(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)
THE REELER: Can you tell me what American Teen is about and how you came to pursue to project?
NANETTE BURSTEIN: It's really about being 17 and the pressures that you face from your peers trying to figure out who you are versus who you’re presenting to them. And then having to make these important decisions about your future while being completely ill-informed [or with] pressure from your parents to be a certain way. It's really about the struggle to be that way. Structurally it often takes on the archetypal storylines you see in fiction film: The Mean Girls story lines, the cross-clique story, the sports story, the nerd story. But they're real people, so they're a lot more complex than what you normally see in a fiction film.
R: According to the notes I read, you spent 10 months filming daily. Seriously?
NB: That is correct. I moved to this town in Indiana, and I filmed all the time.
R: How did you acquire that access and trust?
NB: First of all, when we were looking for schools and town -- in addition to certain demographic information that we wanted and certain people we were hoping to find -- before we even went to a place it had to be a school that was excited to do this and was willing to work with us. What we ended up doing was going to 10 different schools, and I interviewed all the incoming seniors who were interested -- usually about 40 percent of the class. You had to have people who wanted to do this; you can't convince someone. If they don't already have an interest in doing it, it's not going to work. And listen: Teenagers are very suspicious of adults and exposing their world. It's very Lord of the Flies. I have a very small crew; I'm the one with the main relationship with them. I picked people I really liked and who really liked me, and we became good friends. It still took a long time for them to really trust me, but they did. And they allowed us to film a lot of intimate moments.
The other thing is that I'm not an authority figure in their life like most adults. I don't judge them. Whatever they end up doing is their business -- it's their life. Obviously I'm more intensely curious about them than any adult is, too. That's refreshing. They're exposed to someone who's older but doesn't have to be an authority figure in their life. Everybody else is -- they're all teachers and parents, and that's the role that they play. And that's the role they should play with them. I'm more of a big sister, so it's different.
R: With that in mind, how did you manage the dynamics between filmmaker and subject?
NB: There are times when I think it's inappropriate to film because it's more important what's happening, and you can do a little bit of both: You can put the camera down and try to help someone, and you pick the camera up again. It's not just about getting the film. There are times where I'm really insistent. It's hard because I really just want to be their friend, but at the same time I do have a job to do. Sometimes they're like, "Ugh -- I really don't want to be filmed right now," but you know it's important for the movie. You have to be persistent about it. You're always weighing the situation. And because it's such a long relationship, it goes up and down. Sometimes they're sick of you; sometimes they really like having you around.
R: Did those types of conflicts ever work themselves into the story?
NB: Not in this film. I know for some movies it's important to have that more self-conscious aspect, but in this movie it's really feeling like you're in the moment, and I don't call attention to you watching a movie that my personality is a part of. It does break the fourth wall in that I get inside their imagination and use animation to illustrate their fantasy lives. And they thought it was really cool; they opened up to me with whatever they were fantasizing about.
R: Animation is a stylistic through line of your work; how and when did you determine the ways you'd use it with American Teen?
NB: It came to me before I made the movie. I was watching a lot of fiction films, realizing how fantasy in fiction films can be so great. Usually they don't use animation because they can stage something and get into it that way. That wouldn't work in a documentary; you're too aware of that character staging something. So I thought, "Well, how do you get inside their heads?" I worked with a lot of photo animation on The Kid Stays in the Picture, and I did animation on Film School. It wasn't an unfamiliar process to me to add that.
R: There's also been the allegation against recent docs about teenagers that filmmakers are exploiting or taking advantage of their subjects' vulnerability. Did you or do you anticipate such criticism in approaching your film?
NB: No. I tried to be really sensitive to it. I picked seniors who were all turning 18 that year, so at least they were all older and could make a little bit more adult decisions in that way. There are certain things I could have exposed about them that would have been damaging, and I didn't include them in the movie. I do try to be sensitive to that. I do try to pick people you're rooting for and are struggling to achieve something; there's one character who's very complicated because she can be vindictive to her peers. But you find out there are a lot of complexities in her life. You realize she's not who you think she is, and you feel for her. I try to find the humanity in people.
R: You're a Sundance veteran with this film in competition. With each trip there, do you ever get any less apprehensive or nervous about sharing your work?
NB: No! I'm always nervous showing it for the first time. It's exciting, but you're nervous. I really believe in the movie, and I'm really proud of it. But of course I'm always nervous. You want people to respond to your hard work; it's always revealed in that audience that first time. And the filmmaking never gets any easier either. You'd think it would, but it doesn't.
R: Yeah, exactly: 10 months pared down to 95 minutes?
NB: It took a year of editing; I had 1,000 hours of footage. I was really narrowing down the essence of everyone's story; there's a lot of basketball games, for example, I ultimately only used little pieces of. The great thing about having so much time and access is that you can tell such a great dramatic story. Normally people film for three months and make a 12-hour series about it for television -- you have to stretch it out. To have [our] luxury, you have the time to spend with people so they really get to know you, and you can put the most meaningful footage in the movie and never be bored.
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