Wonderland speak with Jenny Gage, director of All This Panic, a documentary feature film depicting a group of teenage girls’ ascent into adulthood.
Do you remember your teen years, lying in the local park with friends sharing stories or daydreaming on your bed on a Sunday afternoon thinking about what your future might hold? There’s something poetic and magic about the dreamy worlds you can create in your head from the boredom allowed in your younger years, something that many of us would love to recreate would our hectic 9-to-at-least-5’s allow us.
Director Jenny Gage and cinematographer Tom Betterton ran with this concept in creating a documentary film, shot like a sun-drenched feature ode to the emotion-fuelled uncertainty and hope of teenage girls’ lives. The couple filmed a group of New York City kids, or more specifically teenage girls, as they navigated the friendships, relationships and hopes for their futures over the period of three years.
The film is a hazy depiction of this time, and perhaps the most poignant portrayal of New York teenagers since Larry Clark’s cult classic, Kids. We spoke with Jenny about the film’s aesthetics, concept and the journey her and her partner went on in making the documentary.
Shall we start with a really basic question like how the concept of the film came about?
Well, it basically came about because Ginger and Dusky [two of the girls featured in the film] moved down the street from Tom and I when Ginger was about 16 years old and I would see them walking to the subway to go to school everyday and one week they’d have pink hair one week they’d have green hair and I had just we had just had our daughter and I had been thinking: what is her teenage life going to be like, you know? I was also thinking about my teenage life and looking at these girls who were right in the middle of experiencing it.
I actually knew Ginger’s dad from the photography world because we’re fashion photographers and he’s a hair stylist, so I emailed him and asked him if we could follow the girls around with a film camera and he said yes and then you know a week later we started but we had no idea when we started the project what it was going to be! All we knew was that we wanted to be able to hear the girls’ stories as opposed to in photography where it would just be representing their stories. We felt it needed to be filmed.
Whilst watching the film I was wondering how you found them and how it developed. They’re all so articulate and switched on… I was kind of amazed. I mean obviously they’re all doing classic girl things like having fun, getting drunk and they’re talking about their futures… but they felt quite grown up in a way. Do you feel the fact that they’re New York City girls is a very important element of the film itself because its quite a unique environment to anywhere else?
I think that it is, yes but I think that because they’re New York City kids I think their future is very pressing on them and they know its like a city that people come to realise their dreams so if you grew up there you’re very aware of thoughts like ‘What am I going to do in my life; who am I going to become? Maybe that’s a little bit specific to a city like New York City and other cities around the world but but I also thought that these are things that a lot of teenage girls are talking about – in small towns, in big cities and actually if you listen to them and you let them talk and you’re not arguing with them because you’re not their parents, they have a lot to say and teenage girls are articulate, they do spend a lot of time thinking about things.
No, definitely. How did it work? You built these relationships with the girls and you followed them around. Was it promoted at all or were you honestly just spending time with them? Did you create certain situations or did they invite you to them?
You know honestly it was just myself and my husband Tom, who is a cinematographer, so it was just us the entire time we never had anyone else
I saw that in the credits and I was thinking ‘Wow how did they do this?!’
[Laughs] Even the producers came on after we had finished filming, so towards the end of the film. Really it worked like: if we were free that day we would say ‘hey is anyone doing anything and do they mind if we tag along.’ They would just get used to it and say ‘Yeah, totally I’m just going to be hanging out with Ginger at Lena’s house like come on over.’ You know there were certain things that I wanted access to… like I wanted to go to a party and that was harder to get in for obvious reasons. We actually got into a party, a totally classic teenage party, drinking, smoking, hanging out…. but we ended up not using it in the film because it almost felt like it was us grown ups looking at the kids and in a way even though we are grown ups looking at them, in the film we really wanted it to be just them participating in their narrative and watching them at a party just seems a little bit too voyeuristic. Each each year we followed them it ramped up, so by the end we were really following them a lot. But you know, when I say a lot I would say twice a week. ‘Cause sometimes we would goa month without following them because we’d be busy and they’d be not really doing much and it’d be winter in New York and that’s not really a fun time to walk around the city.
How many years did you film them for?
What was their reaction when they saw the final film? How did they respond to it?
Well that really made the experience for us, because we hadn’t shown them any footage except a couple of tiny two minute collages. I told them that we would be showing them the film before it went to a film festival so they each went and saw it. They each came to our office and saw it separately and they were all really, really pleased. One thing that was so important to them was that it didn’t feel like a reality show or it didn’t feel like girls talking behind each other’s back. A key factor to Tom and I that was so amazing was the girls’ friendship and how much they included each other. Even when they were fighting with each other, it was how deep their love for each other was and their respect. I think that they were very happy that came out in the film. There just wasn’t supposed to be a negative, this was never going to be a film the said, ‘Oh look at teenagers today, all they do is sit on the phone and are vapid’. To us that was a definite no. We wanted to explore their experiences of being a human being and being a young woman in the world and how often nobody wants to hear their stories.
I think it was such a sensitive portrayal, just the right amount of intimate and I felt like I really came to care about these girls. At Wonderland we feel passionate about nurturing young females. I feel like it’s something we need to do more of as a society and you got that across perfectly. It was just really beautiful, really sensitive. The cinematography compliments this amazingly. Was it shot on prime lenses?
Tom shot the entire movie with just one camera with a 50 mm lens so he never varied from that because I think he wanted it to really be intimate not to be like ‘Oh I’m zooming in on the girls’ or something like that.
I found that it had this amazing quality and I was talking to my filmmaker girlfriend in laymen’s terms and she was saying that it’s actually a really amazing thing to do to shoot on prime lenses. It must be quite hard when you’re on the move all day to be really capturing it like that.
It was and its funny because I teased Tom that he was always in a bad mood after we finished filming and he finally admitted that he was because it was so hard!
I think that anyone that sees All This Panic will appreciate it its not a typical documentary style and it really has this kind of beautiful poetic film element to it. Why was that specifically important to you in portraying their story?
That was definitely a conscious decision to make the film beautiful. I think the main reason for that was because we felt that at that time in a girl’s life, I remember feeling this way and even Tom clued into it from being with the girls, you really do feel like your life is like a movie, like you’re envisioning yourself in a movie… half reality, half like you’re in your head, and so it felt important to make a film about them that helped make it more like a narrative film. It didn’t feel like a 60 minutes reality TV show. Also I think more documentaries should be beautiful. So we’re doing our part to help with that.
Amazing. Because I feel like it does have that kind of dreamy quality I don’t know how to say this but you know that kind of teenage girl alone time they have school and then free-time and its different to the working world you have that time to be kind of day dreaming and like that kind of boredom allows that daydreaming.
Totally, I feel like that was important to get across. It’s something I actually really miss being a ‘grown up’. It’s really specific to both girls and boys at that time. I really miss it too! Like I can never just like hang out in my room and be bored — I have three kids I’m like I wish!