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Be True to your School—R.J. Cutler and David Zeiger Bring Cameras into the Classroom

By Tom White

The Fairfax FifteenL Both subjects and videographers of <em>Senior Year</em>

It happens in the documentary world, as it does in any artistic milieu: Two filmmakers, unbeknownst to one another, set out to make likeminded projects. David Zeiger (The Band) and R.J. Cutler (The War Room; A Perfect Candidate) spent the last academic year with their respective crews documenting the lives of high school students. Zeiger filmed at his alma mater, Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, while Cutler filmed at Highland Park High School outside of Chicago. Zeiger’s work, Senior Year, is slated to air on PBS in 2001 as a projected six-hour program, while Cutler’s American High has been airing on Fox Television as a weekly nonfiction series.

In Zeiger’s previous film, The Band (1998) he tracks a year in the life of the Decatur (Georgia) High School Marching Band as a premise to connect with his son Danny, a musician in the band. It was this project that inspired him to make Senior Year. “When I was making The Band,” he recalls, “a friend of Danny’s turned eighteen. I was filming and asking her what it felt like being eighteen, and the response was ‘Eighteen is the oldest I’ll ever be.’ And the rationalization of that was, all your life as a teenager, eighteen is this magical goal, this age to strive for. You’ll never have a goal like that again. That gave me the idea of focusing on that moment in a large group of kids’ lives, where you’re about to leave teenager-hood and go into adult life. You’re facing a lot of choices that are part of that; you’re facing all the kind of drama and tension that go along with that particular moment in life.”

R.J. Cutler was likewise drawn to that watershed age. “I was just very intrigued by what it means to be a kid today,” he explains. “I’m very interested in this moment in life where part of you is growing up and desperately holding on to childhood as much as possible, and part of you is a child that is trying to grow up as quickly as possible. Inherent in that is a conflict and a drama, and when that is set in the mythic environment of high school, with all of these incredible moments that are defining what high school is all about, I thought it would be an amazing experience to spend a year in high school with a group of kids.”

While Zeiger and Cutler shared a fascination with this pivotal time in life, they approached their projects in different ways. Zeiger knew that in order to foster a deeper connection with the students at Fairfax High School, he would need, ironically, to step out of the process. Whereas he was a constant, but necessary, presence while making The Band, he felt that empowering younger filmmakers in the Senior Year project would result in a more trusting filmmaker/participant relationship. IDA members Mark Harris, a assistant professor at University of Southern California, and Marina Goldavskaya, who heads the documentary program at University of California, Los Angeles, helped Zeiger identify six students to serve as unit directors (Goldavskaya is also associate producer of Senior Year). “The idea was to get people who had an affinity with the kids, who the kids could relate to more openly and honestly,” Zeiger explains, “and I also wanted people who would be on duty 24 hours a day, who would live the same pattern as the kids. It was a real practical aspect; we’re checking in with these kids to find out what’s going on. We’re really trying to live with them.”

Zeiger, in a way, was the field general, articulating the goals for the project, establishing the guidelines, and sending his filmmakers out into the field. “The general guideline that I had was that I wanted the camera to be a another person,” he says. “It wasn’t where you had to be completely silent. I like it when the kids turn to the camera and deal with it, not in an interview style, but as another person on the scene. I wanted the camera to always be very close to what was going on. Plus, there’s a technical aspect of it in that we were using all-camera audio, so in order for the audio to work the camera had to be close all the time.”

Zeiger would meet with each filmmaker every two weeks for four hours, going over footage, discussing the students they were following and whatever stories were evolving, and making sure that his team was staying within the goals of the project. Otherwise, Zeiger, because of this managerial role, did not spend as much time shooting as he had in his other projects. “This was a big adjustment for me,” he admits, “because in order for this to really work well my main relationship had to be with the filmmakers.” He would also meet with the students periodically to iron out any problems they might have been having with the filmmakers. “It was almost like I became a counselor,” he reflects. “On the other hand I didn’t want in any way to interfere with the relationship that was developing with the filmmaker.”

For American High, R.J. Cutler put together a team of filmmakers he had worked with on past projects—among them, Nick Doob, who had shot A Perfect Candidate and The War Room; and Dan Partland and Ted Skillman, who had produced A Perfect Candidate and other projects for Cutler. All told, there were two field crews, each made up of two field producers, a cameraman and a sound man, shooting three weeks out of every month; each crew followed up to eight students. Partland was the supervising producer and Skillman was the coordinating producer overseeing that was happening in Highland Park.

A project on network television—particularly a thirteen-episode cinéma vérité series-- has its own challenges, especially for a filmmaker used to creating feature length works for PBS, cable and the theaters. But it was that very experience that inspired Cutler to take on American High as a formal concept in the first place. “The process of making a documentary,” he explains, “is that you basically go out in the field and collect a lot of clay, then you come back in the editing room and you’ve got this huge block of clay, then you carve away at the clay until you got your sculpted thing. But if you look down at the floor when you’re done, there’s a lot of valuable clay down there. It was always very clear to me, that if we had cut it differently, the 150 hours that we shot of A Perfect Candidate, there could have been A Perfect Candidate Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3. It occurred to me that it would be possible to take cinéma vérité into the primetime format, and I also thought that stuff is so damn entertaining and the stories are so compelling that there would be a way to present them for a primetime network audience.”

The executives at 20th Century Fox were wildly enthusiastic about the concept. Studio head Sandy Grushow exclaimed to Cutler, “Let’s go change the world!” Fox committed to thirteen episodes, along with all the resources needed to do the project properly. A documentarian’s paradise, to be sure, but the demands of producing for network television necessitated a dramatic reworking of the vérité filmmaking process. “In order to successfully produce a show like this for network television,” Cutler explains, “there are two things that you have to do that in cinéma vérité you never do. One is you need to cut while you’re shooting. The nature of the relationship that you have with the subject is designed to ensure that at the end of the process you’re going to get your best material. If you’re cutting from the earliest material, it’s going to be very difficult, but you have to do that if you’re going to be on network television. You cannot shoot for a year and take another year to cut and then deliver over a six-month period on network TV. The other thing that you need to do is design your system to be able to expand if they want to go from thirteen to 22 episodes without making Episode 13 be graduation. We’ve got these all of these different directions our stories and episodes can go in, based on what the network decides to do after we’ve aired the first five or six episodes. We can go up to 22, but we’ve got to take a big sharp turn before we come back for spring break and the episodes after spring break leading us up to graduation.”

Projects of this scope and magnitude require the trust and cooperation of not only the students, but the parents, teachers and administration. Zeiger and Cutler spent several weeks--even months, in Zeiger’s case--at their respective schools presenting their projects, showing their previous work and meeting with all appropriate parties. Once Cutler and his crew narrowed down the region for the high school, they looked for “a community that would on the one hand instantly see the potential benefits of doing this project, but on the other hand was going to insist on an active skepticism along the way,” Cutler emphasizes. “We needed people who would be actively involved as our partners and would be willing to play that role.” Cutler even invited Highland Park High School administrators to check in with such former subjects as George Stephanopoulis (The War Room) and Mark Goodman (A Perfect Candidate).

That Zeiger was an alumnus of Fairfax High School helped open doors. “I think it broke down the immediate distrust that people would have about a filmmaker wanting to come in and make a school about high school kids,” he allows. “So much of that is so exploited and unreal. That itself made people more confident that I wasn’t going to do that, that I had an honorable intent in doing this.” He spent the spring semester prior to production meeting with teachers, counselors and students, then met with students one on one to get a sense of their willingness to participate in the project and, of course, the stories they had to tell. He eventually chose fifteen students. Following a presentation to students and parents, the Cutler team also interviewed potential participants and selected 24 out of 120 applicants..

What attracted both high school administrations to the projects was the fact that both filmmakers mandated the active participation of students in telling their own stories. Both documentary projects incorporate video diary segments created by the students. This democratization of the filmmaker/participant relationship enables the students to mine much deeper personal territory than the filmmakers ever could. “Initially,” Zeiger recalls, “I thought that was a way of getting an additional avenue into their lives that they were in control of, that would still look very professional, which was all true. But what also started happening when we started doing it was that it was not just another way into their lives; it was some of most compelling stuff that I’ve seen of what we’d shot.” Zeiger and his crew taught the students how to use their cameras, while in the American High project, producer Jonathan Mednick, a former university professor, conducted classes on campus about technique, composition and lighting, among other areas. The resulting video diaries are “truly astounding stuff that you just can’t see anywhere else,” says Cutler.

The video diaries are just part of the thousands of hours of footage that Cutler and his team of six editors, each commandeering an editing room, are grappling with and shaping into a series of 22-minute episodes. To ameliorate the process, the Cutler team spent months designing and building a comprehensive database that includes every frame that was shot, cross-referenced by character, theme, location, shooter and date. “While were processing all this material here (in Los Angeles),” Cutler explains, “we were also communicating with the field (in Highland Park) on a daily basis. Every ten weeks the field would come here, and they’d spend a week here debriefing on every thing that had happened, and once a week we would go through everything that had happened in a conference call. It took us months to figure out how to process the material and answer the question of what is the show in and of itself. Once we got to that point, then we were building episodes. David Van Taylor, Mona Davis and I took a year to cut A Perfect Candidate; we’re cutting half-hour episodes in four to five weeks time, at the most. And we’re dealing with studio notes and network notes and the school’s input.”

For Zeiger, the challenge in the months ahead lies in corralling the stories his team has documented into a six-hour series. Abraham Lim, who has worked extensively with Robert Altman, is heading up the editing team with Zeiger. “What we’re doing now,” he explains, “is we’re taking a cumulative story, with each character outlining their story. Once we’ve done that with each character, then we’re going to see how it all weaves together, which characters flow through the whole series, which characters come and go, and when and why and how the different stories interact with one another.” Looking ahead to its PBS airing next year, Zeiger has high hopes for Senior Year. “The key thing that I want people to do is fall in love with these kids, the same way you fall in love with characters in a sitcom or a series. There’s a definite point of view that I want to get across—one, teenagers have a level of intelligence and wisdom and insight into the world that is not only negated in the media, it’s completely ignored, and we all tend to forget it as we grow older. I also want viewers to be exhilarated with how exciting this new generation is; it’s got a whole new culture that revolves around the fact that a lot of the students are second generation immigrants and have grown up in the most diverse environment that’s ever existed.”

For R.J. Cutler, the American High experience has changed him as a filmmaker and as a person. “The filmmaker in me is more convinced than ever of the value of this work and the absolute place that it has as popular entertainment. And you can do that without compromising a sliver of your artistic integrity and convictions. The human being or artist/human being has changed enormously by virtue of the intense relationship that I’ve had with seventeen-year-olds over the last year. These are amazing people at an amazing moment in their lives, who taught me tremendous things. In some cases they were re-teaching me things that I had once known; in other cases they were teaching me about looking at life with a healthy combination of fearlessness and fearfulness and a true sense of adventure. I’m much more aware of what the seventeen year old in me thinks and cares about than I was before this.”


Thomas White is acting editor of International Documentary. He is a high school graduate.