The new documentary Teenage, which premiered this weekend at Tribeca Film Festival, takes a look at how different youth subcultures scattered across the world and throughout centuries have helped define teenage culture today. Through beautiful, super-8 archive footage paired with the recreations and narrations of four different teens (a self-destructive flapper, a black Boy Scout, a Swing-obsessed German boy, a Nazi youth girl) Teenage creates a vibrant "living collage" of history in a way that no documentary film has done before. We talked to Matt Wolf, the director of the film, Jon Savage, who wrote Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, the book that served as the basis of the film, and Executive Producer Jason Schwartzman, about the movie, what they were like as teens, and why adults forget what it feels like to be a rebellious youth. —Hazel
How did you all connect to make this movie?
Matt: I read Jon's book and I thought it was very compelling and I thought it could be a great film. He had just finished the Joy Division film and I just had just finished this movie called Wild Combination about Arthur Russell, so we swapped DVDs and started talking. We thought we could work together so we started a sort of Skype relationship. Eventually I went to Wales with a harddrive of footage and we started the process of etching out what the film could be.
Jason: I saw Matt's film Wild Combination and I loved it; I remembered watching it many times over the course of a week after it came out. One person I was eager to show it to was this friend of mine, Humberto Leon, who has the store Opening Ceremony. Humberto said that he was friends with Matt Wolf and later [Opening Ceremony] wanted short films for their store opening in Japan and he hooked Matt and I up and we made one together. It was during the shoot for that that he told me about how he was going to make a movie based on this book by Jon Savage and I was excited about it.
In terms of how you, Matt and Jon, envisioned the film, did you have a clear idea of what the film would look and feel like? Did you two know from the beginning that you would want to do use archival footage or sort of take this in a more artistic direction?
Matt: We could have done a multi-part television series with expert historians and talking heads, but early on we knew we didn't want to do that. I had accumulated about 70 or 80 hours of archival footage at some point while we were piecing together the film. I had a residency at an artists' colony, and everyday I edited a sort of compilation mix of archival footage to contemporary music and that was a really important part of the process for me. It made this "living collage" style we were going for.
Jon: Matt and I discussed early on that we didn't want the film to be from the point of view of adults, we wanted young people's own words. So Matt and I developed a narration where we took quotes from the book or wrote quotes that gave the teenage point of view—how it actually feels to be young. In general, the film is pretty much how we wanted it to be from the start. I've worked in documentaries on and off for years and you can get very bored with documentaries—you know exactly what's going to happen. And with Teenage, I think we've invented a new form.
Who is the audience for Teenage; is it teenagers?
Matt: Teenage, to me, is an art film in a sense. The film is also an incredible music experience. I see the film almost like a record, and the narrations are like the lyrics to the record. You can just sort of sit and experience it without looking at it. I hope fans of music are a fan. And the film isn't really about your typical teenager, it's about exceptional young people, people who think against the grain. I wish I had seen this film when I was a teenager.
Jon: Me too. Because then you realize you're not alone.
Jason: I almost wish they would show this in schools because I think it's exciting. Also, I remember Matt came to my house with a rough compilation and narrated it for me in person, and even when he wasn't talking it was beautiful to watch.
When you were going through all the footage and even watching the film now, was there a certain quote or piece of footage that really stood out to you?
Matt: The thing that was a big break-through for me was the color footage of German swing kids. The story of the German swing kids is the most moving to me because it was the story of how pop culture and politics collide. These young people were smuggling American music and culture as a way of expressing themselves but also as a subversive tactic to resist the Nazi regime. It's so punk. I also love the quote, "Before Pearl Harbor I was playing with paper dolls, after Pearl Harbor I never played with dolls again." And there's also this quote towards the end of the film, from a letter to the editor for Seventeen Magazine, that says, "I love being seventeen. I wish I could stay this age for awhile. Seventeen is that perfect spot between adolescence, which means you're going somewhere, and adulthood which means you're on the downgrade."
Jon: [laughs] I'm totally downgraded! I love the quote, "My world is speedy and they're old." That's from a book called Middletown, which is about this couple who went to a town in the midwest for a year in the 1920s and reported what they found. But, my favorite bit, is the footage of the Chicago swing jamboree in 1938 with 200,000 kids going mental. And it was an integrated audience, which is amazing, because black American music was incredibly important.
Jason: You know what's wild, and it just occurred to me, is that it blows my mind that you [Jon] wrote this book without seeing a lot of this stuff. The book and the movie, they're companion pieces in a way. Jon wrote this book without having seen a lot of it and Matt made that possible.
Matt: We were really rigorous in making sure that everything in the film is based on historical truths and uncovered history. We based the narration on primary source quotes and based our characters off of real people and that rigor is really important to us as filmmakers and historians.
Jason: Another great thing about the film is that it doesn't get into all the stuff you already know. These are the people and the stories that seeped through everything.
And tell me a little bit more about picking out the uncovered stories and building the narrations you wanted to use.
Matt: I took Jon into a recording studio and we tried narrating the story and it didn't feel authentic because he was an older person and a British person speaking about this global story.
Jon: I was terrible. [laughs]
Matt: A friend of mine connected me to Jena Malone, who came to the studio and experimented with doing voice-overs with tons of subjective quotes. I thought that worked and was an interesting way to tell a story. But then I thought, can an American girl carry this whole story? No. So, we ended up narrowing the film to America and England and Germany and race was an important part of the story as well so I added an African American character and I wanted there to be an equal balance between female and male narratives.
And there was a line in the press release I was really interested in about activism and rebelliousness, and how you point out that adults today sort of forget what it feels like to be a teen. In your opinion, why do you think there's that separation?
Matt: At the core, I think it's that teenagers represent the future because they're going to live in the next era, and that creates a lot of hope and anxiety for adults. They project their fears onto young people and it leads to a desire to control them. But why do adults forget this need for freedom and self-expression and revert to this need to control? I think it's out of fear.
Jon: And also people get beaten down by life, they really do. People get into habits and raising a family, if you do that. It also depends on temperament. I've always been a guy who's interested in the present and the future. A lot of my work is in the past but when I was a kid I was into stuff that were really cutting edge, which is why I'm excited about the film because it's so different. You have the everyman histories, the history of the normal people, but when I was a kid I hated the normal people. I never wanted to be normal EVER. With the book and the film I was interested in the exceptional people who make the change. Because, if there's no change there's just entropy and then everything turns to shit.
Matt: When I was a teen I was a gay activist, and I remember publishing this underground newspaper and dumping it in the middle of my quad and then going to the bathroom and just barfing. I didn't even think about it as brave, it was just this immediate need to express myself. As I get older I think about what people will think of me and I try not to think that way, but with teenagers, they just purely express in a very visceral way.
Jason: I do remember being an adolescent and feeling angry and sad and not knowing why. As you get older, adults need to find a reason for why you feel all these things. I have a daughter now and whenever I meet a parent of an older kid they go, "Just wait till she's 13!" *eye roll* and it's like, why the "just wait?"
Jon: It's part of that experience of separating from your parents and joining the world of your peers.
Matt: And when you're young, a lot of the time you're oppressed. I think with this film, it's really about a formative period in history in which young people were facing an unprecedented amount of oppression from their parents and the government. They were really just struggling for basic forms of recognition and to endure these struggles and define yourself under judgmental and high-pressure critique from adult society it leads towards revolution.