Interview: Matt Wolf (Director – ‘Teenage’)

Teenagers didn’t always exist. They had to be invented. As the cultural landscape around the world was thrown into turmoil during the industrial revolution, and with a chasm erupting between adults and youth, the concept of a new generation took shape. Whether in America, England, or Germany, whether party-crazed Flappers or hip Swing Kids, zealous Nazi Youth or frenzied Sub-Debs, it didn’t matter – this was a new idea of how people come of age. They were all “Teenagers.

A hypnotic rumination on the genesis of youth culture from the end of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th, ‘TEENAGE’ is a living collage of rare archival material, filmed portraits, and diary entries read by Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw, and others. Set to a a shimmering contemporary score by Bradford Cox (Deerhunter / Atlas Sound), ‘TEENAGE’ is a mesmerizing trip into the past and a riveting look at the very idea of “coming-of-age.

Anticipating the March 14, 2014 Theatrical release of ‘TEENAGE‘ we spoke with the film’s Director Matt Wolf about its living collage approach to narrative, the similarities between pre-war and the youth of today, the immediacy of a contemporary score and much more.

How did you become interested in youth culture to where you were willing to commit developing a feature film around the subject?
I came to it in a roundabout way.  I was always a fan of Jon Savage.  I read his book “England Screaming“, which is the definitive written history of punk rock and admired him as a music critic and cultural commentator.  I am drawn to hidden histories and the things that challenge our conventional wisdom on topics that are very familiar.  I am also interested in biographies of forgotten or unknown people.  When I heard about the premise of Jon’s book, that there is a pre-history of adolescence and youth culture, it really fascinated me.  When I read the book I loved the biographies he uncovered, but I also got the sense he was treating early 20th Century through his own punk lens.  That was inspiring to me. I thought there were 20 ideas for 20 films there so I thought about an experiment where I would embrace the punk perspective in my own filmmaking.

Archival photo of Jitterbug dance contest at the Shrine Auditorium in Southern CA, 1939.  Courtesy of Everett Collection / CPL Archives.

Archival photo of Jitterbug dance contest at the Shrine Auditorium in Southern CA, 1939. Courtesy of Everett Collection / CPL Archives.

What is your definition of punk as a philosophy?
We defined it in pretty specific terms on this project.  Jon was talking about how, in the 1970’s, he saw young punks wearing thrift clothes from previous youth cultures. They would cut them up and reassemble with safety pins.  It was something startling and new.  He termed it with the phrase “living collage”.  This notion was extremely inspiring to me on both an aesthetic and conceptual level; this idea that you can pick and choose elements of previous cultures and reassemble them into a new statement.  Punk has its origins in the 1970s but people still identify with it as a cultural movement so “living collage” became a motto for our filmmaking.  On one hand it is a collage of the sound and archival footage, but also a collage in terms of lifting the voices fromm the teenage sources, as well as creating a document that is derived from sources of the past that are relevant to themes of today.

How did the “living collage” approach affect the presentation of the narrative?
I knew I wanted to do something different but it did evolve in terms of finding the ultimate form of the film.  Initially, I thought Jon would narrate.  We experimented with this but it did not work because he spoke with the perspective of an expert.  It felt inappropriate to have an older person from England telling this global story.

I did an experiment with Jena Malone where she recorded a series of first person testimonies from teenagers and I thought this could be a different style of narration with a certain immediacy and dreaminess to it.  I realized we should have a Greek chorus of teenage narrators from the places that were focused on in the story.

In terms of using recreations, I knew I wanted to do it as I had used this technique before.  In developing the film we realised it was important to telescope the device in order to bring the stories of these forgotten teenagers to life.

In terms of choosing the actual story line, Jon and I wanted everything we focused on to have a strong basis in actual archival footage so our process was always grounded in that type of research.  We saw what was coming back and designed the narrative around material that existed.

Archival photo of roommates listening to the radio.  Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts.  Courtesy of Classic Stock Images.

Archival photo of roommates listening to the radio. Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts. Courtesy of Classic Stock Images.

What was your initial point of reference that kicked off the research for the film?
I started working with key archival researcher Rosemary Rotondi, who was a huge collaborator on the project.  She brought in a researcher from the National Archives in Washington DC who we worked closely with also.  Then we found researchers in the UK, a firm in Germany, and an author of a book about German youth culture who was an enthusiast and knew a lot of archival footage related to youth movements.  We also worked with two different archival producers who facilitated all the material coming in and ultimately licensing it, which was a huge endeavor.  It was a big team that unfolded over four years.

The way it started was, Jon and I fantasized about the scope and the different youth movements we were going to cover.  We compiled a list and gave it to Rosemary who did an initial (and second) round of research.  With this I went over to Whales, where Jon is based, and identified what the strengths and weaknesses were.  At first, it went back farther than we expected; their was footage on particular youth movements we did not think their would be.  There were things we were interested in covering and things there was nothing on.  Our goal was to get away from the stock footage people have seen, like Flappers doing the Charleston, and find home movies or unedited rushes.  As we saw what was coming we would refine our searches and feed our topics to Rosemary and more specified researchers who found things like the German Swing Kids footage.

What was your approach to the score of the film in terms of how it would push the narrative forward?
When we started thinking about this film I did an experiment in combining archival footage of teenagers from the 20s with contemporary music.  That into itself is transformative.  When you play the original dixie land jazz band with flappers it feels nostalgic.  When you put contemporary music to it there is an immediacy to the image where you can see yourself in the material. I approached Bradfod Cox early in the process as I loved his music.  I thought his artistic interests intersected with the topics of the film, which was an important collaboration.  Most people don’t know that almost all of the archival footage used is silent so sound design and music played prominently.

Archival photo of Girls Rifle Team of Drexel Institute.  Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Archival photo of Girls Rifle Team of Drexel Institute. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

How do you relate the Great Depression era “Lost Generation” of youth to the youth of today, who also exist within an economically troubled environment?
There are phenomenal parallels between young people who were searching for answers in the 1930s and young people today who are facing unprecedented unemployment.  We see a lot of the outbursts that happen in the film have mirrored themselves in contemporary times, like the London riots from two years ago.  There are occupation movements that have youth at their center, or large scale protests in Europe.  I work with young people as interns and within the context of film production and they face an incredible amount of uncertainty and instability in their lives.  There is an overarching sense of anxiety amongst adults as to what will happen to them.  I think the similarities are profound!

Do you the think that coining a new phrase for the period after teenager is necessary in describing the youth of today?  On one hand, there are people rooted in socio-economic uncertainty searching for their footing, yet on the other there is a population reaping many of societies benefits which hinders a certain level of intellectual growth, creating a significant divide within age groups.
Youth needs to be recognized as a distinct social class and they should be entitled to their own rights and recognitions and a term came along with that.  The birth of the teenager also signaled the birth of a new consumer class.  The teenager was born as a marketing construction as much as a social class.  The people who invent new terms to define generational groups are advertisers and marketers.  There is new terminology for different transitional phases of life, like Milennials or tech-natives.  In terms, of trying to bracket different age group experiences it is not that important.  It is more important to recognize the experience of youth is dynamically changing and young people are reacting to their circumstances, challenges and opportunities.

Have you given any thought to a sequel?
People always ask, which is funny!  I think there is a desire amongst viewers to see post-war youth culture because it was an explosion.  The amount of information that starts accumulating in the post-war era is so significant the sequel would only cover a decade or so.  You could never take such a broad span of time as we did.  I like the idea of a pre-history of youth. It is a story that ends with a beginning, with an entire foundation of conflict and thinking resulting in the birth of an idea.  I do not have a desire to make a sequel, but I also do not think it would be that possible.
Facebook: /teenagefilm
Twitter: @TeenageFilm







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