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Is the Camera Rolling? Director Nanette Burstein and producer Jordan Roberts on ĎAmerican Teen.í

Jordan Roberts and Nanette Burstein in Columbia, Mo. in February. Photo by Lybarger
by Dan Lybarger

Documentary director Nanette Burstein has erased the line between being a filmmaker and a friend to her subjects, but has apparently succeeded anyway.

She and Bret Morgen received an Academy Award nomination for their fly-on-the-wall coverage of three boxers and their coach in On the Ropes. The two also scored a cult hit with The Kid Stays in the Picture, where legendary producer Robert Evans delivers his own take on his turbulent life and career.

On her own, Burstein spent ten months in Warsaw, Indiana filming the senior year of the following students:
1. The artistically inclined outsider Hannah Bailey
2. The capable, but financially disadvantaged basketball player Colin Clemens
3. The shy video game playing Jake Tusing
4. The popular but vindictive Megan Krismanich
5. The young man who makes the entire female population of the high school swoon, Mitch Reinholt

As Burstein followed these members of the class of 2006 in American Teen, she captured Bailey as she went through a traumatic depression after breaking up with her first boyfriend and Clemens suffering from a slump that endangered his chances of getting a college scholarship. His other career choice was the military. She even filmed Krismancich during act that could have landed the senior in serious legal trouble. In another incident, a teenager learns the tragic mistake of e-mailing a lurid photo of herself.

Burstein then spent an entire year editing an estimated 1,000 hours of footage to 101 minutes. The final film won a Best Director: Documentary prize at this yearís Sundance Film Festival and started a bidding war.

The film has had a more nuanced response as it has entered the marketplace. Here at the film has received both enthusiastic and livid reactions.

Peter Sobczynski laments, ďOf all the many artistic and aesthetic crimes committed by ĎAmerican Teen,í a film has been designated by some as this yearís documentary breakthrough (a la ĎMarch of the Penguinsí or ĎAn Inconvenient Truthí) ever since it premiere last winter at Sundance, the biggest one is the fact that I never bought any of what transpired on the screen for a second.Ē His sentiments are echoed by Brian Orndorf.

Collin Souter, however, states, ďOn paper, it sounds like a fictional teenage movie made up of clichťs weíve seen a hundred times, yet because itís a documentary, it reveals that sometimes clichťs exist for a reason. They remain true.Ē

Many of Bursteinís detractors have claimed the film plays like a television reality show such as The Hills or The Real World. Burstein created the IFC series film school, but is adamant that she has different objectives than the makers of those programs. For one, she spent a lot of time with her young subjects off camera to get to know them better and is apparently still on good terms with them. In a separate interview I conducted with them, all speak glowingly of her.

I met her and producer Jordan Roberts for dinner after the film had screened at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, MO in February of 2008. During a Q&A after the film, she recalled getting so involved with both her five ďstarsĒ and the school that she danced with the seniors at the prom.

She and Roberts, not to be confused with the American writer who worked on March of the Penguins, have collaborated on Film School, The Kid Stays in the Picture and Say It Loud: A Celebration of Black Music in America.

The two were still passionate about their work even though subjects had since started college.

Dan Lybarger: In the first part of the movie, I wanted Megan to get leprosy or something. Once we get to know her better, by the end of the movie you end up loving her.

Nanette Burstein: Thatís good that you had that response. That was my intention. When it came up in the Q&A, I really do think that sheís the most complicated in the film because she starts out in the more stereotypical way, the ďbitchy girlĒ or the ďmean girlĒ that youíve seen in these fiction films or your own high school: This girl who has unbelievable self-confidence and power which nobody else does in high school at that age.

But I knew before making the film, this dark past, pretty recent past that she had gone through. And thatís what attracted me to want to include her in the film, I saw the complexity there. Sheís gone through most horrible tragic thing of all of them. To have lived through that and the guilt of that, the family pressure that sheís under that still remains hovering as a result of all that. Itís pretty complicated.

DL: Itís a lot different from the reality shows because you usually just catch someone making a jerk out of themselves, and you donít get the broader picture.

NB: Right. The intention was to always make this a movie and make it with all the complications that real people have. (laughs) Iím not a big fan of a lot of reality shows. I fell like theyíre so mean spirited. Itís all about, just like watching people get in fights, and then no one understanding the complexity of human drama. As long as theyíre screaming at each other, itís OK.

And thatís not my intention here. My intention is to make a movie with real people and really find the humanity in them.

DL: How did the environment in Warsaw, Indiana vary from where you grew up in Buffalo, N.Y.?

NB: Not tremendously different. Even though itís in the Northeast, it has a Midwestern feeling. But there were differences. Buffaloís obviously bigger, and itís not as conservative either, not as religious a community. Something I found particular in the Midwest or at least when I was going to different school and asking people, when I was casting people trying to find a town. I found this all over. Unlike the Northeast, people tend to stay in the state for college and not just for financial reasons, either.

There is a tight-knit community there. And there is a lot of pressure to keep it that way and a lot of fear of the larger world. That was not true where I grew up. Buffalo has a declining population (laughs), so people leave.

DL: Was there anything that surprised you about Warsaw once you had settled upon it?

NB: That was one thing that surprised me, how much pressure there was to stay and to conform. And also what surprised me as I went along making the film was how little high school has changed: how universal the stuff is, how much of it relates to my high school experience and my parentsí high school experience. Itís not the exaggerated, crazy ďthe kids have gone out of control,Ē ďsex, drugs and rock-and-roll tenfold.Ē

It was still the same issues at the core that I dealt with. That surprised me. I wasnít expecting that. I was glad.

DL: I didnít see the kids doing anything in that town that didnít happen 22 years ago in Paola, Kan.

NB: A lot has not changed in high school. Technology has changed, and that always affects things. As you saw with the picture going around, you can make a regrettable decision like that what will haunt you, perhaps for the rest of your life.

Kids are multitasking much more than we ever did. But outside of that, the self-doubt and the social hierarchy and the wanting to fit in and the parental pressures, these are really whatís at state at that age. They can rule your life. You can live or die by them, and it hasnít changed.

DL: I was haunted by Hannahís first breakup. Iím glad you included it because you often forget how traumatic something like that can be. Was it tough to watch it happening right in front of your eyes?

NB: It was really tough, and I was really worried about her. And there was a lot of time we spent together when the camera wasnít there. Because she didnít have anyone around to help her. Her dad was gone a lot for work reasons. Her grandmother was of a generation that did not understand, and she had practically no relationship with her mother.

So I was deeply concerned that she might try to hurt herself even. So I would try to get her to feel better and I got her to go see a counselor. But at the end of the day, she had to go through the experience on her own. And finally it was when her dad came back and started to be there for her that things got better quickly.

DL: At my current age, Iíve forgotten how heavy the impact of something like that can be.

NB: She was so vulnerable because she didnít have the strong family support at the time. He was like her family. And so when she got rejected by him (her boyfriend), and she had no self worth whatsoever and nobody to turn to. She was totally alone in the world. And itís devastating at that age.

Itís rare toónot every kid falls in love for real in high school. They might fall in love for a week, but those that do, it has such an impact because youíre so young, and youíre experiencing these emotions at such a young age. Falling in love at 15, 16, if it doesnít work out, itís just heavy. The breakup is horrible.

DL: Was it tough to juggle your filmmaking obligations with your Ďhuman obligations?í

NB: Not really. Usually they go hand-in-hand. It doesnít help me or my film to have Hannah jump off the deep end and do something horrible to herself. And I care about her.

Sometimes you have to pick up the camera. And you think maybe I should just be talking to them. And you have to spread it out evenly so you get enough footage. For me at least, I try to talk to them and try to help them.

DL: I liked that you had a custom animation style for each kid. I loved it that when Hannahís depression kicked in, you had this Brothers Quay look. You spent a year editing this.

NB: Yes.

DL: How did you decide a. to use the animation b. what made you decide different styles worked for different people?

NB: A lot of it had to do with their personalities. Jodan, my producer got all these DVDs not only with different animators but different animation styles. There was 10 hours of it, and theyíre shorts. Weíve got hundreds of them, and you can look through it. Actually, we found this animator
through that. As soon as we saw his animation, it was obvious because Iíve always imagined this is a nightmare for her, not a fantasy. As soon as I saw his animation, I was like ďThis is it. This style, this guy just defines what weíre looking for.Ē So we hired him to do it.

And with Jake it was natural. Iíd always had it in mind because I knew he was so obsessed with this video game to emulate that style and to make it almost like his avatar. Itís true. He told me if he was going to fantasize, he would fantasize like he was a character from the video game. He was linked.

So it just kind of melded into a study of as many animation styles as we could see with understanding who everyone was.

Jordan Roberts: I want to point out that when we started this film, there was always a thought to use animation to cover their fantasy sequences. So even going into the process, Nanette knew how important fantasy was and doing a documentary, how do you portray that? You canít reenact that because thatís not documentary filmmaking.

So how do you get across whatís going on in kidsí minds. So that was preconceived. When we talked to the kids, or adults as they are now, she would ask them their fantasies. All of that dialogue or voiceover was created in advance. And then it was just matching the right style.

We had a wonderful company called Blacklist who did anything from CG, to computer generated, to hand-drawn things. They really took it on as a vanity project. Blacklist has done some amazing work from commercials to feature film and just loved the vision and were able to supply some animators and bring some of what we brought in on our own into their world to achieve that vision.

DL: You have a lot of really intimate discussions with arguments and nobody seems to realize thereís a camera or a microphone.

NB: When you shoot for a year, your shooting ratio is so high, after a while I think they start thinking ĎNone of this will every end up in the movie.í Because theyíre just doing the math in their head, youíre filming me every day, and this film is going to be 90 minutes long. And then they just get used to getting filmed all the time, and then itís almost a daily part of your life, then you canít not live your life any more, you have to be you.

JR: You brought up reality TV earlier. We shot over 1,000 hours of footage. It was like Nanette would sit there, and theyíre playing cards. You know what Iím saying? Just to see if something would happen. Those intimate moments were just there for them.

We have 1000 hours to work with. Itís a lot different than shooting three weeks and making a half hour episode. Itís a huge, huge difference, and the commitment to that is part of what sets it apart.

DL: Because you have more time with them, when you see them with their caps and gowns, it has a much stronger emotional impact.

NB: Youíve gone through this entire journey with them throughout the year, and this is the culmination. Itís so symbolic. You can also relate it to your own graduation once again.

But I think because you get to know them so well and you laughed and you cried and you cared enough about them to see them end this phase of their life and on to the unknown future, itís an emotional feeling. And to see that work, I know that the film works when I felt emotion watching that scene.

DL: One of the things I related to with Hannah is when I was in high school, and maybe because I lived in a small town of 5,000 like Paola. When I see Hannah and Jake, I could really identify with them because I went through this.

NB: I think a lot of people who go to high school feel like theyíre sentenced to high school rather than attending. And then if youíre in the lower hierarchies, if youíre not super popular or super confident, even more so. In the years leading up to the senior year, which you see in this film, thereís a lot more brutality as well.

So thatís culminating on their shoulders, and their coming to it. I think what works in the film is that thereís four archetypal people, but depending on who you are, you can see yourself in these different people.

If you were the more confident kid in school but maybe you had a dark side to you that you didnít like to show to your peers, you might relate to Megan. Or if you were the popular jock but you had all these pressures on you, you might relate to Colin. If youíre the underdog, youíd relate to Hannah or Jake. I tried to touch upon these different types that could transcend to a larger audience. People could say, ďOh, I could see myself in this person.Ē

JB: Itís amazing. If you watch The Breakfast Club, or you watch a lot of the big teen movies, and they are set apart as archetypes, and itís amazing. Some of them are great films; some of them arenít. The whole goal is to take these archetypes and when Nanette originally pitched it, it was like letís take these archetypes, and letís break Ďem down and see who they really are as human beings.

Kids of that age are extremely vulnerable. I donít care how much confidence you have and extremely complicated.

DL: When I watch Colin, I noticed he had two choices: you can go to college, or you can go the military. That is incredible pressure. If anything, these kids have pressure I donít remember growing up.

NB: Itís true. I mean. Thereís a war going on now, and at that age and in that part of the country thereís a huge recruiting process happening. There is a lot of pressure. Maybe the social pressures have become even more pronounced. And again, t technology is playing a role. You make one regrettable decision, youíll never forget it. And we didnít have that kind of pressure.

Youíre not old enough to think about things. You donít think about your future and your mortality when youíre 17. So, youíre not thinking about if I send this picture of myself or if I write this e-mail itís going to haunt me forever. Forever is not a concept usually at that age.

So itís so much worse and so much harder to deal with than what we had to deal with.

DL: On thing that sets American Teen apart from some of the fiction films on the subject is that you rarely see the fuller picture of Megan. Mean Girls is an entertaining movie, but you donít see the Rachel McAdams character carrying the kind of baggage that Megan carries.

NB: And thatís what I really set out to do. When you see a lot of these fictional teenage films, theyíre fun, but theyíre very one dimensional, more often than not. And I think maybe they think that, oh, we canít be too complicated because our audience doesnít want us to be.

I think thatís untrue. If you watch Juno, it has complicated characters, and people are responding to it. And that was always my intention with this film. Yes, we see these archetypes in our own lives. We see these archetypes in John Hughes or different fiction films. But we never see the real complications that make them human that make them flawed and wonderful at the same time.

Thatís the beauty of doing documentaries. You can do that in fiction films, too. In documentaries, you have these real people, and you can really get into all of the ironies and the duplicitous natures that people have and all the different thing that are making them far more complicated people.

DL: How was it different working with someone like Robert Evans, who has experience working with journalists, than it is with some of these kids?

NB: Totally different. Robert never wanted to be on camera today. So the whole approach to the film had to be completely different. It was all about creating graphic design and telling his story through the past. And also, heís a very different guy. Thematically, heís looking back at his life and searching for redemption. And these kids are at the beginning of their lives and still formulating who they are.

He knew who he was, very much so. He made a living at it for 50 years.

And also this was going to be a cinťma vťritť film. This was going to follow kids in the here and now in their lives and maybe use some animation to get to a different surreal level of their fantasy life.

But predominantly, it was going to be life today for them, and that meant shooting all the time. And so it was a very different approach stylistically, thematically, subject-wise.

But what is consistent in all my films is Iím the sort of filmmaker who really tries to tell a movie like you would in a fiction film as far as having a subtext or having a three-act dramatic structure and really using style. And thinking about camera placement and how to shoot something and what you can do with the style to enhance that particular storyline and really approaching it like a filmmaker rather than just ďI have an agenda, and I need to shoot this film however possible.Ē

DL: You hear some of the adults in the audience laugh when you hear some of the kids ďgreenĒ philosophies, but do you think that this is something that teens could say that ďthis is us?Ē

NB: Iíve shown this to teenagers, and they very much feel that way. They definitely feel that it captures who they are. And so I think so, yeah, absolutely.

DL: Many filmmakers who work in the teen market donít put the work into their films that you guys have. Yes, theyíre kids, but Iíve got a nine-year-old nephew who can kick my ass in chess. I hate this attitude because kids might not have the experience, but if you give them credit for having something inside their head you might get reward you donít anticipate.

Iím just glad thereís a movie out their that takes kids and their needs seriously instead of exploiting them.

NB: Or talking down to them. My frustration with teen films is because theyíve become so one-dimensional and stereotypical, youíre condescending to them and their ability to be sophisticated.

I donít think that thatís the case. You take Juno as an example. Itís a sophisticated film, and teenagers are loving it. And thatís going to be true of this film, so far the ones who have seen it, have said, ďOh, wow. This is me. This represents who I am. No only am I entertained by it, but I feel like someone is seeing what Iím going through, and I donít feel so alone.Ē I know it sounds clichť. But itís true. Hopefully maybe it will influence Hollywood to say, ďHey, we donít have to do that. We donít have to talk down. We can make more sophisticated films.Ē

JR: The director of Juno saw the film and said it was his favorite film at Sundance. It felt good because he made such a good movie [Note: I wrote to Jason Reitman, the director of Juno, and he confirmed the encounter with Roberts and Burstein and his enthusiasm for American Teen.]

The film, being a documentary, is by the teens. Itís by Nanette, but these kids are expressing themselves and opening up themselves. It really opens up and cuts a chord in the teen audience when they can see this and not feel pandered to. And feel like, ďThatís me or thatís Hannah. Or thatís this other kid I know. That seems just like them.Ē

Thatís the real deal, and itís authentic and it touches a chord in the teens that have seen it so far.

DL: Another thing I thought was interesting was your musical choices. Iím a fan of Aimee Mann and Michael Penn, but Iím glad you didnít choose songs because ďHi, this is what all the kids are into.Ē I loved the Beethoven-like sound to the music of Jakeís heartbreak.

NB: I really tried to capture who they were through the music. A lot of it is great indie music, but a lot of it is music that they themselves would listen to. Because all the kids are different, thereís different kinds of music to represent them.

And Michael Penn did a great job composing it. He used all these crazy instruments. He just captured a beautiful emotion. Iím really happy with it.

DL: Itís interesting you two mentioned that the kids really write this because the opening lines come straight from Hannahís mouth.

NB: It guess it was something I had preconceived before Iíd even made the film. Sometimes you preconceive things, and they donít work. And often they do. Again, if you watch there are certain teen movies Iím paying homage to: 1. by using that as a tool. One of the main characters is setting it up like in The Breakfast Club. You have Anthony Michael Hallís character sort of set up the premise in voiceover while you see images of the school.

But also, I needed someone to introduce the town, the school and the theme of the film because youíre going to break into four different parts in meeting these kids. I needed somebody to be unifying in the beginning and to get that important information across, too.

Hannah to me was always the heart of the film and a little bit more of a main character than the other three. So it seemed natural for her to narrate that.

DL: Itís almost like youíre making a film for the DVD.

NB: Like with the extras and stuff.

DL: Because on the website I saw the stuff with the Badger Dogs (a Warsaw version of a ďgangĒ) and stuff.

NB: Those were the original interview tapes I had done to pick the school and the kids. Basically, I went to all these places. I went to 10 schools and interviewed all the seniors and to find the right town and to find the right kids to film.

So I videotaped them all, but once I picked the place I most wanted to do for my investors. I had to edit those interviews down and give it to them to show them hey, we have a good story here, we have a good movie. You should finance this. And thatís where those come from.

But certainly there is a lot of extra footage, and scenes that end up on the editing room floor certainly make great DVD extras.

JR: With 100 hours of footage, the extras are going to be amazing. Thereís also going to be a major internet presence and some interaction between these human adults now I guess. I think before and during when this movie comes out, I think the public is going to be able to interact with all these kids in the film and all the extras.

There should a lot fun to be able to watch the movie, enjoy the movie and a presence on the internet and on DVD with a full interaction that could be really, really special.

DL: Youíre both film festival veterans, but it must have been a rush to win at Sundance.

NB: I really wasnít expecting it. I didnít think I was going to win an award. I was really proud of the film, but I just didnít expect the award so I was really happy.

Itís always a rush. Itís always fun. Who doesnít like winning awards?

DL: Obviously, you got A&Eís support. But was it tough to pitch this idea?

NB: It was tough. I had some great people who were supporting me who were able to find
some independent financing. It didnít take that long. It took a few months. A&E came on board first, and they supported the casting of the film so by the time the other parties were interested, I had actual footage and interviews to show. ďThese are the people Iím thinking of.Ē

So itís more concrete rather than my initial treatment, which is I want to find these kinds of stories and laid them out, but there was no guarantee I would find them or I would find these people. So, definitely there was a leap of faith.

But it certainly helped that I had made two other award-winning films before.

JR: We jumped into it head first, and our investors have been supportive through the whole way. We jumped in with our credit cards and started filming before the money even hit the bank. They were there. It was exciting, and we knew it was going to happen.

We had to start when the school season started. So we were like, letís get the cameras and go. Hit up the credit cards a little bit.

And then all the money hit the bank and we made it happen.

DL: And the sale happened relatively quickly, which must be incredibly gratifying for you.

NB: It was. Going into Sundance in the past, I had two other films there, and they already had distribution going in. This time I didnít have distribution going in, and it was very scary. I was going, ďIs this a movie Iím going to be watching in my basement? Or is the world going to see it?Ē

The response was just enormous, and we actually had a bidding war with really incredible distributors, mini-majors. It was very gratifying.

DL: As a native Midwesterner, I was happy to see the area depicted accurately.

NB: When you move somewhere for a year and youíre filming real life, you donít have to worry as much about being accurate. But you still have to gage the heartbeat of a place and what itís about, what you choose to focus on.

You could make the same movie, and go ĎOh, my God. Everyone is a meth head in this town depending on how you focus the camera.í

Thereís something about the town that I grew up in that reminds me of the Midwest, so I had a certain understanding of that part of the country.

DL: I noticed on Wikipedia that the population in Warsaw has grown. Is that true?

NB: Iím sure it is true. There is a lot of industry there. Thereís an orthopedics industry where they make implants for orthopedic surgeries. And thereís factories; thereís the lake communities because a lot of people go on vacation there. Thereís a lot of people from Chicago because of these beautiful lakes.

So there is a really thriving community. I really wanted to pick a town that had this economic mix, where you had rich people and you had poor people and you had middle class people. So you needed a town that didnít have a declining population to do that.

DL: One of the things that got to me is when I see Megan early in the film, sheís driving a Mercedes. And yet sheís got this heavy burden that Mercedes is not going to help her drive away from.

NB: No. She certainly had the accouterments of being wealthy, but because of that she also had the pressures of what can go with that like ĎYou need to get into this kind of schoolí and the dark secrets that can happen in upper middle class families.

DL: It seems to me that when youíre making a film like this youíre a surfer, and youíre riding a wave. And you have no idea if youíre going to be doing a comedy or a tragedy.

NB: Thatís true. But I always approached this as a dramedy, as looking for the humor in that stage of life. But being serious because they have real issues, and I donít want to make fun of people in any way. I want to understand them.

So I guess, you kind of have a tone in mind before you ever shoot anything and that was the tone I was going for was a dramedy.

Thanks to Robert Butler and David Frese from The Kansas City Star for their assistance. Portions of this interview appeared in that publication.

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originally posted: 08/12/08 12:28:17
last updated: 08/22/08 14:28:19
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