Don’t call it a skater film. And definitely don’t dismiss it for being a documentary. Only the Young is simply an extraordinary real-life teen movie, one I’ve previously compared favorably to the fiction works of John Hughes and Cameron Crowe. It’s like Pretty in Pink and Say Anything mashed together but true and even more honest and heartwarming and beautifully shot. The film follows best friends Garrison and Kevin, who are skateboarders and evangelical Christians and punk fans and, most importantly, just teenage boys. We also meet Skye, a girl who Garrison dates then breaks up but stays close friends with. She’s dealing with looming foreclosure on her home, while the guys explore abandoned houses and mini-golf courses, all of this making for a timely story of youth amidst the depressing economic landscape of America in recent years. But it’s also a timely story that anyone who is or once was a kid can genuinely relate to.
Only the Young, which opens in New York City this Friday, is the debut feature of Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims, whose own proximity to their teenage years (they were in their early twenties while filming) benefited their film’s ability to capture such a candid, casual record of a trio at certain uncontrollable crossroads of life. It’s a sweet film, one I fell in love with and will name as one of the best of 2012, and not just for documentary. I chatted with the two directors earlier this week about the making of this wonderful film, how it eludes all kinds of expectations and the many reasons it ought to be a crossover success with audiences.
You guys initially just set out to make a film about these two teenage boys that you met while they were skateboarding. Did you have any idea or expectation of what sort of narrative you’d get out of them in the beginning?
Elizabeth Mims: Like American Movie.
Tippet: So, when we first met them, it wasn’t really about them skateboarding. They’d been friends for so long and they also told us about this abandoned house in the desert and how they wanted to build a halfpipe in it. It sounded so perfect for a short. Originally we just got into it to do this portrait of these characters. And then Skye comes in. That’s when we knew we had something else. A new storyline opened.
It’s important to let people know this isn’t just another skater documentary, because it’s been compared to Dragonslayer and others. But in fact, it really isn’t about skating at all.
Tippet: With anything in the movie, it’s all just these small parts about them. Skateboarding is just as big a part of their life as religion is or music or anything. We didn’t want to define it as a skating movie, but it’s something they’re visually doing a lot.
What expectations did they or their parents have of your filming them? Sometimes kids can think they’re going to be famous, or they perform more for the camera, but they didn’t ever seem entitled or fake at all. How did you explain what you wanted and were doing?
Mims: When we first began filming them, we wanted to shoot them skateboarding at different places they had found. Then at the end of them skating, there’d be a casual interview with them about whatever was going on, really whatever they wanted to talk about. I think that kinda built on itself. They didn’t really have any expectations. I swear they always thought this was just going to be for them, on DVD. There was never a time where they thought it was going to show in New York. Also, they’re really humble. And because we became good friends, they were excited about telling us certain things that developed in their lives. They looked forward to these interview times. Because of that relationship, it kept them being themselves. We were close to them, so they if they acted up for the camera we would know it.
When Skye entered the picture, into their lives, you say you knew the narrative changed. But did you realize how significant it was that you were now achieving that rare circumstance of documenting a romance as it developed? And did you then have hopes or expectations for where the relationship would take the film?
Tippet: We both love Billy the Kid and how that love story unravels on camera. Either way it was going to go, we wanted to start filming with them. And when we did, then we started getting these hints from Kevin, like when he says, “Before you break up with Skye, give her her belt back.” It felt like it was coming to an end, and that’s when we started filming them a little bit more. Skye wanting to get back with Garrison through the last part of the movie, that was something we got lucky with, because she still had these feelings and Garrison had kinda moved on. We feel very privileged that they were so open to us filming a lot of this stuff. They were all very brave. It’s probably one of the most awkward things you can go through, saying how you feel about someone and then them not feeling the same way about you. It was always tense being with them, because Skye felt one way and Garrison felt another. It was different than when we first started filming with them.
When Skye came into the picture, she became a major character for the film, and you stayed with her after the break up, which not all filmmakers would have done. But when Garrison starts dating another girl, the film doesn’t follow her as a character in the same way. Did you shoot more with her, or were there any other directions you started to go in that just didn’t pan out?
Tippet: At the time, we were watching the show Undeclared, and for the first two episodes you don’t see Jason Segel’s character. You just see this photograph when he talks [heard over the phone]. And Kevin was actually dating someone, and she wouldn’t let us film her. She wanted to have a pet duck, and Kevin tried to explain to her, “I don’t think you can own a duck.” We just caught all of these ridiculous conversations with him and this girl and we always had her talking as this picture. But nothing ended up unfolding with that, other than them breaking up eventually. That was one storyline I was really hoping more would develop from. I just liked this idea of never seeing the girl.
Mims: We also thought Kevin’s skate career was going to be a bigger part of it. Not that we wanted to make it a skateboarding film, but we thought if Kevin did well in Arizona that maybe he was going to be sponsored and we could follow him and Garrison and have this thing where Garrison didn’t qualify but Kevin did. That just didn’t end up being as important as these relationships, which were far more interesting.
That’s the excitement of documentary filmmaking, from what I can tell, how you just go along with the lives you’re filming and never know where they’re headed. And that’s scary at the same time, I suppose.
Tippet: We would go home every night after filming, and Liz and I had these cards and cork board with all the plot points. We were cutting while we were shooting because it was our first feature and we didn’t want to miss anything. We would almost plan out, like if Garrison breaks up with this girl there might be the chance he’ll start hanging out with Skye again, so we need to ask these questions. All it was on our part was us trying to guess where the story was going to be going and ask the right questions so we were covered and prepared. That was the trickiest thing, but I really enjoyed that part.
Tell me more about how the interviews were done, because they’re a really big part of the movie, yet I don’t really think of this as being a talking head sort of documentary. Maybe it’s because you all ended up friends, but the interviews just feel like conversations captured on camera rather than traditional set up of question and answer.
Tippet: Watching the beginning of the film, the first ten minutes or so, feels really different to me. It took us a second to figure out how to achieve those natural interviews. What we ended up doing was start out by asking them something, and then they would forget they were there and go off and talk about their own thing. We would end up losing what we asked them. It was just a starter to get them talking to each other. That’s how we wanted to shoot the rest of the movie, at that point.