Born from an obsession with that most recognisable of genres - the American teen movie - director Charlie Lyne’s debut film Beyond Clueless is an intoxicating cinematic essay that dives into the fog of hormones, bubble gum and light beer that is the American teen’s life on film. Lyne, who previously was known for founding the Ultra Culture blog and writing for The Guardian paper, built his film from some 300 teen movies on nearly a dozen formats, backed by a Kickstarter campaign and working mostly out of his bedroom. The film is scored by pop duo Summer Camp and narrated by one of the genre’s veterans, actress Fairuza Balk (The Craft). Having enjoyed a limited cinema run in the UK after playing various international festivals like SXSW, the film is out on home video release, which fittingly also includes a VHS option for the truly committed, from March 9. You can read the Smoke Screen review of the film here.
What’s it been like going through the looking glass; moving from your Ultra Culture blog and writing for The Guardian to directing films, as opposed to critiquing them?
Well, it is certainly not a total shift. I think my previous careers were really useful, and in a way the film itself is a form of film criticism and so not much of a departure for me. The biggest thing for me I think was the way it changed how I look at film criticism. I didn't want to be one of those people who made a film and then declared that now I’d seen how hard it was to make film I could no longer critique them. It’s not that hard! I think that misses the point about what is so valuable about criticism. While we’ve been lucky on the whole and had mainly positive reviews, there hasn't really been much of a correlation between whether a review has been positive or negative, and whether it’s been interesting to read. When I read criticism of my film, I’m looking for something that’s really engaging, even if the writer didn’t like it. Thats a useful thing to learn, not that it doesn’t stop the initial sting of a bad review! That is hardwired.
How long had you been thinking of directing?
It seemed to come together quite quickly actually, when we began a Kickstarter campaign. I think in a more abstract sense it had been sitting there for some time though. These were all movies that I fell in love with when I was 14 or 15, and I never really fell out of love with them even if my perspective on them got a bit more complicated later. It feels like I'm exorcising demons, but in terms of this project, it’s amazing how quickly it came together.
What was the production like?
I don’t think this film broke down into pre-production, post production and production so easily, that all kind of went out the window. The bulk of it was editing, which took about nine months. At the very beginning, there was a lonely stage sitting at home for 10 hours a day, watching and re-watching all these films again and taking notes, trying to form some sense of cohesion between the 300 films.There were about four of us making the film at any one time, so a few people took some bullets for me!
Why the focus on this narrow definition of the teen movie? Your film focuses exclusively on American teen movies made after 1990.
The main thing that we always want to achieve was to make something that felt very self-contained, like the world of a genre that you could step inside and not be pulled out of. So it was a practical decision: we didn’t want to be jumping around from the 50s to the 90s within the space of the same minute, pulling people out of it.
When it comes to the focus on American films, it’s the same thing really. The thing we were after was peculiarly American, that world. Other teen films, like British teen films, really don't feel like they share that canon, language and universe, they all feel slightly more idiosyncratic and quirky. It felt necessary to narrow the field. That language, that predictability; those were the things we were looking for. Also it helped make a list of what could have been 3000 movies drop to 300-odd.
Can you talk about the editing choices in the film, how did you want the film to flow, once you’d chosen the movies you wanted to source extracts from?
One of the useful things about the earlier states of production - when I was trying to structure out the film - was that we had time to talk about how we could maybe structure our film like a teen movie itself: starting with the first day back at school and ending with graduation and including all the plot points that you know fall between those two things.
So that was really useful, as it meant there was some prevailing structure that we could always fall back on. Beyond that, the challenge was to find a balance between critiquing a genre while also remaining in that evocative audio-visual space that it creates. It had to bounce between those two things, with a rhythm that wouldn't pull you out of either one.
How did you structure the narration, and what made you choose Fairuza Balk to do the voiceover?
I did intend at the start to read around the subject, but I found in the end that there were so few good books on the subject, at least that I could track down. So I decided in advance to not read them. If had ended up reading just one or two I might have ended up too heavily influenced by just a few texts and their take on things. Also I wanted the film to seem really personal and idiosyncratic, so it felt really important to just present my own ideas even if they came across as odd to some. So yes, what you hear on screen are all my own ideas about Eurotrip and so on, filtered through Fairuza’s voice.
Fairuza was kind of a dream choice for me. She came on late in the day; we basically had so little money to work with when it came to getting the film made before presenting it to anyone to see if they'd take a chance on it. I’d already made the mistake of thinking we could get her, and had been hearing her voice in my head when writing it. We had a list hanging above the computer where we were editing the film, and she was at the top of it. She’s associated with that world but her voice to me just instantly draws me into it. She perches perfectly between something that sounds like an insider’s view but also she’s right on the periphery too, looking in from the outside as our navigator.
The soundtrack by Summer Camp is really striking, is that something you aimed for right from the start also?
Summer Camp were the first people involved really, it was really when they agreed to do it that the film became a real thing in my mind. I had been a massive fan of their music for years and it felt like a perfect fit for it, not only because their music so often reflects and absorbs itself in Americana and teen culture, but it’s so successful at creating a world and guiding you through it. Their albums feel very self contained. Sometimes they would take the lead creating some kind of backing track, other times I’d take over. It was a fascinating collaborative back and forth. Everyone on the team was doing more than one job, but it really feels like they were screenwriters as well as composers, they had a massive influence on the shape of the film.
Does the teen movie genre appeal to you in the same way today?
The films have the same appeal for me now today, but a more multifaceted one. The pang of joy they give me is still very real, I get reminded of the first time I watched them and had my first emotional reactions to them. But it is a more complex feeling now, as I’m more alive to the problems and weirdness of many of the these films, what is going on just beneath the surface. It is a more fraught experience watching them now, but still powerful.