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American Teen - Nanette Burstein interview

American Teen

Interview by Rob Carnevale

NANETTE Burstein talks about the making of her documentary American Teen, why her own High School experiences moved her to undertake the experiment, what she thinks of accusations the footage has been scripted and why she’s moving onto feature films and working with Drew Barrymore and Justin Long next.

Q. This was a huge undertaking given that it took 10 months to complete. Where did the idea first come from?
Nanette Burstein: I actually had the idea a long time ago, before reality TV even existed. I had a very eventful and informative time in High School and wanted to explore that period.

Q. In what way was your High School experience eventful?
Nanette Burstein: Well, like everyone I started out wanting to conform and be accepted by my peers, and be in a popular group. But then I found that wasn’t true to who my character was and, as a result, I didn’t have any friends, and got into a lot of fights with my parents. I rebelled ultimately. But I think it’s really hard in High School to figure out who you are. In fact, I had an unusual experience where I went away and lived in Spain in the third year of High School. It was during that time that I realised I wanted to make movies even though no one in my family was in any way associated with the arts. I changed a lot in those four years. But it was a tough time.

Q. The reaction to American Teen has been varied. It won the Audience Award at Sundance and is well received by people of its age, but there have been people who’ve accused it of feeling staged. How does that make you feel?
Nanette Burstein: There has been that and it’s incredibly frustrating to hear because it wasn’t staged. That never came from anyone associated with the film, or the people in the town of Warsaw – that was just the suspicions of people in the press. I can understand it. It’s very rare for someone to spend an entire school year, every day, just making one film. That requres a lot of access and a lot of intimacy. And then given the way I edited it, it feels like a narrative film and like the camera is in more places at the same time. There’s also so much reality TV now that I can understand why people were sceptical.

Q. Do you think the explosion of reality TV hindered or helped American Teen?
Nanette Burstein: I think it hindered more than it helped. There has been a whole backlash against it, so it makes people automatically assume that you’re doing a similar thing and just jumping on the bandwagon.

Q. Do you stay in touch with the teens?
Nanette Burstein: I do! In fact Hannah just emailed me last night and I emailed her back this morning. So, that’s nice.

Q. Do you think Hannah will make it as a filmmaker in her own right?
Nanette Burstein: Hannah has been in film school now [in New York] for three years and she’s really quite talented. So I absolutely think she’ll make it.

Q. Was it hard saying goodybe to them teens after spending 10 months with them?
Nanette Burstein: It was hard saying goodybe. I knew I’d see them again, but I’d ever have that intensity of spending every day with them.

Q. You’re now about to direct your first feature film. Are you excited by it? And possibly a little nervous?
Nanette Burstein: I am excited. I’m been in the midst of it now, I’m in the trenches. We start shooting in a month, so there’s a lot of prepping. We’ve been finding locations, rehearsing with the actors… there are innumerable things to do.

Q. The film’s called Going The Distance and it starts Drew Barrymore and Justin Long. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Nanette Burstein: It’s about a couple who fall in love and then have to live on opposite sides of the country because of their careers. They have to attempt a long distance relationship and ultimately have to figure out how to be in the same city if they are to succeed, and which one will have to give up their job to do so. It’s very much a modern day love story about the conflicts you face.

Q. How has it been working with Drew Barrymore so far? Is Going The Distance going to be comedic, or dramatic? Because Drew can do both…
Nanette Burstein: It’s comedic. She has been great and she’s a brilliant comic actress as well as a fine actress. Justin Long, as the male lead, is also so phenomenally talented. I’m really looking forward to getting into it with both of them.

Q. Have you noticed many differences moving from documentaries to feature films? Or does it feel like a natural progression for you?
Nanette Burstein: It’s very different. I started out in documentaries, as you know, but I’ve also done commercials too, so that helps to prepare you a little bit more. But with feature films everything is about control and knowing what’s coming up… but also about being able to be spontaneous in the moment too I hope. Documentaries are all about spontaneity and then moulding that into a coherent story.

Q. Will you be revisiting documentaries and do you intend to keep mixing them with feature films?
Nanette Burstein: Absolutely, I’m still working on developing non-fiction TV series and I do want to mix it up. I love non-fiction.

Q. Do you think documentaries are in good health?
Nanette Burstein: No, I don’t think they’re in particularly good health to be honest. All independent films and smaller films are having a tough time. The market has changed and there are so many different competing elements for entertainment out there now that smaller films and documentaries are get pushed to the side. It’s also smaller fiction films…. I think that someone needs to rethink the distribution of them so they can be more lucrative. They were once but now people don’t go to the theatre as much. They can stay at home and watch it on TV, on cable, over the Internet or on DVD. So, it’s gotten a lot harder for the smaller films. And the DVD market is changing a lot too. So, there needs to be a different approach to distribution.

Q. I read that you would love to be given a shot at directing a big action film? Is that correct and is Going The Distance a step in that direction?
Nanette Burstein: Yeah, absolutely. I’d love to be given the chance to make a cool film like The Dark Knight. So, I hope I’m about to make a good film that’ll help achieve that type of aim.

Q. And finally, how did the Oscar nomination for your first documentary feature On The Ropes boost your career at such an early stage?
Nanette Burstein: The Oscar nomination helped a lot. I made it [On The Ropes] in grad school, so it certainly gave me my next opportunity, which was to make The Kid Stays In The Picture. I’d been working on that, though, even before I was nominated for an Oscar. But I guess each thing begets the next. And it was such an honour to have been nominated for my first film.

American Teen is released on DVD via Optimum Home Entertainment on Monday, June 22.

Read our review of American Teen