did the same thing with Michelle Martin, who's a teacher and taught Madeline in fourth and fifth grade. And those are just two examples of the dozens of women we asked to consult on the script and told them to be as brutally honest as possible.

A man poses for a photo.
Author Ben Percy writes novels, comic books and podcast dramas starring Marvel characters, as well as film and TV scripts, all from his home in Northfield, Minn.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

This piece is your debut as a screenwriter. How has it felt to make that shift?  

I'm a movie nerd. I'm a TV nerd. It's been an absolute pleasure to get to this point and like everything in my career it's been incremental. I began writing short stories, short stories gave away to magazine pieces. I then began publishing novels and comics and breached the world of podcasting, audio dramas.

And now I'm writing TV shows like ‘Urban Cowboy’ for Paramount Plus, and I have ‘Summering’ now. I've got a pilot being written right now about “The Ninth Metal,” that's one of my novels. I've been working at this for a long time and I've faced a lot of rejection and no’s along the way, but that's one of the things that really helps you appreciate success when it comes.

While this film contains a lot of horror and suspense elements, what was the reasoning behind a change of tone to a coming of age story, when you're so well known for stories of horror and suspense?

Sure, and there are elements of horror in this. You think you know what this movie is, but then we pull the rug out from underneath you. Because kids, they imaginatively rehearse adulthood and what does it mean if you’re engaged in this imaginative rehearsal, but all the stories that you've encountered feature women who are being victimized in a horror or a crime story, or women who are absent in an adventure story?

So, the whole thing is sort of like a challenge to that. But regarding my typical catalog of stories, I am known for writing thrillers. I'm known for writing horror and sci-fi, and it was really nice, to be honest, to flex some different muscles. The past few years have been rough on everybody... this story was medicinal to me, medicinal to James and me. As we wrote this, it was really fun to work in a different sort of mode, not just traffic in mayhem. You know, it's a sweet story. It's a hopeful story. 

What is one thing that you want to impart to [audiences] about the film?

Is this a kid's film? Yes. Is this also a story for adults? Yes, and we hope that what happens is that this multi-generational fluidity because it's about the mothers, as much as it is the daughters. We hope that this multi-generational fluidity results in a lot of good conversations when people leave the theater. We hope that it's something that families really engage with. 

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.