Matt Wolf returned to the director's chair last year with a great new documentary Teenage: which looked at the history of the teenager.
Teenage has just been released on DVD, and we caught up with Wolf to chat about the film, what inspired him to explore that topic, and what lies ahead.
- Teenage has been released on DVD this week here in the UK, so can you tell me a little bit about the film?
Teenage is an unconventional historical film about the invention of teenagers and the birth of youth culture. It is based on a book by the author Jon Savage - who is well known for his writing on punk rock in England.
It really looks at the changes attitudes about youth at the end of child labour, and how those attitudes evolved through the First and Second World War.
Eventually, a new type of person was born, and they were called a 'teenager'. It is the model of youth that we still understand and accept today.
- You are in the director's chair for the film so where did this project start for you? And what sparked your interest in this topic?
I am really drawn to human histories and forgotten biographies; things that you would think we know about, but we don't. I was fascinated by this pre-history that Jon uncovered and how far back he went.
Also, there were so many youth movements and adolescent figures that I had never heard of. I was really inspired to bring that all to life as I was reading his book; I just wanted to see images of all the incredible things that he was describing.
That is how the filmmaking process really began. I started doing archival research, and though that Jon and I crafted the story.
- As you say, it is based on the book Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture. When did you discover this book? And what did you think when you read it for the first time?
I was a big Jon Savage fan and had read his book England's dreaming in college. When a friend described Teenage to me, I was immediately intrigued.
What struck me when I was reading it is that I felt Jon was treating early 20th Century history through a punk mask. I thought 'what if I tried to make a historical documentary that is really different from the television series that we normally see? What if that punk point of view would inspire my filmmaking as well?’
Therefore, that was really my starting point and the first impressions that I had of his book.
- I was reading that you were quite a political teenager. So what can you remember about your teenage years?
I was a gay activist as a teenager. My whole life revolved around the work that I did in teaching other kids to start clubs and organisations at their school, eventually bringing all of those kids together to lobby state representatives to change discrimination law and policies in schools. I even appeared in the media a lot as a young, openly gay political person.
After that time in my life, I moved on and moved to New York and become a filmmaker and wasn't such a political person. When I started making this film, I thought it would be this deep exploration of pop culture, but I started to recognise how political the subject matter was.
The subject matter really helped me reconnect with that time in my own life.
- One of the most interesting aspects of this film is that it explores the generation gap between teenagers and their parents. How do you think that has changed over the decades?
Totally. I think the film is about the origins of the generation gap and how that conflict between adults and young people is a generative thing, which has led to cultural and social change.
I think that the generation gap is still there, but it is narrowing; more and more adults want to be best friends with their children. They are obsessed with youth and trying to make them tick.
It doesn't mean that they don't have the desire to control them or don't continue to dismiss young people as less engaged or less creative and political than they once we. More and more, adults are trying to stay young forever.
- What do you think is this fascination with youth?
For one thing, it is the most turbulent and experimental time in our lives, so people are very attached to the experiences and feelings that they had during that time.
Also, young people are not burdened by the consequences of real-life experiences, so they think in bold and experimental ways. That is a powerful thing as it allows them to imagine the future in very different terms, instead of just accepting the world and the values that are given to them by their parents.
For all those reasons, I think we invest a lot of hope in young people, and that is why they are so important.
- This movie brings together some wonderful footage, so can you talk about finding the footage? And how did you narrow things down? I imagine you were faced with a lot of material?
Yeah. It was a four-year research process. Luckily, I was assisted by professional researchers; I had one in New York, one in Washington D.C, one in the UK, and two in Germany.
We would send them large lists of topics, and they would send back loads of footage. We would then refine that list as we looked for more specific things.
Eventually, there were real treasure hunts for very specific kinds of footage. Jon Savage and I had a rule, where any story that we told had to have a strong basis in archival footage. We really crafted our story on what footage we could find.
- We there any topics in particular that you were very keen to explore?
Jitterbugging and Swing, but also how Swing played out in Germany were the topics that I knew I definitely wanted to explore. They were also some of the more obscure things that we had to really track down; especially the German Swing kid footage.
- That leads me into my question about the edit. How challenging was it to piece all of this footage together to create this film? It is a movie that flows
It was hard; by my editor, Joe Beshenkovsky is brilliant. The challenge was taking material from so many different sources, and making it feel like coherent scenes that flowed together. I think it was about creating and intentional collage.
Jon Savage and I had a theory called 'living collage' - he saw young punks taking clothes from previous youth cultures like rocker suits and turning them into something new.
With this film, we were taking all of these voice of youth and images of youth and we are re-scrambling them into a new expression. That living collage approach really did inspire our edit.
- Music also plays a huge part in this film. Did you always intend for it to feature so heavily?
Totally. I always wanted movie to be a big part of this film. I see the film as almost like a record. You can listen to the voiceovers almost like lyrics and you can listen to it in a way where the images and the lyrics just wash over you. You can also watch it as a narrative.
Early on, I decided that I wanted to combine contemporary music with archival imagery, as it is really transformative. When you have a vintage image, and you put it with the period appropriate music, it can feel a little stodgy - you think 'that is what my grandparents would have listened to'.
However, when you play contemporary music with it, I see myself in the imagery. That effect was always a big premise for me while making this film.
- The movie is inspired by the book by Jon Savage, so how hands on has he been with this project? And what has he made of the final film?
Jon has been really excited and supportive about the final film. He has also been super involved in the creation of it.
He wrote the script with me; much of the script is sourced from primary source quotes by adolescents from diaries, which he had uncovered for his research for the book.
He helped me construct the narrative by looking at all of the archival footage and figuring what order it belongs in, and how to piece together this vast and panoramic topic.
- The movie has been on the festival circuit and hit the big screen, so how have you been finding the response to the film in general? And what are you finding people are taking away from it?
The response has been great. People respond to the style of the film as being rebellious; I think that is great because it matches the subject. That feels appropriate to me.
What is really interesting is that young people see the film as a call to arms, and they have told me that it feels very inspiring.
- Throughout your directing career you have worked predominately in documentaries, so what is it about this genre that you seem to enjoy so much?
I am more interested in... I am inspired by the things that I find, rather than creating something out of nothing. So, the way that I come up with ideas and get inspired creatively, is through research.
Some people just daydream and can come up with characters that don't exist in the real world or that are modified from their real experiences. That is not how I work creatively.
I find out about a story that people don't know about - a hidden history or a forgotten biography - and that triggers ideas on how to tell the story and how to bring things to life visually.
- Finally, what is next for you? Are you sticking with the documentary genre?
Yes. I am making a documentary for HBO about the children's book illustrator Hilary Knight; he illustrated a book called Eloise, which was very famous in the 1950s.
This film is about his creative partnership with the entertainer Kay Thompson and what came of him during his long life and career.
Teenage is out on DVD now. Read out Teenage review.