July 23, 2008

High School Confidential: 'American Teen'-agers Talk about Docu-Stardom

Paramount Vantage has given them their own conference room in Hollywood, and the five teens have taken up every spare nook and cranny, sorting out their PR junket laundry, blogging on their laptops and reviewing their publicity schedules. But with just a quiet signal from their publicist, they obediently extract themselves from the mess and assemble on the one clean couch left in the corner of the room.

They're practically vets now, but just two years ago, they were unknown adolescents from Warsaw Community High School in rural Indiana. Now as Sundance stars, they're immortalized, thanks to the documentary hit American Teen (www.americanteenthemovie.com/), which opens July 25.

Hannah, featured in Nanette Burstein's American Teen, which opens July 25 through Paramount Vantage. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

Hannah, featured in Nanette Burstein's American Teen, which opens July 25 through Paramount Vantage. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

American Teen earned the Documentary Directing Award at Sundance for producer/director Nanette Burstein (On the Ropes, The Kid Stays in the Picture). In it Burstein captures the senior year of these high school students with a fresh vibe that reviewers tend to compare to a real-life Breakfast Club-and deservedly. And its subjects, planned or not, fit the role so well that the first promo poster for the film imitated the famous teen flick, with basketball star Colin as the "Jock," his teammate Mitch as the "Heartthrob," well-off Megan as the "Princess," video gamer Jake as the "Geek" and artist Hannah as the "Rebel."

But even the most cynical critic will writhe in agony over the real-life dramas of these teens: Will he make that basket and get his college scholarship? What will happen when the outcast shows up at the cool kids party? Is the geek really going to try to ask out the new girl?

It's one thing to pay teen actors to depict torment, but how did Burstein capture it in real life? The teens themselves-now post-adolescent college students-credit Burstein, who coupled unobtrusive two-man crews armed with a gentle gift for winning over her subjects. Shooting would start with a half-hour of chatting. "We'd get comfortable and they'd be like, okay, are you ready to shoot?" says Megan. "And then it was like they weren't even there anymore." According to Hannah, "The crew was so cool; we became really close with them." Burstein just won their trust, adds Mitch: "A huge part of that was the trust that we had with Nanette and the relationship we had with her." And, according to Jake, "For me, I never had anyone to talk to, so this was somebody who could say, ‘Look at my life from an objective standpoint and say here's what's up...' It was wonderful."

The stars of American Teen insist that in no time at all, they forget the cameras were there. Case in point is a scene where Mitch breaks up with his girlfriend...via text message...and his text is captured by another camera across town. The collective groan of the audiences guarantees this moment in the pantheon of teen cinema. Admits a rueful Mitch, "At that point in the year, I'd forgotten all about the cameras."

As Megan puts it: "Nanette made this film. The relationships that we had with her is what made this film so great."

After an entire senior year with her Warsaw High students, Burstein had 1,000 hours of footage, which she took back to her home in New York to cut with two editors simultaneously. None of the teens knew how their story would play out. "She had enough film," says Mitch. "She could have done whatever she wanted."

Mitch, featured in Nanette Burstein's American Teen, which opens July 25 through Paramount Vantage. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

Mitch, featured in Nanette Burstein's American Teen, which opens July 25 through Paramount Vantage. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

A year and a half passed, then the subjects were called to join Burstein for the film's world premiere in Sundance. Getting on that plane, says Jake, who had never before spoken to any of his high school classmates featured in Burstein's film, "was pretty scary." Their Sundance premiere was, as Mitch describes it, "surreal, extremely surreal." Then came the Sundance audience who, as Megan says, gave them the even more surreal compliment of how great they were at being themselves: "Oh, great job. You guys were awesome in the film."

All of the stars agree that American Teen captured their personal high school experiences. But then they had time to discover things about their classmates. They were surprised to learn, for example, that Hannah had missed the first half of their senior year due to depression. "The first time I saw the movie I completely bawled at her storyline," says Megan. And everyone agrees that Jake's search for his soulmate was the best part of the film, with one-liners destined to become "epic," with Megan quoting her favorite: "That's what I am, one sock. I need to find my sockmate."

Jake sheepishly admits to being cornered at Sundance by filmgoers saying, "I was the geek in high school. I could never get a date. It's rough, but we made it through, right?" And as Jake, who says he never watches TV, writes in his Facebook blog: "I always thought this was going to be an easy job, but it takes a lot more patience and endurance than I expected. As stupid as it sounds, I now have more respect for people who do this as a career. Not just the celebrities, but the publicists, the assistants, the reporters, and so on. It gets exhausting."

Elizabeth Blozan's latest film is Rebel Beat: The Story of LA Rockabilly. www.rebelbeat.com.