The defining high school years have been the subject of fiction films for decades now, over the years perfecting the templates of teenagers that roam the halls: the jock, the weirdo, the geek, and the popular girl. NY-based documentary filmmaker Nanette Burstein decided to find those kids and bring their real personalities, quirks and backgrounds to the screen in American Teen, a doc that follows 5 teenagers in Warsaw, Indiana and released July 25. With over 1,000 hours of film to sift through from a full year of shooting, Burstein presents an intimate and compelling depiction of high school. Burstein tells realscreen how the film came to be.
Did you have difficulty financing this film?
‘I had this idea for years, so there were other years where I tried to get financing and wasn’t able to. For whatever reason, this time around of giving it one last effort, I was able to get financing. A&E IndieFilms were the first to really get behind it and gave me money to find subjects and the town, shoot some tape on them and committed to half the budget which allowed me to reach out to equity financiers to finance the rest of it.’
At Sundance, your film was in the midst of a bidding war. How did that feel?
‘[There was] a lot of sleep deprivation and [it was] intense because you want to make the right decision and go with the right distributor that really believes in the movie and can really market it properly, so it was hard.’
There has been some talk in the media that American Teen’s marketing hid the doc aspect of the film. Why is that?
‘This is my third feature-length documentary (The Kid Stays in the Picture and On the Ropes) that I released and it is nothing new. None of the distributors I worked with before ever wanted to vocalize the film as a documentary and that is quite common of any studio releasing a documentary. It’s not because they’re ashamed in any way. Unfortunately they literally can call a documentary ‘the deadly d-word’ because they have a hard time getting an audience. This film has depths to it but its also entertaining as a fiction film so the studio doesn’t want to mislead people with that word. It’s unfortunate that it has that connotation but that’s just the reality.’
American Teen has more of a narrative style than traditional documentaries. How has that been received?
‘It’s a very divided world. There are those that support more narrative documentaries and there are those that are more old-fashioned and feel that all documentaries need a strong socio-political agenda. I think this film will be in the camp with those that are more about storytelling.’
‘I am thinking of going into fiction next. I’ve spent a lot of time taking real stories and shaping them into narratives and I’d like to take a narrative and make feel it as real as possible. I think it’ll be a new challenge and one I’m very excited about.’
Will you return to docs?
‘I will. People’s careers I most admire are Michael Apted and Martin Scorsese, people who can go back and forth between the two mediums. It’s an amazing opportunity. I love them both just as an audience member and as a filmmaker.’