EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling directors who have films screening at the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival.
Screening in the Documentary Feature Competition, Caroline Suh‘s “FrontRunners” will be having its world premiere at the South By Southwest Film Festival. The doc details the campaign for student body president at Stuyvesant, one of the most prestigious public high schools in the United States. The campaign, is suggested as almost as sophisticated as any presidential election. But unlike presidential candidates, they also have to do their homework, take their SATs and write their college applications. indieWIRE talked to Suh about the film and her goals for the festival.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking?
I got into filmmaking in a somewhat roundabout way. When I started, it was more through documentaries as journalism, as I worked on projects that were very content driven, and not as aesthetically oriented. The documentaries I’ve always loved though have more been “films,” and I’ve been trying to move in that direction, matching style and content together, where style is as important as the substance. I’ve learned about filmmaking through working as a producer on various projects — documentary features and television. (Erika Frankel, the film’s producer and I both met many years ago as producers at PBS.) My main interest is in making features, though, so “FrontRunners” has been a great first for me as a director.
What was the inspiration for this film?
I’ve always loved classic verite campaign films, but wanted to make one with a slightly different take, so I thought it would be fun to make a film about teenagers running for office. Of course, Alexander Payne‘s “Election” was a big inspiration. An early challenge about this kind of election film was that I wanted to find a race that was taken somewhat seriously by the students at the school, not one where only five people cared; I wanted the film to tell an actual election story, not one that had to be fabricated for the purposes of a film. So when I found out about Stuyvesant’s elections, with their primaries, demographic interests, televised debates, etc., I thought it was the perfect story to tell. Stuyvesant is widely known as one of the best public high schools in the country, and Erika Frankel, the film’s producer, and I instantly recognized when we started filming that we were blessed with amazing characters in the candidates, the school newspaper, and just the students at large — who are all very serious people. Their intelligence and humor just made the story even better.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
As I said, I love classic verite films, so I wanted to make a film in that style, with no voiceover or narration. I also wanted to try and cut the film so people would be seen speaking in the way they actually talk, without editing them down, cutting out words or stumbles. Of course, this often posed a real challenge for our editor Jane Rizzo, as she couldn’t make any dialog edits and cover them with picture, but the virtue of shooting a bunch of super smart people is that they generally expressed themselves incredibly well and spoke very articulately. Given the challenges, I’m really happy with the feel this approach gives the film, because I think it creates a certain atmosphere — in some ways like a narrative feature, where the film is really is alive, in the present.
We also wanted the music, which we are really happy about, to express this kind of mood, and be somewhat representative of the feeling of being a teenager. Our editor Jane and music consultant Mike Tully did an amazing job of finding music (from bands like, Elf Power, The Oranges Band, Of Montreal) that was indie, but didn’t feel like music of our generation (we’re all in our 30s). I’m really thrilled that all the bands were willing to work with us, especially as they’ve all gotten much more popular since we started.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making the film?
The biggest challenges we’ve faced haven’t been in the actual making of the film, but really in figuring out the world of distribution. Of course, when you make the film, you are very attached to it, and want everyone to see it in a way where you feel it is best represented. I think many people might see “FrontRunners” at first glance as a competition film, but we feel like it really is more of a cross between a campaign film and a teenage genre film than anything else. In the end, I guess the film will speak for itself, but it’s hard in the commercial marketplace, when you’re kind of judged before the film is even seen by how it’s pigeonholed, but I guess that that’s life!
What are your goals for the SXSW Film Festival?
We wanted to premiere at SXSW because we feel like it’s the right audience, with the right sensibility, to most enjoy the film. In terms of goals, I guess first of all, we’d love to get as many people as possible at the festival to come see it, as we feel like there are a lot of funny moments, and we want to hear people’s reactions — a room full of laughter would be really amazing. Secondly, we’re looking for distribution, and are hoping that distributors will come see it with a big audience so they can see an audience’s reaction to the film. After that, we’re just excited to be in an atmosphere where people are watching films and talking about them. It can be isolating to just work on your projects, so we imagine that that part of it will be really great.