High on Documentaries!
Wesleyan alumni teamed to make Emmy Award-winning American High, a bold experiment in cin&eaigu;ma v&eaigu;rit&eaigu; that tells what it’s really like to be in high school.
American High, the 13-part documentary series commissioned by the Fox Network, premiered last summer on commercial television and aired again on PBS this spring and summer. An Emmy award winner (best reality program that didn’t involve competition), the show followed the daily life of 14 teens from suburban Highland Park High School outside Chicago over the course of a school year.
The project drew on the talents of three Wesleyan alumni: Ted Skillman ’91, Dan Partland ’92, and Lisa Maizlish ’90. They, along with Chris Roberts ’89, Ben Brand ’92, and the late Jonathan Mednick, a former Wesleyan faculty member, had formed Other Pictures, Inc., in the early ’90s to make documentaries. Finding a market for their work was difficult at first, particularly before the mainstream interest in “reality-based” television shows.
“Ted used to say, ‘I feel like I’m selling manual typewriters in a world of word processors,’” Partland recalls. “We were all just about to hang it up when this opportunity came along.”
The crews produced 3,000 hours of film as they followed students through their school days—classes, lunchtime, guidance meetings, catching the bus home. In addition, they also filmed morning routines, after-school jobs, fights with parents, and hangout time with friends. To supplement these, each student recorded his or her diary entries on the individual hand-held videocams that the project provided.
The results were intimate, hilarious, heart-wrenching, hopeful, and at times even triumphant: a roller coaster of teenage emotions.
Q. How did you decide to focus on a high school?
Dan Partland: We looked at what was already on TV: doctors, lawyers, cops, high school… High school! It’s filled with so many trials. There’s always an audition, a tryout for a team. High school is a minefield of dramatic moments.
Q. Security at high schools has been a national concern since the shootings at Columbine. How did this figure into your production schedule, your subject matter, your film?
DP: We’d begun looking for a site two weeks before that. No school we contacted after that date even returned our phone calls. It’s a good thing we’d already talked with some administrators before that happened. But in the end, the events at Columbine didn’t change our movie. We had to make the administrators comfortable that we weren’t showing scandal; we weren’t out to do an expos&eaigu; on their school. At first, there were police cars in front of the building; Columbine was all anyone wanted to talk about. But that tragedy ended up being a point of departure on conversations about multiculturalism and inclusion, about power, about why the “Trenchcoat Mafia” felt disenfranchised.
Q. What were your roles within the production?
DP:I was based in California as the point person between the film crew on site, who sent in the hours and hours of footage, and Twentieth-Century Fox, which wanted neat episodes on budget. When we signed Lisa on and saw her photographs, we made a breakthrough in shaping the stories. We’d been thinking about how to introduce the characters in the show. When we saw her portraits, we knew they were a major way to shape the storytelling. They were so beautiful, so intimate and insightful. She found some great, defining moments—and had done it in just several days. Ted Skillman was on site: He’s great at brokering sensitive issues. He’s the one who would go to the parents’ house with the piece of tape their son or daughter had created and screen it for them. Allie’s relationship with her dad was a sensitive issue—her parents had divorced—but Ted made it all work.
Q. How were you able to do that?
Ted Skillman: In one respect I was Allie: I had a not-too-dissimilar family situation when I was around that age, and I think it was helpful to have that knowledge. Kids are articulate if you give them half a chance. Teachers, parents, pastors, rabbis all listen to kids, but there’s so much that they want to impart. That’s the filter through which they hear: the agenda they want to press. But we were adults whose role was just to hang out and listen.
DP: “We want you to be who you are,” we told them, “warts and all.” I try to be a good documentary filmmaker, to have compassion, to be nonjudgmental with everyone I meet in life. You have to be open, trusting, and believing in them.
Q. How did the spate of other “reality-based” programs that began the previous summer affect the airing on Fox of this reality show that season?
DP: It hurt us. We kept getting pushed later and later into the season. We aspire to dramatic episodic serial TV, except with real people. We’re not making something sociological or scholarly. We want to make artistic, entertaining documentaries.
Q. Morgan, one of the students, filmed his parents berating him, some might even say abusively. Did the team worry about lawsuits then?
DP: When people expressed concern about an aspect of the film, we’d ask them: Would you agree this is a true thing in your life? What, then, do we need to add to complete the picture and make this an accurate portrayal? We’re not wolves in sheeps’ clothing. We believe that people could be happy with the way they are portrayed and that the portrayal could be real.
TS: It was difficult, though, grappling with sensitive things that kids wanted to bring up. Some topics just felt sensitive and hard to explore—yet the kids wanted to talk about them. Our own confessional culture has some gray areas about how much to tell on camera. A documentary filmmaker once said, “You have to have a cat burglar’s mentality to make documentaries,” and there’s a certain truth to that, but it’s a pretty icky feeling if you are sneaking in to put someone’s life on display. We said, “Look, we’re not going to make you look bad.” And we wanted to be true to that.
Q. Lisa, how did you interact with the students?
Lisa Maizlish: My job was different from the filmmakers’. The kids were already selected for being open, cute, charismatic. I had to get to know them quickly. I had to be a kid, but that’s okay, I can morph. When I went over to Morgan’s house, he wasn’t out of bed yet. His mother was yelling up the stairs for him to get up, the photographer was here for the appointment. I went upstairs and photographed him getting up, going to the kitchen, going down in the basement checking out his CD collection, outside to shoot some baskets, then back in the kitchen for lunch—and all that took about 10 minutes. It was amazing—but that was Morgan.
Q. Is there a greater good that this film serves?
TS: I’ve always liked documentaries, and the highest aspiration for documentaries, and for art, is to complicate the issues, the subject, and not let you feel too easily one way or the other about a character. That makes for good storytelling, and it’s an interesting way to live your life. One of the students, Brad, was gay and out. Kids wrote about that on our Web site. It gave them comfort to identify with him or with Morgan or Allie.
If you recognize something of yourself in what you see, that is a valuable thing in the world. It’s what art is about: You look at the world through other peoples’ eyes and you feel connected to other people and how they experience the world.
To view some of Lisa Maizlish’s favorite shots and to find further information on American High, please visit: www.pbs.org/americanhigh/weekly/lisaphotos.html.01-3