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On the surface, Matt’s Wolf‘s film about the rise of the teenager — a 20th-century phenomenon — seems like many other historical documentaries. It is an interesting subject stemming from a well-researched book (Jon Savage‘s Teenage), backed by archival footage and narration performed by noted actors (Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw). But Teenage is not like anything normally seen on PBS.
For starters, there aren’t any expert talking heads explaining the rise of the teenager — in fact, there are no interviews at all. “The subject matter demands a more energized approach,” director Matt Wolf explains to The Hollywood Reporter. “It would really kill the vitality and the restlessness of the subjects of the film to explain away their experiences.”
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Instead Wolf relied on rare archival material, filmed portraits and diary entries to create what he calls a “living collage” of the first teenagers. Wolf was actually inspired by Savage’s previous book, England’s Dreaming, about the London punk movement of the 1970s. He was drawn to Savage’s description of young punks buying thrift clothes from previous youth cultures, cutting them up and reassembling them to create something new.
“I thought what if I take all of these clips from films and photos and voices from teenage diaries and collaged them all together into a contemporary work, albeit based in the past,” Wolf recalls. “I felt like Jon treated this early 20th-century history through a punk lens, which drove me to try to make a historical doc that totally drifted from the PBS/Ken Burns-style and conventions of the genre and embraced the punk.”
Wolf admits he was intimidated by Savage’s book, which he felt had the material of 20 different films. With his “living collage” approach in mind, he made a rule to only take stories from the book that had a strong basis in archival footage. “That helped us telescope into the specific stories we could tell,” says Wolf. “The archival research was always at the forefront of us telling a story. I didn’t want stock footage and stuff we’d seen before. I was really after things that looked like home movies or unedited rushes from newsreels.”
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The result is footage that’s far more intimate, as it offers a peek into teenagers’ lives. A large component of this approach is in the narration, which comes from internal thoughts of individual teenagers via diaries and memoirs. Wolf says getting the tone of the narration right was the hardest part of piecing the film together, requiring constant rewrites and the creation of six different temp tracks before bringing in the final performers.
The goal was to create a narration track that gave the film a dreamy feel: “Dreams can be very lyrical, and they can also be nightmares,” explains Wolf. “I think the narration feels like you are in the headspace of a teenager; it feels very internal. It doesn’t feel like something people would say to their friends outside — it feels like what you’d say in your head.”
To further draw his audience in, Wolf enlisted the help of Bradford Cox (Deerhunter and Atlas Sound) to create a soundtrack, rather than rely on the more traditional route of using period music. The result is a subjective history that conjures up restlessness and rebellion as young people tell their own histories.
Wolf wants to be clear that he has nothing against interviews and has made talking-head documentaries himself, in addition to his more experimental films like I Remember. “I appreciate docs that actually have a unique form that has a relationship to its subject matter,” explains Wolf. “Even if it has talking heads, what are the other visual experiences of the film, and is it unique to the subject matter of the film? Because so often docs feel so literal these days.”
Teenage is playing at Landmark Sunshine in New York and opens this weekend in at Regal Arbor 8 in Austin and Laemmle Monica 4 in Santa Monica.
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