When I saw the documentary American Teen at Sundance this year, I was totally wowed, and I knew I was watching something special. It's truly one of the most insightful documentaries on American life to come out in years. The film is in select theaters now, and I highly recommend you check it out.
As you can imagine, it was a delight to sit down with the director of American Teen, Nanette Burstein, and pick her brain about the making of the film, what it means in the grander scope of current teen culture, and what it's like to be a lady director in a field that is still staggeringly dominated by men.
Buzz: When you were first filming at the high school in Warsaw (Indiana), how did you know you found the "right" kids with Colin and Hannah and Jake and Megan, etc.?
Nannette Burstein: Well, I didn't know for a while. I'm used to looking for not only the people but also a story that's already in process. And it's really funny because I found the best stories all in this one town — but that was in the summer. And then I got there like a month later and every one of their stories had changed, and I was so upset! I was like, "Oh my God, I've raised all this money and this film is going to be a disaster." (laughs) But they're teenagers! And their lives change like that.
The interview continues if you
Buzz: Did it take a while for them to trust you, especially in regard to filming them doing potentially incriminating things, like vandalism, drinking, etc.? Were they OK with you filming that?
NB: No, not in the beginning. It did take a while . . . because they were worried that I was going to show that they drank a lot. So, I made this promise to them that I wouldn't do that, and I did keep that promise. There's only one scene where you actually see them drinking alcohol. [But] that wasn't what I was interested in, and in fact, they weren't doing really anything. I was worse in high school, I was drinking and doing more drugs than they were. I think it’s something that teenagers do, and if anything it was tamer. But yeah, it definitely took them a few months to trust me and feel comfortable on camera.
Buzz: Speaking of things that you did when you were younger and what they did, do you think there's anything unique about teenage life right now? And are there things that are the same and are always going to be the same?
NB: Yes, I think what's different about teenage life now is communication. Just overwhelming different forms of communication like the Internet and text messaging and i-chatting and YouTube, and it’s really hard for them to navigate. There's already enough rumors and misunderstandings that happen when you’re a teenager and this has just multiplied them, you know, a hundred-fold. I think what hasn't changed are the core issues of wanting to fit in and feeling insecure and fragile hearts and your parents pressuring you . . . All of these emotional issues are timeless. And up until now, you have these fiction films that deal with these kinds of subjects, but they tend to be more one-dimensional and everyone has a happy ending and nothing is very realistic. And then these reality shows are very stagey and tend to be about the wealthier classes in life so they don't feel very real either. So I haven't really seen a film that's depicted — both on an entertaining level and a complexity and substantive level — what teenage life is like. Hopefully in that way this film is new and different and could have wide appeal.
Buzz: You had mentioned at Sundance that you wished there had been more diversity, but it just didn’t work out that way. Did it ever give you pause to call the film American Teen when it's about basically one sort of homogeneous group of people?
NB: Yes! It gave me great pause, in fact. And I was struggling until Sundance — I knew once I got to Sundance I couldn't change the name because there would be all this publicity and we went through a bunch of different names. But I was and still am concerned about that.
Buzz: It's still quite different from what we're getting a lot of on TV, The Hills, all that stuff, and to me this is endlessly fascinating — the heartland of America, etc. — perhaps more so than say, Southern California.
NB: I know, and it's so funny because when I first got to Warsaw, the more popular kids were like, "Why are you filming here? You should be in California! Who's gonna want to watch this?" (laughs) They were so dubious of the movie because it was set in their Midwestern town.
Buzz: But it’s actually fulfilling a need.
NB: Yeah! Oh, it totally is.
Buzz: As a female director, what has been your experience within the film community as it is today?
NB: You know, I haven’t yet experienced discrimination, and I'm going to do a fictional film next so I'm sure it could be very different. Documentaries, there are a lot of female directors, probably because you don’t make much money (laughs). And it's not quite as political. But subject matter-wise, you look at the movies out there and every year has some exceptions. Maybe Juno is about pregnancy, but it was more than that to me, it was a film about a really smart . . . like a Hannah type of girl. And it's great, and you never see movies with young, female icons like that, that don’t care about being popular and are not vapid but are actually quite witty.
Buzz: And that movie just took off.
NB: I know! Exactly. And the success of it is because there's obviously a desire to see girls depicted that way. Yeah, I don't know why there are so few female directors, but there are . . . I do think there are strong female characters in [my movie], which is cool. I think that both Megan and Hannah are even more complicated than the boys, and I think that definitely comes from a woman making the film. And I didn’t even consciously think about it.