Teenage is a documentary about the birth of youth culture by acclaimed director Matt Wolfe, based on the British author John Savage’s book Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture 1875-1945, which was published to critical acclaim in 2007. Michael Stephen Lee caught up with Matt Wolfe to find out more about his “dense collage of archival footage”.
When you first read the John Savage’s book Teenage, what drew you to the concept to adapt it into a film?
Well I was already a big fan of John Savage. I had read his book England’s Dreaming in college and I loved it. It was a real cultural history that gave me a sense of a time and a place. And so when I heard about Teenage I was really intrigued because I loved the whole topic of youth culture; the whole premise was fascinating – the idea that we think of teenagers being born in the 1950s but really there is this whole pre-history. So I read the book and got a sense of John’s punk perspective when reading it, I didn’t feel like his voice was academic and, like in England’s Dreaming, I felt like he really depicted a vivid picture of various times and places. The other thing I really appreciated about the book was that it uncovered these hidden histories, biographies and youth movements that people had never heard of, and that’s one my main interests – in hidden histories, and I saw that in John’s book and that inspired me to make the film.
When you made the decision that you wanted to make the movie what directed you toward using archival footage?
What I wanted to do was to make a different kind of historical film. Usually archival footage is used to literally illustrate or explain certain ideas and I wanted to use it a little differently; kind of more expressionistically and I thought that I’d be making an essay film. But that idea developed further and I realised that I didn’t want the film just to be this panoramic cultural history but that I wanted to telescope into these experiences of a few key individuals because biographies of teenagers are such an important element of John’s book and the characters that I wanted to uncover were unfamiliar people and were not well documented. As result, I knew I needed to do these recreations to bring them to life. So I always imagined the film being this dense collage of archival footage but I soon realised that I would need to use other filmmaking techniques to tell the stories of these characters as well.
There’s something poetic in your use of Bradford Cox’s music and in the narrations themselves. When you went and picked the narrators was there something which drew you specifically to characteristics in the actors, like Ben Whishaw and Jena Malone and Julia and Jesse?
I think early on we did an experiment where John read the narration and I originally thought that that would be the way I would tell the stories – through John’s voice. But something felt off about that; it just felt flat. Understandably, John talks from the point of view of an expert and you know he’s older and British and all these things felt really specific to me and I recognized that I wanted the film to be told from a multitude of perspectives.
I read a bunch of first-person subjective quotes from teenage diaries and that really felt alive to me. It felt dramatic and immediate and in a way that was true to the subject matter, so John and I decided that we would make a narration that was sampled from real teenage quotes from diaries and journalistic sources and that they would be from the voices of the different countries we were depicting in the film, America, England and Germany.
I wanted the film to have a dreamlike quality to it And that’s something I kind of figured out working with Jena Malone; she just had that kind of dreaminess in her voice and in a sense that’s what I directed the other actors to do in their own way. I had heard Ben Whishaw’s reading of Keats’ poetry in Bright Star and I thought that he was incredible at bringing the text to life, particularly really older texts and making it immediate and new and so I trusted his interpretations of this material too. So yeah, I think I was definitely inspired by the kind of natural vibe of these actors that I chose and that there was a kind of dreaminess that connected them all.
At what point did you decide to use Bradford Cox for the music for the film?
Well, very early on I knew I wanted to combine this archival imagery with contemporary music because when you put the footage to period appropriate music it feels very old-fashioned and like, ‘oh that’s what my grandparents looked like’ and ‘oh, that’s what my grandparents did’. I think that once I combined this archival footage with contemporary music it felt totally transformative and my sense is that you could relate to it as a very present tense thing, like ‘I could have been that person dancing, I would have worn those clothes’ and I did that experiment with Bradford’s music very early on so I envisioned him as a collaborator immediately and I reached out to him very early on in the process of the film. It took a while to activate that collaboration but he was always the person I wanted to work with because the etiquette of his music is quite dreamy. Just on a natural level his music blurs the distinctions between the past and the present. There is something very nostalgic in his treatment of music but that is also very contemporary.
Teenage is available on DVD from 31st March 2014