Interview With Director Matt Wolf

Matt Wolf‘s mesmerizing documentary Teenage is about the extraordinary teenagers who came before “teenagers” even existed. Based on Jon Savage‘s book Teenage: The Creation Of Youth Culture, Wolf’s documentary explores the early, pre-history of the teenager using rare archival footage, a hypnotizing score by Deerhunter‘s Bradford Cox, and beautiful narrations by actors like Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw. Wolf has crafted a film that is personal, enlightening and entirely different from anything we’ve seen before on the subject of youth culture. We recently got the chance to chat with the filmmaker about his film, his fascination with hidden histories, and youth culture in general. Check it out.

What propelled you to tell this story? Have you always been fascinated by youth or did this spark after you read Jon Savage’s book Teenage: The Creation Of Youth Culture?

Matt Wolf: Yeah totally, I was a really political teenager. I was also into alternative music and that was part of my identity. So youth culture has always been important to me, and I was a fan of John Savage, who wrote the book Teenage. In college I had read his book England’s Dreaming, which is really the definitive history of punk rock and I just loved that book because it was a deeper cultural history that wasn’t academic, but that really told the story of the time and a place. So when I heard about his book Teenage I was really intrigued. It didn’t occur to me that there could be this earlier, pre-history of youth culture. I’m also just fascinated by hidden histories and forgotten biographies of obscure figures. So as I was reading John’s book, these stories just captivated me. It occurred to me that maybe I could make a historical film with something different. I felt like John’s book was in view with that kind of punk sensibility and I want my filmmaking to be too.

You made a very unique film. Though Teenage is not a music biography, it does feel very musical. There’s a melodic flow to this film, with the narrations feeling like lyrics. Was that your intention?

Matt Wolf: That’s exactly what I was going for. I’m so happy you responded that way. I wanted the film to feel like a mix-tape or a record, where it washes over you in that way, where, when you listen, the voice over functions like lyrics and it deepens the experience, but that there’s something more atmospheric that can happen as well.

It felt like discovering a wonderful old record for the first time, mainly because the footage you use is very rare.

Matt Wolf: What you said, I loved. The idea that something so old can feel so new. And that’s the effect I was going for in the filmmaking as well, making the old feel like it was happening now.

What was your process of finding this footage. It flows so well. How did you narrow things down?

Matt Wolf: It was a huge endeavor. It was a four year process and I collaborated with professional researchers. My lead archival researcher was somebody named Rosemary Rotondi. John and I had a rule in terms of creating the story of the film is that any stories we told, we wanted them to have a strong basis and actual archival footage. So we would send lists of topics and characters to our researcher and she would come back with footage. Then eventually she enlisted researchers in Washington D.C. at the National Archives, in London, and we also worked with two specialized researchers in Germany to find that kind of obscure WWII and German material. We would send lists of topics and as the process went on the lists would get more and more focused and specific and we would really dig for the more obscure stuff.

Your film reaffirms that music is so powerful especially when you’re young. As a teenager, you often feel like no one understand you and then you hear a powerful song and you’re like, “Oh somebody out there gets me.” Would you say that’s true about music and youth?

Matt Wolf: Absolutely. And everything you’re saying really resonates, it’s kinda what I was going for so it’s great to hear it. I think music is a big character in the film, not just in terms of the experience of it but as a subject matter. Swing is an important early, first subculture here. It’s a space where young people were doing something that was ahead of the social conventions of the time. Black and white kids were dancing together. It’s something where they could find their own slang and fashion and styles of dance and popularize a specific form of music. And that became a kind of mass media phenomenon and I loved how swing found its way to Europe and that it could take on this radical and political dimension in Nazi Germany. It really underlines this idea that pop culture, but more specifically youth culture, is not just people having fun or commercialism, but that there’s a real depth and substance to it. And I think music is always at the center of that.

It does seem like kids today get along better with their parents than before. The generational gap between teenagers and their parents has shrunk. There’s still young rebellion, but it’s seen more in places like the Middle East and even the Ukraine. And it’s not so much teenagers against parents, but the government. 

Matt Wolf: It’s in places where people, by necessity have to more radically imagine a different kind of future. In periods of great prosperity, people are content with the present. In periods of aspiration and war, great political upheaval, or economic depression, people are pretty concerned about the next era and young people represent that. And young people are the ones who have to inherit all the problems that the adults make for them. So I think that in the places you mentioned and in other areas, where there’s great distress and chaos, both politically or economically, that generation gap widens and young people’s role in society becomes more important in a way.

Why is it that the adult world fears youth so much? They were young once and people just seem to forget their personal struggles. 

Matt Wolf: Yeah, totally, we always condemn young people as being less interesting than us. But we were once young and we were interesting. I think it’s a pattern that became so clear to me while making the film and it endured. One thing that’s one of my goals is for people to not dismiss what teenagers are doing and to say that they’re all just texting all the time and that they have no substance and that they’re a-political or not creative. It’s just not true.

One of the things that you repeat throughout your film is this idea that “young people are the future.” Young people shape the future. This idea is also true on a personal level though. The decisions we make as young people forever affect our life. Do you think that’s fair?

Matt Wolf: When we’re older there’s a lot of self consciousness about the decisions we make. We make safe decisions personally because we have experience and we know better, but also when you’re young, you operate more intuitively and you make decisions by your gut and that’s part of defining who you are. Some of those decisions and also values that you attach to you as a young person, they stay with you for the rest of your life. I do think there’s a problem in the sense that young people get professionalized very young and that they get too locked into a single track and that’s very limited. But I think, in a more broader sense, the kind of gut instincts that young people have and the values they latch on to can be lifelong because they make these choices unselfconsciously because they lack the experience to doubt themselves.

So what were you like as a teenager? It just seems like I should ask the filmmaker of Teenage, what he was like as a teenager.

Matt Wolf: I was pretty radical. I was a gay teenager. I was super political. I was involved in an activist community. We were trying to change legislation in California to affect queer teenagers, but I was also obsessed with alternative and indie music and also independent films and I fantasized about moving to New York and being a filmmakers and lost myself in records and films and I’m still kind of like that in a way.

Doesn’t it seem like people are younger for longer these days?

Matt Wolf: Yeah and I think people are obsessed with youth and staying young in a way. You could be such an idealized and glamorous to be, but the film shows where that obsession to youth comes from.

If you could, would you chose to live in a different time?

Matt Wolf: I don’t know. I’m really obsessed with the past. I’ve never made a film that unfolds in the present. At the same time I try never to idealize the past as being more authentic or interesting than the times we live in now. But I’m interested in looking at the past to actually get more insight into our lives and experiences today. I don’t really fantasize about living in another time. I spend a lot of time thinking about the past to have insight or perspective on today.

You’ve described this film as a “living collage.” Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Matt Wolf: I felt like John’s book was inflected with this punk perspective. I was trying to get my finger on what that exactly was and he was talking early on in our collaboration about the 1970s and seeing punks literally taking thrift clothes from previous generations, rockers suits and suit zoots and cutting them up and reassembling them with safety pins into something that had its own new aesthetic. And he called that “living collage” back in the day and I thought that was a really beautiful idea that you can pick and choose these fragments of youth culture or of culture from the past and remix them into something that feels temporary and that’s really what we’re doing in the film. We’re taking all of these voices from the past – from diaries and journalistic sources – we’re taking all these clips and images from youth in the past and we’re re-scrambling into a form that is dis-contemporary but that is based in material from the past and the idea is to create something new, and to make a film that has themes that are relevant today.

You cast some pretty great actors as the narrators. Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw both have these beautiful and youthful voices that resonate very well with the film. Could you talk about casting them as narrators?

Matt Wolf: I had heard [Jena Malone's] voice in Into The Wild and a friend of mine, another director, was working with her on a film and I thought the voice over in that film was very stylized and unique. He connected us and we did an experiment in the recording studio and what we recorded really helped me conceptualize the whole device of the narration. I was a fan of Ben Whishaw from his performance in Bright Star about the young poet John Keats and he just has this power to bring old texts to life in a way that feels so immediate and new. It comes a lot from his background in Shakespearean and classic theaters. I was excited to collaborate with him too. Julia Hummer is this really amazing German actress. She was discovered as a skater on the street when she was young, before she became a well known actress in Germany. I was excited to work with her as well. And the same with Jessie Ushers. It was really this idea to create a great core of young narrators who could encompass universal voice of youth.

Is one of your goals for teenagers to watch your film?

Matt Wolf: I want teenagers to see this film so badly. It’s hard to reach teenagers through the normal channels of distribution for independent films and documentaries, but I think on the internet they are discovering things in a different way. I’m 31 years-old so the internet was around when I was in high school, not as much as it is today, but I found out about all sorts of alternative culture online. My hope is that this film can reach young people for that very reason. We didn’t make a film about boring conformist teenagers, jocks and cheerleaders, we made a film about exceptional young people. The ones who start a band or publish a theme or get involved in politics. This film is really about those people and it’s also for them too.

What’s next for you? People might want more on early teen culture, but it feels like the film is complete. 

Matt Wolf: That’s how I feel too. Other people say, you should do a sequel and I’m like, “Hell no.” Once you get past like WWII, information on youth culture is so huge and explosive. It gets so dense and global. But right now I’m making a documentary for HBO that’s executive produced by Lena Dunham. It’s about a children’s book illustrator named Hillary Knight who did the book Eloise. So we’re making a film about him together.

Teenage opens in select theaters March 14.

(This interview was originally published at ScreenCrave on 3/12/14.)