Q&A with American Teen Director Nanette Burstein
Finding the Right School
The queen bee, the jock-under-pressure, the nerd, the arty outsider. All are teenage archetypes, and each gets a fresh interpretation in American Teen, Nanette Burstein's new documentary. The film follows 4 students through their final year at Warsaw High School in Warsaw, Indiana, and is with them through Megan's college application to her "dream school," Colin's efforts to earn a college basketball scholarship, Jake's attempts to woo girls, and Hannah's determination to leave the Midwest behind. Burstein talks about why she thinks teenagers today aren't all that different from their parents.
LHJ: What inspired you to make this film? What did you feel you had to say about the high school experience that hasn't been said before?
NB: Even though there are a lot of movies and reality shows about high school life, a lot of those films are marketed at "tweens" and they tend to be more like fairy tales. As for the reality shows, they don't get very deep. There didn't seem to be anything out there that showed how complicated [being a teenager] is -- the insecurity and the vulnerability and the struggle to figure out who you are, even if you're just a regular teenager. And I really wanted to do something about that.
LHJ: How did you choose the location of the film, Warsaw, Indiana? Were you looking for a place that represented typical "Americana?"
NB: I picked the Midwest for that reason, and I wanted a town that only had one high school, because I thought there'd be more social pressure. I wanted it to be economically mixed, and, of course, I needed a high school that would cooperate, that would give me the access that I needed. So I called hundreds of high schools in three different states...and after that it was just a matter of which kids that I found in each of these schools. I went in and interviewed all of the incoming seniors of at least 10 high schools -- probably 2,000 kids in all.
LHJ: What was it about the particular 4 that you ended up settling on?
NB: I was looking for kids in different social cliques. They didn't have to be a particular archetype, but I did want two things: One, I wanted kids who had a really compelling drama -- they needed to accomplish something that year, give me a real story to follow. If you look at each of them, they all have something that they need to accomplish: Colin needs to get a sports scholarship or he'll have to go into the military, Hannah needed to escape, et cetera. And they each had that. They also each surprised me -- they each seemed one way on the surface, when in fact they were much more complicated than that. Take Megan, for example. She is the queen bee, but she's also had a horrible family tragedy . . . .