Teenage: Interview with Matt Wolf, Jon Savage and Jason Schwartzman

April 30, 2013 6:44 PM

“The sex talk”, eccentric fashion and societal dislocation - the adolescent epoch is littered with embarrassment and confusion. Teenage rejects marginalizing youth culture as mere ephemeral rebellion. Instead, it explores the significance behind idiosyncrasies that define the tumultuous age.

Early 20th century teenagers are highlighted as the vanguard of an exciting, and at times, dangerous new world. The films’ masterfully orchestrated “living collage” is comprised of over three hundred rare archival materials and dramatic recreations.

Narrators include TWELV “Cinema Issue” alum, Jena Malone (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) and Ben Whishaw (Skyfall).

Director Matt Wolf collaborated with Jon Savage, an award-winning author on the screenplay for the film. Jason Schwartzman has also taken on the role of executive producer for the first time; adding to his undoubtedly impressive résumé as writer, drummer, infectious Coconut Records soloist and the quirkiest of Hollywood stars.   

TWELV cozied up with talent-oozed trio in the Cinereach screening theater to talk about the invention of the teenager, Nirvana, and Jason’s mom, naturally.

What was the thought process to coming up with this film?

Matt: I was inspired by Jon’s book; I thought it was a fascinating story, this pre-history of the teenager and the birth of the youth culture. I’m really interested in hidden histories, things that kind of defy expectations. I’ve heard of punks and skaters and hippies and beatniks but this book, which was the basis for this film, goes much further back. It tells the story that I haven’t heard before and I was interested in finding visual material that people haven’t seen.

Jason: And I love the word pre-history. It’s such a beautiful phrase. It really is what came before teenagers.

Jon: But also, we’ve found an enormous amount of footage that people just didn't think to look for. Nobody thought to look at youth culture or young people footage from the 20s, 30s and 40s and so a lot of that stuff a lot of people just haven’t seen. I’ve seen hundreds of documentaries, I’m sure the others have as well because we all love film. But I haven’t seen a lot of that stuff and if I haven’t seen it, most people wouldn’t have seen it. In fact, although it’s about some quite long gone historical past, it’s still new. There’s an element to the film that is very new which I find exciting because it’s about the past but it’s very new so you get that blurring of time, which I find fascinating. It’s what I find fascinating about any art. I love it when time gets blurred because I think we have a very simplistic view of time. I think that we live in many, many time frames all at once.

Matt: That's cool, I agree.

Jason: Yea… I know for a fact that my mom does.

(Everyone laughs)

Jason: That was just the first person I thought of. I’m sure that half the jokes I make of any one isn’t actually true about them it’s just the first person that pops into my brain. I was thinking about my mom right as he was talking and then I just threw that joke out there so no offense, mom when you read this in TWELV.

I know you’re an established punk author. What sparked your interest in documenting youth movements?

Jon: The first punk show I went to was in October 1976. I was 23 so I was right at the upper end of the age range for the teenage years. I was a late developer in that respect. In the audience at that show, I saw kids wearing 40s, 50s and 60s clothes. They were mixing it all up; it was like a mash-up. They weren’t wearing them in period, in costume. They were taking a 40s jacket with 50s trousers, 50s jacket with 60s trousers, you know, all that stuff. They were putting it together with safety pins, they were like a living collage. I became fascinated by that, it’s the idea of many times existing at once. Also, I love punk rock; it was sort of my entry into youth culture as a participant instead of an observer. It enabled me to start writing and I did a fanzine like Matt did. It's the idea of self-starting and being empowered when you’re an outsider and you feel alienated and you go meet up with a whole bunch of people who were also alienated. You find incredible strength when you find yourself.

What is your message to adults and teenagers about this film? We want people to take teenagers seriously but is it always necessary for teenagers to revolt to send their message?

Wolf: I think that the message about the film is that people regard teenage rebellion as a kind of emotional rite of passage but that I think what history proves is that that kind of rebellion and desire to make change is something really significant and what teenagers are doing is reimagining the future. We should listen to youth because the kind of battles and conflicts that they have with the older generation is really important and meaningful.

Jon: (Laughs) As the only member of the older generation in this room, my answer to you is that life is perpetual change. If you don’t keep changing and if you don’t think that change is necessary, then you get stuck. Then when you get stuck and set in your ways, you tend think that young people are not the same as they were when you were young. You tend to think that they are not particularly substantial or whatever it is. But my answer to you is that kids are hardwired to do what the world does at ease. Some of them are hardwired to do it in a creative and positive way. And that’s really important because that’s how change happens and if change doesn’t happen then it’s just entropy and death.

Now it’s time for the silly question - what were you guys like as teenagers?

(Everyone laughs)

Jon: Ah no, we love this, we love this…

Matt: I was waiting for that.

Jason: Cranberries, marshmallows, cotton candy!

Jason: Yea, that is a really silly, truly a silly… really good question. Carebear…

(Everyone laughs)

It had to happen

Jon: Okay, well we’ll do it in foodstuffs.

Matt: We should do it in condiments.

Fine then, how about - what movements would you say you identify with the most?

Matt: I was… um… you know a super gay teenager. I was into being gay. In like, a punk way, I was friends with a lot of punks. Well... I didn't really have friends. That's kind of exaggerated. (Laughs) I had a few friends and one of them was a punk and I went to some shows and you know, I had the Internet because I was of that age. I had correspondence with friends in other places that I’d met through early blogs and early online communities around graphic design. It’s actually how I met our composer, Bradford Cocks, on those kinds of sites. So yea, I was aiming to get to New York, that was my goal.

Jason: I think that for me my teenage years were defined by grunge. That was the thing that blew my life apart. Right after that, a BIG album for me actually from the 90s is called Pinkerton, it came out in 1995, ‘96, you know? You know that album?

OH YEA...

Jason: To me, that was a whole different kind of music, that was a big one for me, like that style. I mean Nirvana was the most amazing thing. We talked about the whole “gun” element to Nirvana. That's also scary to a thirteen year old. If you’re 18, 19, 20 whatever, but I could feel like when I was 11…

Matt: Rape me

Jason: Well yea but that album was the most amazing thing. I was 11 years old listening to Nirvana, I had Nevermind on cassette. You can feel something that says this scary for me at this age, a little bit. I was really into it and I was 13 when he died.  Then right after that was Weezer. Those first two albums were big for me. It wasn't the same element of that other dangerous thing, whatever that thing was which was Nirvana. That was missing from it but it was something else and I could get with that too.

Jon: I interviewed Kurt Cobain, by the way.

What was that like?

Jon: It was in ‘93, around the time that Jason was talking about. He was great, he was very funny, very sarcastic, he could be in the room with us now and he would just be one of us. It would be great. It was the last big rock interview I ever did, I was nearly forty. But I was 10 in ‘63 and so it was the whole of 60s pop culture as it happened and then the whole of 70s pop culture as it happened. Then I got involved in punk rock at the end of 1976 right at the end of my teenage years and that was really what gave me the rocket fuel to do to what I wanted to do.

Jason: We’ve done a couple of these interviews now so the reason I jumped in and said really quickly “Nirvana” was because Jon had Beatles and punk rock and I can’t follow that, no one can follow that.

Jon: Well, I had the Beatles when I was nine.

Jason: I mean, he has the prime cut right there.

It’s always good to have varying perspectives.

Jason: It’s the best but he had the ultimate experience.

Jon: But it’s also great to have the perspectives of you two because it balances out. It’s been great to work on the film with the differences in ages – it’s really worked well.

Jason: Our editor is 4!

(Everyone laughs)

Jason: How short is your attention span? This guy can’t hold a cut for longer than six seconds!

By Tasha Tongpreecha

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