“There’s Nothing I Can Write That’s as Good as What These Kids are Going to Come Up With”: Frederic Da on Slamdance 2021 Premiere Teenage Emotions
“Being a teenager…is fuckin lit”: The individually colored letters of Teenage Emotions’s title appear one by one against a black screen, filled out by the increasing roar of its young subjects’ voices in mixed-together chorus. But the title, opening aggregation of “emotional time of your life” sentiments and a subsequent left-to-right pan of a crowded high school courtyard soundtracked by Mozart’s Mass in C Minor seem to portend something more histrionic than what follows, a faultlessly realistic, unexpectedly pleasant, funny and relentlessly up-to-date immersion into high school life that (almost) never leaves campus.
Frederic Da’s no-budget first feature, Teenage Emotions was shot in collaboration during lunch breaks with students at New Roads School in Santa Monica, where he teaches. Most of the film consists of interactions between small groups of teenagers talking it out. Jaya (Jaya Harper) doesn’t want to dress up to get male attention, which gets her a lot of shit from best friend Clementine (Clementine Warner). Ava (Ava Cooper) may or may not be dating senior Silas (Silas Mitchell), who swears up and down that’s not true, but she’s definitely emotionally raw. Jayden (Jayden Capers) hangs out with two friends who can’t stop scrolling Instagram and objectifying women while he quietly simmers with discontent. Sometimes tough subject matter is handled with a delicate touch as the film sits back, capturing of-the-moment chat in long sequences whose verisimilitude is flawless—it takes 40 minutes for dramatic arcs to start becoming truly discernible amidst the seemingly-captured conversations.
Teenage Emotions is premiering at Slamdance, where Da’s predecessor short, Ava’s Dating a Senior!, also debuted. I stumbled across the feature simply because I saw Da’s name in the lineup and remembered him from our overlapping time at NYU—we hadn’t talked in a decade-plus. After wrapping Sundance, I called Da to walk through the production of his feature debut.
Filmmaker: Can you walk through the trajectory that led you from film school to this high school in Santa Monica?
Da: I was in a movie when I was 10—A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, a James Ivory movie made when I lived in France. When I was on set, I remember being really drawn by the role Ivory had. I’d always loved movies, but when you’re a kid, you’re drawn to what you see: the actors. [After seeing Ivory direct, I] quickly realized I didn’t want to act at all. So, my uncle gave me a camera and I just started making movies. At first it was silly horror stuff—blood in the bathtub, all that. Then I started making movies with my teenage friends and it was a lot of, like, my dad and one of my friends arguing in the car—something you could’ve seen in Teenage Emotions, actually.
I went to Tisch and did cinema studies there, because my mom wanted me to have a BA instead of a BFA. When I got to college, I met this guy named Eliot Churbuck who had pretty much seen everything—he actually recognized me from the Ivory movie—and we watched four or five movies a day for years. During that time, I really didn’t make anything. I was nervous about shooting stuff, whereas when I was a kid, I wasn’t watching as much but was shooting kind of naturally. When I left NYU, I worked on an experimental short and didn’t like it at all—it was me trying to be something I wasn’t. I moved to Los Angeles and over time decided, “I want to make stuff, but with no money, and if I can start making good stuff with zero dollars, I’ll feel more comfortable making stuff with some money.” Because I’d gotten some money for projects after NYU and just didn’t know what to do with it. I was not prepared for that.
So, I started making shorts. In the meantime, I was trying to make money, so I was tutoring French and that led me to this school. One of the kids, we would talk movies a lot, and they said “You should be the film teacher here,” because the position was suddenly available. The first year went really well, and ultimately they took me on full-time and I was able to expand the film theory program, which is what I really wanted to do. Now we have five or six film theory classes. I still teach Video Shorts [production], because I really like working with 12 year olds, I think that’s lots of fun. I also teach the final stop, Advanced Film Production.
I had this one script a couple of years back, The Party at Connor Perry’s House, that had gotten optioned, then nothing happened with it and I got the rights back. I thought, “You know what? Let me try to make this with my students over the summer.” The parents agreed. It was this fixed script that was very different than the shorts that I’d been making. When [the students are] doing things that are locked on the page, the acting’s problematic and there’s all sorts of things bugging me. I didn’t like the finished product, but what I got out of that was the process. I started figuring out that I can just throw a concept at them and let them roll with it. I always liked those scenes. The other thing I learned from that was shooting with multiple iPhones at once to get reactions. I really did like a couple of scenes from Connor Perry’s House, and I was like, “Damn, if I had a whole movie that was coherent and seemed like this, that would entertain me. I would like to watch that.”
Filmmaker: What was that script about?
Da: That was based on a true story. The kid threw a party at his house; his parents said he wasn’t allowed, but he threw it because they were going out of town. It’s a party movie and you find out at the end that actually he killed his parents and they were in the house the whole time. I thought it was a really cool vessel for a teen movie about disillusionment. And, on paper, the script is good. But when I started putting actual kids in it—there’s nothing I can write that’s as good as what these kids are going to come up with, the way they express themselves and the turns of phrase. Whenever they were reading my words, it just didn’t feel authentic, to the point where I’m like, “This is horrible, I can’t watch this.” So, that was one of the problems I was having. But whenever I’d let them go off, as long as I could control a little bit of what they were talking about and was constantly thinking about the editing, [it would work]. I had to be super focused, to be able to say, “How am I going to end this scene, and how are we going to start off?” So, I’d let them go with it a bit, then start having an idea and say, “Maybe try saying this and that to have different options when I’m editing.”
Filmmaker: It sounds analogous to Andrew Bujalski figuring out in film school that there was actually no point in trying to make scripts with bad actors because it was not working, so he had to write a different way.
Da: Connor Perry’s House was a script script, Teenage Emotions was not. The script could’ve fit on like a piece of toilet paper, basically. It was just arcs that I had, and a lot of them were based on other movies. The arc of Jayden and his kind of misogynistic friends, that’s just Marty, which we had watched in class. I don’t think Azizi [Hamilton] was there, but Jayden [Capers] and Janiero [Lettries] were definitely there. I’d been wanting to do this for a little while, to flip Marty and put it in high school with someone like Jayden. Jayden is shy and introverted and soft-spoken, but he hangs out with friends who are very extroverted and funny and rambunctious and kind of disrespectful at times. So, to me, that made sense.
The same thing with Jaya’s plotline. That was loosely inspired by The Green Ray: a girl just wants to be appreciated, but at the same time she’s so certain that she’s ugly and sucks. Jaya had seen the short that I’d done the year before, Ava’s Dating a Senior! I’d never taught her. She was a freshman and kept coming up to me going, “I want to act, just put me in anything. I’ll even hold the camera.” I wasn’t really sure, then I saw her talking one day with her best friend, Clementine, who is the complete opposite of Jaya in so many ways. As I got to know them, I realized they’re actually quite similar, too. But they seemed so diametrically opposed, yet they were best friends. And they were always talking about things like looks, so I started thinking about The Green Ray and all those conversations she’s having.
There’s a side note on that: Jaya’s mom is Laura Dern. That was kind of scary because I was like, “Wait, I’m going to have to ask Laura Dern for permission?” But Jaya was so adamant that I was like, “Worst comes to worst, we’ll just throw it out. This costs nothing. Let’s try it.” And we tried a few scenes and, in my opinion, they were very strong. Ultimately we showed it to Jaya’s mom, she loved it and was super supportive and gave us all her blessings and was super excited when it got into Slamdance, so that was awesome. But you know, it was tricky territory. It was nervewracking as I was making it, that’s for sure.
Filmmaker: You have kids enacting scenarios related to sex. There’s the possible illegality of underage Juuling, which is kind of a trivial thing but nonetheless. And maybe, for the right reasons or not, the kids’ parents would look at this, see a one-to-one relationship with their actual lives and freak out. How did you handle establishing all of those expectations with both the students and parents?
Da: A lot goes into that. I know a lot of the parents, I’ve had the kids as students for a long time; it’s not like we’re all complete strangers. I did have lines that I said from the get-go I would not cross: no sex, not even kissing. No drugs, no violence, no beating someone up or anything like that. The Juul thing, the kid is a senior—he’s actually in Ava’s Dating a Senior! but that scene isn’t in there. I did that scene with him during the summer. I didn’t want to break any school rules. Then yeah, a lot of what they’re talking about is sex-related, or girls and boys and who likes who. I eat my lunch in classrooms—there’s an eating area, but a lot of kids go into classrooms, so you’re privy to these conversations. Ava’s mom came to Slamdance with us last year, Jaya’s parents watched it and liked it—I think they’re able to see that it is acting. There is a relationship to who the characters are, but to me there’s nothing so horrible in this movie that would be that much of an issue. Maybe just the character of Jack, who plays the shitty bully at the end. That was the most fake thing I did in the movie, and for a long time we wanted to take it out, but in the end I thought it fit. But yeah, it was just getting it good, then showing it and hoping that the product speaks for itself.
Filmmaker: Are the English subtitles a permanent feature of the movie?
Da: I don’t know. I like them there, though. What do you think?
Filmmaker: I don’t know either. At first I wasn’t sure if I had the settings wrong. But I don’t spend any time around teenagers, you know? I was so verbally lost sometimes that without the subs, it would’ve been a lot denser. To me, it was helpful. I know there’s a counter-argument.
Da: I’m curious, what would be the counter-argument?
Filmmaker: I think it comes more from the nonfiction side of thinking about things, but the idea is that if somebody is speaking English, that may be could be difficult to understand for reasons of regional dialect or accent or something like that, unless it seems truly inaudible, it’s almost disrespectful to have subtitles because you’re otherizing them.
Da: Yeah, that’s an interesting point. The way I see it, though, is that all of my students watch movies with subtitles. All of them. I have never had a single class where I’m like, “Do you guys want me to turn the subtitles on?” and a kid’s like, “No.” That’s never happened in five years. And I watch movies with subtitles. When I’m in bed and my wife or baby is asleep and I’m watching a video on Facebook, automatically there are subtitles. They’re burned in so you can watch them without sound. Just from my experience, it feels very young to put the subtitles there. If we’re watching a foreign film, obviously they want the subs on there. But if we’re watching any type of American film, they always want them on. And I don’t mind it, either, because I watch them with them on, too. My wife’s French, so she prefers to have them on, but even if she wasn’t there, I have them on anyway.
Filmmaker: You were setting up procedures with the kids while also thinking as an editor. I assume that there were rules you had to figure out and work with them on, just so that they understood basic coverage needs. How did you figure out setting that up every time so you didn’t have to worry about it?
Da: I had my equipment in my car all the time. And by equipment, I just mean I had my lav mics—I have three or four—and a sound recorder. One day, one of my students was in a passionate conversation during lunch about some relationship she was in, and her friends were all giving their opinions. And I asked her, “Do you mind if I film this?” She was like, “Sure, dope.” I had the other kids all hold iPhones, mic’d up the table and just let them go, then I would say, “Maybe try saying this and this,” because I’m also thinking about how I can edit this 30-minute take into a coherent four-minute scene. We kept doing that, and that ended up working out very well. Based on that scene, I would go home, edit and be like “Oh, that’d be cool. The scene I want to see after this is something like this.” Then I’d go to school, and during lunch or a free period try and add the next scene, day-by-day like that. That turned out to be a short that went to Slamdance called Ava’s Dating a Senior!
I had a good flow going and the kids trusted me, so I decided to keep shooting and make it more of an all-encompassing high school experience. So, it was trying things with different kids and anyone who wanted to shoot or be a part of it, checking the sound recorder or whatever. All of this would be during lunch breaks or free periods, so by the time you set up you really only have 25 minutes. We would roll one take, 25 minutes on three or four phones at the same time. Then, when we’d hear the bell ring and there’s that five-minute window for people to go back to class, I’d quickly AirDrop all the footage from the different phones back onto my computer. Then I would go home, splice it together and that was pretty much it.
Filmmaker: Were they shooting on their own phones?
Da: There was no real coverage, in the sense that it was just complete coverage constantly in one take. So, we weren’t doing takes, we were doing one take for 25 or 30 minutes. It would normally go like this: OK, I have the guy or the girl that I need in my scene. I’d ask: “I have an iPhone 11. Does anybody else have an iPhone 11?” “Yeah.” “All right, cool. Does anybody have an iPhone 10?” We would go down like that, trying to keep it close to the same quality. If you’re mixing an iPhone 11 or 10 with an iPhone 4, it’s pretty jarring. Sometimes it happens. I’d have other kids hanging out there, and I’d be like, “Can you hold this and point it at Ava? Can you point this at Silas?” Then we’re rolling. That’s why the movie is a collection of close-ups on faces—which, when I’m watching movies, is my favorite type of shot. Formally, that’s what it is. And because you have 30 minutes and everyone’s reactions, the possibilities in the editing room are pretty endless as long as you make sure they said the lines you need.
What I was doing in high school looks a lot like Teenage Emotions, and that’s kind of the point: I wanted it to feel like something I would have made that I just wasn’t ready to make when I was in high school, but I wanted it to feel like a kid made it to give it that feeling of authenticity. There were a lot of little things we were doing in the editing, or when shooting, to try and keep that non-glossy feel. A lot of things we tried never amounted to anything. I have a lot of outtakes of other kids that didn’t fit or we weren’t able to finish the arcs because of COVID. I was planning on shooting for another 30 days, and most of the arcs in the movie were unfinished. When we realized we’re not going back to school ever, I was super depressed. I was like “This movie’s fucking garbage.” And my wife Roxane Mesquida, who’s also my producer, was like, “no.” Because at first I wanted it to be chapters and ultimately, we realized, we can’t do the chapters, so my wife was like, “You need to go floating eyeball with this.” So, we started creating links and arcs that weren’t there. Jayden and Jaya are linked in a way, and at the end they’re looking at each other, but they never met. They didn’t even know each other in real life—they’re in different grades and everything. Jayden’s plotline had other things in it that would’ve worked in chapters but didn’t work in floating eyeball. Like, there was a prom scene with this girl who is not appreciated and people make fun of, and they end up talking—really, just think Marty. I had to cut all that out to keep it in the vibe of one day at school, even though it’s clearly not one day. Cutting to nighttime, then going back to daytime, would’ve been a buzz breaker, so we had to take that out. It was months of editing during the summer.
Filmmaker: When you were sitting there editing, it’s footage that’s now yours entirely to figure out from start to finish. It’s been an entirely collaborative process up to that, now you’re imposing arcs that the kids may not even have known about. How long did it take you to figure that all out? I think they knew from the beginning that you were going to do your thing as an editor.
Da: Keep in mind, I had already thrown the entire thing in the trash and that’s way tougher. The one thing to say to that is that I genuinely love these kids. I am truly depressed that I have not seen them in almost a year. I mean, I’ve seen them on Zoom and everything, but it’s not quite the same. This was a job that I fell into that at first, if you’d asked me, I would’ve been like, “No, I’m just going to do this one year, then find something else.” And it turned into a job where I was like, “Dude, if I can do this for the rest of my life, I’m going to be very happy.” I love all the kids that are in the movie and all the kids that aren’t in the movie. So, I don’t think I would be able to sleep at night if I was morphing them on my own into things that they were not. First of all, if that were the case, they would know about it, but that wasn’t really ever the case. The only big one was the one that I had to link Jaya and Jayden somehow, and in the end it made sense to do that, because they are very similar characters. Jaya is surrounded by people she doesn’t really relate to. Her friend is like, “To get boys you have to dress like this and do this and that,” and she’s not into that. And on his side, Jayden is hanging out with some pretty rambunctious, misogynistic dudes who are like, “You’ve got to talk to girls like this, you’ve got to be like that,” and he doesn’t feel comfortable with any of that. So it just made sense as we were editing to go, “Why don’t we just give you a sense as a viewer that these characters may end up together, even though we don’t really have scenes of them talking?”
There’s things I could’ve done to make the movie more sensational. I didn’t want to do that, because I genuinely feel protective of these kids. I didn’t want it to be this cynical thing, where it was like, “Look at these shitty kids,” you know? It’s more like, “Look at these kids. Kids can be mean. Kids can be funny. Kids can be a lot of things. That’s why we call them kids. They’re not adults, they’re figuring this stuff out, they’re seeing where the limits are.” I wanted it to be claustrophobic and in your face and I wanted it to be real, so I didn’t want everyone to be happy and nice, but I didn’t want them all to be mean and horrible either.