Nanette Burstein admits that “through the pain and torture” of high school, she was able to come to terms with who she was. The director of the Sundance award-winning documentary American Teen (opening August 1) sat down with me at the Nine Zero Hotel to reflect on fiction-film archetypes, the social fluidity of senior year, and the circumstances through which an artsy girl with a complicated heart and a sweet yet immensely popular jock can briefly transcend their own pre-determined roles.
VIDEO: Interview with Nanette Burstein
Before you began filming American Teen, what made you decide to chronicle the lives of teenagers culled from various places on the high-school food chain: a jock, a princess, a nerd, a misfit?
If you watch teen fiction films, you see the same stories told over and over again. There’s basically four of them. The Romeo and Juliet story across class or race of clique lines, like the forbidden love. Triumph over adversity, which often involves sports, but not necessarily. The underdog looking for acceptance, which is the nerd, usually. And the mean girl’s power struggle. And all of those stories, I found, existed in reality.
What prompted you to try to create another narrative of the high-school experience, a period that’s been defined and redefined ad nauseam?
I hadn’t seen a really complicated high-school movie that took a lot of the experiences that I felt or saw around me. High school was a really formative time in my life — I think for a lot of people in both a good and bad way. Through the pain and torture, I realized who I was.
Tell me about your selection and screening process. Why did you choose the town of Warsaw, Indiana, as the setting?
I looked in the Midwest because I think there’s a timelessness and more of an innocence about that part of the country than the rest of America. And I wanted to be in a town that only had one high school because I think that there’s more social pressure that way. You can’t escape — or you’re super-powerful. I wanted it to be economically mixed; I was hoping for it to be racially mixed, but that was hard to find in the Midwest, in small towns, at least. We called, you know, just hundreds of schools that sort of fit this demographic . . . and out of that found the best stories all in one place.
Midway through the film, the smart-but-quirky Hannah and the charmingly popular athlete Mitch start dating. It seemed so completely felicitous — it’s exactly the sort of thing you’d expect to happen in a John Hughes movie. Did you see it coming?
No, I didn’t. She really did play Battle of the Bands, and he saw her on stage and totally was like — you know, it’s that rock-star fantasy. I had one shot of him in the audience because he was sitting next to Megan, and so I had three camera crews at that show. I found out afterward that that’s the moment he fell for her. So in the editing room I could show that dynamic happening as though I knew it at the time, which I didn’t. But I was so excited as a filmmaker that it did happen, because it’s a great story line. It does cross over into this, like, “Is this Sixteen Candles?” But unlike those fictional films, it has a different kind of ending.
Hannah’s story arc in particular seems to be the center of things.
That was a purposeful decision. I think she had a really strong story. She went through a lot that year. And maybe because I related to her the most — I mean, I related to all of them, but there is something very personal about her story to me. You can’t help putting yourself in a movie in some ways.
What made you choose to limit the filming to their senior year?
Your senior year is such an important year because you still have all of the social pressures and all of the BS that goes on in high school, but in addition to that you’re having to make these ill-informed decisions about your future. Because you don’t know anything about the world outside your fishbowl — especially in a small town. That’s all you know: this little chess game you’ve been playing. I don’t think a Mitch and a Hannah — the popular jock and the bohemian but cute girl — would have gotten together any other time except for the spring of senior year when they know they’re leaving soon anyway. Things start to break down a bit because everybody knows they’re going to go far away from each other. You’re not quite an adult, but you’re leaving your youth behind.
After Sundance, you decided to add a kind of credit-roll epilogue about each of your subjects, explaining how they fared two years out of high school. I was glad you did that.
I think it’s a relief to know that they’ve grown up and they’re okay, and some of the ones who had some bad behavior have obviously changed, and grown up, and realized their mistakes.