Q&A: Charlie Lyne on directing Beyond Clueless
'I swore to myself when I began making the film that I would never utter the words, ‘Now I know how hard it is to make a film."'
British film critic Charlie Lyne pays tribute to the teen movie, in particular its 1990s incarnation, with Beyond Clueless, an affectionate but determinedly anti-ironic appreciation. With reference to some 200 films, narration by actress and teen movie outsider par excellence Fairuza Balk, and an original score by UK duo Summer Camp, it combines loving analysis with a wealth of glossy clips – and a reminder of just how many celebrated actors cut their teeth in a world of goths and geeks, makeovers and mean girls. Only 24 now, Charlie tells Hannah McGill why the teen fodder of his own pre-teen years left such a mark
Part of the fascination for UK audiences of US teen movies is that the US high school experience is so specific – jocks, letterman jackets, cheerleaders, prom etc. Are you drawn to American teen films because they remind you of your schooldays, or because they don’t?
They certainly remind me of being a teenager, but mainly because I used to watch so many of them, rather than because they bear much resemblance to my own memories of school. I think whether you live in the US or not, that world feels more like a dream that you keep revisiting, as opposed to a reflection of your actual life.
Do you think the 90s was a special time for the teen movie, or does everyone prize the films of their own adolescence for nostalgic reasons?
A bit of both. I’m fully aware that my love for that era of teen movies is a direct result of my having grown up inside it just as anyone born in the 1970s thinks John Hughes is God’s gift to teenagers – but attempting to be objective, I do think the teen genre really broadened out in the 90s. It went from being a genre defined by a handful of huge movies to one littered with hundreds and hundreds of mid-level films. That seemed like much more fertile territory to explore.
You subject the films to quite serious analysis rather than camping it up or sniggering at them – are you partly motivated by a feeling that they deserve to be taken more seriously, or is any appreciation they get likely to be tongue-in-cheek?
I take immense pleasure in these movies – hopefully that comes through in Beyond Clueless – and I wouldn’t for a second want to suggest that they should be viewed in a deadly serious light. But at the same time, I think it’s a shame that some people equate the fact that they're fun with an assumption that they're frivolous. These are movies that consciously go after viewers that are at their most impressionable; they’re certainly worthy of a little analysis, if only to find out what a generation of teens are being taught about the world.
You present the films without reference to their authorship or their commercial context, and you mix more ‘arty’ and heavyweight films in with very mainstream ones – is this a reaction against the way critics and theorists compulsively separate films into categories?
Totally. People are constantly saying to me, ‘Oh, Rushmore isn’t a teen movie, it’s directed by Wes Anderson’ as though the words ‘teen movie’ are synonymous with artistic bankruptcy. On the other hand, I love that the filmmakers themselves very rarely seem to think that way – when Harmony Korine makes a teen movie, he embraces the genre in all its messy glory.
How did you choose which films you wanted to make longer statements about, and was clip clearance an absolute nightmare?
The first thing I did was map out the structure of the movie, so after that it was just a case of finding the best films to illustrate the story I wanted to tell. That said, I did have a few personal favourites – EuroTrip comes to mind – that I knew in advance I definitely wanted to include. It was a long process to square everything with our lawyers, but luckily Fair Use laws are in place precisely for projects like this one.
Can you tell me a little about Fairuza Balk getting involved? And something about the music?
The stories with both Fairuza and Summer Camp are similar: I idolised both of them, felt they were perfect for the film, asked them and – miraculously – they agreed to come on board. I really wanted to make a film that could feel like a teen movie in its own right, as well as a study of the genre, and I don’t think that would have been possible without their contributions.
The media narrative around school shootings – so often focusing on cliques and high school tribes, and the shooters’ supposed feelings of rejection from them and antipathy towards them – seems to owe something to the teen movie genre, unless it just proves its accuracy. Has that cast a bit of a shadow over the genre?
Columbine happened in 1999, which was basically the teen genre’s banner year. No year before or since has produced as many teen movies as that year did, and so it’s hard to separate that seemingly thriving youth culture from the tragic attack that took place right in the middle of it all. The shadow cast by it is certainly evident, although the genre is such an insular one that really the outside world can only skim the surface of it. The allusions to Columbine that you do see are quite subtle – sometimes you suspect even the filmmakers weren’t quite conscious of what they were doing.
As a critic you’re accustomed to passing judgment on other people’s films – now that you’ve been through the experience of making one yourself and of being reviewed, do you feel differently about that work? Is it harder to write something off now that you know how it feels on the other side?
I swore to myself when I began making the film that I would never utter the words, ‘Now I know how hard it is to make a film’, and so far I haven’t (not least because there are far, far harder jobs than making a film). I think film criticism is vital and exciting, even when it's tearing my movie to shreds, so I can't understand any filmmaker who would want to put their work on a pedestal and exclude themselves from that conversation.
Follow Charlie @charlielyne, or find out more about him and his work at charlielyne.com