“What About the First Time I Got Drunk?” Jenny Gage and Tom Betterton on All This Panic at Tribeca
In their impressively fleet debut All This Panic, the personal/professional partnership of Jenny Gage (director) and Tom Betterton (DP) train their gaze on a group of teenage girls growing up in Brooklyn. Tracking Lina, Ginger, Dusty and Delia as they transition from 16 to 19 (with older and younger outliers), the film unfolds in a 79-minute blast, articulately speeding through years of teen not-quite-turmoil. Impressively locked in, edited for speed and emotional impact, and exponentially more complex than most depictions of contemporary teen girls in either fiction or non-fiction filmmaking, All This Panic is an empathetic rush translating their experiences into something even the oldest and most mystified among us can understand. The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last week; after their screening on Friday, Gage and Betterton sat down to discuss the making of the film.
Filmmaker: Can you talk a bit about your career path? You’ve transitioned from still photography and commercial work to making your first film, which is a fairly common trajectory right now.
Gage: As still photographers, I think we’ve always been interested in story making. We’ve always been as inspired by films, television and the moving picture as still photography, so it seemed like a natural progression.
Betterton: When we first started our career as photographers, we worked together. I had actually studied film and Jenny was a photographer making narrative pictures, and we started talking about how you could make a very filmic-looking photograph that could hint at a story — like a film still, where you see it and if it’s a good one you can understand the context of it.
Gage: Also, as photographers, we were super inspired by Laurie Simmons, Cindy Sherman, Gregory Crewdson — all of those photographers who made narrative photos.
Filmmaker: Did you have the concept of wanting to make this film before you had the characters, or was it the other way around?
Gage: Characters first, don’t you think?
Betterton: Yeah. Jenny saw the story potential in somebody that age — not knowing that they were going to go through anything in particular, but having been a teenage girl, it’s like “These girls are 16 years old. By the time they’re 18 or 19, they’re going to have gone through an entire lifetime of stuff. It may not be reality show-style, going off the rails, but it’ll be an incredible journey if we pay attention to them, if we stick with them and really go in close with them.”
Gage: We knew Ginger and Dusty since they were eight and ten years old. Right at the time we had our daughter, they moved down the street from us. At that point, they were 13 and 15. We would see them walking to school every day with a different color of hair: green hair, pink hair, whatever. I became fascinated. You know you see teenagers on the street and the subway and they’re talking, and you’re like, “What are they talking about?” They’re a little bit terrifying, and you’re also like, “Whoa, they have this world going on.” So I approached their parents — we knew them a little bit — and they said “OK.” Maybe a week later we started following Ginger.
Filmmaker: Was there ever any concern on the girls’ parts that when you’re filming their lives, which includes them doing stuff their parents probably wouldn’t want them to do, that you would rat them out?
Gage: They never told us that they were worried about us ratting them out, but I know they were. I think most of the stuff that they were doing, the parents knew on a certain level. They knew that they were going to a party and probably going to have some alcohol. So, we were never really in a position where I was like, “Ooh, should I be telling their parents this?” Dusty, Ginger’s younger sister, was the only one; I said to her, “Are you hiding anything from us?” “Yes.” “Why?” “Well, you know my parents.” I think she knew that the film would come out, because she definitely was the most careful.
Betterton: The funny thing was that they were like, “Just as long as this comes out after I’m out of high school, then we’re fine.” We couldn’t quite ever figure out what the magical thing of being out of high school is as far as your parents are concerned. The other funny thing was, at the very beginning they were like “Oh, I shouldn’t talk about that because I’ll be at the premiere” or whatever, and as time went on it was obvious that no one was ever going to see this thing. Then they thought that too, and we just became part of our lives. And last night they were standing up in front of everybody: “I guess people saw it!”
Filmmaker: Something documentarians talk about is that people who’ve grown up watching a lot of reality TV present themselves to the camera in a way that’s very glaring. Did you have to fight through some of that?
Gage: Maybe not the reality stuff. We weren’t putting ourselves in those positions as much. You can tell when they thought a story would definitely be in the film, like “the first time I got drunk” or something. You could see that they’re really telling this story and know it’s going to be in the film, and almost all those moments never ended up in the film. They were very surprised: “Hey, what about the first time I got drunk?” But it was all about the in-between moments and what’s going on inside your head.
Filmmaker: What were your guidelines when you started doing the film in terms of how often you would film them, where you would meet them and how much time the production might take?
Gage: Tom had very specific rules and guidelines for how it would be shot. I feel like it was very organic. In the spring, we’d film them a lot because there’s so much going on, and in the winter people hibernate more, even kids. They get done with school at four, and it gets dark at six. So we’d say, “Text us if you want to be filmed, text us if something’s going on, text us if you want to talk.” It would just go like that. Maybe one week it would be four times during the week, and then another week it would be once. We were always with them for a minimum of two to four hours. That would be the sweet spot.
We knew that we wanted it to go over a long period of time, but it wasn’t like we were going to do it within a year. We wanted to see them develop. Then Tom went out with Lena, in what’s the second-to-last scene of the movie, but we really see it as the last scene, where she’s in the cab [on her way to taking a trip out of town to travel for an indefinite amount of time]. We were basically going back and forth: “Is it too conventional to go film her in the cab?” When we came back and saw the footage, we thought, “Lena just ended the film for us. She summed up adolescence and her story so succinctly.”
Filmmaker: Can you talk about division of labor?
Betterton: Jenny was directing and definitely producing — talent coordination and all that kind of thing — which was hilarious, because those girls only text. They don’t answer the phone, so she was just like this [mimics manic text-typing] for three years. I was shooting. Sometimes she would send me out alone, but mostly it was the two of us. The only way we could stay with them for so long and not tread too heavily in the houses and their lives, and [the only way] that we could afford to have a three-year process, was that it would just be us.
Gage: You basically handheld everything, right?
Betterton: Yeah. I had thought that if we were going to do something where we didn’t know necessarily know what was going to be interesting about it while we were doing it, we felt like if you were really in there and really a part of their life, that the camera almost felt like it had a personality, that it would keep you engaged inside that really intimate space. Also, it was an extremely human point of view. I decided to shoot with the same lens and body for the three years to get that wild style, which is like what you’re doing now: you’re looking at me, but you’re also glancing away and looking at my tie because you notice that or whatever. If we could keep that going for the entire time, when you edited it all down it would feel like a real style.
Filmmaker: How did you handle editing? Do you know how many hours of footage you had?
Betterton: 130 hours? 140?
Gage: We logged it ourselves.
Betterton: It wasn’t logged, it was just put away by date. We just kept piling it up.
Gage: I went through all the footage, made selects, and then he went through and made selects.
Betterton: Jenny logged everything by hand, all the interesting stuff, pretty much after we were done. We were very familiar with the footage; we were there, you know?
Gage: I would look at the footage and be like, “Do you want to look at the footage?” “Nope. I saw it.”
Betterton: It was also excruciating, because the way we shot it, with one camera and everybody’s talking — I think it was good in the end, but I had this idea that I would never shoot any b-rolls or cutaways. Because we didn’t start editing until the very end, it was like a pit in my stomach the whole time, because I never knew if it was going to work.
Filmmaker: So you made it through the bulk of production without external funding.
Gage: We did independent fundraising, a lot of deferment, a lot of deals, and a chunk of our savings.
Filmmaker: How long did post-production take you?
Gage: Editing was quick, maybe four months for the rough cut that we submitted to Tribeca. We did get word from Tribeca very early, so at that point we had a long period of time before we were really going to start sound and color correction. The original editor finished and we went did a paper cut of the whole movie, and had a chance to sit there and move stuff around, to take pieces in the timeline and move them and see what happened. We did that for a month. That’s when we had another editor come in to help us put all that together so that it made sense. That was really great, because we were rushing so much to get done for the deadline that it was great to get that chance to revisit it.
Filmmaker: It’s a very rapid movie, with the subjective feeling of things rushing and being trapped in a teenager’s head. How did you arrive at that tempo? Did you know initially that it was probably going to play that fast?
Betterton: I think so. It was Jenny’s thing, wanting the movie to blow past the way the girls experienced that thing where you’re like “Oh my god, I’m no longer in high school. That happened fast.” It’s a metaphor for that period.
Gage: I also think that our editor, Connor Kalista, was a big help with pacing. He set it up for us. We all agreed on that: yes, it needs to tumble out.
Filmmaker: A guy I talked to about the film said he had a problem: he couldn’t believe that the girls were this routinely articulate. Obviously you had to cut things, because nobody’s that articulate all the time, but part of the movie is about how articulate they are, which is the opposite of how girls that age are routinely depicted and thought of.
Gage: It’s interesting because last night, one of the girls’ parents said to me — not one of Lena’s parents, but someone who’d known her since she was a girl — “Wow, you really captured the side of Lena that’s so articulate and poised.” She has another side where she’s all over the place and a little bit spazzy. I feel like all the girls have both sides, but we were really interested in slowing them down and hearing what they have to say. They are that articulate, and if you listen to teenage girls, they have a lot more to say than I think films let them express. They’re definitely not manipulated, right?
Betterton: No. We definitely did a lot of editing, but we were letting them speak.
Gage: I think also it’s because we’re neutral. If they were talking to their parents it wouldn’t be like that; there’s way too many emotions and history and the whole thing. But we were grown-ups that were really listening and not judging them, and I think they feel lucky that they had that.
Filmmaker: Are there any documentaries about adolescents and teenagers that you looked at as points of reference?
Gage: You know what’s funny? The girls loved that James Franco movie, Palo Alto. They were like, “It speaks to us!” I loved that! I saw it, and I like it OK, but it didn’t do that for me.
Betterton: We looked at a lot of teen docs, but when we were looking at them, we knew what we wanted to try and do. We were looking for something where, when you’re starting a project, you can be like “They did it like this, that means we can do it too.” And we never really found something that was that.
Filmmaker: The movie I thought it was closest to is Kati With an I, which is also a very subjective and rapid movie but in a very different way that feels very claustrophobic.
Betterton: That’s an interesting movie, because there’s a whole group of movies like that that were very inspiring in terms of the idea that you could just make it. The decision to do it is what makes it happen. He [Robert Greene] obviously has a very different point of view about film, but close to the time when we were starting, we saw that and Pavilion, which is an interesting reference point for emotional storytelling and point of view.
Filmmaker: How did Mary Timony get involved with this?
Betterton: Our composer, Joe Wong, was friends with her and used to play with her. When we started working with him, we had put in temp music that had a lot of female voices. We were lamenting that we might not be able to have that, and he suggested her, and she was into it. She made a lot of the music in the film. Whenever you hear a female voice it’s her, which was great.
Filmmaker: Do you have plans for what you’re doing next that you want to disclose?
Gage: We want to make a narrative feature.
Betterton: I was planning to retire.
Gage: We heard that we could make a ton of money being independent filmmakers, and we’re just waiting for the check to come in. [laughs] I think we both would like to make a narrative. I haven’t ruled out going back and filming the girls, sort of like 7 Up — an abbreviated version.
Filmmaker: Now that you have the first film, do you have the desire to start working faster?
Gage: Definitely. But I do like the idea of having a few projects over a period of time. That’s sort of what we were doing on this project: we had our other career that we had to continue with to survive, we have three kids, we’re good at multi-tasking.