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Nominated for the Truer Than Fiction prize at this year’s Independent Spirit Awards, Only the Young is a small documentary that is creating a great deal of buzz. Documentarians Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet discovered their subjects, Kevin Conway and Garrison Saenz, in a skate park in Santa Clarita, a Californian town hit particularly hard by the recession in 2008. Using a stylized lens and a light touch, the filmmakers elicited remarkably candid and open interchanges with the teens, providing audiences with refreshing insights into that unique time in our lives when childhood has past and adulthood seems far in the future.
The friendship between Kevin and Garrison is inspiring. Brought together by common interests like punk-rock, Christianity and skateboarding, the two are always hanging out, which grows complicated as Garrison begins to date Skye Elmore, a refreshing, alternative beauty with baggage of her own. Against a backdrop of post-modern America, Only The Young explores the angst, hilarity and heartbreak that come with being a teenager.
We spoke to the filmmakers earlier in the week as they recalled their own high school experiences, revealed their sources of inspiration, and shared with us what Garrison, Kevin, and Skye are up to now.
Tribeca: Congrats on your Indie Spirit nom! You previously collaborated on the short film, Thompson, but touring the Festival circuit with your first feature-length documentary, Only the Young, must have been a very different experience. Can you talk about that?
Elizabeth Mims: It was amazing. We realized too late that we finished the film at a weird time. We didn’t know there was a “festival circuit time” within which you need to have your film finished if you want it to be shown at Sundance, etc. We were still so new to this process. We were under the assumption that we had done everything wrong, but then we got into the True/False Film Festival. The Festival took such good care of us and from there our film was reviewed in Variety and other places. We couldn’t believe our good fortune.
Jason Tippet: For me, it was strange learning about how small the Festival world is—especially the documentary community. We were able to actually meet people that inspired us. Everyone was just so supportive. It’s been a strange year, but I’ve enjoyed it.
Tribeca: Only the Young is such an organic documentary with such an interesting group of Santa Clarita kids. How did you find them? Did you first come across Kevin and Garrison and then later, Skye?
Elizabeth Mims: Over the years, Jason and I have found that interesting people tend to flock to us [laughs]. It’s very convenient. Jason wanted to go check out the new skate park they built in Santa Clarita where he grew up. We were hanging out there when Kevin and Garrison walked up to us to ask if we had lost the keys to a Jaguar. We’re not fancy people so, needless to say, the keys were not ours. Kevin and Garrison started to argue in front of us, and we could just tell they were best friends by the way that they were interacting. Jason and I are suckers for a good friendship story, and we sensed that they would be totally uninhibited in front of the camera.
Jason Tippet: They told us about an abandoned house in the desert where they wanted to build a half-pipe. We had just finished our short film, Thompson, and we knew we wanted to make another film about Santa Clarita. We thought it would be interesting to take a look inside these boys’ lives and make a film about their friendship and their building a half pipe together. When we met Skye, our story completely changed.
Tribeca: How many years in all did you follow your subjects?
Elizabeth Mims: Just about a year. Maybe a little more than that.
Tribeca: Did documenting their last years in high school make you to look at your own high school experiences differently?
Elizabeth Mims: Oh yeah. I think that was one of the best parts of making this film. Jason and I wanted to capture this unfettered period of their lives.
Jason Tippet: There’s a freedom to the whole high school experience that I didn’t quite get when I was that age. It’s the only point in your life that you don’t have any bills to pay. You’re waiting to go to college or junior college and your future is set short term. You’re in this era of carefree enjoyment, which is fleeting.
We also made it a point not to show the kids at school or withtheir parents because that would have been detrimental to what we were trying to do. The most interesting thing about growing up to Elizabeth and I was that time between when school was over and when you had to be home in time for dinner. Those hours were the ones we wanted to capture.
Tribeca: The amount of access you had to your subjects is unprecedented, but, as you say, adults are noticeably absent. Skye’s grandfather is the only parental figure that you filmed and talked with. What were their parents’ reactions to your documentary?
Elizabeth Mims: They were very open. We were worried about their reactions to the documentary, initially. We let the kids watch the documentary before anyone else so that they would know exactly what their friends and family would be watching.
While we wanted to maintain a coherent narrative, we also were very careful to make sure that the three kids would be comfortable with what we were putting out there. As for the parents’ reactions, Jason and I were both curious to see how they would respond.
Jason Tippet: Before we started filming, we met with their parents and told them a little about what we were going to be doing. We gave them our short to watch, so they had an idea of the type of films we were interesting in making. I think Garrison’s parents were the ones who were the most curious about what we were trying to do with this. We became really close with them, actually. When we would film, we’d usually meet at their house first and they would either make us food or invite us to dinner.
When we finished the film, Garrison's family threw this party for us. They were just so supportive. Plus, they were appreciative that they will always have this portrait of their son when he was 17 and 18.
Tribeca: Over the course of the documentary, the kids changed drastically, physically and emotionally. How challenging was it to work with these unpredictable teens?
Jason Tippet: Everyday was really different. We would film with Garrison one day and Skye the next. It was especially challenging when Skye’s family was in danger of losing their home. You never knew what you were going to get. Some days, Kevin wouldn’t feel like filming, and we would leave with nothing. If the kids didn’t want to film, we did not film. It was devastating to lose the time, but we were always respectful of their feelings.
Elizabeth Mims: Also, we never pushed them. With teenagers, if you push about one thing you want an answer about, you’ll never get it. We were essentially at their mercy. When they wanted to talk about something, that’s when we’d get the answers we were looking for. At some point, all the interviews with Skye were really emotional, and for that reason I think audiences, connect with her.
Tribeca: I was really moved by the scene in Only The Young in which Garrison is giving Kevin a hard time for cutting himself. You show Garrison trying to express his concern through a series of jump cuts and then focus on him frankly telling Kevin that he is worried about him. Can you talk about the filming of that sequence?
Jason Tippet: That was the worst day [laughs]. It was also the first day that our producer Derek Waters came out with us to watch us film. We had shown him 15 minutes of footage, and he really was interesting in meeting these kids. It ended up being the most emotional day.
Elizabeth Mims: [laughs] Yeah, we were like, “Come on out, they are going to be showing us an abandoned house. It’ll be fun!” Not.
Jason Tippet: A lot more came out of that day than we expected, obviously. We had no idea that Kevin was cutting himself until he took off his sweatshirt. It was actually Derek who spotted the marks on his arms and asked about them. They never wanted anything real emotional to be on camera and would usually go off camera to talk about that kind of stuff. So when we kept pushing those questions, I think Garrison realized how serious it actually was and wanted to talk about it.
Kevin was really embarrassed and that’s why he lashed out at Garrison and revealed that he had “hooked up” with Skye behind Garrison’s back. We didn’t know that either, andthe situation quickly unraveled. Skye ended up running away, crying, and Kevin just wandered off. We all ran in different directions and tried to calm everyone down.
Elizabeth Mims: It was also hard for us as documentarians. We were witnesses to this big moment in which Kevin admitted he was cutting himself. As friends and mentors, we knew we had to talk to him about it off-camera ourselves. And we did. For the most part, we listened to what the kids had to say and didn’t initially say anything. We tried to let themvent, come to their own conclusions, and then handle it together. Plus, we were just coming into their lives at that point and didn’t know the whole situation. It was a difficult line to walk.
Tribeca: The focus of the documentary is on that all-important coming-of-age period in the kids’ lives. However, the outside world—particularly the economic recession in America—is very present, especially when Skye’s family faces homelessness. Did you initially expect to document the challenges these kids faced from forces outside of their control?
Elizabeth Mims: Our focus initially was just on their friendships and relationships. As we began to see more and more of how the outside world affected them, the general landscape of the documentary changed and their surroundings and their circumstancesbegan to play a bigger role than we initially could have imagined.
Similarly with religion, we had no idea that Kevin and Garrison were Christian skateboarders when we first met them. We didn’t want that aspect of their lives to take over our whole story, but there are definitely undertones in the film.
Jason Tippet: For this film, we actually drew a lot of inspiration from fictional films, how they’re shot and the type of characters they focus on. We wanted the film to feel like it had a full narrative. We didn’t want any voiceovers or to have to go back and get interviews to fill in spaces. We just wanted our film to have this flow so that you could just take a deep breath and watch it all in one sitting.
We also wanted to shoot very symmetrically—we’re big fans of Wes Anderson and Robert Yeoman’s photography. Another film we had in mind while we were shooting was Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. We wanted to use those behind-the-head shots that convey loneliness so well, so whenever there was an opportunity to grab a shot like that, we totally took advantage. You have these happy accidents, and you try to keep in mind that so much of filming is luck.
Tribeca: So how are Skye and Garrison? Can you give us a little update?
Elizabeth Mims: Skye is doing well. She’s finishing up high school right now. She and her family have a place to live now, and Jason and I can’t wait to see what she does next. She’s so witty and smart. Garrison is actually into “train-hopping” right now. He quit his job and sold his car and decided to go off on an adventure.
Tribeca: And what about Kevin?
Jason Tippet: Kevin actually has his dream job right now. He really loves chili [laughs] oddly enough, and he works at Tommy Burger. He has an apartment nearby, and he was telling me that he takes home gallons of chili each night and is in heaven. Plus, he loves working at the Drive Thru because he gets to talk to people. I would love to be a fly on the wall during his shift to see and hear these interactions. He’s such a great kid.
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