I Was A Teenage Filmmaker
Today's column screams of self-interest: my object is to coax you, busy reader, to an evening of film which I've proudly curated. Mark your calendar for Dec.20 at 7:30 for "I Was a Teenage Filmmaker" at the Coolidge Corner, five audacious shot-on-video, professional-level shorts written, shot, and directed through Vermont's Fledgling Films by a crew of high-school kids, who will come down for the screening and a Q&A.
Among the shorts are a superb futurist "mockumentary" about a girl undergoing insta-plastic surgery at the prodding of her boyfriend and a harrowing real-life visit with Vermont's homeless teenage girls. They were produced at a three-week 1999 summer workshop under the supervision of Jay Craven, the much-respected regionalist filmmaker of Where the River Flows North and A Stranger in the Kingdom. I was so deeply impressed by the quality and precocity of these tapes (also, they're infinitely more honest than what's produced by most university filmmaking students), that, in the summer of 2000, I decided to observe for myself how these works get made. (Fledgling Films's mission statement: "To express the imaginative power of young people through hands-on media art, workshops, and production." Craven told me: "In many way, it's easier to ger high school kids focussed than college ones. They are still fresh, idealistic, and hopeful, with unmitigated passion.")
One balmy June day, I drove north by northwest into Vermont's Eastern Kingdom. Three-and-a-half hours out of Boston, I pulled up in the middle of an afternoon outside shoot. The scene: a pizza man arrives at a house, mentioning the demise of a father, reported by a 15-year-old girl. The girl's mother is mystified; her daughter has made up the death.
The pizza man and mother were played by seasoned adult professional actors. The rest of the cast were raw high-school kids, as were the co-film directors and, with some college-student assistance, virtually the whole crew.
For a run-through, the teen Assistant Director peered into the video camera. "The shot is good, but it gets a little dark as the guy walks away."
The teen director concurred: "Spill makes the other side of his face darker."
The teen Director of Photography: "OK, we'll open it up a little bit."
The Assistant Director (with authority): "Quiet on the set! Camera!"
The shooting ensued, and cast and crew went to work. I was amazed: all these youths, 14-17, male and female, completely immersed in filmmaking. There was no goofing about on the set, no bursts of pubescent giggling. It was just like every other shoot I've observed, including Holywood ones.
At a break, I talked with the adult actress, Darri Colton, an ex-New Yorker who moved to Vermont for the quality of life: "I have two kids I'm raising." And being directed by kids? "It's hard to remember they are high school students. They really take their work seriously. Very pleasant, and I've been given sophisticated direction and line readings."
The script was written mostly by a boy operating the boom mike, though everyone contributed lines. And there was no taking over by adults. During this shoot (one of three going on simultaneously), Jay Craven sat under a tree a hundred yards away, working on his computer.
"Last year we produced ten movies in three weeks, which made the most motivated kids go forward, but the less motivated held back" Craven explained. "This year, we are making only three movies, but they are all more ambitious. We have 16 college-age interns, three adult leaders, which makes 19 mentors for 31 kids. We are creating the culture of a professional film shoot. The adults function as supportive producers. We try to give as much leeway as possible."
A problem earlier on: a script in development seemed, Craven thought, demeaning to women, which was "contrary to our mandate." He discussed this at length with the crew.
"It was a catharis, a kick in the ass: they hadn't had the experience of thinking about expanded roles for women. Three hours later, they were doing rewrites, and excited."
John Griesemes, the New Hampshire-based professional film actor (Matewan, Eight Men Out) who played the pizza man, added: "Each of three years, I've helped out Jay in the workshops. Earlier, there was less decisiveness with the kids and Jay sometimes guided them through, saying 'This is the shot I want.' This year is more focussed. The kids are young, but able. Given the tedium of filmmaking, it's a ripe breeding ground for screwing around. They don't. They really want to make films."
Fledgling Films makes do on an astonishingly austere $80,000 per summer, including paying a small staff, also the housing (at an off-season ski-lodge) and feeding thirty-one people. Students pay $1850 for three weeks, though many are on partial scholarships. Additional revenue comes in, depending on the year, from the NEA and/or the MacArthur Foundation.
Craven: "I try not to be heavyhanded, but I'm the one raising the money all year, who writes grant applications and explains that we're not here to imitate Hollywood-slasher movies and cop films. We realize how saturated everyone is with mass media, and so, here in rural Vermont, we work to get away from it."
Boston Phoenix, December, 2000