by Kevin Dreyfuss
When 20th Century Fox TV announced the start of filming on a new high
school teen series last week, they described it as being something in the
vein of "My So-Called Life." But that description really only scratches
the surface, as you can tell from a quick glance at the talent behind the
camera, namely executive producer R.J. Cutler, producer of the
Oscar-nominated documentary "The War Room" and director of "A Perfect
And as for the formal aspects, how does a cutting-edge, hybrid
drama/documentary/video diary experiment following a year in the life of
some high school teens sound to you? Because that is what Fox and Cutler
are really attempting, a project that is, "a multi-part series melding
primetime hour-long drama with cinema verite style," according to Cutler,
combined with the personal video diaries of the teen "actors" themselves.
Fox has committed to 13 episodes of the show, set to air beginning next
Centering on a high school outside Chicago, the project takes a raw
documentary look at high school life, shot verite-style by Cutler and his
colleagues, then shaped on the fly into dramatic hour-long episodes. On one
level, it's a network marketing dream, targeting teens with angst-ridden
drama and a hipster soundtrack to rival any fictional series, all combined
with the gooney, absorbing voyeuristic tension of "The Real World."
But there are inherent contradictions to the concept that keep Cutler up at
night. He is trying to make a satisfying drama on a weekly basis, but he is
also trying to obey the laws of cinema verite, where "you have to let the
film tell you what the story is going to be," he explained. "We're still
figuring out how to cut an ongoing documentary into a weekly series," he
continued, "Especially without ever knowing where the story is going."
Main characters and plot lines change week to week, day to day, hour to
hour, and to make the project that much more fascinating, Cutler and his
crew handed out digital video cameras to individual students at the start
of production, planning on incorporating personal video diaries into the
final product. The idea grew out of a school administrator's request for
some quid pro quo for shooting at their school, and Cutler's response of
offering a documentary storytelling class at the school as payback.
The more he thought about the idea of arming his subjects with their own
cameras, the more the project as a whole fell into place. Now, Cutler, his
collaborators, and his producers Erwin More and Cheryl Stanley are deep
into production, an impossibly complex production that will be covering new
territory for documentary on TV. For Cutler, the main objective remains
simple throughout, "To try to see as clearly as possible what is going on
in the hearts and minds of a group of fascinating people-in this case, they
happen to be a group of 16 and 17 year olds coming of age."