INTERVIEW: R. J. Cutler's "American High" Verite Factory
by Jesse Moss
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Jesse Moss spoke with R.J. Cutler last summer. “American High” will premiere the 13 episode series Wednesday night at 10pm.]
Reality television gets welcome a dose of “reality ” this Wednesday with the premiere of “American High,” filmmaker RJ Cutler‘s new half-hour non-fiction TV series about suburban high school students. Cutler and his crew spent the 1999-2000 school year at Highland Park High School, outside Chicago, following 14 students verite-style through the rite-of-passage rituals of American teenage life.
The kids of “American High” represent the stratified caste of high school society: the jock, his girlfriend, the lonely beauty, the artist, the outcast, and the partier, to name a few. And like their fictional counterparts on “Beverly Hills 90210,” Cutler’s students are an attractive and affluent bunch.
The first two episodes of “American High,” presented back-to-back by Fox, provide scattershot introductions to eight of the 14 characters, and set the stage for dramas ahead. The glimpses of home-life, relationships, sexual anxiety, and the petty and profound obsessions of high school are revealing — a mixture of un-scripted verite intimacy and confessional candor.
Veteran political doc-maker Cutler (“The War Room,” “A Perfect Candidate“), along with several ace documentary DPs and editors, haven’t devised any punishing jungle adventures or Orwellian trials for these student-stars. Instead they’ve handed over small DV cameras and asked them to record their own video diaries, portions of which are inter-cut through the half-hour episodes. Morgan, one of the series’ early standouts, sums up his existential dilemma this way: “If I don’t pass high school, I can’t go to college. If I can’t pass college, I can’t get a career. If I can’t get a career, I might as well go pump gas.”
“American High” lies at the far and untested end of the reality TV spectrum. Whether the series and the genre bloom may depend on whether the fickle summer TV audience is ready to embrace the musings of Morgan and his peers. The series premieres this Wednesday on Fox at 9:00 p.m.
indieWIRE: What’s the genesis of the show?
“We couldn’t go in there and say, ‘But we’re documentary filmmakers. It’s going to take us two and a half years before you see this stuff.’ . . . Nobody in a network environment is even thinking about two years from now. They don’t even know if they’ll be there two years from now.”
Cutler: The genesis was partially content-driven and partially form-driven. I was really interested in spending a year with high school kids, because it’s twenty years since I got out of school. And I was very curious about that unique moment in life when you’re a child on the cusp of adulthood and you’re an adult who still wants to be a kid, to quote Morgan. And so that was extremely intriguing to me. I also wanted to see if it was very different to be coming of age now as opposed to what it was like when I graduated from high school.
And then formally, at least as importantly, I’ve been convinced for a while that if you took cinema verite and produced it in a way that satisfied the needs of prime-time story-telling — that was entertaining and engaging, and dramatic in the way that a prime-time drama is — that it could potentially be very popular. Because, as you know, verite generally gets shown at festivals and to a very specialized audience and the audience really responds to it, they love it, they get connected to it the same way they get connected to any narrative drama. The whole idea behind verite is that real life can function in storytelling and be as satisfying and engaging to an audience as scripted drama is.
iW: And it must be exciting to the see the landscape shifting at the network level with the success of reality television.
Cutler: The truth is we presented this to Twentieth Century Fox a year and a half ago and they immediately leapt at it. I then developed it and worked to find a specific high school to do the first season. And that took about three or four months. And then we went in to Fox and pitched it and they bought it in the room, and ordered thirteen episodes. I described the project to Doug Herzog and he said, “Okay, we’ll take thirteen.” It was clear that people were looking for alternative formats, particularly for summer programming, particularly ones that were far less costly than scripted dramas and scripted comedies, which are extremely expensive. Well this program, from a business point of view, represented a very clear solution to that. Also, here was potentially an entirely new genre that, if successfully introduced, could build a franchise — this whole idea of the non-fiction drama series that is unique to prime time American television. There are no other non-fiction drama series on the air.
iW: As a documentary filmmaker, someone who’s used to making feature-length documentaries, was it daunting for you to suddenly have the responsibility of seven hours of verite programming?
Cutler: The answer is ‘no,’ but it is a huge project. There’s no question this is enormous. Every step of the way it’s enormous. There were two crews in the field shooting three weeks out of every month. We had 14 characters on whom we were focusing. We had a class within the school that those 14 kids were in and another ten or 11 kids were in as well, with personal video filmmaking. And everybody in that class had their own video camera, so they were shooting as well, mostly video diaries. And we shot 2,000 hours in the field, and the kids shot an additional 800 hours in the field. So this is a massive project. This is not “A Perfect Candidate” where Nick Doob had a camera and David Van Taylor and I were producing and directing in the field. Then there’s the whole post side of it, which was going on simultaneously with the shooting, which is madness. But which is a necessary part, if you’re going to do prime time television. You can’t turn your show around in two years. You’ve got to turn it around in a year, because nobody in a network environment is even thinking about two years from now. They don’t have their budgets for two years from now. They don’t even know if they’ll be there two years from now. We couldn’t go in there and say, “Yes, but we’re documentary filmmakers. It’s going to take us two and a half years before you see this stuff.” They just wouldn’t have been interested.
So as huge as what was going on in the field was, it nevertheless followed the traditional model of cinema verite filmmaking: Our crews were tiny; we were as unobtrusive as possible; we were working with our subjects with the understanding that they were our collaborators. So we understood from the beginning what the model was, and, as different as I say it was from “The War Room” or “A Perfect Candidate,” in terms of its scope and the length of time we were shooting and the amount of footage we got, it was essentially the same because you just apply the model on a larger scale. In post-production, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever been involved with because even the process of logging, transcribing, analyzing the footage, working with six edit rooms, cutting while you’re shooting, all of those things are completely different. There’s no way I could see every frame of footage, which of course I would do on a feature project.
iW: How did you ration out your time in the direction?
Cutler: Well, the post-machine is massive in and of itself. There are about 25 people who are working full-time. We have loggers working around the clock. We have a story department that’s screening and have done thorough analyses of all footage that’s shot. The producers in the field do a kind of thumbnail sketch of what they’ve shot and then the loggers do a report on it. But then the different people in the story department, who each are assigned different characters, are doing a much more story-oriented analysis of what’s going on. And we’re selecting things that we’re going to look at. Then we have half a dozen assistant editors as well half a dozen editors who are working. There are eight AVIDs here that are all fiber-optically linked, so if a scene falls out of episode four it might be perfect for episode six and it goes right into the episode six bin so that the person can work with it, if necessary. And how I ration out my time is, I took all of my personal life and I threw it out the window, basically.
This group of people has been working around the clock for the last nine months on the post-production side of this thing. And I’m also flying back and forth to Chicago working in the field as much as I could, which is about a third of my time, and working on the post side another two-thirds. But you can’t possibly do a project like this if you’re not working extremely closely with a team of unbelievably talented editors and people on the post-production side and in the field. It’s just very different than the traditional model where the same tiny group of people is doing everything. Here, it’s just much more specialized. Joan Churchill and Alan Barker were in the field for us. They’ve done dozens of films, but Joan was one of the two people who shot “An American Family.” And we have half a dozen incredibly talented and experienced verite editors: Allison Ellwood, Jason Rosenfield, David Tedeschi. . . it’s just like this incredible group of people with scores of years of experience at verite film production. And you can’t do something like this, in this very, very, very limited amount of time unless you’re bringing together on some level an all-star team of filmmakers.
iW: So tell me why you chose Highland Park High School?
Cutler: First, we realized that you could do this anywhere. You could do it in an inner-city community in New York, you could do a rural community in Indiana, you could do a high school up in the Pacific Northwest where every 14-year-old has already started their own dot-com. There are so many places where you could do this project. But we decided for season one that it would be a suburban community. Part of that had to do with the fact that it was my own background. Part of it had to do with the fact that it was the environment in which other Fox high school shows, other successful Fox high school shows, had been set.
We wanted a school that was going to simultaneously see the potential benefits of doing a project like this and have a healthy skepticism about it. When we met with them, they were exactly what we were looking for, which is a courageous community that said, “Yeah, this could be an amazing thing to do, especially in the wake of the Columbine tragedy. And if you’re going to do it here, we’re going to put you through a real wringer to make sure, first of all, that you are who you say you are, and, second of all, that all the concerns we have are somehow being anticipated.”
So it was really a three-month back-and-forth negotiation process, more or less: meeting with faculty, the administration, students, their parents, the superintendent and the board of education, having the board of education call people who had been involved with other films that I had made. The George Stephanopolous recommendation turned out not only to be a critical piece of the puzzle, but actually a requirement given from the board of education to the superintendent.
Then the contract between the school and the studio itself was a month-long negotiation process because the school is concerned with things that the studio has never even thought about before. What happens if I get hit by a bus? It took us ten days to work that out and at some point was a deal-breaker because the studio is used to saying, “Well, we’ll get somebody else to do it.” Whereas the school was saying, “Like Hell you’re going to bring in somebody who we don’t know, who we haven’t gone through this process with, who we don’t trust.” And the studio’s point of view is — and of course ‘being hit by a bus’ is a euphemism for if they decide to fire me — “If it’s not working out, we need to have the right to have anybody we want make this.” And the school said, “We don’t care about your money. We care about our kids and our school and who’s coming in and who we’re exposing them to.” It was just like a culture clash in a way. And literally there were points where both sides thought, “You know what? We’re not going to be able to work this out.” And that wasn’t the only point. A real process of diplomacy was required to get everybody to see that they weren’t in conflict but that they just had different objectives that needed to be served.
iW: And what was the process like to select the kids?
“So it’s good for the networks because it’s relatively inexpensive. We, in the documentary community, know how to save a nickel. The talent involved in making these things, which should be incredibly expensive, especially when compared to Jennifer Aniston’s salary, is pretty cheap.”
Cutler: We had a big assembly at the very beginning of the year where we invited all of the seniors and their parents to an assembly in the school auditorium. It was the second day of school. A bunch of us were there and made a presentation of who we were, and what we were doing, and why we wanted to do it. We stood before them and said, “We’re here to tell your stories and if you’d like to work with us we’d love to have you.” There were probably about three hundred people in that room, including parents, and about 120 kids filled out applications. We met with every single one of them and then we just tried to form a group of kids who really wanted to tell their stories and seemed to have interesting stories to tell, and who represented a good cross section of the student body. As always with verite, you want people who really want to tell their stories. In this case, there are a lot of people who fit that bill because what they’re doing is growing up and coming of age and that is something they care a tremendous amount about.
iW: How did the kids relate to the crew? How was the process of actually deciding where and when to film with them?
Cutler: It’s the way it always works; it’s a little bit of everything. And if you do your job right, about halfway through the process you realize the subjects are really making the film, you’re just kind of following them along as much as you can. If you say, “I’m just here to watch,” and if you turn out to just be there to watch, if you are non-intrusive and tell it as truthfully as possible, then before long they will join you in the process, because that’s what they want as well. Of course, in this case, they all had cameras. They’re also shooting these diaries that are telling us what’s going on. And I would say even more so than any other project I’ve worked on, the degree of intimacy and the personal bond with the subjects was stronger and deeper than in any of the other projects, because you’re living with people. The other films took place in the work environment and, as much as they were personal stories, they were personal stories told in a work environment. These are personal stories told in school, at home, in the bedroom, in very private moments. So your relationship with your subjects reflects that.
iW: The decision to give them their own cameras, was that something you had conceived of initially or did that develop as you were working with the school?
Cutler: I conceived it initially, but not from the very start. I was a having a conversation with a school administrator who was quizzing me about what was in it for the school, and there were a lot of things that are in it for the school. But they said, “But we’re educators, is there an educational benefit to this other than an experiential one? Are there skills that kids will be learning?” And all of a sudden it just clicked into place for me, “My God, what an incredible opportunity this is. You’ve got these TRV 900 cameras, the Sony palmcorders, that are 3-chip mini-DV cameras, they cost two grand each, you put on some good audio attachments and maybe a wide-angle lens and for $2,700 you’ve got a camera that’s pretty close to the quality of the $8,000 Beta-cam we used to shoot “A Perfect Candidate.” And you can give 25 of these to kids and you’re with them in a way that no verite crew, even the best one, could ever be.
iW: Were there boundaries that Fox or the school placed on you as far as following people and the kinds of stories you could get into?
Cutler: We were not to be with people in situations where they didn’t want us. And the school just wanted us to keep our word on that. This is, again, a principle of verite for all the reasons I’ve been describing: If you’re filming with somebody and they ask you to stop, you stop. Because otherwise you’re not collaborating in the telling of a story, you’re intruding, and you won’t get to the point where you are full collaborators. Other than that, we are a network television show that’s regulated by the FCC so we knew that we wouldn’t show kids breaking the law on television. We figured, “Okay, let’s not shoot it,” cause what purpose could that footage serve?
iW: By my count, in the first two episodes, you introduced eight characters, which impressed me. That’s a lot of characters to introduce in a relatively short amount of time. Tell me a little bit about episodes three through 13, structurally, and how you organize the shows.
Cutler: I’m standing in my office now and the walls are literally covered in wipe-off boards that have different story lines under each of the kids’ names. Matching them together in a way that feels like there are going to be thematic lines that also push the overall story together, but comprise a self-contained episode, was the objective. It’s tricky. It’s a little geometric. Because you want episode two to connect to episode one but you also want someone who hasn’t seen episode one to be able to watch it. Then you’re also dealing with a time-line, cause you know for instance episode 13’s going to be graduation, episode 12’s going to set it up, you know that episode nine is spring break, so ten and 11 you want to cover whatever happened between spring break and graduation. That includes prom and also filling in all the missing stories. There’s so many things, believe me, this is weeks of planning and moving magnets around a board and wiping things off and then you come up with an outline, you start building your episodes and you make changes again and you hope you’re getting it right.
iW: What’s the format that your crew shot on?
Cutler: We shot 100% digital. This is the first “dogma” television show, except I take a director credit, so does that count?
iW: I guess not.
Cutler: The crews had three cameras. They had the full-format DV camera, and we shot Sony (I can’t remember the model number that we used), and then we also used the VX 1000’s. So every crew had both of those and we had a lot of TRV 900’s sitting around that we used. So the crews had three cameras at their disposal, all DV, but the VX 1000 and the TRV 900 are mini-DV. And the kids shot with the TRV 900.
iW: Do you think this kind of show is here to stay?
Cutler: Well, I will say this: this summer you have seen the introduction of two genres in the so-called reality style of making television. One is the extreme game show and the fact that it’s called “reality television” is Orwellian at best. It’s a completely artificial environment: they’ve hired actors; they’re just not scripted. And they’re paid to perform for a camera in an artificially created environment. And you know what? The shows, when they work, are very entertaining, and when they don’t work, and I’ve got to watch people building potato clocks for six minutes, are torturous. But there’s a great potential for that genre and that’s a great thing. Then there’s this other genre — that our show at the moment is the only one — the non-fiction drama series and I hope that it’s here to stay. I hope that this presents an opportunity for other people to do the same thing because it’s fun to watch, it’s exciting for people to see, it’s extremely satisfying, it’s storytelling that’s entertaining and engaging and all of the things you want it to be. So it’s good for the networks because it’s relatively inexpensive. We, in the documentary community, know how to save a nickel. The talent involved in making these things, which should be incredibly expensive, especially when compared to Jennifer Aniston‘s salary, is pretty cheap.
iW: Can you tell me what the budget was?
Cutler: I can tell you that an hour of our programming is significantly less than an hour of network programming. Really significantly less. And we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t, I don’t think.
[Jesse Moss is directing a documentary about a con-artist for HBO.]