Native New Yorker Nanette Burstein has made her career out of making documentaries looking at people striving towards their aspirations. First it was some Brooklyn based boxers and their coaches in On The Ropes, then Sundance hit American Teen deliberately questioned the high school stereotypes cemented by John Hughes' The Breakfast Club. While prepping for her new movie starring Drew Barrymore, we managed to nab 15 minutes of her time at some un-Godly hour.
LWLies: When people first head the premise of the film they immediately connected it with The Breakfast Club, and I even saw a couple of posters that copied the marketing and posters from that film. Did you realise that was going to happen or did you make a conscious decision to make that link because it’s such a classic film about American teens?
Burstein: I realised when the film was being edited that there was going to be that comparison. I was fine with it, I felt like maybe the marketing was a little… Maybe I would’ve done something different but I do think it is about high school life and the different social groups you’re in and all the pressures to conform which is what The Breakfast Club is ultimately about.
LWLies: Did you set out to pick kids from each certain group and try and portray them realistically?
Burstein: I definitely set out to pick kids from different social groups in high school and portray them realistically. I mean, it didn’t have to be those particular social groups but I did definitely wanna show the hierarchy and have some sort of social outcast and some character that was a lot more popular and whatever social groups were within that.
LWLies: How did you choose which kids you wanted to film?
Burstein: It was a very planned process; first I needed to find the school and the school would be based on the kids and I really wanted that isolation and the fishbowl aspect of high school. I wanted it to be in a town that only had one high school, in the middle of the country that’s a lot more isolated, a town that was economically mixed, so that would also inform they’re experiences and I needed a high school that would give me full access so I called hundreds of high schools and found 10 that fit that description and had that access. Then I went to each of them and interviewed the incoming seniors that were interested, looking for the most compelling kids and stories.
LWLies: They’re obviously all trying to live their lives in college and what not, so how have you found their reaction to the interest and being the focus of the film?
Burstein: I think they really enjoyed the experience actually, they thought it was fun. It’s not like they became these huge celebrities in America that would ultimately change their lives. We talked a lot about it before filming and when the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival I brought them out with me and when the film was released in the States I prepared them, letting them know that they’d get a lot of attention but it’ll only be for one period of time and then your life will go back to the way it was. I didn’t want them to think that it would continue like that. So, I think they really enjoyed the experience, they had a lot of fun and I’m still in touch with them, Hannah just e-mailed me and I e-mailed her back this morning.
LWLies: Was it easy for them to live in that Big Brother-type scenario with a camera in front of them all the time? And how did you go about getting that natural reaction while filming them?
Burstein: Yeah, it did take a while for them to get used to. I was there for an entire school year so it definitely took some getting used to the first few months, for some more than others especially. A lot of it had to do with having a very small crew. Sometimes it was just me by myself shooting and just developing a really close relationship with them so it wasn’t like strangers coming in and filming you and all these weird people. It was a couple people they knew and felt really comfortable around.
LWLies: You said you were there for 11 months – how did you even begin the editing process? You must have omitted some good scenes and relationship angles.
Burstein: Yeah, yeah that’s true especially with four people. They were all picked because they all had goals and had some kind of obstacles in front of them to prevent them achieving it and you kind of stay to what is important to that story and kind of lose other relationships and other sub plots, so to speak, that don’t really inform the story.
LWLies: One of the things that stood out was the section when they were talking about their dreams and aspirations, and you had these animated sequences. Was that an idea you got as they were talking about it to represent those dreams for the future?
Burstein: That was an idea I had before I made the film that came from just remembering high school and how much time is spent fantasising and wishing things would happen that never happen, and having a very active imagination. So I thought I would ask them to talk about that throughout the year and because it is fantastical I thought I would try to animate it and that’s what I did.
LWLies: In England we have such a definitive view of the American teen and high school in general but all the knowledge we have is from films and television. You set out to kind of look behind the stereotypes but at the same time it proved that the stereotypes have some truth to them. It’s weird when you think about it because The Breakfast Club was 24 years ago and the groups haven’t changed, so I guess teenagers never actually change at all.
Burstein: Absolutely, yeah, that’s true. I didn’t know that going in to it but being at that school for that time showed that a lot of the traditions haven’t changed at all. Technology has changed things but the relationships and problems and social hierarchies are very much the same.
LWLies: I actually saw it twice, and for me it really brought home memories of being a teenager and that awkwardness and desperation to fit in. Did being at that school and being around those kids remind you of your own high school years?
Burstein: The thing is, beyond those stereotypes, that time in your life you just feel so judged and so insecure about who you are and everyone is pressuring you, including your parents, to be a certain way and you’re just trying to figure out your identity.I just wanted to explore that, and that was what the movie was about.
LWLies: How was the reaction with other teenagers who have seen it?
Burstein: We screened it for a lot of high school kids in the States, and it didn’t matter what ethnicity or being from an urban area or a rural area, they all really related to the core issues.
LWLies: Was that the aim of the film: to let other teenagers who have their own pressures and issues know that strangers are going through the same thing? That’s pretty much what The Breakfast Club did.
Burstein: I think that it depends. I mean, if you live in a very urban area, a very poor urban area – my first film was about these boxers who were young and from Brooklyn and really living in a very poor environment and they really do have different problems. It’s about survival or your parents being drug addicts or just different issues that force you to grow up very fast. These kids are your typical middle class to lower middle class to upper class American experience, where it’s not about survival issues it’s about self-esteem and identity and not hating yourself and figuring out what path you wanna go on in life, which is very confusing.
LWLies: Before you go, could you just give me a titbit about your new film, all I’ve been told is that it’s a romcom with Drew Barrymore which is obviously a totally different angle to what you’ve done before, so how’s that going?
Burstein: It’s good! It’s a lot of fun and I’m really enjoying it; we shoot in about a month so we’re trying to get it all together and prepared, it’s a very different experience.
LWLies: Is Drew producing too? I know she does a lot of that.
Burstein: Yeah she does but she’s not producing this one.
LWLies: She seems pretty cool.
Burstein: Oh she is, she’s been wonderful. She’s very smart and has a great sense of story and is so positive so it’s just been wonderful to work with her. She’s just directed a movie herself so she comes with all of that knowledge from directing, so it should be an easy experience.
LWLies: Some directors don’t like working with actors who direct because they try and do both.
Burstein: We haven’t started shooting yet but I can’t imagine she will be like that. I appreciate her insights so we’ll see how it goes.
American Teen is available on DVD on June 29.