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  • Interview: 'American Teen' director Nanette Burstein

    Mon, 21 Jul 2008 11:06:01

    Interview: 'American Teen' director Nanette Burstein - Return to the triumphs and travails of high school life with this Sundance Festival favorite

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    The jock. The geek. The rebel. The princess. The heartthrob. Sound familiar? They should, regardless of whether or not you’ve seen The Breakfast Club. Though there’s no brooding bully equivalent to Judd Nelson in American Teen, director Nanette Burstein’s documentary about high school life, the film follows many of the same character archetypes portrayed in the seminal John Hughes picture. Set in Warsaw, Indiana, an unassuming, quintessentially American town, the pop-doc revolves around five teenagers from distinct social circles navigating their final year of high school. Over the course of a school year the kids’ lives change dramatically as they prepare to journey off to college, cross clique lines to find romance, and wrestle with weighty emotional transformations. Burstein carries with her a fondness for her subjects, all of whom she developed friendships with while shooting. In our interview, we learned how Burstein established trust with the initially reticent teens, how an unexpected romance began to blossom during filming, and in what ways she thinks the film will resonate with viewers of all ages.

    I read that [the film] was inspired by a PBS documentary that you had seen in the ‘80s.

    Yes, that’s true. The PBS documentary was actually made in the ‘70s, but I didn’t see it until I was in film school.

    What was it about the documentary that struck you?

    It was a film called Seventeen and it was actually a series of films about the Midwest and small towns, and each film was a different aspect about 17-year-olds in middle America. It was just this very honest cinema vérité portrait of 17-year-olds who were [for instance,] in interracial relationships—love across race lines as opposed to class lines—and you could see how the parents and the kids really did not approve of it and all the pressure. The kids were really honest on camera, showing their vulnerabilities and their insecurities. It really struck me how honest they were.

    Even as a film student, had you always intended to make this a documentary subject?

    Yeah, it’s something that I wanted to make for years and years, back to the days when I saw [Seventeen].

    The film is set in Indiana, and a lot of people have [asked], “Why not New York?” or, “Why not Los Angeles?” What I gathered was that you were trying to communicate something that was quintessentially American about the experience.

    Yeah, and in a town that only had one high school because I felt like there would be more social pressure that way as well, opposed to a big city. A big city has some slightly different problems, but when you’re in a small town you can’t really escape whatever social reality you have.

    Did campus administrators allow for full access to campus?

    Yes. In doing the search for where this film would be, I ended up going to 10 different high schools and interviewing all of the incoming seniors to try and find the best stories. But in taking those 10 high schools, they had to be high schools where the school was excited, would give me full access, and this school was one of them. The vice principal of the high school is a real champion of the film and was really supportive the whole way through.

    You choose [to follow] very specific character archetypes. Was that always the intention—to have “the jock,” “the nerd”—or did that change in the casting process?

    I knew they would be from different social cliques, and there are only so many, but they didn’t necessarily have to match up perfectly with The Breakfast Club [laughs]. That just sort of happened.

    My problem [with teen movies] is they are like fairytales. I wanted to do something that has complexity.

    Right. The promotional material is directly an allusion to the John Hughes film. Did any other fictional teen movies influence the tone you were going for?

    I basically have watched a lot of teen movies over the years, and they often have the same story lines over and over—some sort of Romeo & Juliet story, the inspirational, uniquely sports story, triumph over adversity, the nerd story, looking for acceptance, and the popularity, Mean Girls power struggle. Those stories happen time and again in fiction films because they come out of reality, and they’re also great dramas. But my problem in the way they’re often depicted in fictional films is they are like fairytales; they don’t have the complexities of real life. I wanted to do something that has a complexity.

    Did these teens jump out at you right away? Did you want to focus on such a select group?

    I started out filming, in the very beginning, 10 people, and narrowed it down to the five within a few months. They did all stand out to me very much, the ones that I picked, but I wasn’t sure if their stories would have longevity, that the drama would last throughout the year, and I wasn’t sure how comfortable they would end up being on camera. I hedged my bets and I had about 10 people—twice as many—and it became clear in a few months that these were the stories and the kids to follow.

    I read that you said—and this is natural of teenagers—that the kids were suspicious of adult characters. Were they suspicious of you and your intentions in being there?

    They were in beginning. Obviously not enough that they didn’t want to go for the process, but as far as being completely natural and giving me the full access that I was looking for on camera, that took some time, with some more than others. I think I was so unusual to them because all the adult figures in their lives were authority figures. They were teachers or parents or friends’ parents and they, as a result of being an authority figure, disapproved of certain behavior. I wasn’t there to do that. I was there to be a friend or more like a big sister, and I would talk to them like a peer.

    How did you interact with them outside of school hours?

    We became really good friends. There was a lot of time spent without a camera there. During school hours I would go everyday and talk to them at lunch and find out what was going on, try to figure out who I would be filming that day and what was happening in their lives. They’d come over and hang out at my place at times and talk on the phone. I was a very good friend to them and still am.

    In the process, as they opened up more, did you find them giving you calls on the phone and saying, “Hey, Nanette, I’m having trouble with this.”

    Yeah. When you’re a documentary filmmaker you’re like free therapy.

    Did you ever feel during more emotional moments that you were being too intrusive?

    It’s always a balance and they knew they could tell me, “You can’t film,” sometimes. They knew that and they used that and they would do that at times. I always knew that if I was being too intrusive they would tell me. They were not afraid to vocalize that.

    I especially felt that way with Hannah, who deals with a lot of heavy emotional material. She’s the character that I related to the most.

    I think a lot of people do, actually. A lot of art house audience [members] see it, but even beyond that, she does something pretty exceptional by leaving, standing up to her parents and going for her dreams.

    Have you spoken to her about her own filmmaking aspirations?

    Yeah. She’s in film school right outside of New York City, so I’ve gotten to see her a lot since high school and talked to her. She either wants to be a director or an editor and she’s absolutely loving film school. She’s really happy.

    One of the interesting interactions crossing clique lines is her relationship with Mitch. Could you have predicted that would unfold? How did it play out behind-the-scenes?

    I couldn’t have predicted that, although it’s funny, because they reminded me a lot of each other. I never predicted they would date. What happened was, he literally did see her at Battle of the Bands and had never spoken to her, and fell for her. And I knew him, obviously; he was good friends with Colin, I had spent time filming him in the beginning of the year. He’s such a great kid; I was friends with him. He actually asked me, “You think I should ask out Hannah?” [Laughs]

    And what was your answer? “Yes!

    Totally [laughs]! I was excited. The first time they went out I didn’t film it. I thought maybe they would go out once and that would be that. I was surprised when they completely hit it off with each other when they went to dinner together.

    Did the stories change in the editing process?

    They were tighter and more focused. I knew what the storyline was for each of them when I was starting. There were obviously many things that happened along the way that I couldn’t have predicted. They each had this goal that they really needed to achieve and I knew that would be the through line of the story. But there was more that happened, especially to Hannah, during the course of the year that ended up in first, second, third cuts, and that I ended up editing out a) for time and, b) it just wasn’t as important to her main storyline.

    Were there other filmic influences that you pulled in to make it feel more like a pastiche?

    I have always, in my [non-fiction] filmmaking, been very true to the three act dramatic structure, even with my first film, On the Ropes. It plays like a narrative that way. And life isn’t quite as clean as that, but life’s boring to watch at times [laughs]. When you make a movie, you’re making the essence of what people are and what they’re going through, so that’s just my natural filmmaking instinct.

    It does play out like a narrative. Some people may criticize [it, saying,] “This is almost fictionalized; this could be a television show; this could be a drama.” At the same time, these are real events. So, it’s just a matter of balancing the two [elements], I suppose.

    Yeah, it is. I think in my approach, [I looked] for people who had these strong storylines. You have a kid, like Colin, who needs to get a basketball scholarship or he’s going to go to the military. Right there you have a strong dramatic arc, just like in a fictional film. You look for someone who has a strong lead, and each of them had that. I don’t think that most documentary filmmakers approach it that way, but right from the beginning, that’s how I was approaching it. In the selection of the kids, I [was] also selecting the story.

    The kids’ lives have changed dramatically, not only in the aftermath of filming but with the release of the film. Has the experience of this process affected them in a certain way, caused them to go in a different direction?

    No, it hasn’t. I can’t really guess what the outcome will be. I’ve always felt that—and we’ve had a lot of discussions because I feel protective over them—this is like a summer abroad, like a free trip to France. You get this unique experience you never would’ve had…but at the end of the day you still want to be a doctor, or you want to be an economist. Don’t be seduced by the lure of Hollywood, because it’s beating.

    What do you hope a general audience will take away from the film?

    I think it’s a lot like Juno in that way. Obviously, high school kids related to Juno, but adults did perhaps even moreso because of the sophistication of the storytelling. There is an honesty; it’s not a fairytale. Most teen movies don’t feel real and they’re clichéd. This is something that, if you’re in your 20s to any age up, there’s a time reference about the story that you’ll completely relate to your high school experience. I think for parents, teenagers actually cut them out of their lives because they’re worried that their parents are going to get mad at them for things they do, which they probably will [laughs]. It is really eye opening to see what’s going on with this generation of teenagers and how much they can relate to them and went through the same experiences. High school is such an important formative time in your life. For some people there’s damage done emotionally, and other people look back fondly, but most people have a mixture of both. No matter what, it has such an influence on you, and that’s why I think we have such a fascination with it.

    —Heidi Atwal

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