The concept of the “teenager” is well-defined in the present day, those pivotal years between childhood and adulthood often associated with angst and rebellion. However, as the documentary Teenage convincingly demonstrates, teenagers as we’ve come to know them were a wartime invention; before World War II, childhood and adulthood weren’t separated by any gray area — they bumped into one another without the modern-day pubescent cushion.

Through a collage of stunning archival footage and seamlessly integrated recreations, meshed with overdubbed narration and a soundtrack of contemporary, electronic music, Teenage — which made its world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival — provides a glimpse into adolescence’s historical transformation, beginning with the fledgling years of the 20th century.

Teenage marks director Matt Wolf’s second turn as a feature documentarian, his first foray being the award-winning Wild Combination, about the late musician Arthur Russell. Wolf co-wrote the Teenage screenplay alongside celebrated punk and pop culture author Jon Savage, whose works include England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock and Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture. Jason Schwartzman, a prolific comedic actor who’s appeared in films such as Rushmore, The Darjeeling Limited, Slackers and Moonrise Kingdom and starred in the hit TV series Bored to Death, also adds his name credit as the documentary’s co-producer.

GALO sat down with Savage, Wolf and Schwartzman during the Tribeca Film Festival to discuss their most recent cinematic endeavor, in a wide-ranging conversation covering the making and conception of the documentary, a reflection on their teenage years, and how the finished movie relates to an adage about dogs getting frisky.

What follows is an edited excerpt from the interview, along with a short video.

Camera Operator/Editor Credit: Tim Pierson.

GALO: What was the inspiration for making a film about the prehistory of adolescence?

Matt Wolf: The inspiration is Jon Savage’s book, Teenage. I read it four years ago, and I found it to be incredibly compelling and fascinating. I started a conversation with Jon about how we could make this huge cultural history into a film, and that started our collaboration.

GALO: So just happenstance, you picked up the book?

Wolf: Well, not exactly happenstance. I have been a fan of Jon’s work for many years. He wrote a book called England’s Dreaming. That’s the definitive history of punk, and I read that as a college student and loved it. When a friend told me about this book called Teenage, by Jon, and it’s not about skaters, punks and hippies, it looks way further back at the prehistory of teenagers, that totally intrigued me. The book exceeded those expectations.

GALO: Jon, your book, Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, it spans 1875 to 1945. This movie begins in the early 20th century. What was the reasoning behind choosing this time span and not going all the way back to the beginning of your book?

Jon Savage: Number one, the film is very different to the book. With the film, when Matt and I first talked about this, the first thing we talked about is do we have the footage? We both agreed that we should get into the 1920s, which is really when you start to get a lot of youth culture footage fairly quickly. We knew that we wanted to base the film on archive footage. That’s a basic discipline that we wanted. It’s partly practicality, and also, the book is very long and complicated. Obviously, things have to be simplified in a way and you have to get down to the essence. That is, for me, as the writer or the co writer, that was the job, to strip it down to the essence.

GALO: How difficult was it to get that archival footage?

Wolf: It was difficult, but we didn’t do it by ourselves. We had a whole team of researchers. Those researchers were in New York, Washington, DC, London, Germany, Hamburg and Berlin.

Jason Schwartzman: And Orlando, Florida. [Laughter]

Wolf: Jon and I started with just a gigantic list of topics we wanted to cover, and we saw what came back. From there it just gave us a general sense of the scope that we might be able to cover, and that’s when we started digging deeper for more specific things. The goal was always not to use stock footage, because Teenage is about hidden histories of youth. Stock footage is the stuff you’ve seen before in documentaries, flapper girls from the Roaring ‘20s with draping pearl necklaces doing the Charleston. I didn’t want to show that stuff. We wanted to find real home movies and amateur films of real teenagers as they existed from a time that’s lesser known. That process went on for years.

GALO: How long did it take to make the movie from start to finish?

Wolf: It was about four years from the conception of the movie to this week when we finished it.

GALO: How much did you have to rely on recreations in the movie?

Wolf: I always knew I wanted to do recreations. It’s just something I’m interested in, filmmaking-wise. But at some point, a big part of Jon’s book is that he zeroes in on some biographies of interesting figures and adolescent characters from history. I knew with this film, it’s so panoramic, it deals in such big ideas, it’s really important to telescope into the experience of individuals. Through a process of editing and consideration, we figured out that there could be these four central characters. Together they form this portrait of the teenager that was about to be born.

We decided to use the recreations to bring these characters to life, because there’s little to no archival footage or photographs of those people. We had to resort to portraiture to make them come to life.

Savage: Also, we looked at the recreations from a point of view of strength. The whole point about the book is that it’s a dialectic. It’s about the struggle between adults and adolescents, the adults trying to control and regiment adolescents, and adolescents trying to get some freedom and self-determination. The footage that we found had this adult voiceover, “These are what the kids do.” We wanted to go within the experience. I think the idea of recreations, we thought of right from the start. It wasn’t, “Oh, my God. We haven’t got enough footage.” We had plenty of footage.

The recreations are a punctuation. They’re dreamy, which is a big thing for me. They take you into the dream of adolescence. The script in them is very tightly based on actual events and words from diaries and interviews.

(Interview continued on next page)