How the Creator of “My Year of Dicks” Is Manifesting an Oscars Moment for Channing Tatum
“This is a story from the year I was determined to lose my virginity.”
So begins this year’s buzziest Oscar nominee in the relatively obscure category of Best Short Film (Animated). For anyone who hadn’t kept up with the pre-nomination shortlist, last Tuesday’s Oscar nomination announcement was the first time they’d heard the title My Year Of Dicks, from an amused Riz Ahmed.
The shocked laughter you can hear rippling through the room (and tagged by a quick Allison Williams, Ahmed’s co-host) was a preview of the reaction that has followed: My Year Of Dicks instantly became a meme on Twitter; explainers proliferated; and by that night, Oscar host Jimmy Kimmel was joking about it in his monologue.
Anyone who does look up the film and watch it—which you can, for free, on Vimeo—will find that while the phallic title is descriptive of the material, it’s less Sausage Party than a slightly older and animated take on A24’s acclaimed coming-of-age indie Eighth Grade. Adapted by creator Pamela Ribon from her 2014 memoir, Notes To Boys, and directed by Sara Gunnarsdóttir (the first Icelandic female filmmaker ever to be nominated for an Oscar), it’s the emotionally vulnerable story of a teen girl in the outskirts of Houston in the early ’90s, vacillating between her resolution to have sex and realizing that the opportunities presented to her aren’t quite right. Each of the film’s five chapters stars a different “dick,” and is told in a different narrative style, including anime, vampire romance, and pure horror, all featuring quasi-rotoscoped versions of “Pam” (physically embodied by Ribon, with a vocal performance by Brie Tilton). Animation is not a new genre for Ribon, the screenwriter on past Animated Feature Film Oscar nominee Ralph Breaks The Internet and winner Moana.
I’ve been following Ribon’s career even longer than that: her first paid byline, sometime in the very late ’90s, was for a rant on my old webzine Hissyfit, and she was among the first recappers I hired at MightyBigTV.com, a website I co-founded (with Sarah D. Bunting and David T. Cole) and that later changed its name to Television Without Pity. And nearly the whole time she’s been working on My Year Of Dicks, we’ve been marinating in our teen years together as the co-hosts of Listen To Sassy, a podcast in which the two of us are joined by Cole as we deep-dive into each issue of the beloved teen magazine Sassy.
Pam and I got on Zoom late last week to talk about her Oscar nomination morning; what aspects of adolescent life have resonated with Dicks audiences in all the far-flung festival locations where the film has been shown; and the further chapters audiences might eventually get to see.
GQ: Now that you know you will be going to the Oscars, has your fan face tendency been on your mind since the announcement?
Pamela Ribon: I’ve gotten a little better about my fan face.
You live in L.A., and you’re meeting famous people all the time in your professional life. Life would be hard if you hadn’t.
No, I met Channing Tatum with full fan face. I said, “There were only two perfect sequels in the past 30 years: Paddington 2 and Magic Mike XXL.” And then he got up and walked around and gave himself a victory lap, as he should. Maybe because I’m older, it’s not as scary. When I was young, I was practically vibrating, like a puppy that might pee. Now I’m probably less jittery.
You manifested Riz Ahmed reading your film title. Do you have a short list of dream presenters for the actual ceremony?
Other people have definitely given me their dream list. Will the world ever stop debating Cate Blanchett, or any Kate, versus Meryl? I really think Billy Porter would do a great job.
What if they go with someone who knows you, like when Julia Roberts gave Denzel Washington his Oscar? What if it’s Channing?
It should be Channing. That’s a good idea. “Dear Oscars.” Also: it could be Oscar Isaac. It could be George Clooney. As we learned from Riz, some men can handle it. But in an animated situation, you know they’re calling Jack Black. I can’t choose favorites when they’re all favorites.
The process of making this film took so long that you’ve said you frequently thought it would never happen. Now not only did it, but it’s one of the year’s most-talked-about Oscar nominees. What has it been like to watch awareness of this project steadily rise and then spike so hard that Jimmy Kimmel is joking about it in a monologue?
I truly felt like we would get shut down at some point. And not because I felt like we were getting away with something, even though I knew we were. But the first time we had an audience for it in Iceland, internationally, and in Austin, for our world premiere, people were just cheering during it. Then they were kind of walking around quiet afterward. It’s a credit to Sara, to her art and the way that she created this. I’m drawn to rotoscoping and this style of character capture because it’s a psychological experience in a way that a lot of animation—well, a lot of cinema—just can’t do in the same way.
We have gone viral many ways, since the beginning of the internet time—since before there was a word for it. So I knew that feeling, that build. As soon as I knew Riz and Allison were announcing, it was like, “If we are on that list, that’s going to be something.” We had “My Year of Dicks” shouted by Cristo Fernandez from Ted Lasso. Edward James Olmos: “My Year of Dicks.” So I know that people not only enjoy saying it, they enjoy seeing who’s saying it. Riz was a good fit for that.
Did you feel, in the moment on Tuesday, that the giggle you’ve seen so many times before was happening for the biggest audience yet?
No. Well, we were cheering, we were jumping around the couch and everybody was hugging, and then we stopped and they were still laughing on the screen. That was when we were like, “Oh, something happened.” And then, I mean, it was a Twitter thing seconds later. I got to jump right in and have fun.
“My Year of Dicks” is also a chapter title in Notes to Boys**. Clearly you all made the right choice on lending it to the film, but were there ever conversations about calling it something else?**
Yes, very much so. But I was pretty steadfast. I mean, I learned how to title from Television Without Pity. I know you’ve got to catch someone’s eye. And in adult animation in particular, when you’re dealing with the sausage parties—when you’re dealing with literally Sausage Party—I was trying to project the same kind of fun, sexy romp of youth and be considered at that platform. Sara was like, “Well, we could still call it Notes To Boys.” And I said, “Not everybody’s had the experience of writing notes to boys. But absolutely everyone has had a year of dicks somewhere, at some point.” It might be at work, it might be academia, it might be the internet, but they’ve definitely had a year of dicks.
Everyone is reporting that Notes To Boys is the source for the film, but I don’t know if people get how much of the book is built around real notes that you wrote to boys and that you still have.
I kept a lot of first drafts of the notes that I wrote to boys in high school. Let’s say it was half the perfectionist in me that understood a rewrite is always necessary. And the rest of it is probably, “What if they just throw it away? What if they lose it before they get a chance to read it?” I understood the power of the backup way back then. I didn’t really keep a diary, but I would keep these letters as a record of how things were going.
There was a boy who got a 200-page letter, and then another boy who, once he found that out, was jealous and demanded a longer one. So he got a 205-page letter. It was a Mead notebook. Those people are both still in my life. One of them still has his letter. The other doesn’t, but that’s only because, he told me at one point, he had wallpapered his room in the pages. A lot of this came out of wondering, how did it feel to be on the receiving end of this much obsession and fury?
I know you have moved homes more in your life than most people have. How did you manage to save so many of these treasures from those years?
Luckily we stayed in one place all through high school. After that, it was off to college and yeah, the letters went with me to my dorm room and my apartments. I lost a box of things that had, I think, trophies and some love letters from the boys. I don’t have those anymore. No sequel. It’s probably best, truly, that I don’t have it because those are probably much better in memory.
How did the opportunity to adapt part of the book come to you?
FX reached out. [Originally, it was going to air on the FXX adult animation anthology show Cake.] I had met with them just to talk about animation and I gave them a bunch of my things. Megan Reid said, “I think your memoir is a great space for animation. You can really play around with this voice.” Originally, they were talking about it in the way that the book is presented, where there’s a current-day me and young me. I did try it that way at first, but it always felt like I was judging myself and inviting the audience to think, “This girl is already doomed or dumb.” And if you could see current me, you kind of knew I ended up some version of fine. After I saw Skate Kitchen and Mid90s really close together, I realized you don’t have to stand in the way of young people living.
Did you always know these were the stories that you wanted to film from the book, or was that a Megan Reid choice?
No, I recently found the email that I wrote after we first batted around this idea. So much of the pitch is exactly the same, but there are a couple of other things I threw in there like, “That’ll be a good story when we get to it.” If we get to keep making these and turn it into the series we’re hoping to, yes, there are more.
You’ve presented the film at many international festivals. It has such a strong sense of place and time, but have you been surprised that the experiences of the audience and the emotions have been so universally understood? An audience at South By Southwest is going to experience this Houston story in a different way than an audience in Iceland will, but it has resonated with both and more.
I mean, Kazakhstan! I have been surprised. But that even started happening within our own group [working on the film] because we weren’t all the same age. The first time we showed the whole thing in Iceland and they were so enthusiastic, I did burst into tears. That was an unexpected feeling: we never thought we’d see it on a giant movie screen, and in Iceland?
It wasn’t just seeing that it worked; it was also that feeling I was talking about. Everybody gets very happy, and then they get very quiet with the end. I think part of it is the way that it fades out, but it has this nostalgia that comes over everyone. It’s a private sharing of a universal feeling. And that has been really sweet. As much as we laugh through the whole thing, you do leave at the end with a kindness to your former, younger self.
I was hoping that it would make someone feel like it’s okay to not want to have sex, without saying that. It’s interesting to me when people are like, “I’m so glad she waited to have sex with Sam.” And I’m like, “They don’t have sex. They’re barely cuddling. There’s no base for what we leave them at.”
Many people are eager to forget their high school years. This might be why it resonates so much, that people are feeling things that they haven’t tried to feel in such a long time. What makes you want to return to this period in your life, in your work?
I don’t know that I ever left it. If you think about it, I went from writing these things to writing recaps, which are just fever-pitch love letters to television episodes. There is an immediate jump from, “Dear David, the skater I only know from riding the bus,” to “Dear Gilmore Girls, I swear every word of this is true.” It made me understand fandom, which was very helpful for Disney. High school is when your heart finds true fandom for, instead of a poster, a person that exists.
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