Based on British author Jon Savage’s punk history novel, Matt Wolf’s “living collage” of a documentary, “Teenage,” aims to tell the story of the formulative of years of youth culture. The doc, which premiered at Tribeca last Saturday, presents a bounty of rare archival footage and beautifully shot reconstructions that delve into the lasting effect that flappers, swing kids, Nazi Youth and Boy Scouts had in the period between the enacting of child labor laws in the beginning of the twentieth century to the dropping of the atom bomb. It’s a stylish, freewheeling and fun ride, buoyed by an astounding score from Deerhunter front-man Bradford Cox, but it also opens up the thought-provoking subject of the evolution of youth culture and where it’s headed in contemporary times.
We sat down with Wolf, Savage and executive producer Jason Schwartzman to talk about the arduous research process, how the film crosses the generation gap and the future of “teenagedom.”
Jon: Can I offer you anything? Teenage postcard? Teenage slide? Teenage pin?
Jason: Teenage slide sounds like a dance.
Jon: Yeah, you can’t do it as an adult because you do it on your knees.
Jason: I tried to do a power slide when I was dancing at a party and I was like, “ahhh!” and I stopped short. I didn’t slide anywhere, at all. I ran and slid, and then, (makes a screaming noise)
Jon: Yeah, maybe that isn’t a good idea.
Jason: No kneepads. I think Pete Townshend had kneepads.
Jon: You know who’s really fucked his knees is Iggy Pop.
So is this movie kind of a product of a certain amount of nostalgia for a time in your life when you could all do slides?
Matt: I don’t necessarily think of it as nostalgic but I do think of it as a film about a certain kind of golden age of youth. During the early twentieth century young people faced just this incredible amount of oppression from their parents, the government and the police and they were struggling for the most basic forms of recognition so they could be treated like equals. And because of all that the stakes were really high and the kind of politics young people got involved in was incredibly turbulent but also the kinds of popular culture were kind of innovative, like swing. It had such a huge influence on broader culture. In a sense I’m not nostalgic about it being a better time, I just feel like it’s a really formulative period in history.
Jon: I guess I feel as though the film is very “teenage” in that although it’s about the historical period it’s also very much set in the now. Because that’s the experience of being a teenager. And a lot of the devices that we used in the film, that Matt can talk about, are to do with rooting the story in a kind of now as opposed to a kind of then, you know?
Matt: We think of the film as this living collage. Jon told me this thing he observed in the seventies with punks, where they would take thrift clothes from previous generations and they would cut them up and reassemble them with safety pins into something new. That’s kind of the philosophy of the filmmaking too, is taking all of these images and voices and histories of youth from the past and re-scrambling them into something that feels like a new work that is meant to help people reflect on the youth of any period, but especially today.
I definitely agree with that, but comparatively as someone who’s twenty watching the movie, there’s this large discrepancy between youth in the two periods of time. Where now it’s kind of like, where are we going? How will our culture make a similar lasting impact? Knowing all of the history that’s in the film, what do you guys think of this? Are you able to in a way predict what this generation will accomplish, where “teenagedom” is going?
Matt: But I think what you’re saying is true of any generation. The “what’s going to happen?” That’s why youth are so important because they represent the future. And that’s why adults project their hopes and fears and anxieties on young people and try to control them. And I think that ambivalence and fear for the future was kind of the reason people were dealing with youth in a certain way then, and it’s still true today. We don’t know what is going to happen to the next generation. The kids facing unemployment today are not in a circumstance that’s really that different than the boxcar children of the 1920s. We have more experience and infrastructure to deal with it, but. It’s hard to predict what will happen to young people but to know that this anxiety about the future is always at stake with youth.
Jon: As a twenty year old, could you identify with various things in the film, did certain things tie with your own experience?
Definitely, but a lot of that experience, I think, is kind of rooted in nostalgia for a period that I didn’t actually live in. It’s a little romanticized for me where I see something that I would’ve wanted to have been part of, but I don’t necessarily see that so much in my current generation.
Matt: Yeah, I can relate to that. I’ve never actually made a film that’s taken place in the present. And I don’t make work about myself, but I do think what I make is very personal. My interest is in personal filmmaking. I don’t call it nostalgic because I don’t want to idealize these other periods, but it’s my own way of kind of having a deeper sense of my experience today is by kind of looking at things that I relate to from the past.
Jon: But also that’s what kids do. When I was a teenager I picked up a lot of stuff from the past, especially when I got involved in punk rock in the seventies. I used to make collages of stuff from the fifties and sixties, the period immediately before when I was a teenager. Kids do take stuff from the past and then they look at it in a different way and make something new out of it. I am very hopeful about teenagers of today. I think that they will do that and find creative solutions and make art and do all the things that teenagers have done since the Second World War. I don’t think it’s anything different, I just think the circumstances have changed and the media changed. But I think the basic impulse is the same, which is you come out into the world, and it’s not what you want, and what are you going to do about it? If you’ve got any spirit you’re going to try and change it. For yourself, and maybe for other people as well.
Like you said this is a very formulative period for youth, but is it a period that the three of you were interested in other than that? Is it a period where you would’ve wanted to be a teenager?
Matt: I actually never though deeply about this period of history. I’ve always thought about more contemporary periods, but the hook for me within Jon’s book is that I loved that the typical expectation when one hears youth culture is punk, and skater, and hippie, and beatnik, and that this film kind of denies this expectation and goes back much further to uncover hidden histories. And I think I’m drawn to hidden histories and I think that the story of youth from this period is unknown and unfamiliar and the characters that we’ve profiled and telescoped into the film are unfamiliar people and types. And I think that’s what brought this period alive for me is that kind of discovery.
Jon: So although a lot of it is old, it’s new.
Matt: And also just on an aesthetic level too I’m very familiar with the kind of 1950s archetypal American teenager styles and it’s really cool to see the subtle variations of that from the 30s and 40s. And of course another thing that’s really interesting to me is that there are so many cliched stock images of flappers from the Roaring Twenties that it was so satisfying to me to find more vernacular and home movie imagery of youth from that time. It gave me a real and more visceral sense of what it would be like to be alive during that time. The feeling is still very similar, it’s just the style and the lingo that shifts.
This interview is continued on page 2…There’s so much archival footage in there, and it blends so well with the stuff that you recreated. I was wondering, first of all, what the process was for finding all of this. Did you start with a script and then narrow it down to find what you needed?
Matt: It was much looser. We identified topics that we wanted to focus on from Jon’s book. We didn’t know how far back we could go. We developed an expansive list of topics and we collaborated with a group of researchers, our lead researcher was named Rosemary Rotondi, and she sourced an incredible amount of footage for us with a group of researchers at the National Archives, and in England and Germany. And from that pool of material we said, OK, there’s a film here, this is the general scope of footage that we can find. Let’s get more specific. Like, can you keep digging for more German swing kids stuff? Stuff like that. And that process we continued for multiple years. Really up until the end of the filmmaking, editing process we were still looking for footage.
Could you talk a little about the recreations and how you decided what you wanted to recreate?
Matt: I’ve used recreations in other films I’ve made and the style I’m most interested in is footage that resembles actually archival. I wanted to shoot these in the style of period home movies from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. And I knew that this film would have a certain intellectual dimension to it and that it would be demanding in that regard, just a film about a lot of ideas, a lot of history, and I wanted to provide the viewer an opportunity to just get lost in smaller stories that were more emotionally driven. And a big feature in Jon’s book are the biographies of lesser known characters in history so it seemed important to telescope in some of those characters and we ended up choosing four that seemed like kind of a composite portrait of “teenager” as it was about to be born. And it was important to us to strike a particular balance between region and nationality, race, class, gender, and different types. In terms of conceptualizing those recreations I didn’t want there to be an synced dialogue and all of those characters had to have real archival footage associated with them so that they could blend seamlessly.
And in terms of the actual creation of those recreations, I was really inspired to do everything non-digitally. We shot all 16mm, and my cinematographer Nick Bentgen worked very hard to figure out different ways to degrade our footage. We used uncoated 16mm lenses on hand-cranked Bolexs. We struck bleach bypass prints and hand degraded the footage. We used period references in our color grade to match the archival look that we were after.
The one thing that I was having trouble determining if they were real or not were some of the PSAs, because they’re so ridiculous. I’m sure you noticed at the premiere, you wouldn’t necessarily expect a documentary about oppression to be a laugh riot, but those were drawing a lot of laughs.
Jason: “Are you pregnant?!” “…YES!”
Yeah, that one is amazing.
Matt: Yeah, the thing that’s interesting about news reels is, like recreations, they’re incredibly scripted and shotlisted. A lot of the footage we used in the film are outtakes from news reels that have wide shots, medium shots, close ups that we were able to re-purpose. They’re basically protodocumentaries that were scripted and shortlisted but used real people. So they do provide an authentic flair for the time, but like our recreations are kind of meticulously planned. We significantly took that material out of context to transform its meaning. And yeah, it was important for us to mix up a lot of different tones in the film, so that it’s not just a heavy hitting social, political issue topic. It’s also a pop subject.
Jason: He did it with the sound, too. There’s hardly any synced sound in the whole movie. So, like you have a hard time seeing what’s recreated and what’s not there’s also what sound is real and what’s not? Does what I’m hearing really belong with what I’m seeing?
Matt: Almost all of the sound is created and it has this kind of immersive soundscape quality because it’s all so intensely designed.
Jon: Also, the thing about the “I’m pregnant” thing is that it’s so ridiculously melodramatic and that’s also another way that the media sees youth, in this incredibly melodramatic manner.
It’s so funny because all of those PSAs are almost like parodies of PSAs. Like they’re exactly what you picture when you think of them.
Jon: I was surprised that the girl said “yes” right there. Like she clearly couldn’t take it any more!
Matt: And we use Nazi propaganda as well. So we use a lot of governmental and propaganda oriented imagery from a variety of contexts, all kind of rescrambled into a new form that transforms its original meanings and intentions.
Jon: Because there’s obviously not a lot of footage from the kid’s point of view, this is the thing. It’s all adults saying this is what kids are.
Matt: So much of the material that exists is from the adult or authorities point of view. That’s one of the reasons that we chose to tell the story from the point of view of youth, to show this generational tension that is at play throughout the film.
How did you cast the narrators, or what drew you to those specific people, because I think they’re very good fits in terms of, like, Jena Malone, both her image and her voice kind of perfectly fit the tone and image of the film. She has kind of a timeless, but youthful voice. Same with Ben Whishaw, who has such a great voice for just reading things.
Jason: Yeah, totally.
Matt: A friend of mine named M. Blash, who made a film called “The Wait” with Jena Malone, he recommended Jena as an actor that I might consider working with. I had heard her voice-over in Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” and thought it was really stylized and cool. I did some early experiments with her in a recording studio and it really helped me kind of imagine what this device could be. Almost like singing more than talking.
Then I connected with Ben Whishaw through a mutual friend and I’m just a huge fan of his work and I think he particular excels at bringing text to life. His start was in the world of Shakespeare and in “Bright Star” it was just incredible how he could bring Keates’ poetry to life. So this was a perfect opportunity to transform these quotes we’d sourced from real teenage diaries and written sources and have him bring a lot of soul and depth to them as well in a British context.
Julia Hummer is an actress that I’m really interested in too. She was in Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” and is also a singer, and there’s an incredibly vivid, youthful quality to her voice. She was also a skater punk and was discovered on the street for her breakthrough role in Germany. I believe this is the first time she’s acted in English. That whole process was really collaborative and exciting with her.
Jon, you said something at the premiere that I thought was really interesting about the stopping point of the film, that by 1945 youth culture kind of diverged in such a way that made it impossible to document a cohesive international experience. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that at all, like what exactly would you consider the “sequel” to “Teenage?”
Jon: The problem that I faced doing the book and the problem that I you would face if you were aiming to carry on the storyline to the post-war period is that there’s so much stuff. Already by the time you get to the late thirties and early forties the graph is rising. And there’s so much youth culture material after the second world war. Also, a lot of it’s very familiar. There are a lot of histories of youth culture and a lot of books. How many books are there on Elvis? As it happens I think we could say something interesting about Elvis, but then you have to get the rights. If you want to use “Rebel Without A Cause,” which is a key document, that’s super expensive. And suddenly it all becomes a nightmare. What’s great about focusing on the prehistory is that it draws up a lot of the themes in an unfamiliar period. It’s a start, people could take isolated bits out of our film and out of post-war stuff and do a whole other film. This is just a foundation for a whole new way at looking at youth culture.
Jason: I’m also happy this movie was made because it does serve as a preservation in a lot of ways of this hard to find footage. Matt was saying two-thirds of the movie footage wise is stuff that, you know, is pretty much unseen. I feel like now someone’s seen it and it’s been preserved in a way. That’s nice as a whole other document for future people to see.
Jon: I’ve seen hundreds of documentaries, because I like watching documentaries, and most of the footage we’ve found I hadn’t seen.
I think the movie also does a really good job of kind of alluding to punk and the punk sensibility without directly referencing it, both in the construction of the film, and obviously I’m sure a lot of that comes from the book too, but also in Bradford [Cox]’s score, which is incredible. Bradford is such a great choice because in interviews he always talks about having such a strong connection to seventies youth culture and seeing himself as sort of a punk figure.
Matt: Yeah, that’s why I wanted to work with him. He is a punk. I was drawn to Jon’s book because I saw the punk philosophy playing out in the treatment of its history and I approached Bradford because he’s one of my favorite contemporary musicians, but I knew aesthetically and thematically that this material connects to what he does and there’s a real synergy there in terms of the music in the film, which is basically a character in the film because it plays so prominently throughout.
Is there going to be a soundtrack or score release?
Matt: Figuring it out.
Jon: Jason made the point a couple of days ago that you could just make a CD out of the soundtrack as it is
Jason: Yeah, with all the talking and everything.
Right, like a sound collage. I thought about that while watching.
Matt: I think of it kind of like a record where you could listen to it without paying attention to the words, but if you listen to the lyrics, in this case the voice-over, it deepens your understanding of the context of the narrative and it deepens the experience, but like a record it’s something that is very experiential and musical.
What was the collaboration like between the two of you in terms of the generation gap between you? I think that’s really interesting in a film that’s about generations in general.
Matt: It’s cool for us. I’m a total fan of the time Jon came of age and did a lot of his seminal work and it’s fascinating for me to learn about his experiences as a journalist and as a writer. I think he could say too, that it was inspiring for him to work with someone younger, right?
Jon: Totally. I had already done the book and was a bit jaded, and along comes Matt with a whole lot of enthusiasm and he got it, which is amazing. And it’s incredibly exciting. Any age you are, it’s nice to hang out with people of different ages. I think it’s a grave mistake to hang out with your own peers all the time. So always in my life I’ve tried hanging around with older people and younger people. Obviously the range of older people available is beginning to diminish, so it’s kind of great to hang around with younger people. But seriously, it made the subject come alive again.