Interview: American Teen Director Nanette Burstein

Back in May I had the opportunity to sit down with Nanette Burstein, the Academy Award nominated documentary filmmaker behind On The Ropes and The Kid Stays in the Picture. Her latest film American Teen follows five high school students through their senior year. I hate to oversell the movie, but it's literally one of my favorite films of the year.

Peter Sciretta: I'm not sure if you read my site but I...Nanette Burstein: Yeah, I have I've been following your site. Thank you, I read, you know, these kind of movies really need that push, and I really appreciate you doing it.Peter Sciretta: I really think it could be the first documentary with mainstream appeal. I don't mean this as likeNanette Burstein: Yeah, no, I know what you mean.Peter Sciretta: But it's really accessible...Nanette Burstein: Right.Peter Sciretta: It's really really accessible where documentaries normally deal with these hardcore issues, political, psychological or socialogical...Nanette Burstein: Right, and the challenge is, and I knew this would be a challenge from the beginning is how do you get teenagers to go to a documentary in a movie theater and then are 20 and 30 something year olds just going to (e)quate this as like the normal run-of-the-mill stuff that you see in reality television. So you have to get over both of those hurdles to get people in, and it's really through word of mouth people like yourself or other people who see the film and fall in love and say no! you have to believe me this is different, because people have such a prejudice against it: a) because it's a documentary and then b) it's a documentary about teenagers which, you know, teenagers on the one-hand make it very accessible but on the other hand you have certain prejudices because of the existing reality television.Peter Sciretta: When we posted the first trailer we had a couple naysayers on the site in the comments comparing it like, to the Hills or something. How do you address something like that?Nanette Burstein: It's so frustrating to me because I'm, [laughter] I actually had that question recently in a Q&A and I'm like do you watch the Hills, because this same pre-light every scene. I didn't pre-light any scene except for interviews. They shoot with five cameras, locked down on a tripod with a camera truck outside. They give talking points and that's OK that they do this but they say listen, we're a hybrid, we're a kind of a fiction show or a kind of non-fiction show and that's not what I was doing, you know, I was trying to show spontaneous intimate moments in real life but still make it very entertaining, so that's a very different shooting style and approach and I feel like the only reason people make that comparison is because it's about young people and it's entertaining. Otherwise I don't really see what the comparison is.Peter Sciretta: But I think the other thing is you were with them for a whole year, it's not like... with the Hills, they probably tape that in a week or something.Nanette Burstein: Exactly. No, I know reality shows and they have to, they don't have the budgets, they don't have the time, you know, they'll shoot for a month and cut 20 shows out of it, and I shot for a year and made one 90-minute sort of 100 minute film, you know, and knew that I had to spend that time there to be able to accomplish something that was worthy of it being in a movie theater, it wasn't just something you could see on TVPeter Sciretta: Exactly. How did you come up with the idea for doing this? Looking at your previous films I wouldn't have guessed that you would have been oh, let's make a movie about American high school seniors.Nanette Burstein: Really? That's funny because I actually wanted to do it for a really long time and had trouble getting money for it at first, so I saw this documentary called Seventeen which was done in the 1970's I guess, it was actually shot in Indiana and I saw it when I was in college and it totally blew me away because it was this very raw, intimate film about teenagers at that time and you know back then they were limited in what they could shoot because of the technology they had, it was hard to be intimate, so even with it being intimate it has certain limitations that you wouldn't see today, you know because they had like a film camera and a Nagra and unique lighting, and you keep changing mags and reels and it's just a nightmare the way they had to shoot, but I was amazed at how honest teenagers were and how raw they are and you know, and how they were able to just be that on camera, and expressive whereas adults had to hide more who they are. And then you know, my high school experience was both traumatic and also very formative to who I became so it was a subject that I had always wanted to deal with because I felt like it was such an important time in my life and I thought it was something that everyone can relate to in the United States, whether it's rites of passage, whether we love it or we hate it, we have to go through it, so you know, you can take any high school in America and on the surface it'll be different, they could be all white and more middle class or they could be multi-cultural, they could be total poverty or they could be super rich, like they are in Laguna Beach, but they're all dealing with the same emotional core issues.Peter Sciretta: Yeah, totally. How did you find Warsaw then? Why Warsaw?Nanette Burstein: Well, it was rather daunting, like OK, I have this concept of what the film is, but where am I going to shoot it, who am I going to find, how are they, how am I going to tell this story. So I decided to focus on the Midwest, because I felt like there was a timelessness and an innocence about the part of the country – and I wanted it to be in a town that only had one high school because I thought there would be a lot more social pressure, like if you're an underdog there's no escape from it, or if you're popular you feel all powerful because you know, this is it, this is the only school, this is the only game in town, and I wanted it to be economically mixed so you could see you know, if there was a relationship there between being poor and rich, and how that affects your experience, and then I wanted it to be racially mixed but I found that almost impossible to find in small towns in the Midwest and then I needed it to be in a high school that would co-operate, so I called hundreds of schools in four states. I had some help, I had a couple of people helping me and I found ten high schools that were interested and willing to go for it, so I went and visited all of those high schools and interviewed the incoming seniors that were interested and based on that you know, just found the best stories at this high school and the best sort of archetypal kids that were so much more complicated than they seemed as far as what the stereotype normally is.Peter Sciretta: Yeah. How – I'm just wondering in a filmmaking perspective did all the students at that high school have to sign releases to be in the film?Nanette Burstein: Yes, they all had to sign releases and if they were under 17, their parents had to sign a release, or under 18, their parents had to sign a release too.Peter Sciretta: That wasn't a struggle at all?Nanette Burstein: That was a huge struggle. That was a constant struggle, we spent a lot of time working on that and there were definitely shots that I didn't include in the film, because there was someone in it that didn't sign a release.Peter Sciretta: Yeah.Nanette Burstein: I mean we were still getting them up until a couple of weeks ago.Peter Sciretta: Jeez. What was, did you ever consider doing like an inner-city school?Nanette Burstein: Yeah, my first film On The Ropes takes place in the inner city and it's on young people so I felt like I kind of did that movie already and it's such a specific, and I feel like I've seen that story a lot too, who dreams and my film On the Ropes and just a whole host of them, so I wanted to do something even though it's not as politically correct that was more of the average norm, and problems that a lot of kids, middle-class America feel.Peter Sciretta: I assume that you probably tried to find someone or some other racial make-up for the cast?Nanette Burstein: I did. I did.Peter Sciretta: But you probably just couldn't find an interesting enough character in Warsaw or –Nanette Burstein: Yeah, I mean for actually I filmed the entire school year this African-American kid who on the surface had an interesting story, but he really, and there's like five black kids in the school, so it wasn't a lot to choose from.

Peter Sciretta: Oh, so really, there were other characters you were following?Nanette Burstein: Yeah, yeah, I did, I mean most of the other people I was following, I realized after the first few months weren't going to work out. That just their stories weren't that interesting or they weren't that committed to doing it, through the process. So I narrowed it down a few months in, but there was one kid I filmed pretty much the whole school year and realized in the edit room, I just couldn't make it work, because he was just, he was really shy and I realized the only reason I was holding on to him because of his race.Peter Sciretta: Exactly, that's what I figured. OK, so you cast the film how many people did you originally start off with?Nanette Burstein: Probably ten I started out with yeah.Peter Sciretta: Did you originally start off with – obviously the marketing of the film starts leaking out, the geek, the popular, like these stereotypes. Did you start off looking for those characters or –Nanette Burstein: Well, I started out looking for more of the archetypal stories than characters, like if you break down fiction films on teenagers, they fall into the same four stories that you see over and over and they all exist in real life, but it's the Romeo & Juliet story where there's love across class lines or clique lines or race lines; or it's the Underdog looking for acceptance which is like Napoleon Dynamite, or Revenge of the Nerds or these kind of movies; or it's the Mean Girls, which is like Heathers or Mean Girls, or these kind of films so they're a power struggle, or it's the sports like triumph over adversity in some way. And so I was looking for those kind of stories, because I think they're great stories and I found that they existed in real life, because a, I experienced them in high school and then when I was interviewing kids I discovered that yes, they still exist in real life, but the way that they're often, not always but mostly depicted in fiction films is very one-dimensional, it's very much the cliché and they have these happy endings and you're just like OK, that was fun but [laughs] it's so stupid, you know, and that's not true of John Hughes' films as much but it's true of a lot of them so I thought what I've never seen is taking these kind of archetypal stories but making them very real and complicated and 3-dimensional and not what you expect and have them to turn out or what you expect. How you expect these characters to be represented.Peter Sciretta: You filmed the movie over the course of a year.Nanette Burstein: And that's how their peers see them too. They expect them to be one way and they don't really get to know them either, even their own colleagues at their high schools think of them in a certain way are really surprised to see them depicted at what they're truly feeling or thinking, like, even the kids that are in this film were all shocked by Jake, because you know, all of them sort of had this image of him, didn't really know him and had no idea he was this funny, charming kid who also had the courage to keep going after all these different girls, like they knew nothing about him, he was just this guy who walked, you know, who they might have in a class who never spoke, it was just –Peter Sciretta: Yeah, they had probably never given a damn.Nanette Burstein: And he had different ideas of who they were, so there's miscommunication even amongst each other.Peter Sciretta: You were there for a year. Like how much were you around them, like how much were you filming in that year.Nanette Burstein: I was filming pretty much every day of that year.Peter Sciretta: Really?Nanette Burstein: Yeah. I mean it was supposed to be five day weeks, but I would often film by myself the other two days because it would seem like something important was happening. I mean I wouldn't film every kid every day. There would be patterns, like something would be happening with Jake and you'd want to film him all the time for a couple of weeks and then that girl would break up with him and nothing would be happening for a long time, or something would be happening with Meagan or Hannah, and it would, so I didn't need to film all of them all the time and also the first few months I just – they needed to get comfortable on camera so there were a couple of strong stories that happened with Jake and Hannah at that point but the rest of them it was really just like breaking (in) and getting them used to being filmed, because the more popular kids like Meagan and Mitch and Collin, they had a harder time adjusting to it, because they were more concerned about how they appear because of their used to being watched by their peers or worried about their image more. They had more to lose.Peter Sciretta: Was Mitch one of the people that you interviewed in the beginning of the year?Nanette Burstein: He was actually, yeah. He was considered the most good looking guy in school, soPeter Sciretta: So you went for the hunk...Nanette Burstein: Well, he showed up for, he showed up for the – I basically spoke to anyone who would show up, who was interested in the beginning, so –Peter Sciretta: Were there times where the kids asked you to like, or the camera crew to leave?Nanette Burstein: Absolutely. Yes. Or they, more often than not it would be don't show up!Peter Sciretta: [laughs]Nanette Burstein: Or yeah, or just staying home watching TV which would be a complete lie, you know, they definitely.Peter Sciretta: Because there was like a party going onNanette Burstein: Yeah, exactly they don't want this to be filmed and you know, and it was constantly a compromise. I knew I wouldn't be able to get everything and I had to give them their moments, and if I pressured them too much then they would rebel and they wouldn't want to be part of it at all, so it's really a balance and especially in the beginning you don't want to pressure them too much, because then they just, they're like, I don't even want you around, you're so annoying.Peter Sciretta: Well, talking about some of the moments that were up on the screen, like when the kids attack that house...Nanette Burstein: Yes. Well, you know, vandalizing was very common in town. I filmed like four or five vandalisms,Peter Sciretta: Really?Nanette Burstein: and vandalizing incidents at that point, yeah. I mean people are bored there. They didn't have a lot to do, so. At least toilet paper vandalizing, was common, but they had all kinds of tricks, it was wild.Peter Sciretta: Well, what's funny, they'd spray paint the window and then you later find out that it was like –Nanette Burstein: Washable paint.Peter Sciretta: Washable paint. What's the – I don't knowNanette Burstein: What's the point?Peter Sciretta: I guess what's the point, I don't know, do they get in less trouble if they had washable paint.Nanette Burstein: And that's what their theory was. Well, if you could wash it off, then what's the big deal?Peter Sciretta: Did any of the kids see the movie and then ask you to cut something anything?Nanette Burstein: No, but you know, they also saw the movie like towards the end, so I don't know if they felt any choice in the matter or not, but none of them were unhappy with it, they all thought that it was very accurate and even, more shameful moments, they could see it, it was of a time in their life and they're past that, and they felt it was honest.Peter Sciretta: So all of them likedNanette Burstein: All of them liked the film and support the movie, and yeah.Peter Sciretta: That's awesome.Nanette Burstein: I know, I was really nervous about that.Peter Sciretta: Yeah, to expect that like one of them wouldn't like something that's on screen or likeNanette Burstein: You know, I think that Mitch is not, he understands why it's in the film but I think he regrets having text messaged being broken up with someone. You know, he's embarrassed by it, being up on the big screen but he doesn't resent me for putting it in the film.Peter Sciretta: I don't know, you were there for a year so there must be a lot of like, story lines that you tried to include but just wouldn't fit in there, likeNanette Burstein: That's true.Peter Sciretta: Like what are some of the stuff that like maybe is going to be on the deleted scenes.Nanette Burstein: DVD extra? There's actually some great moments, that are great, but they didn't necessarily fit into the story line, and you have to be so judicious because when you're forming subjects you can only spend so much time with each of them and I could have just made a movie on Hannah like she had so much drama to air so with her is the most stuff I cut out, there are story lines of her getting together with [laughs] both of her, not at the same time, but both of her male best friends at different points on the year which had different outcomes of how it affected their friendship, but was very intimate and at times heartbreaking and at one point she got suspended from school, which we just happened to be there to film, because she showed up at this basketball game and she had already missed a ton of school and the vice-principal said to her, if you ever are missing school and show up at a school event, you're going to get in a lot of trouble, because like how am I supposed to believe that you're truly emotionally crippled or sick if you're showing up at a social.Peter Sciretta: Also this was during that time when she was staying at home.Nanette Burstein: This was later, but she was still skipping school here and there. Not weeks on end. But days here and there and because she had already been on there as like on the watchdog list and any days she missed they were upset about so she showed up at a basketball game just to meet her friend Clark because he was going to get some food, it's a long story, but the vice-principal sees her there and flips out and suspends her and she can't take any of her finals, because it's like her midterms or something so she has to retake a bunch of classes and you know, it's just really..Peter Sciretta: It's good stuff.Nanette Burstein: It is good stuff. It is. So yeah, the DVD extras will be worthwhile.Peter Sciretta: I can't wait. The movie hasn't even come out.Nanette Burstein: But you should still see it in the theater.Peter Sciretta: Yes, did the studio after they bought it, like, have any changes for the film, orNanette Burstein: Well, they wanted to make it PG-13, which just required a couple of little language changes, there's a couple of beeps in there that weren't there before,Peter Sciretta: Oh really?Nanette Burstein: Yeah. Just in one scene, but otherwise it's completely the same film.Peter Sciretta: That makes sense.Nanette Burstein: Yeah. And it was OK for me, I mean if it would have been a radical change I wouldn't have done it, but like adding a couple of beeps in one scene [cell phone] it was worth it to open it up to younger people.Peter Sciretta: Especially for just like one swear.Nanette Burstein: Yeah, exactly. Oh and then there was a couple of, a few songs we couldn't clear so we had to change out the music.Peter Sciretta: Was there any plans of making like a sequel like the Seven Up filmsNanette Burstein: No.Peter Sciretta: Like go back there in seven years?Nanette Burstein: No. Did he like interview his people, which is great, but then he picks them from all different walks of life in a very classist society, Britain is like you know, give you every example, and they've actually done the same thing in America, the Seven Up Series.Peter Sciretta: Did they? I didn't even know that.Nanette Burstein: Yeah, they have, they're on like I don't know, 21, or 28. it hasn't gotten wide reception. It's fascinating though.Peter Sciretta: Yeah, I know it's a great social experiment.Nanette Burstein: But to do this kind of movie, it's such a – you know, I really wanted to do it about teenage life rather than following the same people for – but it is a good sign that people always ask me that, because obviously they'rePeter Sciretta: Oh, so you have been asked that?Nanette Burstein: Oh yeah. Because people are into the subjects and I think there is a curiosity to know how they're going to turn out in life. I certainly have the same curiosity myself.Peter Sciretta: My last question is expected probably. What are you dong next after American Teen?Nanette Burstein: Well, I'm trying to figure that out. I want to do a fiction film next, because every time you want a new challenge and I feel that that would be a new challenge and I struggle so hard to make these documentaries really narrative, entertaining and so I thought it would be interesting to try just from the beginning scripting it, rather than taking real life and putting it into a narrative story arc, and I'll be directing some commercial. I have a baby on the way, so I need to make some money, because it's a fun way to practice your craft. I really enjoy it.Peter Sciretta: Tell me this. Like screenwriting, are you taking like the traditional approach of trying to hit these different beats and like the three act art or are you just writing the story and then going to cut it down like, you would a documentary?Nanette Burstein: That's an interesting question. Well, you know, even before I shoot a documentary I write the story that I hope to get and of course it ends up being a different film, but I actually write it out, and so I guess you know, writing a screen play you write out your first draft and then you get to a completely different place where your last draft so in that way, but what I would want to do in a fiction film is have the room to improvise a lot and not just stick to the script and I feel like being a documentary filmmaker, I'd feel more comfortable doing that.Peter Sciretta: Totally. I could definitely see you doing that kind of style. You have no idea what your work, what kind of genre it's going to be in?Nanette Burstein: It would probably be a dramady, I mean I'm developing a few from projects but you never know what's going to work.Peter Sciretta:Well, very cool. I'm not going to take up more of your time.Nanette Burstein: [laughs] well listen, thank you again, I really appreciate it how supportive you are of the movie, you know it means a lot to me.Peter Sciretta: Well, I thinkNanette Burstein: People are reading it out there and going, you're awesome Peter.