I’ve been pretty vocal over the years about my love for the drive-in experience (I wrote this love letter to Beyond Fest and the drive-in experience in 2020 when the fest’s repertory screenings every week became a safe haven for myself and hundreds of other SoCal movie fans each and every week), so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with documentarian April Wright about her latest project, Back to the Drive-In, which highlights 11 different drive-in locations around the US, and the amazing folks that are tirelessly working to keep the drive-in experience alive.

Daily Dead recently spoke to Wright about Back to the Drive-In and during our conversation, we chatted about our own drive-in memories, her experiences working on this documentary, what she learned while on this creative journey, and more.

Back to the Drive-In has arrived on digital platforms today, courtesy of Uncork’d Entertainment.

Congratulations on the doc, April. This really spoke to me. I've actually been mostly on a work sabbatical lately just because I've been dealing with book stuff and my day job just has been a lot lately, but when this came into my inbox, I was like, “Yes, I need to cover this” because the drive-in to me has been such a huge part of my life ever since I was very little. So, to see this come along, I was just absolutely thrilled. So first and foremost, thank you. Just as somebody who appreciates and loves drive-ins for doing this.

April Wright: Thank you. Where did you grow up? what drive-ins did you go to?

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, so I used to go to the Twin Drive-in in Wheeling. And then after that one closed, I started going to the Cascade out in West Chicago.

April Wright: Oh yeah, I know the Cascade. That's a sad one that had to close, and it's still sitting there vacant. I did meet some people about a year ago that were trying to bring it back. So I don't know if they're still trying to, but hopefully somebody can. Yeah, I'm from the Chicago area also, but I grew up on the north side. So, there were three drive-ins that I went to in the Chicago area and unfortunately, all of them are gone now.

Oh gosh. Which ones did you go to?

April Wright: We would go to the Grayslake Outdoor when I was a little kid and also the Waukegan Drive-In. And then across the border, we'd go to the Keno in Kenosha. And that one lasted the longest. It just went down six or seven years ago. They thought somebody wanted to buy the property to build a Walmart, so it got torn down and nothing ever was built there. And so I'm still all torn up about that one.

That's so tough. I am curious, was this something that you had been planning to do all along, and then COVID demonstrated to you the necessity of doing this project? Or did it come about because of COVID since drive-ins became the sanctuary for a lot of folks for a few years?

April Wright: It was a combination of things. So the very first documentary I ever made was about drive-ins and it was called Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Movie. It came out actually 10 years ago, which was on the 80th anniversary of when the first drive-in opened on June 6th, 1933. And so now, we’re coming up on the 90th anniversary, and it was all about the history, the invention, and when they really took off and all the ups and downs and what happened to them. Because I had covered the history, I wanted to go back and spend more time to get to know the owners because practically every drive-in that's left is family-owned at this point. Even if they are part of a company, it's a family-owned company, so I just wanted to show all the hard work and that they're still struggling. I talked to a bunch of drive-in owners about doing this.

There's a drive-in association, and I went to the conference and I told them that I want to do a follow-up movie. And this was before COVID. When COVID hit and drive-ins got so much more press and attention, it added a layer to the story, and it expanded it because I was only planning to follow three or four drive-ins. But I wanted to show a broader perspective because I thought things would be different depending on where the drive-in was located and other factors. So I expanded it to all different types of drive-ins to brand-spanking-new ones like the Quasar that were just built to really old ones, to single screens, to some that served alcohol, to some that didn't, to some that even had seven screens. I just tried to pick every different factor—new movies, retro movies. But what I realized was that they were all telling me the same stories. Once I got on the road, I was just like, “Oh, they are all struggling with the same thing.” So yeah, it just added a layer to the story with COVID to show that even though they got a lot of press and attention, it's not like they're safe now. They still are struggling, so I wanted to show what all goes into it and why it's important.

I really appreciate that, too, because there's been so much talk about saving theaters and I'm not saying that the theater-going experience isn't important, too—because it is—but I'm glad to see something like this that demonstrates the tradition of the drive-in and why it's important, too, and why it's good to support them. Because you are supporting families who are doing their best to share an experience with other people, which for me as a kid, I was fortunate enough to go to movies both ways, but honestly the drive-in was always my favorite way to see it. In fact, when I moved to California and I realized I could go to the drive-in year-round, I thought I died and went to heaven.

April Wright: Yeah, I agree with you. What you just said there was exactly right. It is about family experience or with your friends, whoever you go with. It's more than just seeing the movie. It is about creating a great memory that you can't create at home.

Definitely. So, I wanted to ask in terms of going around and meeting with all these folks and everything, what was your shooting process then? Did you give yourself a few months? Was it a few weeks? Was it even longer than that?

April Wright: Well, so like I said, it was pre-COVID that I brought up the idea that I wanted to do it and there were a few drive-ins that when I made my first documentary a decade ago, they were like, “Oh, I should have been in that. I wished I could have been in that.” So there were a few that I followed back up with. The Galaxy in Texas was one of those that wished they could have been in the first film. I asked if they wanted to be in the new one and they said yes. And then there were other people that volunteered when I was at the conference. The Field of Dreams couple that built the drive-in in their backyard, they wanted to be part of it. And other drive-ins like the Quasar, I had been tracking their buildout. They had been building it and constructing it for a while, and I saw they opened. They told me that they would love to be part of the second movie. So, it's almost like I did a little bit of casting, even though it's a documentary, because you want to make sure you have different points of view and perspectives, so I did try to pick a good cross section of places.

And when I was in L.A., I shot the Mission Tiki first because honestly, I didn't know how long it would be around. And it just closed for good about a month ago now. So, I shot that one and I had a couple of friends help me shoot that day. But the rest of the film I made myself. I got on the road from Los Angeles, and I took almost an entire month and I drove across the country. I went to Texas, up to Nebraska through the Midwest, through Ohio, Illinois, up to the Buffalo, Niagara Falls area for the Transit to the Greenville Drive-In over to Cape Cod and then Baltimore. And then I drove back. So, most of the movie was a long road trip for me that I shot myself. I had my regular camera, I shot it in 4K, and then I had a drone, and then I had a GoPro that I did time-lapse from day to night, from empty to full.

I knew between those cameras I'd be able to cut together the film, so it was a one-man show. Then also, as a result of making documentaries over the years, I learned how to edit, so I also edited this one. So, this is a very personal film for me because I just made most of it myself. One of my friends that did the score for one of my last documentaries did the score for this one, and there you have it. But I knew it was something I could make during COVID. I didn't want things to open up after COVID and not have something to show, so that's part of why I did it.

I feel like these folks behind drive-ins are really putting themselves out there for a return that isn't all that lucrative. It's almost like a selfless act at this point, I think, to run a drive-in. I'm just curious, did you feel like it was a cathartic experience for these folks to be able to tell their stories and talk about their experiences running these facilities and just being able to show people just what it is that they really do?

April Wright: Well, actually, that's an interesting question because they're people who like to show movies, but they don't generally want to be on camera. They don't want to be the focus and they're about the marketing of the drive-in and hyping up the drive-in and trying to get people to come out to the drive-in. So, I think it was actually a bit of a challenge for them to be on camera and to also be talking about the aspects that maybe weren't going so well. But I think it's just because of the relationships that I had built with a lot of the owners over the years. Having made my other documentary about drive-ins and after making the first one, even during the pandemic when reporters and people had questions about drive-ins, a lot of them contacted me because I'm out in the press talking about drive-ins. So they trusted me to tell the story in an honest and not exploitative way, just to really show the balance of how passionate and enthusiastic they are and how important they believe this is, but also to show the truth of what was going on.

Even though I think that was hard for them because they don't want to look like they were weak. They don't want to look like they're struggling. They want people to just come out and have fun. And so I'm really grateful to them for all just letting me go behind the scenes and see what was really going on and that they were willing to share some of what was going on and let people know. Because it almost makes you root for them more to know that they're there from two or three in the afternoon till three in the morning, and that they are having these problems. Because we get there at dusk and we see a show, and that's only a small piece of it. And for us drive-in fans, if you want them to stick around, you have to go out and support them. So that's the message that I wanted to get through because I want them to stick around.

To make enough money to keep ’em going, a lot of them have second jobs or have other businesses. Some of them also have indoor theaters. It's a whole mix of what people do, but most of them don't only live off their drive-in, so it is a labor of love. They are part of the community, and they feel like what they're doing contributes to their community and that it's important. And I would agree with that. Having visited a lot of drive-ins and looked at a lot of areas where they don't have their drive-ins anymore, I think when they get replaced with whatever it might be—whether it’s big box stores, some with housing, or other things have taken over drive-in properties—I feel like when there are fewer places like that for families to come, for communities [to come] together, for you to see your neighbors and be part of the community, I think that the community suffers. So, where there are still drive-ins, I hope they can all stay.

I'm curious, were there any surprises for you along the way as you were going through this and talking with people? 

April Wright: Well, I think just some of the aspects of how they were struggling were surprising to me. I knew a little bit about having a hard time getting employees and things like that. And I knew that even though they got a lot of press during COVID, it didn't always translate to dollars because sometimes they had to park cars one space apart. The cars were socially distanced so they were running at half capacity sometimes. So, instead of getting a full house during part of the summer, they were getting only a half house. And also, the snack bars, depending on where the drive-in was located, they were treated like restaurants. So you couldn't go inside the snack bar. They had to figure out alternate ways to do food if they were able to do food and then they had to have extra people cleaning things all the time.

So it's like there was a trade-off. They were the only place open, but they were not operating at full capacity, and they were under a bunch of restrictions, so I knew that. I didn't expect some of the stories about the unruly customers. We were hearing those stories about airlines, about people just throwing fits and stuff. And to hear that when you're at a drive-in to have fun, you're there to see a movie, there are kids around, and the fact that people were fighting about where to park or wearing a mask to go to the bathroom or whatever, I was not expecting stories of so much trouble like that. They all had them to different degrees. The one in the film in Texas was probably the most extreme with the lady who pulled her pants down and went to the bathroom in the snack bar area because she didn't want to go inside. That's crazy. But everybody had some version of stories like that of people doing crazy things, not wanting to park somewhere and skidding backward across the property, and just doing stupid things. You're like, what the F is going on [laughs]?

I guess I didn't realize they would all be telling me the same things. I really thought different drive-ins would be like, “Oh, we had a great time. Oh, we had a terrible time.” Or I thought they would all say different things. I did not know until I got to four or five of them and I realized, “Oh, they're all in this together. They're all having the same issues.” It doesn't matter where they're located. It doesn't matter how big they are or how old they are, or whatever those differing factors were, they were all in the same boat together. I didn't know that when I started.

  • Heather Wixson
    About the Author - Heather Wixson

    Heather A. Wixson was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, until she followed her dreams and moved to Los Angeles in 2009. A 14-year veteran in the world of horror entertainment journalism, Wixson fell in love with genre films at a very early age, and has spent more than a decade as a writer and supporter of preserving the history of horror and science fiction cinema. Throughout her career, Wixson has contributed to several notable websites, including Fangoria, Dread Central, Terror Tube, and FEARnet, and she currently serves as the Managing Editor for Daily Dead, which has been her home since 2013. She's also written for both Fangoria Magazine & ReMind Magazine, and her latest book project, Monsters, Makeup & Effects: Volume One will be released on October 20, 2021.