Sunday, September 12, 2010

Interview with Nanette Burstein (director of American Teen) - March 4th, 2009

Promoting: American Teen
Venue: Premier PR offices
Interview type: One-on-one (phone)

ViewLondon (VL): Could you explain how the project came about?

Nanette Burstein (NB): It was a film I'd actually wanted to make for several years, dating back to before reality TV existed in America and there were all these reality shows about high school (e.g. The Hills). For me, high school was a really formative time in my life and I wanted to go back and explore it and all the pressures that you're under at that age and, you know, through various attempts, I was finally able to get financing for the movie, so that's how it came together.

VL: And how did you set about finding the different students?

NB: Well, I chose middle America because it does have an innocence and it's a very isolated part of the country and I wanted that kind of fishbowl environment of high school. And I wanted it to be in a small town that only had one high school so again, back to the whole fishbowl idea, you have even more social pressure than you would perhaps in an urban environment. And I wanted it to be a town that was economically mixed. I was hoping for it to be racially mixed but it proved to be difficult to find in small towns in the mid-west. And then I needed a high school that would give me the access that I was looking for, so I called hundreds of high schools and found ten that would give me the access and went to each of them and interviewed all the incoming high school seniors that were interested. And this high school in Warsaw, Indiana had the most compelling stories and compelling kids.

VL: Am I right in thinking that there were originally several characters and you had to get rid of some of them in the editing room?

NB: Well, there were several who starred in the first couple of months of shooting, but after a few months I narrowed it down to the five. There was one other kid that I followed throughout the whole year that I did not include in the film in the edit room. He was an African-American kid and I – he had a great story on paper and I really wanted some racial diversity to the film, so I really held on to it, but he wasn't that comfortable on camera and he was kind of a shy guy and so it was really hard to understand what was going on in his head and it didn't really work when I tried to edit it together.

VL: I was thinking of Hannah's best friend, Clark. He's kind of in it and then he isn't in it. Was he in love with her or something like that?

NB: He was. He was in love with her. They actually ended up having a little fling at the end of the year and I did originally have that in the movie and I cut it out because her story already had so many twists and turns. The film could have been five hours long and I, for time reasons, had to cut certain things out of the movie. But yes, he was in love with her and they're still very close friends and he's a great kid.

VL: I wondered about that, because I've seen several reviews that have labelled Clark as Hannah's gay best friend. Did you realise that would be the upshot of cutting his love story?

NB: I know! I am aware of it now. Of course, I never thought of that when I was editing the movie. I realised after the fact. I know.

VL: Obviously, there's been a lot of speculation about how much of the film was staged. How did you go about doing the email scene and the two sides of the phone conversation scenes?

NB: You mean when the photo gets sent around? Well, basically every kid in high school saw that photo, so basically I just filmed as much as I could for a week and I got maybe four or five people, but edited together it looks like 'Oh my God, the camera's there the whole time'. And I had to reshoot people actually writing emails anyway, because it's illegal to show someone's actual email address. But I wrote exactly what the emails said. Also, it was not the first photo that she sent to him, there had been a few others. And I think he knew he had an email from her and he told me to come over. But I didn't want to put it in the film that she sent all those pictures, because I think it's, you know, maybe a little damaging to her.

VL: What about the phone conversations?

NB: That's an editing thing. You never actually see two people talking on the phone. I recorded both sides using a phone tap thing you can put on the cell phone but I only filmed one side of the conversation. In the edit room I just cut to who they were talking to, a cutaway of them listening on the phone so you would know who they were speaking to. But you don't actually see people talking on both sides.

VL: What about when Hannah's been dumped by her first boyfriend and she calls Clark? Doesn't he react as if he's getting the news then?

NB: Oh, you only see his side. I was actually filming them that night and she was supposed to be with them and I had no idea that her boyfriend had broken up with her or what had happened. And they were calling her and she wasn't answering her phone. And nothing was really happening and I was about to leave and then he gets this phone call from her. And she was videotaping herself on the other side, so I have her audio. I don't know why she was doing that, but she was. So I didn't use the picture but I used the audio from her videotape.

VL: The other thing that stuck out for me was Jake's sort-of-girlfriend who cheats on him with the midnight rendezvous at the swimming pool. Surely, if you're cheating on the star of a documentary, you don't invite the documentary crew along?

NB: No, I know! You know what happened? It was at the beginning of the year, in the first couple of months and I was filming about 20 different people. And one of them was the guy that she was cheating with, this guy Mike Hall, who at the time, I wasn't sure if he was going to be one of the main subjects of the film. She didn't make the call going 'Hey, come over, I'm cheating on Jake', it's that I was filming the guy just as often that she ended up cheating with.

VL: But how did you know they were going to the swimming pool?

NB: Well, we were filming them for a few days. They were hanging out non-stop for a few days, though that was the only time they ended up kissing. So she knew what she was doing and she doesn't mind that it's in the movie, because I think she thinks it's high school drama.

VL: That's pretty cold, if you ask me.

NB: Well, people at 14 can be pretty cold. And then I was shocked, because he finds out from a friend and she knows that I filmed her and she still lies! I was totally shocked by that. I was like, why is she – I mean, I guess she just doesn't want to confront him about it yet, but she knows that I filmed the other side of it, so it was...yeah.

VL: Did you not feel compelled to tell Jake yourself?

NB: I was actually very torn, but I don't know. It was hard. But within a day she ended up telling him the truth anyway. Not when I was filming, but she did end up telling him and broke up with him. But if it had gone on for a long time, I guess I would have had to tell him.

VL: I'm surprised he wasn't resentful towards you afterwards for knowing and not telling him.

NB: He wasn't, actually. We had a long talk about it, but he was more upset that she'd broken up with him, period.

VL: Could you give us a quick update on where all the kids are now?

NB: Yes. Hannah's in film school, outside New York. It's a state school, so it's affordable for her. And she's making short films and really enjoying herself and getting so much out of it. Megan's at Notre Dame, she just took her MCAPS, so she's going to be a doctor and is applying to medical school. Same with Mitch, Hannah's very good-looking boyfriend. Jake is actually not in school right now, he switched colleges twice and then he didn't go back the following year. I don't know, I think he still has a lot of insecurities and doesn't feel comfortable in that environment, so he's just working and trying to figure out what he's going to do with his life. And Colin is still playing basketball, although he switched schools, because he wasn't happy at the place that gave him the scholarship. But he got some financial aid at a different school. But he's still playing basketball and studying.

VL: How have they reacted to their unexpected fame?

NB: I think they've reacted very well. They all really like the movie, they're very supportive of it, they worked a lot on the promotion of the film, they got to go to Los Angeles and the studio paid for them to stay in LA for the summer and so on. It was a cool experience for them. But they really have good heads on their shoulders, in terms of not letting it blow up their heads or derail their lives in any way. And we had a lot of conversations prior to that about it.

VL: What's your next project?

NB: I'm actually developing a couple of television non-fiction series. Just doing the promo tapes for them for the networks. One is on the legal process, filming it from the side of the prosecutors and the other is on salmon fishing in Alaska. This one town just fills up with fishermen who have three weeks to make their entire income for the year. And I'm also developing a fiction film that I'm attached to direct for New Line, here in the States. It's a comedy, actually. So, keeping busy!

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home