“American Teen” debuted at Sundance 2008, and some viewers begrudged the sale of Nanette Burstein’s eminently entertaining, beautifully constructed snapshot of the lives of several teenagers across a senior year at a Warsaw, Indiana high school.
“What sort of fresh nonfiction is this!” seemed the exclamation-point-capped question. A couple months later, when she and I were on a panel about the documentary marketplace at the True/False festival in Columbia, Missouri, the questions tended more to how do you tell a story well? And how the heck do you get anyone to see it?
In the case of “American Teen,” following the 38-year-old Burstein’s co-directed “On the Ropes” (1999) and “The Kid Stays In The Picture” (2002), you follow the expected acts and acting-out of American teenage life with restless curiosity. Yet some of the criticism leveled at the film was that it’s simply too well made, that it could not be true with its genuinely entertaining set of characters and its superbly structured narrative.
Burstein takes pains to note that shooting over 1,000 hours across a senior year is different from the exigencies of reality television. It’s a bulk deal then, “You make twenty episodes in a few months and you have to have a story editor. A lot of times in those situations, it’s not uncommon even for [networks] to create talking points for people, in certain situations. Which you don’t have to do if you have the luxury of time. Which I did.”
So it’s the tradition of the longitudinal documentary, capturing the arc of a process, as in Kartemquin productions like “Hoop Dreams” or in Barbara Kopple’s documentaries. “Right, right.” Burstein pauses. “You develop a relationship with the teenagers so that they trust you and they allow you to be there at very intimate moments. Some of it is luck. But there are storylines where you miss a crucial scene and you just don’t follow it because you’re never going to be able to make up for that.”
Unless you were to recreate it, which you weren’t going to do? “Right. There was one scene I had to recreate, because I didn’t get it, and I’d filmed so much of this story. It wasn’t a dialogue scene. It was when [one female character] got the text message of [a guy] breaking up with her. I wasn’t there. Because it was totally spontaneous. He didn’t tell me he was going to do that. So I recreated that, because there was no other way to show that they broke up. But everything else was very real. But, yes, some reaction shots, are they used from a different place, like in a phone conversation? Yes. But that’s just editing and I’ve been doing that in documentaries for ten years. Are there shots where it’s to show a mood where they’re laying on the bed thinking, are they thinking of that exact voiceover at that moment? No. But on ’60 Minutes,’ they go, ‘Can I get a shot of you walking down the hall?’ They add a voiceover. That type of thing.”
“It really upsets me,” she continues. “I never lit any scenes. There was a lot of spontaneity. I tried not to be obtrusive and, y’know, a lot of it is like, you have to be a storyteller, you have to be thinking about ‘Where is this story going and how is it going to be told?'”
“I have thousands of outlines,” she says, laughing. Like algebra? If X has this value, but then Y…? “Exactly! This is how the story’s going to be laid out. I’m always thinking about what I’m going to have to shoot in order to tell the story. It’s really annoying that I’ve had that as a criticism. ‘Cos if anything, it should be like… it should be a compliment, not a criticism, not a suspicion. ‘Wow, this is a great story!'”
The visual style, to a practiced eye, suggests through grain and shadow that you are working in available light. Plus Burstein leaves the radio transmitters in several shots, including in one memorable scene where a character throws hers aside in anger. “It’s funny, ‘cos one reviewer said, ‘Yeah, you really get that sense that things are staged when you see the microphones.’ Because you see there are microphones? I don’t understand that. That makes no sense to me!”
There’s a traveling shot through the town across house fronts akin to the opening of David Fincher’s “Zodiac.” As a particularly pernicious bit of gossip telegraphs through the town, we see the plain streets course past. “I really wanted to show the way that technology works. At one point, I thought well maybe I’d animate a fiber optic cable, but then my editor, Mary Manhardt, came up with the house [sequence]. She did that, and I went, that’s brilliant. You can see it traveling, you normally think of the Internet as being able to go across the world but so much of it is used just to communicate within this town, often used in an act of cruelty. You could see clearly how things could spread so easily in a way the telephone could not achieve, the old technology.”