Mikey Alfred tells the story behind Illegal Civilization’s new film, Summer of ’17

“Just keep building this world of teenage fantasy land.”

Mikey Alfred tells the story behind Illegal Civilization’s new film, <i>Summer of ’17</i> Left to right: film producer Malcolm Washington, director Mikey Alfred, director of photography Ayinde Anderson   Photo by Jacob Messex

This year’s been an exciting one for Mikey Alfred. The 22-year-old mastermind behind skate brand and film crew Illegal Civilization released several short films with the group, while also continuing to grow their clothing efforts. The guys also took their signature Civ events across the country this fall, bringing their followers out IRL for one-of-a-kind hybrid film screening-concert experiences. Simultaneously, Alfred’s been working on developing his own filmmaking skills, spending the summer co-producing Jonah Hill’s upcoming film Mid ’90s, and working with Spike Jonze while shooting Frank Ocean’s latest show run.

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Over the phone from San Diego and before Illegal Civ’s last tour stop, Mikey talked about the making of Summer of ’17, The FADER and Illegal Civ’s new short film, and the magic of creating and portraying a youth-only universe. He also shared the best lessons he’s learned from his elders, and the most important thing he and the crew looked for when selecting winners for the first-ever Civ film fest, which took place at Camp Flog Gnaw.

When did the idea for an Illegal Civ tour occur to you guys?

We've been doing these events in L.A. and New York where we'll show a new short film or new skate video, and we'd have Tyler [The Creator] perform, or YG. I was looking at these events like, These are so much fun, all the kids are having so much fun, and it's such a cool, new weird idea to premiere a film with a concert directly after. The screen drops, and someone's there performing. We need to take this across the country.

Most people come, and they're just like, "I don't even know what's happening. What am I here to do?" So they watch the short and are like, “Oh, that was cool!" And the second the screen gets dragged off stage, Trash Talk just starts ripping, and you see kids there who're like, "I've never been to a hardcore show, but I love watching Trash Talk, I love watching Show Me The Body." Then there are kids who are just there for the hardcore stuff, and right when it's over Denzel Curry comes on, and they weren't expecting that or knowing they were going to see that. You've got these kids who are film kids, hardcore kids, and rap kids all in this one event. They all have fun and love it. Kids are putting each other on to shit, which is super cool.

This year's been pretty busy for you and the Civ guys. While your output is so high, and you’re out on the road, what do you do to keep your creative juices flowing?

I have so many awesome collaborators. My guy Malcolm Washington, this kid Shawn Rojas, and all these people constantly calling me everyday just talking about ideas. It's just keeping it in the front of my mind. The second I get free time, it's like, Oh, shit. That's right, Malcolm called me about that short film idea. We should link back up and talk about it. Or, Shawn called me, he found some really cool aesthetic we should go with with clothes, I need to zone in on that. I think it's just having good collaborators to keep reminding me of, OK we've got these projects. It makes it fun, it's another person dedicating a lot of energy to it, and it's not overbearing.

This year, you guys worked with some bigger companies, like Zumiez. In partnering with larger entities, how do you make sure your vision is executed to the T?

Working with Zumiez has been the best thing of all time because they aren't worried about ego or anything. They're just like, ‘Let's make something that's cool and fun, and the kids are what matter the most. What's gonna be the most fun and most enjoyable for the them? How does that look? How does that feel?’ We made a pop-up trailer together where we bought this 1960s airstream, and we put '60s furniture and art in it. And that's such a weird, random idea for a pop-up shop, but the kids responded to it so much, and something like that wouldn't happen if you were worried about how it sounds.

I think another thing is, I feel about this with FADER also, where, when I talk to them, they see the bigger picture, they see greatness in me and IC, and that's why what we make comes out so good. When you collaborate with someone and they're kind of little bro-ing you where they're like, "I feel you, but I know what I'm talking about," it doesn't come out right. I've worked with some people where they don't look at me the same way I look at them, and every time what we make is wack. You've gotta see that greatness in each other.

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Mikey Alfred tells the story behind Illegal Civilization’s new film, <i>Summer of ’17</i> Aramis Hudson, Nico Hiraga, and Ryder McLaughlin on the set of Summer of ’17.   Photo by Jacob Messex
“I was like, I have to capture this for the intro. Just keep building this world of teenage fantasy land.”— Mikey Alfred

Let’s talk about the film. Was it shot this past summer?

Yeah. We shot it in three days, all around North Hollywood and Burbank, California. All the places [in the film] are childhood hangouts of mine. The Armenian dudes in the intro of the film that are playing cards — Armenians have a super tight knit community in North Hollywood that's super rich culturally. They're awesome, but they don't really mess with people if they're not Armenian. We went to go film them, and I walked up like, "Hey, I'm born and raised in North Hollywood. This would mean so much to me, I've watched you guys from afar for so long. For the intro of the film, I want to build up the North Hollywood world, and I think you guys are an essential part of that." They all just looked at me, and went back to playing cards.

We scrapped it for the day, and I hit up my friend who's Armenian, and I told her what I was trying to do, and she's like, "I think that's super smart and I think you're right. Armenia and Armenians are such an integral part of North Hollywood. I'll just pretend that I'm the director and we'll go back.” So we go back and she starts talking to them in Armenian and she's like, "Oh, I'm making a film," says the same thing I told them, and they're like, "Yeah, yeah, no problem!" So, we bring the camera over, start filming, and they start hamming it up. The shots you see in the film are the ones that are chill and relaxed. They started standing up and doing all this stuff. We filmed them and knocked it out.

You said a lot of the spots were childhood hangouts. Can you talk about one in particular that means alot to you?

In the intro, there's this shot where it says "Summer of '17," and there are kids sitting in a water well type of thing. In real life, when I was 13 to 15, I would hang out in that area everyday during the summer. To this day, in the summertime, that place is packed with kids, because to get to it you have to hike for 30 to 45 minutes, and when you're there, there's no houses, no cell service, literally no way for someone to get to you. So kids get there, and can act like grownups. They're walking around smoking and drinking beers, being loud, playing whatever music they want. I was like, I have to capture this for the intro. Just keep building this world of teenage fantasy land.

This film was similar to others you've done in that there were no adults featured. Only young people. Why is a kids-only world something you want to portray?

I think what it comes from is like, growing up, because of skateboarding, all of your friends are kids. You're hanging with them all day, and spending hours and hours with them. You start to confide in them, and it's like, emotionally, your friend becomes your family. You kind of start to resent your parents a little bit. At least for me, your parents work super hard, they're never home, and then when they are home, they're tired, they've been working since five in the morning. You start to not look to them for anything. Especially in my case, your friends start providing jobs for you, and providing opportunity. Then that becomes your world. Where dealing with adults, almost, sucks. I think that's why the movies come out like that. That's subconscious, I don't think about it, but having this conversation now, that's why.

Mikey Alfred tells the story behind Illegal Civilization’s new film, <i>Summer of ’17</i> On the set of Summer of ’17   Photo by Jacob Messex
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What about the visual aesthetic for the film — what's the reference there? Each scene and moment felt very deliberate.

The guy who shot [this short film] is Ayinde Anderson, he's super talented. We really went through for every scene and had an exact reference. For the intro it's Bronx Tale, for the park scene it was Fresh. There's a scene in Fresh where it opens, and they're all kids talking about baseball cards. Fresh can't keep his eyes off of this girl across the playground, so he gets up, makes his way over to her, and they really dramatize the walk over. The point of it is that you see them building up this confidence, building up to this moment. And then when he reaches her, the moment is kind of lackluster.

When we get to the thrift store, the reference was Twin Peaks — it should just feel really quiet, grounded, and normal. How do we show love and feeling, without having to talk about it? When he hands her a dollar to pay for the shirts, she really lightly caresses his hand. When he leaves, he kind of just snatches the shirt out of her hand and walks out. We got that from this video called Hands Of Bresson. There’s this director Robert Bresson, and he was famous for just filming hands to talk about how people were feeling.

Once Jeffery leaves the party, that wide shot, we reference old westerns. When he skates, he's 100% alone while going through crowds. The first time is at a car show, where it's hundreds of people walking around and he just skates through. The next is a parking lot where it's a few kids under a streetlamp, and he skates through. He's getting more and more alone. In the last shot, when he's skating up to the house, it's just him on a pitch black street. It's like his decisions are impacting him now — he's trying to change to make people happy, and it's pushing him further away from people.

The last scene is the reference from this movie called Summer of '42. The whole movie is handheld, and it feels very half-documentary, half-narrative, and for the last scene, it's shot on a tripod, so everything's really still and quiet. The scene we reference is at the end, where Jeffery comes to the realization that his friends are stupid, he's stupid for listening to them. He's like, Why did I do that? Why did I change how I thought and how I was comfortable for someone else? When he's in the house at the end, it's still, quiet, and tender. It's a bittersweet moment because we're happy for him because he moved on, but we also feel bad for him because it's fucked up. He should have been going for this girl the whole time, I wish he would have seen this from the start and understood all these things earlier — she doesn't go to parties, she hangs out, listens to music, makes tea. She's not some stupid high school girl. She has a job and she takes care of herself.

Mikey Alfred tells the story behind Illegal Civilization’s new film, <i>Summer of ’17</i> Mikey Alfred on the set of Summer of ’17.   Photo by Jacob Messex

You guys have had a go at making several narrative films for the past year and some change. What's the most important thing you learned and applied to this one?

I learned the most working on Jonah [Hill]'s movie, and how thoughtful he was, where every single thing that happened in the movie needed a reason, and that reason needed to be real and moving. Before this short, I would make a story that could be funny, and then go film it. With this film, I tried to be as thoughtful as possible, and make sure the way that we're handling it was the most mature way possible. The scene where Jeffery leaves the party and changes his shirt back? To me, the wack version is us [filming him] close up, mad, you see him getting red, maybe he yells. But, the way we handled it was from [a wide shot], and the moment's small, because at that point, he's been pushed over the edge already, there's no reason to be emotional about it. I learned stuff like that from Jonah, where he really taught me how to be thoughtful, and why that's so important. I think my favorite quote I got from him was, "A good movie is a series of good decisions. And good decisions aren't always the easy ones."

He just directed a film called Mid ’90s and I co-produced it. We shot that over the summer. I was there for a lot of the process over the past year — a lot of the script, I casted the whole movie, there's only a few people I didn't cast in it, and I just learned so much from him everyday. I literally filled up two notebooks with things he would tell me, or things he would say in conversation. He's really smart and he taught me a lot.

Is that the first time you've been able to shadow or learn in that capacity?

Yeah, and right after, when the movie was done, I went and met up with Spike Jonze on Frank Ocean's tour and was filming there for like three or four weeks. I got to shadow Spike too, so I learned a lot from him.

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Mikey Alfred tells the story behind Illegal Civilization’s new film, <i>Summer of ’17</i> On set of Summer of ’17.   Photo by Jacob Messex
“Whether that was laughter, trauma — all we were looking for was to feel something.”— Mikey Alfred

Why’d you guys decide to make the Camp Flog Gnaw screening into a film festival? What were you looking for when watching submissions and selecting winners?

The short film contest aspect came from us eventually wanting to have our own film festival. We've got to plan that at some point, so it was like, why not do it right now at Camp Flog Gnaw?

We got 150 submissions, and we picked four films. We got a couple films that were super well polished that I would still like to give a shout out to. Like, this kid who made a movie called King Heart. It was really beautiful and dramatic and cool, but it was — this is 100% constructive criticism, because I think he's awesome and talented — but it was just a little bit flat. The story just kind of advanced, and you didn't understand people's motivations, so we didn't pick it. Some of the other stuff we picked was way less polished, didn't look as good, the production value wasn't super high, but it made you feel something, whether that was laughter, trauma — all we were looking for was to feel something.

Wolfenstein Productions made a film that we picked and it was so funny. It had us rolling around on the floor, crying laughing. Another kid made a film called Ye, about someone having Aspergers. It was just weird shots of his back, or weird shots of overlook from a mountain, with text at the bottom [of the screen] that said how it feels to have Aspergers. It was super moving and next level. It wasn't traditional, but it made you feel something. Then we picked this video called I Took Your Girl To The Movies. It literally looked like it was shot on an iPhone, but it was so hilarious that we had to pick it. There were so many other films that were better or more put together or whatever you want to call it, but they didn't do that. They didn't make you laugh or feel something the way that one did.

What's next for you guys now? Anything else coming up that you can talk about?

Next, we have this Viceland show that we have to finish. I have three more short films that I want to make, and another TV show idea that we want to do. For me, next, I want to produce three more movies. I want to do do five more short films, and three TV shows, and then feature time. By the time I'm 26, 27, I want to be doing a feature.

Mikey Alfred tells the story behind Illegal Civilization’s new film, <i>Summer of ’17</i> Cast and crew of Summer of ’17 on set.   Photo by Jacob Messex
Mikey Alfred tells the story behind Illegal Civilization’s new film, Summer of ’17