Along with filmmaking partner Brett Morgen (Chicago 10), documentary director Nanette Burstein likes to press the limits of what the form can do, most notably on their film The Kid Stays In The Picture, an unconventional adaptation/expansion of the notorious autobiography of producer Robert Evans. Burstein has struck out on her own for her latest effort, American Teen, which arrives in theaters after a galvanizing première at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Both evoking and challenging the high-school stereotypes found in films like The Breakfast Club, American Teen follows four students—popular (and often mean) girl Megan, nerdy outcast Jake, self-effacing jock Colin, and volatile free spirit Hannah—through the dramas of their senior year in the small, conservative town of Warsaw, Indiana. Burstein recently spoke to The A.V. Club about her varying roles as documentarian, counselor, witness to illegal acts, and cinematic innovator.
The A.V. Club: Several years ago, Kirby Dick made a documentary called Chain Camera that sampled subjects from one of the most diverse schools in Los Angeles. With that in mind, what was your rationale for choosing this particular place, which is very much the opposite?
Nanette Burstein: I wanted to do it in the Midwest. I had done a film called On The Ropes 10 years before, which was about three young boxers from Brooklyn. One of them was in high school, and the other two were in their early 20s. It dealt with very urban issues—one of them was Hispanic, two African-American. And I didn't want to do an urban film, because I felt like I'd already kind of done that story, the problems inherent to living in an urban environment. And I'd also seen a lot of great documentaries about multicultural teenagers in cities. So I wanted to do something in the Midwest.
I was influenced by this documentary called Seventeen that was made in the early '80s and shot in Muncie, Indiana. It was just an amazing vérité film about Middle American teenagers. I felt like in the Midwest, there is something representative about a lot of this country. Middle America is a very large place, and there is more of a timelessness about that part of the country. I wanted it to be in a town where there was only one high school, because I thought there would be a lot more social pressure that way. Especially if you're not next to a big city, you can't really escape or blend in, so the social hierarchy has that much more importance. And I wanted it to be a town that was economically mixed, because I did want to have some diversity in social classes. I was hoping to find towns that were also racially mixed, but I found that in small towns in the Midwest, that was really hard to find. And it needed to be a school that would cooperate. So I found 10 schools in three states that were willing to do it and fit that bill, and I went and visited each of them and interviewed all of the incoming seniors. I was looking for kids from different social classes and different social cliques that would surprise me, that seemed like they were one way on the surface but were in fact another, and that all had strong storylines. They all had to achieve something that year.
AVC: So why was this an appealing prospect for a high school, to allow you to film its students? What resistance did you get on that front?
NB: Well, I only went to high schools that were excited about it.
AVC: Did you figure out why they were excited?
NB: I think they thought it would be a cool experience for the students, in that they would be exposed to filmmaking, and how the process worked—and it would just be a neat experience for them. You know, you're talking about schools that aren't near big cities and aren't exposed to a lot of culture. For example, at this school, the vice principal, who was really our biggest supporter, used to be the drama teacher, so she was really supportive of the arts, and she thought this would be a really cool experience.
AVC: Did they set certain ground rules? And did you have certain demands as well? How did that work?
NB: I did have to go in front of the school board and pitch it, and describe what the experience would be like. First of all, I wasn't looking to make a film that was like "Look how crazy our teenagers are today. They're wild with sex and drugs!" I held to that promise, because it really wasn't an issue in this town. And in a lot of places, what's really happening isn't what we fear to be happening. And also, I didn't need to spend a lot of time in the classroom. A lot of the drama that's happening in their lives is outside of the classroom, so I wouldn't be intruding that much on the actual academic process. So that was also a relief to them. And every time I was going to film in the school or in a classroom, I would need to let them know. I certainly needed to let them know if I was just going to be coming by to film in a hallway, but if I was going to film in a classroom, I would need permission from that teacher.
AVC: What about the students? What was the process of choosing them like, and what sort of arrangements did you have with them in terms of access?
NB: Well, there was nothing official; it was definitely give and take. I explained to them that I wanted to film them as much as possible, but that that wouldn't be every day, every student. Basically, we needed to stay in constant communication so that I knew what was happening in their lives. But there's a lot of tedium in high school, too. There might be something happening with one of the subjects, or two of the subjects, while nothing's really going on with the other one, so you can just focus on those two and the other two have a break for a while. It was a lot of just checking in with them every day and finding out what was happening, and when something important or dramatic was happening, to allow me full access to it.
AVC: Was that an arrangement that was made beforehand? Was that tested in any way?
NB: [Laughs.] It was constantly tested.
AVC: Did they ever shut down on you?
NB: Yeah, absolutely. They would say "Oh, you can't film me tonight," or they would lie and say "I'm just staying home and watching TV," which wouldn't really be the case. It was definitely a constant struggle. But that being said, I was there for a year, and I got incredible raw, intimate moments. For every moment that I couldn't shoot, there were handfuls more of great moments. If I missed enough of a thread of a storyline, I just wouldn't put that storyline in the film. A lot of documentaries are told through interviews: "This happened and then this happened." That series on WE, High School Confidential, it's almost all interviews. So I really wanted it to be a film where you saw all these moments acted out, rather than being told what happens, and missing it.
AVC: In your experience, are teenagers more comfortable revealing themselves in front of the camera than adults? And by the same token, are they more conscious of the camera as well?
NB: Yeah, I think they are more comfortable in revealing themselves on camera. I don't think they're more conscious, self-conscious. I definitely had a harder time with the parents acting like themselves on camera than I did with the teenagers. But I also spent a lot more time with the teenagers; they were much more accustomed to being filmed. Reality TV definitely had an adverse reaction for me, and made it more challenging. Because a lot of students watch reality TV and they'd say "Oh, is this what you're trying to do?" Or "Are you trying to make me look like an idiot?" You know, it can be very mean-spirited, and a lot of people look maybe not so flattering on a lot of those shows. There was suspicion, especially with the students that I wasn't filming all the time, some of their peers. They were very dubious of the film crew and what our intentions were.
AVC: By the same token, there's so much reality television that you get a sense kids feel like their lives must be recorded, must be documented in some way.
NB: Actually, it was the opposite here. Each individual kid has such insecurity issues that they're like "Why are you filming me? I'm not that interesting," even when they are infinitely interesting. "Why aren't you in California, filming really rich super-beautiful people?" There would be that a lot. "Why are you in my town?"
AVC: How did you answer?
NB: I would explain, you know, "I think you're really funny." If it was Jake, for example, I'd say, "You're really funny. You are completely unexpected. You're insecure, considered a nerd in your school, and you're still looking for companionship. Despite whatever rejections you might have had, it hasn't deterred you in any way." Most kids who have been rejected, or been made fun of, do not leave their room and continuously ask girls out. So he was this weird combination of being incredibly insecure but very brave at the same time, and very self-conscious but incredibly charming. Either with me on camera or just one-on-one companionship, he was hilarious, but in a group situation, he was like a mute. So I would explain what was unique about them, you know. And then they still wouldn't believe me.
AVC: Did you ever feel like your subjects were trying to manipulate you or the movie for their purposes?
NB: I did feel that way sometimes. Not with most of them. With Megan, I felt like I was back in high school, hanging out with the popular girls, and I was being manipulated. I guess she felt that she had the most to lose because of some of her behavior on camera. So she was savvier about being filmed or not being filmed. So she would manipulate me a lot more. It was interesting, because there were some other popular girls I was filming for a while that I didn't end up putting in the movie. And if I would spend a lot of time interviewing them, she would get jealous, and then suddenly I would have full access to her life again. [Laughs.] There was definitely a whole power play happening with camera time. But if I was really interested in just filming her and she knew that, then she would use that to her advantage.
AVC: There's a weird thing with her, where her cruelty became a kind of exhibitionism in a way. It's like she wanted you to be there to see her send off the mass e-mail of the topless picture a classmate shot for her boyfriend.
NB: No, there were a lot of acts that I wasn't privy to as well. They were constant.
AVC: Even vandalizing the house and all that?
NB: Yeah. That was part of those compromises. But there were a lot of things she would do and not inform me, that I'd hear about later. She was an exhibitionist, not necessarily for the camera's sake, just with her friends.
AVC: The movie takes place in what's described in the beginning as a very conservative, religious, red-state-type town, yet politics and religion are pretty absent from the film. Why?
NB: Because they don't care about them. And at my high school, nobody cared about politics. And religion… I shouldn't say nobody cared about religion, because that's not true. Politics, they definitely don't care about. Religion, I was open to being a problem—or, if a conflict came up that was important. There were certainly relationships where a certain kid might be much more religious and dating a Catholic, and that might be a problem for their parents. But that just didn't come up in the people I was filming. The only one who came from a pretty religious background was Mitch, the blonde guy. But it didn't really enter into his story. Politics never entered into it, because they just didn't care. And it doesn't affect their world.
AVC: It's not really time for that yet.
NB: Yeah, exactly. College is when you have that awakening. When you're in the middle of the country, isolated, and all you're exposed to are other Republican ideas, and it has no bearing on your day-to-day life, why should you be interested?
AVC: Which do you think came first, John Hughes' movies or a high-school caste system? Is it a case of life imitating art? Do they feel like they have to play those roles?
NB: I think a high-school caste system existed before John Hughes films, definitely. I was in high school when those films came out, and there was definitely a caste system in my high school. And my sister's classes, too, and she's older than me. I've had people who are 50, 60 years old see this film and say, "Oh, my high school was the same way." I think it's been a pretty timeless thing in this country.
AVC: The weird irony of it is, teenagers seem to resent it, and yet they participate in it anyway.
AVC: Were they ever conscious of that?
NB: No, I don't think so, but you're exactly right. It is something where teenagers resent the fact that they have to play these roles. And that's kind of what the film is about, the fact that you're trying to figure out who you are at that age. You're a senior in high school, you're smart and mature enough to formulate an opinion of who you are and a direction you want to go in life, but it's so tough. Because your peers want to you to be one way, and are labeling you to be one way, and there's all this pressure to fit into this mold. And then your parents want you to be another way, regarding decisions about your future. All the while, beneath all this, you're trying to figure out who you are. So that's why I think they really reject the idea of this clique system, but it's imposed upon them by their peers, no matter what.
AVC: In the case of someone like Hannah, who actually recognizes and rejects it, the repercussions can be pretty devastating.
NB: Right, exactly. Hard to be your own person in high school.
AVC: What kind of relationship did you end up having with them personally, over the course of a year? Did they seek counsel from you at any point, or was there distance that needed to be maintained?
NB: No, there wasn't a distance. They definitely did seek counsel with me, and I was like a big sister to them. Still am.
AVC: You still keep up with them?
AVC: Were you worried about the ways your counsel might affect the documentary? Because you're not an acknowledged presence in the documentary itself, but you are in their lives. How does that play?
NB: I think that first of all, there's going to be limitations to what advice they actually take from me. I think it's more about having somebody listen to you. When you're a documentary filmmaker, you're a lot like a therapist. And that's what the people in the film get out of it; they have free counseling and someone to listen to them. Does it have an effect? Perhaps. If you're asking people to expose their lives on camera, their vulnerabilities, their intimate moments, their raw feelings, they have to be able to know you and trust you. And that means having a close friendship. Perhaps there is some alteration, but I don't know that it's possible to get people to reveal themselves like that on camera unless you're close with them. So I think it's worth the trade-off.
AVC: There are times in the film when you're witnessing something illegal, from underage drinking to vandalism. Were there any points that you thought you should be intervening rather than filming, or were there points were you did intervene, rather than film?
NB: Usually I would film and then talk to them about what they were doing. It is a balance. It's weird, because you play a strange role. You're a filmmaker there to accurately record what's happening, but you're also their friend, so you have to go back and forth between those roles. For example, when Hannah was crying about her boyfriend breaking up with her, I was filming it for about 20 minutes, then I put the camera down and took her over to my house and talked with her for the next three hours. But I filmed it first. It's weird. You do a balancing act.
AVC: Have you thought about the impact this movie might have on your subjects' lives, or might have had already? What would the success of the film actually mean for them, whether detrimental or positive?
NB: I think about it a lot. I hope it will be positive, and so far it has. They all came out to Sundance, had a great time, just had a really fun experience, and people really responded positively to them. With Jake, I think it really helped his confidence. With all of them, even Megan, who at some points is portrayed as being maybe not too kind to her peers, I think she's the most complicated person in the film. And you really understand the family tragedy she's gone through and the pressure she's under, and a lot of people come to really appreciate her, despite anything she might have done in the first half of the film. So far, so good. Paramount is actually bringing them out to L.A. for the summer, and they're going to be working on the promotion of the movie for two months. And they'll be back here [in Chicago] for Lollapalooza, and different events. If the film were to become huge, I think they all have pretty good heads on their shoulders, and I've tried to stress that they think of this as a fun experience, but not let it derail their plans in life at all.
AVC: Are they all entirely happy with the way they're depicted?
AVC: Even Megan?
NB: She feels like it's an honest depiction of her.
AVC: Is it that she's maybe grown up a little bit?
NB: She has. She's grown up a lot. And she can see certain acts of being immature, and that she's different now, and that this is of a time. None of us were angels in high school. She can see it with a grain of salt, and she feels that it accurately portrays her. The point of the film is to show people's flaws as well as their more likeable attributes. I think with her, it's very much a mix.
AVC: The title American Teen is pretty ambitious.
NB: [Laughs.] Yeah.
AVC: To what degree do you think the film is a reflection of the teenage experience, and to what degree is it specific to Warsaw, Indiana?
NB: I think obviously the American part and the kids all being white is a problem. Or maybe not a problem, but it's led some people to question that. I think what is universal, and what I find when I screen it in urban areas, or multicultural areas, or small towns in the Midwest, or wherever, is that there's a relatability to what these kids are going through. As far as searching for their identity, insecurities, wanting to fit in, the heartbreak, the loss. All of these things are very universal, so you may have an Asian girl from San Francisco, or an African-American boy from Brooklyn, watch this film and relate to a lot of the things that are going on. So in that way, I have, thankfully, found a lot of the issues to be universal. I don't think that issues of struggling on the poverty line and all that comes with that… the extreme parts of America are not represented.
AVC: In what ways does the film affirm or defy stereotypes about high school?
NB: I hope that it defies them. We all either were these kids in high school or knew kids like this in high school, and they are these iconic figures. But I think the point of the film is to show that they're so much more complicated than the stereotype leads you to believe. Like, okay, Megan is the popular girl, the mean girl, perhaps, but in fact she has so much more going on, and so much pressure and so much rage, because she's gone through something so much more difficult than any of the other kids in the film—and that's bearing down on her soul and her psyche. Each of them seems to have these complications that, again, they're labeled this way, but they're not this way.
AVC: Based on this movie, Chicago 10 and The Kid Stays In The Picture, is it safe to say that you and Brett Morgen have a more liberal philosophy about what documentaries can do?
AVC: Your films are playful. Critics would say too slick.
NB: Yes, I've heard that.
AVC: Do we limit ourselves too much in terms of how documentary can be defined?
NB: I believe so. It's funny—you know, cinéma vérité didn't exist until the 1960s, yet somehow in the last 50 years, it has come to define what documentaries need to be. But for 30 years before that, documentaries were entirely staged. Which is not something that I do, but they were. They set up every shot in films like Nanook Of The North. Because the cameras were so big that they couldn't just be spontaneous. And I don't believe that you can be a fly on the wall. I don't believe that really exists. Unless something really dire is happening, then sometimes people just tune you out. But the idea that you don't have a relationship with the people you're filming, or the camera doesn't have some kind of presence, is ludicrous. Or that you as the filmmaker don't have a point of view is also ludicrous. I'm sure when cinéma vérité came out, it was criticized. I do feel like there's this very old-fashioned, limited view about what documentaries can be, and it's unfortunate. On the one hand, it's actually kind of fun, because there hasn't been a ton of change, so there's a lot to experiment with! [Laughs.] Whereas with fiction films, there's more experimentation happening all the time. But on the other hand, it's frustrating, because when you do something that's a little bit out of the box, you get criticized.
AVC: You talked about how you're in touch with these teenagers. What about Robert Evans or the three boxers in On The Ropes? Do those relationships continue?
NB: It does continue, and it continues for years. Next week, Robert Evans is being honored by the Academy, and I'm going there. I talk to him on the phone. The trainer more than the boxers, actually, I keep in touch with regularly from On The Ropes. And all the kids from this movie I talk to. I just talked to Megan and Mitch last night, and the vice principal. Yeah, I keep in touch with them. And that's something that's kind of great about these films, because you meet people from worlds that you would have never met, and you get really close to them. Because it really is like a collaboration. On any of these films, the subject has to want to do it as much as you do, because otherwise, it's not going to work. Hammering people and forcing them to expose themselves does not work. They're just going to quit. They have to have their own personal reasons for wanting to do it. So you get close in the process.
AVC: Has the film screened in Warsaw? Have the people taken it in?
NB: Actually, tomorrow we're screening it for some of the parents that haven't seen it, and the school-board members and administrators and teachers.
AVC: Does that make you nervous?
NB: It always makes me nervous screening for people who haven't seen it who are somehow involved in the film. Because you really don't know how they're going to react. I was very nervous screening it for all the kids who are in the film. [Looks around.] There's no wood here. Uh-oh. Here's paper. Here! Knock on paper.