At this year’s Tribeca Film Festival I was lucky enough to speak with the creators of the documentary Teenage, director Matt Wolf, the groundbreaking punk author Jon Savage, and producer Jason Schwartzman. The film documents how the concept of the teenager came to be in the early 20th century and the earliest pioneers of the movement. You can check out the review later this week.
Q: Hello, first off, this is really weird because a few days prior to being told that I’d be doing this interview a friend and I were talking about the subject about how teenagers, or the term, didn’t even really exist until around the 60’s. So, what inspired you to make this project?
Matt Wolf: Well, I read Jon Savages book “Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture” and it also surprised me because I knew the archetypal teenage guys like the 50’s, rock n roll, rebel without a cause, beatniks and the hippies and the punks and the skaters but Jon’s book goes way further back into youth culture and it shows the origins of young people forming their own world and their own form of expression. It really interested me because I’m really into hidden histories and I realized that it’s an intensely political subject, the role of youth in society. Young people represent the future and the government and adults and the police force are projecting their hopes and fears onto young people who are really just trying to be themselves and be free so our film is about this struggle for youths to be treated as equals and to be given the most basic forms of recognition and by the end of World War II that was as teenagers.
Q. So is that a good or bad thing? Is it good that teenagers formed into their own entity?
Matt Wolf: Well in the early 20th Century young people faced an incredible force of oppression by their parents and their government and their police and just wanted to be treated as equals. So in our film it kind of ends around the publication of an article called “The Teenage Bill of Rights” which was like a Constitution or Ten Commandments but for the youth. And it really identified the rights young people have as equal citizens and it created a model of youth for how they’re allowed to express themselves but also they had to compromise because it allowed some control from the adults.
Jon Savage: And also the idea of the teenager goes hand in hand with enfranchisement and civil rights and the suffragettes in the early apostle 20th Century which then ties into the various movements of the 60’s- the feminist movement, gay movement, so you know there is that subtext to it.
Q. How did you get some of the actors to do the voices? Particularly Jenna Malone (Sucker Punch, The Hunger Games:Catching Fire) and Ben Whishaw (Skyfall, Cloud Atlas) who are both huge in the independent world.
Matt Wolf: With Jenna [Malone] another director who’s a close friend of mine has worked with her in a number of films and I was asking him who would be a good actor to collaborate with, I wanted someone who feels really young but has a certain level of maturity so that they can interpret this material with some depth and he said you should talk to Jenna and to check out her voice over in Sean Penn’s film Into the Wild and I really liked it, it was super stylized, it didn’t feel just like normal dialogue, it’s almost like she’s singing a little bit.
And through mutual friends I met up with Ben Whishaw years ago and he’s an incredible actor and someone I really admire so I asked him to do and it and he was really into it.
Jason Schwartzman: He’s amazing
Matt Wolf: He’s a hardcore Shakespeare actor that’s how he got his start and he’s really, really good at bring text to life especially texts that’s not completely contemporary.
Matt Wolf: Years really. It was kind of a back and forth where Jon and I would identify what topics we wanted to touch upon and we would speak to researchers who would scour all over the world for archival footage and from there we’d pick and choose and it was a lot of back and forth. But the real challenge was how do you take all of this stuff from all of these different sources and make it feel cohesive? And that was really due to the talent of my editor who was really good at finding certain juxtapositions and finding ways to make the material feel cohesive. It was a long, long process.
Q. I have to ask this because while the voice overs and the concepts were so intriguing, the score just elevated it and I read about you using contemporary pop-punk scores, so how did that come about?
Matt Wolf: It’s important to me because a lot of people don’t know that a lot of work goes into the intense sound design of the film. Most of the archival footage was silent so we basically had free reign to do what we wanted. So early on I put the footage to some contemporary music and stylistically it just works, it makes the material feel very present. If I were to put 1920’s jazz music with footage from the twenties it would feel very grandma. And this [the music] makes it feel very wild and fresh and new so I knew that’s what it was going to be. I had a musician in mind from the beginning and his name is Bradford Cox and he’s the lead singer of the band Deerhunter and he has a solo project called Atlas Sound. He’s one of my favorite contemporary musicians and his music is very emotional with lyrics with themes that deal with this movies material.
Jason Schwartzman: Also a cool bit of the movie is you’ll notice a piece playing that’s really contemporary but then there will be a saloon track piano and it’s almost a mash-up of a piece of music now to one from the twenties.
Matt Wolf: The way the music worked is we’d sample a lot of sounds from the saxophone, an accordion or a group of choir boys but mixed in such a way that it’s like a faint memory.
Jon Savage: And also a lot of the contemporary music is electronic or instrumental which is also really important.
Q: Does the director typically have a hand in what goes on in sound design?
Matt Wolf: Well when the film is silent, yes. This sound design was heavier than any film I’ve ever worked on and more experimental than normal. It was kind of like sketch surreal sounds that made it feel like you were there but also impressionistic.
Jason Schwartzman: To answer your question, I do feel like some directors do and some don’t and he does [Matt Wolf] on a very high level because he’s also a fan of music and of sound so I think part of directing this movie is the sound.
Jon Savage: And also music is incredibly important for all of us as big music fans and it’s also important in the story because number one, music is the greatest commercial hook for youth culture and two, it’s the most visible expression. In the 20’s it was hot jazz, in the 30’s it was swing and there are moments that the film leads up to such as Frank Sinatra at the Paramount. And then you also see the power of young women and how they commercialized youth power, youth culture begins with young women.
Jason Schwartzman: Crazy idea, but in a way they gave birth to teenagers.
Q: So when do you think the mindset switched? Was there a definitive marking in time that created the teenager?
Matt Wolf: I think it was after World War I. After people felt betrayed because all of these adults and their government sent them into this war which was very bloody and where most of them died, it was a total massacre and it created the first generation gap. That’s when they started developing what we think of now as “youth culture”, there was their own fashion their own lifestyle and they defined themselves as being young. They were flappers and flaming youth and I think that’s really the beginning. Our film starts a little before to lay the foundation on how that schism between the generations started.
Jon Savage: There were two main things. Coming from Matt’s point of view we’re making a film so we have to have visual imagery as a way to envision what these stories might be. And we wanted a balance of stories between the U.S, Germany and the U.K. Also that there is prior source material.
Matt Wolf: We had a rule that any story we told had to have archival footage if we couldn’t find any we wouldn’t tell that story. So that’s how we narrowed the scope a bit.
Q. Was there any story you couldn’t find footage of that you wanted to tell?
Matt Wolf: Absolutely. Like Judy Garland after The Wizard of Oz came out released a clothing line and the youth culture went crazy about it and we couldn’t find footage.
Jon Savage: There’s a whole thing in the book about The Wizard of Oz premier in 1939 right around the world’s fair and Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney appeared and it caused a riot. The same when the appeared and the grand station.
Q. Is this movie more important for teenagers? Is it more important for adults? Or is it important across the scope?
Matt Wolf: I think it’s really about building a new understanding of youth and that’s important for both young people and adults. It could be really empowering for young people to see and to see the early stages of rebellion and how they came to be and how they matter and really enforce the world and should be treated as equals and that their voices are heard and they make a difference. But the film really is about how adults judge other people and try to condemn and control them and this film is a reminder that it’s important to strike a balance so that teenagers can define their own lives. I think teenagers and adults should see it together.
Q. What do you think of teenagers today after going through all of the historical footage?
Matt Wolf: I’m an idealist about young people. Not all young people are starting a band or a blog or being a political activist but I believe a lot of them are and those are the ones we should listen to. The film might not be for the “conformist” teenage but more for the ones who think outside the box and they’re the ones who are in the process of reimagining the future and the ones this film is about.
Q. And what made you [Jason Schwartzman] want to sign on as producer?
Jason Schwartzman: Well these guys [Wolf and Savage] and they welcomed me and I was really a big fan of Matt’s previous film and if you’re a fan of music you know Jon Savage. It was each of them individually and what Matt posed to me which was to tell the pre-history of teenagers based on Jon’s book, with archival footage blended with modern footage which would be seamless and have a dream like quality to it. To me that was something I wanted to see so to me it was Matt and Jon’s vision and me as a glorified fan.
Q. What would you like to add?
Matt Wolf: I think people should look at the past in a new way. Our vision is to look to have youth today look really far back, to think about the past and sometimes thinking about the past is the best way to think about the world today. So I hope people see this film and think about what it’s like to be young today and how it’s evolved from the past.
Jon Savage: I think also that is that in the film that all these kids are thinking and feeling in the same way but in different circumstances. The core feelings are the same because it’s a developmental process and I’m also an idealist about youth and I’m a great believer than young people are hard wired to deal with the world as it is and to make choices and to find solutions to the problems that we face.