Sometimes the most meaningful relationships arise from the most unexpected circumstances. That’s certainly the case for the protagonists in the new romantic comedy, ‘Banana Split,’ which exists within an equally complicated and funny female world view.
Vertical Entertainment is releasing ‘Banana Split’ today On Digital and On Demand. The movie was co-written by one of its actresses, Hannah Marks, and Joey Power. It also marks the feature film directorial debut of longtime Director of Photography, Ben Kasulke.
‘Banana Split’ follows April (Marks), who has spent the last two years of high school in a relationship with Nick (Dylan Sprouse), until their tear-stained breakup. In the aimless summer between graduation and college, the newly single April mends her heartbreak by striking up an unexpected friendship with an unlikely candidate: Nick’s new girlfriend, Clara (Liana Liberato).
In the comedy, Marks and Power crafted an honest portrayal of a coming of age story, which is set within the intertwined love lives of teenagers in the twenty first century. The story explores the universal themes of not only a love triangle between the three adolescent main characters, but also the complicated and genuine female friendship between April and Clara. The honesty of the equal joys and complications in their friendship universalizes the high school experience of the current teen generation, which has had access to social media and the internet since infancy, which hasn’t always been easy to capture in movies.
‘Banana Split’ does a gripping job of showing how deep friendships can become equally more essential and complicated as teens grow up. Relationships in the modern internet age can be difficult, as instant virtual access to everyone’s life can make the terrain of overlapping love and friendship even more difficult to navigate. But the friendship between April and Clara helps make the audience empathize with what their path to friendship, and connections between young women in general, feels like.
Kasulke generously took the time recently to talk about helming ‘Banana Split’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the director discussed how Marks asked him to read the script, and make his feature film helming debut on the movie after they met at the Sundance Institute Feature Film Lab, and formed a long-standing working relationship. He added that the scribe-actress’ long, personal friendship with Liberato helped infuse April and Clara’s friendship on screen with a feeling of authenticity.
The conversation with Kasulke began with the helmer discussing how he made his feature film directorial debut on ‘Banana Split,’ including what the process of becoming involved in helming the comedy was like. He shared that he knew “Hannah for a really long time; we met at the Sundance Institute Feature Film Lab in 2012. She then brought the script to me one day when we were having lunch, and asked me, ‘Can you take a look at this?’ I really thought she just wanted notes on it,” the helmer admitted.
“So I took it home and read it, and thought it was really funny and smart. I then wrote her back and said, ‘I don’t really have any notes on this; I just want to see it when you make it,'” Kasulke recalled.
Marks then said, “‘I was wondering if you could direct it, because I’m finishing another movie right now, and I want to be in ‘Banana Split.’ So we have to make it really soon,” the filmmaker shared. “She was concerned that she wouldn’t be able to play a high schooler much longer.
“So it was a surprise that she wanted me to direct it, and I was really flattered. But I was really excited, because the script was super strong, and I was looking for something to direct for a long time,” Kasulke divulged. “But this felt like the right fit, and the stars lined up.”
Before signing on to direct the comedy, Kasulke worked as a Director of Photography for over 15 years. Working as a cinematographer on other films helped influence the way he shot ‘Banana Split.’ Darin Moran worked as the cinematographer on the movie, “and I was lucky that he wanted to join me in shooting this; he’s a really experienced cinematographer,” the filmmaker gushed.
“Darin and I had a lot of ideas about how the film should look, and how we wanted it to feel timeless. We also wanted it to feel like a coming-of-age story that could fit in with any generation; I didn’t want it to only appeal to a Millennial audience,” Kasulke added. “We worked really hard to make it feel like it could have been shot at any point in the past 30 or 40 years.”
Once the duo “established that the look needed to be timeless, I let Darin do his thing. It was a little bit of an exercise for me as a cinematographer,” the helmer noted. “There were days where I had to tell Darin, ‘I’ll be in the other room, and you do your thing’ when he was lighting.”
Kasulke also admitted that “I wanted to stay out of Darin’s way, because I’ve worked with tons of directors over the years, and the best ones I’ve worked with are collaborators. Collaborating with cinematographers doesn’t mean standing over them, and telling them where to put lights.
“For me, it was about finding a common language with Darin about what the film was supposed to look and feel like. So we looked at a lot of movies and pictures together, and talked through things,” the helmer also shared. “We walked through frames of the film, and framed them with still cameras and our storyboard pictures.
“Once that part was done, I let Darin do his thing, and that was a big change for me. Usually, I’m on set lighting all day, and this movie was different. I had to proactively step aside, and let someone else take the reins, and I’m really glad I did,” Kasulke added
In addition to the timeless nature, ‘Banana Split’s story exists within a female world view, particularly through the universal coming-of-age story set within the intertwined love lives of teenagers in the twenty first century. The story not just focuses on the romantic relationships that Nick has with both Clara and April throughout his adolescence, but also the new friendship between the two girls. The filmmaker also thinks it’s important to create meaningful female relationships on screen, especially amongst young women, in the current society.
The close bond between Clara and April “is a big undercurrent of the script. Besides the humor, it was the biggest element that made me want to make the film when Hannah offered it,” Kasulke explained. “What made me the most excited was that I don’t know if I’d ever seen a romantic comedy between a teen girl and boy, and the boy gets sidelined partway through the story.
“Then it’s about these two girls as they form a friendship. I thought it was important to tell a story about falling in love with your best friend. Those lifelong friendships are a lot more difficult to fathom when you’re young,” the director noted.
“It’s a lot easier to fathom puppy love with your boyfriend or girlfriend when you’re 18-years-old, and getting wrapped up in the roller coaster of falling in love with someone. But what starts to matter more and more as you get older is the person who’s going to be there for you your whole life,” Kasulke pointed out.
“You get to see the origin story of April and Clara, who will be friends for the rest of their lives. Nick is just a blip on the radar for them, and the thing that brings them together…I wanted to see the origin of these two girls falling in love with each other, and forming a more long-term, complicated relationship, in this rite of passage,” the helmer further stated.
Besides scribing the script, Marks also starred in ‘Banana Split,’ alongside Liberato and Sprouse, a trio of performers who Kasulke cherished working with on the set. The filmmaker then explained what the casting process was like for the movie. “Hannah was on board from the beginning to play April. As the co-writer, she lived through developing the story, so her playing this part just fell into place.
“Hannah and Liana Liberato, who played Clara, have been friends for a really long time; they met when they were eight- and nine-years-old…When Hannah wrote this, Liana would read read it over the years, as there were a lot of different versions of the script,” the director divulged. “We got really lucky that Liana was available, and was excited to be in the film. We got even luckier that she and Hannah had such a long friendship, and so much life experience to draw on to create their characters.”
When it came to time to cast the role of Nick, “Dylan Sprouse’s name came up. I’m a little bit older than younger friends of mine who grew up on the two ‘The Suite Life’ television series; I just knew him from ‘Big Daddy,’ and that he was a younger actor. I also knew that he had taken some time off (from acting after ‘The Suite Life on Deck’ ended in 2011), and went to NYU. He then did a film (the 2017 horror-thriller, ‘Dismissed’) with a friend of mine, (actor) Kent Osborne. So his name came up and I was excited,” Kasulke admitted.
“Then Hannah and her co-writer, Joey Power, who was also a producer on the movie, got on a Skype call with Dylan. We told him what the movie was about, and he was really receptive to it,” the filmmaker added. “I don’t think he’s done a lot of projects like this before, so we were really lucky to get him.”
Despite the fact that the story in ‘Banana Split’ takes place in Los Angeles, the rom-com was shot on location in Kasulke’s hometown of Syracuse, New York. He then discussed what the experience of shooting the movie in Upstate New York was like. “I was born in Syracuse, and I have a long family history there. It was interesting, because every morning, I’d go outside and meet my ride to go to set. I was staying in this hotel that was right down the hill from the hospital I was born in. So it was so weird to be born in this place, and leave when I was young,” the helmer admitted. “I then had this whole film career, and then the first feature I directed was right next to the place where I was born,” he added with a laugh.
“The city is amazing; it has a lot of different looks to it, so it can double as a lot of places,” Kasulke explained. “So we made a movie that takes place in the summertime in Los Angeles, but we shot in the cold winter of Upstate New York, which is snowy and gray. But you can’t really tell, because of the way Darin and his crew shot the film…Syracuse isn’t really an industry town, so there was a feeling of community, and people helping each other out.”
With ‘Banana Split’ now available On Digital and On Demand, the helmer feels the digital model is beneficial for an independent film like this one. “Well, we initially had a scheduled theatrical and VOD day-and-date release, so we were supposed to open in theaters across the U.S. and Canada. But, of course, with COVID-19, things are rapidly changing, and everyone’s trying to figure it out,” he pointed out. “But with the pandemic, I’m really happy that we still have a platform with VOD, and people can watch it while they stay safe at home. I hope we can bring some laughs and happiness to a pretty scary time.”
But overall, Kasulke “was always happy we were going to have the VOD release, because I grew up in a tiny town that didn’t have a lot of theaters. So VOD is really helpful when you want to see a movie like this one when it’s released,” he pointed out.
“I hope that everyone would want to see this film, especially younger people. Sometimes it’s easier when you’re younger to spend a couple of bucks and rent movies from the comfort of your own home. So I’ve been intrigued to see how this would play on VOD, especially with how a lot of younger-based content is being consumed,” the filmmaker concluded.