Nanette Burstein was nominated for an Oscar for her debut film On The Ropes and received critical acclaim for The Kid Stays in the Picture, but her latest documentary shifts from the highly specific story of a well-known movie producer to the more universal tale of teenagers. Indeed, American Teen feels almost archetypal, as Burstein follows four classic American types--the popular girl, the band geek, the quirky outsider, and the jock--through the ups and downs of their senior years. The film captures the teens as they fall in and out of love, wrestle with the demands of friends and parents, and struggle with where (or whether) to go to college.
We sat down with Burstein and talked about reality TV, crafting a story, and whether teenagers really are that self-absorbed.
J. Robert Parks: You've done documentaries on boxers, on music, on Robert Evans. Why teenagers in small-town Indiana?
Nanette Burstein: I wanted to do a film on teenagers. One, I was influenced by this documentary called Seventeen, which was actually shot in Indiana. Also, my high school experience was such an important time in my life. It was very challenging, but also very formative in defining who I ultimately became. So I wanted to do a movie that was personally very important to me.
JRP: One of the things I find interesting about the film is that these teenagers almost seem like they're out of central casting. You've got the band geek, you've got the queen bee, you've got the jock and so forth and so on. I'm curious how you chose the teenagers you did. Were you looking for those kinds of things, or did that storyline develop as it went on?
NB: I was definitely looking for kids from different social cliques and different social classes. But they didn't have to be as archetypal as they were. I'm glad that they are, because I think they defy the stereotypes and are surprising and unexpected, and that's what I was looking for. You think you know who they are, just like their peers think "oh this is the theater geek." But in fact they're very different people, and they're complicated, and they're trying to figure out who they are.
JRP: Did you film other students and then narrow it down to these?
NB: I did. I started out filming probably ten people at the beginning of the year. But after two or three months, I narrowed it down to these four. Either the storylines didn't really go anywhere or they didn't appreciate the process of being filmed all the time.
JRP: How were they at first? Were they comfortable with filming or were they really uncomfortable at first?
NB: Most of them were pretty uncomfortable at first. The more underdog students were more comfortable with it because I think they just had less to lose in life. They're not as worried about their reputation. They're flying under the radar as it is. The more popular kids were much more uncomfortable with exposing themselves because they spend a lot of time trying to fit in and build an image of who they are. So to expose who they are really takes some courage.
JRP: Now you lived in Warsaw, Indiana, for the whole school year?
NB: Yeah, I moved there.
JRP: How did you prepare for filming?
NB: Every day I would go to school during the lunch periods along with my field producer Greg [Orselli]. We would tag team the different students we were filming and talk to them and see what was happening. A lot of the filming took place outside the school where a lot of the drama would be happening. So Jake, for example, might be dating some girl, and you want to follow as much as you can of that because his story is really about looking for love in all the wrong places. Or there might be something happening with Megan who got in trouble for vandalizing this home, and you want to stay on every moment of that. It would really vary who we were focusing on at any given time. It would so much depend on the quote-unquote drama that was happening in their lives.
JRP: I don't know if I'm just old, but the teenagers let you film them at moments where I never would think to let someone film me. Do you think that's a generational thing, or why do you think these teenagers were letting you film them at such intimate or embarrassing times?
NB: There were also a lot of intimate, embarrassing moments they wouldn't let me film. I do think perhaps that it's partly a generational thing, that they're used to people exposing their lives on television.
That has both positive and negative effects for me as a filmmaker. A lot of times on TV people expose themselves, but it's exploitive and it's mean-spirited and it's not to give some universal truth about life, which is what I'm trying to do. So that exploitive aspect of reality TV made their peers more suspicious: "What's the film crew up to? Are they trying to do some trashy reality show? Or an expose of how crazy teenagers are today?" So that abundance of reality TV made it easier and more difficult.
JRP: How easier, just because students were more comfortable or they understood...
NB: They understood why you wanted to capture more vulnerable moments. They had seen some documentaries, and there are some decent reality shows where it makes sense of why you're revealing certain things about people. So there are at least examples that exist out there where they can look at and say, "Yeah, I get it."
JRP: It's hard to tell from the movie because they seem so comfortable throughout. But did they become more comfortable with you as the school year went on?
NB: Absolutely. In fact, a lot of the material from the film comes after the first few months because the first few months, with a few exceptions, a lot of the teenagers didn't feel so comfortable on camera. That was one of the advantages of being there for an entire school year. I had time on my side.
A lot of shows on reality TV film for a couple months, and they have to make 20 episodes out of that. So the producers are prodding drama to happen, and you can tell if you watch it. But if you have the patience to be there for an entire year to make a 95-minute film out of those thousands of hours, you can wait out those real and raw moments.
JRP: How do you narrow all that footage down to a 95-minute film?
NB: [laughs] Well it took me a year to edit the movie. But you know what the teen's story arc is. Well, I knew what their story arc was. They're all trying to achieve something, so it's anything related to that. And I would edit each person's story separately, and anything that was superfluous would end up going by the wayside, and then I would intercut them. But it's a long process. The documentary process of editing is very much like writing. It's backwards compared to fiction films.
JRP: How so?
NB: Well, when you're writing a fiction film, you've figured out the storyline, and then you go shoot it. But when you're doing a documentary, you have a sense of the storyline, but you can't nail down the specifics until after you've shot it.
JRP: Were there any things about these stories that were different than what you expected in October, or did you have a sense of where this might go over the course of the year?
NB: I knew basic conflicts with each of them, but I was being constantly surprised, as I think the audience is now when they watch it. That's the beauty of documentary filmmaking. It's important to me to know that I'm going to have a first and second act and I don't know how the third act will turn out, but the details of those acts are impossible to predict because it's real life.
JRP: Did you ever have a sense that the teenagers--because they've seen so much reality TV and so many teen movies--knew what their role was and were performing for you?
NB: Definitely in the beginning, absolutely. But part of getting used to being on camera is also being yourself. I spent a lot of time with them without the camera there, so I could tell if they were acting up or not. If anything, they would try to tone down their behavior or their personality because they were afraid of exposing some of themselves.
JRP: Then because of that, there must be an interesting choice for you--as you're choosing from the footage you have--to decide what to show of them. Particularly like with Megan. The scenes with her are intense, and I suspect that her entire high school career wasn't like that, day in and day out.
NB: Her life was pretty intense. Megan would get bored. She would create, unconsciously I believe, drama. There is a lot of petty stuff that happens in high school that seems dramatic to the people involved but in fact isn't, and I left that stuff out mostly because it's just not important.
JRP: That's one of the things I love about the film is that it really captures that sense of being a teenager where everything seems larger than life, every little moment seems like "this is the most important thing that will ever happen to me."
NB: It's true. Every high and low moment is so intense for them. And it seems like it's the most significant point in their life. Because they don't have perspective yet, they don't know that things are going to get better. You're not prepared for it, so everything seems like a pinnacle.
JRP: Did you ever have to say, "Ah, I missed that. Could we re-do that?" I know that in reality TV and even in documentaries, they'll sometimes have small reenactments because something's important and they need that.
NB: Right. There was a moment where Mitch texts Hannah and breaks up with her, and I had to reenact that because I wasn't there for that moment. And there was no other way to tell that story. But usually if couples are breaking up, it's never just one conversation. So they might tell me, "We're breaking up. I don't know if we're totally broken up." And I'd say, "Well, ok, I need to film you guys talking." And even though they've had one conversation, they're probably going to have ten more anyway. So you don't have to reenact the scene. Not much in life happens in a single moment. I was able to capture a lot of great moments that way, actions repeat themselves.
JRP: I really like the animated interludes. I know you've used that sort of thing in other films. Did you come up with the idea of having the style of animation match the teenager early on or later on?
NB: It was probably later on. I wasn't sure yet what the style would be, and I was going back and forth thinking. But it really came from the teenagers. When I would interview them once a month, to get them to reflect on their lives, I would ask them to narrate their fantasy life at the time and to visually describe what they're seeing. And so the style came out of that, out of their own imagination. And I realized the animation scenes all have to be different, because they all imagine things in very different ways.
JRP: Can you talk about any ethical dilemmas that you had, just in that conflict between being a director and being a person?
NB: Yeah, you don't know when to [pause] It's interesting. I do believe in having a close relationship with the people I film. Because for me it's important that they know me and that they trust me and that they feel comfortable with who I am and what I'm trying to do. So I do get involved in giving them advice and not just maintaining a distance. However if something is happening, I usually choose to film first and give advice later because I need to film the honesty of the situation and I can't really alter it. So it is a balancing act.
JRP: Do you feel that same pull and tug in the editing room?
NB: Yes, yes. For me, I try to make films...I do believe I make films about people I like. And some people on the surface are more complicated and may not seem as likable at first. But once you really expose who they are, at least for me they are likable. And so I show people's flaws as real people, but I show people that ultimately are admirable. That allows me to spend a lot of time with people because I genuinely like them. But I worry about protecting them too and not making them look too evil or too negative or exposing something about them that may haunt them for the rest of their life. There's a great responsibility, but at the same time you're trying to make an honest film. If you never show their warts or their flaws, it won't be interesting to the public.
JRP: Some cultural critics, particularly older critics, will talk about this generation of teenagers as being incredibly narcissistic and self absorbed.
NB: [laughs] What teenagers weren't?
JRP: Well, I'm curious whether you think that's changed, with the rise of Facebook and MySpace and things like that.
NB: No, I think they're the same. I think teenagers have always been incredibly narcissistic and self-indulgent. And it's part of the growing process. But I think the difference is that you can now see it. You can go on their Facebook page and see what they're really talking about, whereas normally you had no access to what they're really like. Definitely the technology has changed them in that I think there's more cruelty; I think there's more regrets of what they're putting out there and not realizing the consequences. But narcissism is a timeless characteristic of teenagers. I was. We all were. And I think that's where the insecurity and cruelty come from at that age, because it's hard for us to empathize with other people at that age as much as we should.
JRP: You mentioned at the beginning that the documentary Seventeen was very influential for you. What are some other documentaries that either you've admired or have influenced your work?
NB: Well, Hoop Dreams. A lot of the more narrative documentaries, documentaries that feel like they could be fiction films in their entertainment value and their poignancy. So early on, Hoop Dreams, Unzipped, Crumb, more recently Capturing the Friedmans, King of Kong I thought was great. There are these films that come around maybe once a year that are really really special and are deserving to be on the big screen and that tell a great story and have great subjects.
JRP: What sort of movies would you like to make next or in the future?
NB: Well, I would like to make a fiction film next. I've made three documentaries that have all tried to be as entertaining and poignant as some of the better fiction films. So I thought I'd try to make a fiction film that feels as real as a documentary.
JRP: I know that some of my favorite filmmakers started out as documentary filmmakers. And I'm curious how you think that the experience of being a documentary filmmaker might impact you when you move into fiction films.
NB: I think that it really hones your skill as a storyteller. You're having to go through real life, which isn't necessarily scripted like a three-act narrative, and look for those important storytelling moments. And you're also looking for those honest moments that you try to emulate in fiction films, how to bring out real characters and make them believable. So you're constantly grounded in reality in documentary, and I think that'll help you as a fiction filmmaker and not be fake in your storytelling.
JRP: Are there fiction filmmakers that you particularly admire?
NB: There are! I'm a big fan of, especially more my generation, people like Alexander Payne, Paul Thomas Anderson, more recently Jason Reitman. I think they're phenomenally talented, and I can watch their films endlessly.
JRP: How has the work that you do been influenced by the commercials you do, or vice versa?
NB: I think they're all a craft. Commercials allow you to practice style a lot and being able to tell a short story in such a short amount of time, getting to the essence of what something really is. So in that way they've helped me. With commercials I have a much bigger crew, and I can practice different styles with the camera that I'm limited with in a documentary. And documentaries have just helped me become a strong filmmaker, and that helps me become a strong director. They're mutually beneficial.
JRP: What sort of films do you think the world needs right now?
NB: I think the world needs good films [laughs], and they're not easy to come by. I think really strong, honest, poignant stories and there seems to be a shortage of them. I remember reading a quote from Alexander Payne when he won a big award at Cannes, and he said, "I don't know why I'm being honored for just telling a really simple human story. It shouldn't be uncommon." But in fact it is. Not just sticking to these genre pictures. Which are fun and entertaining and great popcorn flicks. But what I think people are really moved by are the more poignant stories about the human condition. At least those are the films that stay with me.