16MM Bolex, Coffee Grounds, & Bleach: Behind-the-Scenes of Matt Wolf's 'Teenage' (In Theaters Now!)
Teenage is not your grandma's movie. Ok, well technically it is, but during the time when your grandma snuck out of the house, lived fast, and might have been part of a secret teenage society that innovated on the cultural norms of the day. Taking a ninety-degree turn from the Ken Burns-ian tradition of history as black and white pans with slow banjo music, this film is a visually poetic, punk-lensed rumination on what it means to be a teenager. Below, check out director Matt Wolf's before-and-after footage, a short excerpt, and read about anything from finding techniques in old American Cinematographer to coming up with a transformative soundtrack by Deerhunter/Atlas Sound musician Bradford Cox.
After spending about four years making the film and another year screening it in festivals, Matt Wolf's film Teenage opened in theaters this past weekend. Check out the trailer for what Variety dubbed "mesmerizing" -- and what you can dub with your own opinions when you see it on the big screen:
NFS: The style of Teenage is very much this visual scrapbook, and I've read this term "living collage" associated with this as well. How did you come up with the style for the film?
Matt Wolf: I guess my starting point was Jon Savage's book. When I was reading it, I felt he was treating early 20th century history through a punk lens. I love how he creates a vivid picture of a time and a place -- and he doesn't do so in an academic way. What I wanted to do was make a history film that wasn't like the ones we see on PBS or in school, and to break away from the more didactic style of those films. I was inspired to embrace the punk rock spirit that I saw in Jon’s book. So I think the main choice I made was to tell the story from the point of view of youth, and to create narration in the first-person derived from actual teenage diaries.
Visually, I was inspired by this idea of the living collage. Jon told me that back in the 1970s, he saw young punks taking thrift clothes from previous youth cultures and re-assembling them with safety pins into something that felt startling and new. So that interested me in terms of filmmaking. I thought, what if I take all these things from the past, film clips, quotes from teenagers, and what if I reassembled them into a new work that has a contemporary feel?
NFS: In addition to archives, there are these captivating fictionalized recreations in the film that are very rich and not that sepia-tinted digital film scratch filter…
MW: Yeah, I didn't want them to look instagrammed by any means.
NFS: Ha! How did you create those scenes?
MW: I was inspired by the footage I actually found, in terms of creating the look of those recreations. It's something I've done in other films, which is to create my own archival-looking footage. We went through a lot of work to make our footage look that way, because we didn't want to use digital techniques -- I think that's what often makes reenactments look fake. We shot on a hand-cranked 16mm Bolex camera with uncoated C mount lenses and then we struck bleach bypass prints which is like a chemical process almost like VHS dubbing. My cinematographer, Nick Bentgen, hand degraded all of the prints. He dragged them on the floor, put them through coffee filters, threw bleach on the prints. That's why it looks the way it looks.
Watch Matt giving us a before-and-after look at the degraded footage:
NFS: So after the stomping and coffee grounds, you took the footage to get telecined?
MW: Yes we would basically make prints of our footage and then do duping process to our prints, and then degrade the dupes, and then we telecined that. In our color correct, we tried to match the look of the other footage from the 20s, 30s, & 40s in our footage, whether it was Kodachrome or for the 1920s stuff bringing out certain color hues. That's the only digital thing we did, otherwise it was all hand & chemical stuff that we did to the 16mm film.
Check out an excerpt of Matt's 16mm recreations:
NFS: How did you choose what stocks to shoot on in terms of matching that footage?
MW: We shot on a lot of reversal. My DP did a lot of research on film stocks. He did a lot of testing. We were inspired by the 1980's Woody Allen film, Zelig. He used newsreels from the 1920s mixed with original material that Woody Allen shot that looked like newsreels. And we did research going back through American Cinematographer to find out the technique that the cinematographer on that film, Gordon Willis, used to achieve that look. And we knew that they did it before there were digital effects, so that kind of inspired us.
NFS: The archival footage in the film that you matched your recreations to are also just phenomenal, from home movies to material that I feel like I've never seen before. How did you select the archives?
MW: I really wanted to get away from what we would call stock footage -- shots that you see in other historical films, like flappers doing the Charleston with pyramids of champagne poured into glasses. I'm really drawn towards archival footage that looks like home movies or amateur films or the unedited rushes from news reels. In terms of how we constructed the story, Jon and I kind of had a rule, that any story that we told needed to have a strong basis in actual archival footage. We kind of figured out the story and the structure of the film based on what we could find, and those were the kind of things we were looking for.
NFS: There’s some historical music from the time period, but most of the score has a very cool modern sound. What was your concept with the music and the sound design?
MW: From the get go with this project, I wanted to combine contemporary music with the vintage imagery. I think when you play old period-specific music, it has kind of a stodgy feeling. It makes you feel like, that's what my grandparents would have listened to. Or think that's how my great grandparents would have dressed. I think when you hear contemporary music, and you see those images, it's really transformative and you say wow that could be me dressed like that! I would dance with my friends that way! So I wanted the film to have a strong contemporary music impression. And what a lot of people don't think about is that most of the archival footage is silent. So sound design and music was going to play an important role no matter what. I had a great collaboration with my composer Bradford Cox, who is in the band Deerhunter and Atlas Sound. And my sound designer did incredible work of animating the footage with both literal sound effects and also more impressionistic types of sounds.
NFS: Teenage is very much a doc that is pushing the form away from the old school, historical documentary. What are your thoughts on the direction of the documentary genre as a whole right now?
MW: I think that documentaries are becoming more and more hybrid, and that they are combing fictional filmmaking techniques with non-fiction storytelling. I think a lot of people in the documentary community want there to be more conversations that look at films just as films rather than as a specific genre. A lot of times, people look at documentaries only based on their topic or subject matter or issues that they're about, rather than analyzing the ways that they are made, and the unique forms that they take. I think more and more, we're finding that there are documentaries that have a unique form, that are getting a lot of attention and piquing peoples' interests.
NFS: Do you have any advice for filmmakers?
MW: My advice is always to just finish what you started, even if something is going wrong. The worst thing that can happen is that you put a ton of effort and energy into something, and it never gets completed. Even if something you are making is flawed, I think it's really helpful and important for you creatively, and professionally, to finish what you start. Because that's something that people really want to know: can you follow through? I always have the end in sight when I'm working -- even on a long project like this that took four years. I'm always seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
NFS: Speaking of the light at the end of the tunnel, Teenage just opened in theaters – when and where can we see it?
MW: The film is opened in landmark Sunshine in NY this past weekend, and opens in LA the next. If you check out the site, you can find out about more screenings. It would be great if people went out to see it in theaters!
Thank you, Matt! Support your fellow independent filmmaker and check out the Teenage site for the full list of when where you can catch a screening of the film from Los Angeles Laemmle 7 to Edinburgh, Scotland.
Anyone had a chance to see the film yet? What do you think of Matt Wolf's first-person style and purposefully degraded 16mm recreations?