Under the Silver Lake: Robert David Mitchell’s Neo Noir, Starring Andrew Garfield and Riley Keoughin

Robert David Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake, is a quintessential neo-noir: Set in L.A. it’s story of a down-on his luck man who investigates the disappearance of a beautiful woman that he discovers in the swimming pool of his apartment complex.

Starring Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man; Hacksaw Ridge) and Riley Keough (It Comes At Night; American Honey), the film fuses elements of the detective thriller with the psycho-geography of Los Angeles and the Dream Factory in a richly layered thriller that’s designed to be devoured, debated, and decoded.

Having made two distinctive features set in his native Michigan—2011’s The Myth of the American Sleepover, about teenagers hanging out during one long Friday night, and 2015’s horror hit It Follows, set in the metropolitan Detroit area, For his third feature, he shifts the site to the City of Angels, his current residence, weaving together a story of conspiracy, corruption, and secret codes in the world’s showbiz capital.

Mitchell’s Version of Los Angeles

“Under the Silver Lake is my own version of the Los Angeles story—a story that is in my opinion best told through the lens of the detective genre,” says Mitchell. “A world of sunlit swimming pools, dark shadows, secret passages, debutante daughters, mysterious murders—-the iconic imagery of a city built on dreams and moving pictures.”

Sam (Garfield) is a 33-year-old on the cusp of being evicted from his apartment complex on L.A.’s eclectic East Side. With a dog killer terrifying his Silver Lake neighborhood, and a missing billionaire dominating the evening news, Sam falls under the spell of his neighbor Sarah, a mysterious ingénue obsessed with Marilyn Monroe and the Golden Age of Hollywood. After her sudden disappearance, he turns amateur detective, embarking on a quest across Los Angeles to find her, discovering a strange cast of characters along the way as he journeys from one party—and conspiracy—to another. Is he losing himself as he slips further down the rabbit hole, or is he coming into his own as he goes about solving some of the most confounding mysteries of our time?

Garfield: Hero or Antihero?

“Sam is an Everyman who is looking for his place in the world—he wants to find his deeper purpose and sense of belonging in a world that seems to reject him at every turn,” says Garfield. “He refuses to live as a zombie like so many modern people; he won’t be a herded sheep. But he is constantly coming up against his own sense of powerlessness. Under the Silver Lake is a man’s quest for meaning and a man’s refusal to accept the surface of things.”

Adele Romanski, one of the film’s producers, says: “Anybody who’s come to Los Angeles to pursue a certain ambition can relate to Sam, and imagine how fame and fortune might go in the opposite direction. He’s out of money, and while he could probably land a job if he wanted one, he’s drawn towards something more exciting—this sense of adventure in solving the mystery of Sarah’s disappearance that lies at the heart of the movie.”

Obsessed with pop culture, Sam’s quest deepens when he stumbles on a handcrafted ‘zine called “Under the Silver Lake” in a downtown bookshop. Documenting L.A.’s showbiz myths and legends, the publication plunges Sam into a murky underworld of Tinseltown lore that may or may not echo Sarah’s disappearance. Tracking down its kooky creator, a hoarder of celebrity ephemera and crackpot conspiracy theories, Sam becomes convinced there are secrets underneath the Silver Lake reservoir—and atop the mythical Hollywood Hills surrounding his home.

“Under the Silver Lake is about the hidden meaning buried within the things we love—the movies, music, and magazines that define our culture,” says Mitchell. “Pop culture is now the only culture—a lake we all swim in. But there are things happening, unbeknownst to us, beneath the surface of the waterline…”

Sam follows the mystery through iconic locations in the City of Angels, from the portal into downtown that is the Second Street Tunnel (a staple of classic crime fiction) to the stargazing destination that is the Griffith Park Observatory, and the repository of dead stars known as the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where long-dead luminaries share lawn space with aspiring hopefuls at movie screenings and events.

In Good Company

Like Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, Jake Gittes in Chinatown and even Betty Elms in Mulholland Drive, Sam becomes a detective in the sunshine and shadows of Southern California, delving beneath the surface of Hollywood artifice to unearth deeply entrenched corruption at the city’s core.

“I’ve never seen a character like Sam before; he feels so specific and unique,” says Garfield. “He’s full of contradictions and deep longings, as well as superficial ones. He is absolutely a product of his times, as well as totally sprung from David’s imagination.”

Florida State University

After writing the script, Mitchell gave it to Sleepover producer and former Florida State University classmate Adele Romanski (If Beale Street Could Talk; Gemini), who was beginning production on Moonlight with Barry Jenkins, another Florida State alumnus. “I read Under the Silver Lake and flipped out for it,” says Romanski. “It was some of the wildest, craziest, and funniest material I’ve ever read, but with a sharply observed sense of the world we live in now, with our collective interest in conspiracies and power dynamics.”

Mitchell also passed the script to Jake Weiner, his manager dating back to Sleepover’s premiere at South by Southwest in 2010. “I was blown away by his take on the neo-noir set in Los Angeles,” says Weiner. “It had some great cinematic touchstones from classic Hollywood movies, incorporating David’s own unique spin on the genre. I found it completely unique and fresh.”

After the theatrical run of It Follows, Weiner handed Chris Bender (founder of Good Fear) the Under the Silver Lake screenplay—a hefty 160 pages, including images and a cover photo. The project was anything but a typical L.A. noir, showing resonance beyond its distinctive genre trappings.

“There was something special about the way the script tapped into cultural elements past and present,” says Bender. “David is a pop culture vacuum, and he’s managed to take in everything that’s happening in pop culture now, in addition to expanding his deep appreciation and understanding of pop culture in the ’80s and ’90s, which is reflected in the screenplays he writes. On one level, this is the story of a young man searching for a missing woman—a man who seemingly might be losing his mind while uncovering some bigger meaning. David wrote a script that you need to look at again and again, diving deeper and exploring new wrinkles that reveal bigger possibilities with each new look.”

Adds Bender: “The Myth of the American Sleepover was set in the teenage world, and It Follows was a horror movie, incorporating teenage themes that felt authentic and original. With Under the Silver Lake, David seems to be addressing how he saw the world when he came to Los Angeles over a decade ago—and how he reflects back on that time now. The common thread in all three works is the unique but relatable worlds he creates in which these stories take place. The way he fuses together visuals and music also feels uniquely David Robert Mitchell. You want to support a filmmaker like him in every way you can in order to see where he’ll ultimately take you.”

Weiner and Bender passed the script to producer and three-time Oscar nominee Michael De Luca (Boogie Nights; The Social Network; Moneyball), the former president of production at New Line Cinema and DreamWorks. De Luca had met with Mitchell when he was an executive at Sony Pictures, and the two cineastes hit it off.  And he was floored by the Under the Silver Lake script when he read it. “It was very ambitious,” says De Luca. “I love movies with a dream logic, where you fall under its spell and disappear into it. The script, and David’s visionhad that quality. It’s a magnum opus in subtext in the way it works on so many different layers.”

De Luca related to the script’s depiction of millennial alienation, in the form of a protagonist who believes that his place in the world should be bigger or more important than it is. “Sam is out of sync with his surroundings and he’s wondering why that is,” says De Luca. He also saw contemporary resonance in the film’s approach to authenticity—what’s real and what’s fake, and our collective obsession with finding the truth amid what we’ve been told to believe.

De Luca was impressed with its scale and scope, seeing the project as a major leap forward for the writer-director. “There’s so much growth from his previous movie, which was rich thematically but stayed in one lane,” he says. “This movie exists in multiple lanes.”