Nanette Burstein's breakout documentary follows four Indiana teens through their senior year of high school. Let's get to know them
One of the only films to emerge with strong buzz from the surprisingly low-key first half of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is director Nanette Burstein’s feature documentary American Teen, which follows four Indiana high-schoolers through their senior year.
EW.com sat down with the film’s four subjects: Megan, the most popular girl in school (and all that implies); Colin, the star of the varsity basketball team; Jake, the socially inept band geek and videogame fanatic; and Hannah, the free-thinking artist who serves as the film’s de facto center and occasional narrator.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Was Saturday’s premiere screening the first time you’d seen the movie?
MEGAN: We’d watched it the night before, as a group, and that was definitely a different atmosphere than watching it with 400 strangers and seeing how they reacted.
What was that like, watching an audience react to the film?
COLIN: I didn’t think they would get so into it, like, during the movie. You figure you’d get applause and stuff after, but they were cheering when things went well for us [in the film]. And when Megan did some harsh things [Megan sheepishly laughs], they were up on that too. So it was just cool to see them get into it like that.
I just can’t imagine having my high school life up there on screen and having complete strangers react to it. Are you still processing it all?
MEGAN: Yes, [giggles] definitely.
HANNAH: Yeah, I don’t think it’s hit any of us yet. Right after the movie, we came down [to the front of the theater] and they were taking pictures, and it started to hit us a little bit I think. But, still, it’s incredible: We’re being ourselves, they taped it and put it on screen, and people like it!
MEGAN: Everybody’s like, ”Great job!” We were just being ourselves.
Jake, out of the four of you, you seem to have changed the most from the film to now — you’ve cut off all your hair and grown a hip-looking goatee. Do you feel like you’ve changed a lot?
JAKE: I still feel as awkward as ever. I’m just better at saying stuff while I’m really awkward. [Everyone laughs]
You all weren’t really that socially connected in the film. Has this experience brought you together now as friends?
MEGAN: Just in the past couple days, I feel like we’ve been brought together with the film. We’ve all just been hanging out, which is great.
HANNAH: Yeah we’re staying together, so [pauses] we’re in this together. [Laughter] None of us can believe this is happening. It’s a huge thing to bond over. We’re all part of this one movie. It’s been really fun, hanging out with everyone.
COLIN: It’s weird, because it’s almost like we’ve been friends forever. Like, the way we’re acting right now, like kidding around with each other, it’s like we’ve been friends our whole lives. It’s pretty cool.
There were some really raw and difficult things that happened to all of you that the cameras were right there to capture. Did that affect those experiences for you?
HANNAH: Um, the cameras did not really affect [things for us]. Like, take Joel, the first boyfriend who broke up with me. Nanette, I called her to tell her, because I still had it in my mind a little bit, like, even though I was so upset, this is going to be so good for the movie. [Laughter] So she came over and taped for a little bit, and I wasn’t even looking at the camera. I didn’t care; I had more important things to think about. But then, afterwards, she put the camera down and we just went back to her house and talked about it. There was that balance between filmmaker and great friend, which made getting through those tough times [easier], having an adult who didn’t treat you like a kid.
NEXT PAGE: Megan discusses getting caught on camera vandalizing a fellow teen’s house (”It seemed like such a good idea at the time”)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: [To Megan] And when you were vandalizing the house of another high schooler, the camera is right there as you’re spray painting his window —
MEGAN: It seemed like such a good idea at the time [laughs], which sounds awful, I know. At first it was, like, innocent, and then, I don’t know, I had no idea I was going to get into that much trouble. In the film, I do say that everybody gets, like, vandalized every now and then. Like, my house definitely got it. So it was like, ”Ha ha, we’re going to go tee-pee and vandalize, we should call the cameras!” Now I look back on it, and I’m like, ”Oh, I’m an idiot.” [Laughter]
How natural was it for you to have a camera there? How long did it take for you to get used to it as a constant presence in your lives?
COLIN: It seems like it was a month for everybody. The awkwardness went away after a while, and we became friends with [the director and camera operators]. Like, you’d share anything with them.
JAKE: I think that’s what made it key. You developed relationships with Nanette, but also with the crew, the people who were doing all the work. You get so accustomed to it, and it feels so natural at that point, that it really doesn’t feel like it’s a camera. You don’t really think, Wow, this is going to be part of a movie. You’re just living in the moment at that point, because high school’s completely involved like that.
I imagine this is the first Sundance Film Festival that you’ve all attended. What’s it been like for you guys so far?
MEGAN: Amazing, but surreal. Like, I know I’m going to get back to school in five days and be like, Omigosh, I was just at Sundance!
HANNAH: I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to come out here. It’s better than I could ever have thought about. It’s insane.
COLIN: My friends didn’t believe me before, but you bet they will now!
I see you’re still being taped as we’re talking here. Is this for the DVD?
COLIN: It’s, like, bonus feature-style.
MEGAN: We keep people updated on what’s going on on Facebook, so our fans can maybe watch us — if we have fans. [Laughs]
Because you have all grown up documenting your lives with Facebook and MySpace, does that make doing something like this documentary a little easier?
HANNAH: Yeah, we’re the reality-TV generation. We’ve grown up watching that. We’re used to that. That’s what we see all the time when we watch TV. And also, I knew letting them in would make for a good movie, and I wanted this to be a good movie. So it was a balance between trying to keep things personal and sneaking around the cameras.
So there were times where you said, ”I’d just rather this not be filmed”?
HANNAH: Oh, and not that polite at all. We would tell them off. You get so used to them, they’re like your friends. You say what you want to say to them.
MEGAN: They’re like, ”Hey we’re coming over [to film].” And I’m like, ”No you’re not.” [Laughs]
HANNAH: And they listen. Mostly.
COLIN: The more willing you are to show things [about yourself], the better [the film] will turn out. Like, [Hannah] showing her breakup, and me crying after I messed up in one of my games. If those things are out [of the film], it wouldn’t be as dramatic.
Do you all see yourself as different at all from the way you were in the film?
HANNAH: In certain ways, yeah. It’s been two years, so we’ve matured a lot. But in a lot of ways, I see that character [in the film], and there’s a lot of things I’m really happy with. I’m still kind of real nerdy, and real giddy, and those things will — hopefully — never leave me. I like that about myself.
COLIN: It’s not necessarily us that changed. The only thing that changed is that people are going to know us now. Like, if we went through that whole senior year without the cameras, no one would really know about us and we would’ve been just like any other kid. But now people are going to remember us.