INTERVIEW: 'Teenage' Filmmakers Matt Wolf & Jon Savage Make A Doc That Swings
Teenage is as rebellious a film as the territory it covers. Based on punk author Jon Savage's 2007 book Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture 1875-1945, Matt Wolf's documentary eschews the talking heads and Chyroned dates that dominate the genre to immerse the moviegoer in a visually and aurally sumptuous history lesson.
Wolf uses rare archival footage, period-piece recreations and a score by Deerhunter's Bradford Cox to depict the evolution of teen culture via a number of influential and unconventional subcultures — swing kids, Boy Scouts, flappers, the German Wandervogel and even Nazi Youth — that coalesced from the late 19th century through the end of World War II. Understand them and today's teens don't seem so mystifying.
I sat down with Wolf (he's in the center of photo at left), Savage (he's the one wearing orange pants) and the movie's executive producer, actor Jason Schwartzman (Moonrise Kingdom) at the Tribeca Film Festival. Below is an edited version of our discussion:
Movieline: Jason, how did you get to be the executive producer of Teenage?
Jason Schwartzman: When Matt's movie about Arthur Russell came out, Wild Combination, I saw it multiple times in the course of a couple days, told everybody that I could possibly tell about it and showed it to one of my best friends Humberto Leon, who owns the fashion company Opening Ceremony. And when he saw that it was directed by Matt Wolf, he said, "Oh, Matt's a really good friend of mine." One thing led to another and Humberto connected Matt and I to make a short film for his store opening in Japan. We spent a lovely beautiful afternoon together in Toronto. It was just a beautiful day, and I felt instantly connected to Matt. I hope it's okay that I say that.
Matt Wolf: Please.
Schwartzman: Does that make you feel uncomfortable?
Wolf: No, I'm okay.
Schwartzman: Too much pressure? After that, we started talking about books and music, and Matt said he was trying to make a documentary based on Jon Savage's book Teenage . Being a fan of music and culture, I knew and loved Jon and was excited about this idea. And then a couple years later?
Wolf: A year or two, I don't know.
Schwartzman: I reached out to Matt and said, "What's going on with the movie? Is there anything I can try to do?" That began a process of getting the word out there and finding a way to finish the movie and make it happen.
Movieline: You've taken a very unorthodox approach to making a non-fiction film. You call it "living collage." Can you explain what you mean by that?
Matt Wolf: When I read Jon’s book Teenage I didn’t just see it as source material. It helped me imagine a philosophy for the filmmaking. John is well known for his book on punk, England’s Dreaming, and in Teenage, he treated history in a punk way. Early on in our collaboration, he told me about something he observed in the 1970s: He saw these teenage punks wearing thrift clothes from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s and they would cut them up and reassemble them with safety pins into something new. He called that “living collage.” It really struck a chord with me and made me think, “Well what about living collage as a kind of filmmaking style, where we pick and choose these kind of documents and fragments from previous youth cultures and reassemble them into something that feels fresh and new.” And so living collage plays out visually in the way the film looks.