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Writer-director Max Minghella, actress Elle Fanning, and executive producer Jamie Bell were on hand to discuss Teen Spirit during the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.

Teen Spirit was among a number of music-centered films to premiere last year at Toronto.  It was certainly among my favorites of the musical selections. Bleecker Street acquired the film and wisely held off releasing it until this year. Appropriately, the film would go onto make its U.S. premiere during SXSW, a festival known for its music-centric films.

Teen Spirit is in limited release today before its wide release on April 19.

Max, what was the genesis behind Teen Spirit?

Max Minghella:  Honestly, the first genesis was “Dancing on My Own.  I heard that song right when it came out. I think like most people when I listen to music my subconscious tends to take over.  I kept seeing sort of cerrain images and there was a really interesting kind of tonal dichotomy in the song between something very kind of candy-coated and poppy and then something quite melancholic and European.  I started writing to that song. That’s really where it all started. I think all of the themes of the characters and the world of the movie really kind of stems from that piece of music.

It’s my understanding that Jamie Bell helped to develop the screenplay.

Max Minghella:  Massively, yes.

At what point in the process did this happen?

Max Minghella:  I shared a draft with him—a very, very rough draft that was really terrible.  I sent him some other scripts. I didn’t really think he was going to respond to any of them.  He seemed to think there was a seed of something in Teen Spirit that was worth developing.  He kind of coached me through it.  He mentored me through the process and helped me get the script into it into a place that was more crystallized and clearer and helped me understand what I was trying to say.  He had been invaluable in the process.

So was it really that terrible?

Jamie Bell:  No, it was very accomplished.  Max—he’s an editor so everything that comes to you already feels produced. Like the screenplay. What’s funny?

Max Minghella:  It’s funny because it’s slightly true.

Jamie Bell:  Yeah, yeah.  Everything that comes is already very cut.  Tthere’s no fat around it. It’s so economical.

Elle Fanning:  You need to add the fat.

Jamie Bell:  Yeah, sure. In a way, there’s an elegance but there’s an economy to it as well.  I think thematically, it probably spoke to me more than it even did to him. I really enjoy films wholeheartedly.  The sentiment and everything about people escaping the circumstances and following the pursuit of the dream. At the heart of this is about this young girl who’s trying to step into a sense of identity and accepting who she is.  I appreciate that. I thought it was just it was well done. Elle came in and then changed everything again. It made us see it from a whole different point of view. Her contribution was huge as well. The film has really come together by a lot of passion from a lot of people.

Elle, what was it that drew you to the screenplay?

Elle Fanning:  Someone had just asked me that earlier.  Because they had done a press release about the movie and it wasn’t cast.  I was like, what is this movie with the young girl where she’s singing because I’ve always liked to sing in a film.  It’s a talent that I wasn’t super trained or anything when I was young but I did gospel choir and had solos in school for the Christmas shows and stuff.  I always have wanted to show people that I can sing and do a musical. I kind of came to you guys and was like, “What is this?” I don’t think that I was really on the radar at all because they were looking at Polish girls who were great singers and are not known or just because of course I have be Polish in it, too.  A lot of challenges. I think that the all the different kind of traits that I need to learn for the film—that always draws me to a movie. The more I can challenge myself and the more kind of under-pressure I can put myself, I find it’s the most fun movies and what I always want to do. But also the story—I really I feel like I understood who this girl was. I understood Violet.  It’s a character that I haven’t played before. They think it’s different for me—her personality—but there’s a big piece of myself that is like her that I also got to bring that side more now out and for people to see.

I was blown away by what I felt was a standout performance in the film when I saw it in Toronto.

Elle Fanning:  Awww.

How beneficial was Marius de Vries in helping you prepare for the role?

Elle Fanning:  He was my Vlad.  He really was. When I met with Max and we decided that I was going to be Violet, I said, “Alright, I have to start training today basically.”  I was actually filming at the time. Marius came out and met me where I was filming. We had a meeting and he made me sing for him right away. Very embarrassing but he’s Marius just has this incredible ability.  He’s very funny. He’s very goofy and he is so technically—he’s just incredible. Without him, I would not have been able to do it. He was my mentor the whole time. Every time I would sing live and he would be there orchestrating me, people would look at him and be like, “What is he doing?”  I don’t understand anything that he’s doing but it made so much sense to me. We just had this connection that we just knew—we sung these songs so many times that he would make me listen to my voice back so I could hear the weaknesses, which also as an actor is really strange. As an actor you don’t want to do.  I don’t want to watch my scenes but for this, I did have to listen to my voice and make it better so he was crucial.

Can you talk about the relationship between your character and Vladimir?

Elle Fanning:  That relationship is the heart of the film.  I think it’s such a beautiful portrayal of that on screen, which you don’t see often.  It doesn’t go creepy with an older man and a younger woman. I’ve had mentors in my life and he represents what those mentors are—how it is that kind of fairy tale.  They are they are for that moment in time and you see them every day and then they kind of go out of your life, also. He kind of vanishes a bit, which I’ve always liked.  Zlatko [Buric], who plays Vlad, is so amazing and Max wrote that for Zlatko. He wrote the part for him.

One of the things that I feel sets this film apart from other music-centered film—especially the music-centered films in Toronto—was the music video vibe in this performances.  Can you talk about the process that led to this decision?

Max Minghella:  I sound like a broken record but it did start with “Dancing on My Own.”  That was the first sequence I wrote. That’s what you see the movie and it has a very specific technique of storytelling.  It’s not chronological. You’re getting a pretty significant piece of character exposition in a quite shocking way. I knew then that the film was going to have these quite stylized elements to it.  As a result, I wanted the structure around the movie to be able to support it. That’s really what the fairy tale idea came from. I didn’t want it to just be style for style sake. I wanted it to be a movie that was connective but also to maybe sort of challenge some of the conventions of what the audience needs to understand things.  I don’t think the movie is confusing but we definitely do things in a very different way than other films with music in them choose to tell the story.

Did any other films influence the design?

Max Minghella:  There’s so many influences on this movie.  There’s a documentary called Girl Model, which I’d say is quite clearly influential on Teen Spirit.  Elle had seen it also so that was a good overlap for us as a frame of reference.

Elle Fanning:  He made me watch Blue is the Warmest Color for the vibe of Violet.

Max Minghella:  Yeah, I did—for the European.  Elle lowered the pitch of her speaking voice for the film, which I thought was really kind of remarkable and extremely subtle.  I guess music documentaries was a big thing, too. I watched a lot of those. The Madonna movie really made a big impact on me. I think the Katy Perry documentary was beautiful made.  There’s an authenticity to the voyeurism of it that I loved.

Can you talk about the role that Fred Berger played in making this film happen?

Jamie Bell:  Didn’t do anything.  Practically nothing. (Laughs)

Max Minghella:  I feel like we’re sort of puppets in a Fred Berger production.  The spread of his influence is immense and the film certainly would not exist without him.   He is a taskmaster and I’m endlessly grateful for him. He is constantly challenging, I think, all of us to do our best work and make the film as good as it can be and sometimes as infuriating and frustrating and I’m never not grateful for it.

Jamie Bell:  Yeah.  It wouldn’t have gotten made without Fred.

Max Minghella:  No one else. The movie wouldn’t be good without Fred. He doesn’t allow you to settle for a seven. He wants you to be as good as you can.

Jamie Bell:  He’s also so invested in storytelling now.  He’s in for the emotional ride that and that sets him apart because some don’t do that.  Some feel like that’s the creative side.

Max Minghella:  He has great taste. Sometimes he didn’t know what was good or bad but he knows what’s good.

What was the some of the challenges that came with making the film?

Max Minghella:  There are so many challenges with any film.  It’s always a miracle that a movie gets made.  W didn’t have the resources to make this film. We really wanted it to be this big cinematic spectacle and we had very little time and very little money as a true independent.  The main challenge I suppose was having the confidence to kind of commit to a certain way of covering the movie and being brave of that. We were really helped by a lot of very smart, talented hard-working people and who kind of went above and beyond with their generosity of time and energy to make the movie possible because when you make a film like this, no one’s doing it for the money.

Jamie Bell:  Nope.

Max Minghella:  They’re doing it because they’re passionate about it and want to help.  It’s kind of the theme of the movie, too, which is you can’t do anything alone. It’s impossible.

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