‘Only the Young’ Directors Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims on Capturing Real Teen Life and Romance Without the Dramatic Cliches
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?
Jason Tippet: Our first interest is we love buddy films. Any sort of friendship story is something we’re suckers for.
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.
One of the great things about the film is how it doesn’t make a really big deal out of the evangelical aspect or the economic aspect or any of that. It often plays against audience expectations. But did you want to make a big deal out of not making a big deal?
Mims: It just kept coming up, really, and then developed upon itself. Like Skye’s situation with her family, we kept thinking it was going to get better, truly. Then as we would check in with her every time we would interview her, it was something that was weighing on her mind. As it would if you were getting evicted. We never really pushed it, it just sort of kept evolving. With her, we knew eventually it would come down to a point where she was going to have to move. The whole backdrop of these places that may have been open five years ago and are closed, like the mini-golf course or the backyards of these empty houses, these are all just places they happened to find, the places where they thought they could go to be on their own. It just played into the whole idea of what’s really going on around them.
Tippet: We also didn’t want to overdramatize anything. We didn’t really want to show being a teenager in a negative light, and if you concentrate on one specific part of their life they become pinned down. “That’s the religious kid,” or “they’re skaters,” or “they cut themselves.” If we had kept following Kevin to see if he’s still cutting himself, then it turns into one of those films. At least for us, we don’t remember growing up with being a teenager being a negative thing at all. There were people we knew who did those things and it wasn’t a big deal. Skateboarding is as big a part of the story as their friendship or Skye losing their house or this community where people can no longer afford their homes. We just wanted to touch on everything a little bit and show what these kids are doing with it that’s positive.
Regarding expectations, I have to ask about the music. I don’t blame you for not having Crass and Minor Threat and Black Flag on the soundtrack, as that stuff would go against the tone of the film, but why old soul songs?
Tippet: It’s the perfect soundtrack for what a teenager is going through. These are songs about heartbreak and struggle and being in love with people who don’t love you back. We just thought these were all themes that teenagers would be going through. It was really early on that we put in soul music. The second day is when we shot the tunnel stuff and opening it with that soul song is some of the first stuff we cut together. And that’s what we ended up showing [producer] Derek Waters, and he got really excited about it. We also love how Wes Anderson uses music, and some of the montages he does, using music as a theme for the whole thing. Soul music seemed like a good theme to go with.
Mims: More than it being an aesthetic, we wanted the film to be just the way we shot it, completely on tripod in a cinematic way, where we wanted it to be inviting for people to feel the sensation of being a teenager again. I think this music allows that to happen, because it fits so well with the texture of the images. It draws us in. You could enjoy these moments that they’re having. Not that you wouldn’t be able to do that with Crass or Black Flag, but it created it’s own aesthetic.
Tippet: Also, they have such aggressive music, and what we were trying to make was more like, you could sit back and take a deep breath and just enjoy it. It’s not jarring, there’s no hand-held camera movement. The way Dragonslayer uses music is completely fitting. There’s like flip-cam footage and it’s very gritty and sun-flared and it completely works for that kind of film. But how we wanted to pace it and the kinds of kids we were following, they felt like old souls in a way and a little more laid back. And Nick Thorburn did two songs for the film, and it’s strange because his music is just like the soundtrack to Liz’s and my teenage years. Being able to use him was a great experience as well.
This is a film that has so much transcendent appeal for audiences who don’t typically watch documentaries. But a lot of people still have so much trouble with the word documentary. If it was scripted, people would be all over it. And on the other side of the spectrum, if it was a reality show on MTV it would have greater access. Have you encountered any hurdles because of the doc stigma?
Mims: We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the general responses from all different kinds of people. In terms of getting people to see it, it’s funny that from the trailer we see posts or comments where people are clearly confused if this is a narrative or a documentary. It would be great if we could get a bigger audience to come to this, but I still feel that because we value these very simple moments that happen in the film that I don’t know what the response is going to be. It’s not slow, but it takes its time. We were at documentary festivals for so long, then at the first couple narrative/documentary fests, like AFI and San Francisco, we had amazing responses from audiences that were coming to see both. That was really refreshing.
Tippet: It’s obviously something I’m thinking about now, but when we were making this, it was a very selfish thing. It was something both of us really wanted to see. We were just making this for ourselves and what we’re interested in and how we wanted to shoot it and the music we wanted to use. The fact that people are receiving it right now is extremely rewarding. I know that money-wise that if this was a reality show and we took the first 25 minutes… I’m sure we could have gone about doing it that way. For us, though, we love the integrity that documentary films have. And not that we’re on this level, but the films we look up to are American Movie and Billy the Kid. They just went about doing it the right way. We wanted to do things the right way.
It’s not possible with all documentaries, but with this one I want to just be able to tell people it’s just a movie. Never mind fiction or nonfiction. It’s just a wonderful film. And I think the only way people will be disappointed is if they have such a strong dislike of documentaries, solely by classification.
Tippet: Liz, remember that guy in Toronto who when we were explaining what our movie was, he said, “Yeah, I read that synopsis. I’m not interested at all.” It’s interesting, because it’s not like you’d read a Wes Anderson synopsis and say, “Well, I’m not really that into adventure and Jacques Cousteau, so I’m not going to see The Life Aquatic.” You’re invested in these directors, and I feel like with documentaries that’s also how it should be. I’m hoping it is slowly getting to that point. With documentaries I think people expect it to be a lesson, like an educational experience instead of it being a movie. Like, “What am I going to learn about? Well, I’ve been following gay rights in Uganda and Call Me Kuchu sounds interesting. I’d like to learn more about that.” Instead it should be like, “Katy and Malika made this before and this is something they’re trying to say…”
Mims: I get all these people who are like, “I’m not really interested in that because I don’t know anything about skateboarding.”
On that note of the idea of following a filmmaker, with this being your first feature I can’t wait to see what you do next. Are you guys going to keep with nonfiction or are you interested in doing a narrative? I could easily see you being wooed by producers towards fiction material given the storytelling skill you display here.
Tippet: I’m not opposed to making fiction works. I love documentaries that are happening in the moment and you’re catching something as it’s happening. So, if there’s a story that already happened that I’m really interested in, I wouldn’t want to ever go back and make a talking head and reenactment doc. I think at that point I’d be interested in scripting something. But the second thing I want to do is a doc. I’m still trying to find out from the subject, but I really want to make this movie. It’s kind of about the Muhammad slam piece that came out and the riots in Libya. It has a small part to do with that. There’s that, and there’s this other kid I met… I appreciate writers who write what they know, and I feel like I’ve already been through this teenage phase in my life, and the next thing is I’d love to follow someone who’s just out of college and moved back into town. I haven’t exactly found that person yet. This movie’s keeping us very busy. I thought we’d be done with this, and it’s a full-time job.
Mims: It’s a lot. It’s definitely taking up a lot of time. I’m trying my hand at writing right now. It’s something I’m interested in exploring a little more, something more scripted. So, I’m working on that at this point. I’m trying to still write in the same perspective of the documentary in terms of kind of a very real narrative. But the subjects tend to find us, so I’m just open to a story, but nothing has presented itself that I really want to capture at the moment. We’ll see.
Tippet: Didn’t you just finish a short film, too?
Mims: I’m working on one right now, but it’s not done.
Only the Young opens in NYC this Friday, December 7th. If you live in New York City, you can win tickets with us!