Jenny Gage’s candid documentary ‘All This Panic’ is a tribute to all teen girls who could star in their own movies
Cinema seldom depicts teenage life as both realistically messy and imbued with uncorrupted wisdom as director Jenny Gage’s insightful and personal documentary All This Panic. This is a film made for young women, about young women, with young women – it follows a group of friends and siblings, Sage, Ginger, Olivia, Lena (to name a few) and carefully weaves a narrative around them all. With Gage’s unflinching empathetic eye and style – not unlike the early work of Sofia Coppola – the documentary is a tender, fascinating look at how momentous the journey from adolescence into adulthood is.
Gage and her cinematographer husband Tom Betterton never condescend their subjects or sidestep the truth of the less glamourous side of being a teen: the vulnerability of relationships, sexual and otherwise; family dischord; dealing with your own mental health and navigating your way through early adulthood, growing apart from old friends, the weird ebb and flow of people entering and leaving your life.
And yet, the joys and the epicness of being young and optimistic come through brighter than anything else. Whether it be Sage’s unapologetic feminism (“People want to see you but they don’t what to hear what you want to say”), to Ginger’s combative naivety and fearless resolve for an acting career, to Olivia’s tentative steps coming out, to Lena’s life-affirming resilience in the face of hardship, All This Panic is a perfectly judged, honest account of life on the cusp of womanhood. We spoke to the filmmaking couple about what it’s like talking about sex with young people, filming friendship arcs and how the film and media industry need to catch up with young women’s outlooks and tell their stories.
What made you want to make this film?
Jenny Gage: Well, I’ve always been interested in that period of a girl’s life – like, whether it was still photography or motion. It’s been an obsession of mine since being a teenage girl myself and right about the time I had my daughter, Ginger and Dusty had moved down the street from us so I was spending a lot of time at home with my daughter and I would see them walking to school, going to the subway, one week with pink hair, next week a different hair colour and style. I would see them talking to each other and I was really interested in what they were talking and thinking about and how if being a teenager today was different to when I was a teenager and when my daughter would be a teenager. So, we approached her parents and asked if we could run around New York City with a camera behind her and we really ran around NYC.
Did that happen simultaneously for both of you?
Tom Betterton: Yeah, yep basically. I mean, since we worked together always it was kind of assumed and when Jenny was like, “I wanna get into these girls heads” or whatever I was like, “Well, that sounds like an amazing project – lets do it!”. So, I think it was natural the way I would shoot it and Jenny would direct it – it was never even really discussed. We were just doing this thing. The girls – Ginger and Dusty – don’t even remember saying yes but their parents said yes! [Laughs]. So, then we started following them without really knowing what it was going to be. There was no end goal – it was more of an impulse and an act of faith that we’d discover something interesting by doing that and it wasn’t until a few years later that we really decided to turn it into a film. It could’ve been anything, really.
How did you happen find the other girls in the film and why did you decide to follow certain ones?
Jenny Gage: Yeah, so beyond the fact we knew Ginger and Dusty’s family a little bit, I was also really drawn to them because they had an artistic side and they were very smart and interesting and they happened to go to LaGuardia High School which is a performing arts high school that you can only get into by auditioning – it has a rich history. You know the movie Fame was about that school. So that was another thing that drew me to the Ryan girls and we always sort of knew that we wanted to do it about a circle of friends – it was less of a more conventional documentary where it’s like one girl from this type of family, one type of girl from this ethnic background. It was more like, I want to just focus on a group of friends, so maybe immediately after the second time filming, we met Lena who was one of Ginger’s best friends and we also met Delia who was one of Dusty’s best friends, and as the years went by the circle got bigger. Their friends varied. Olivia was a good friend of Lena’s. The girls we ended up filming just sort of stuck out – they were the most open and honest with us and their families gave us a lot of access and they were all friends with the Ryan’s.
“We felt that by clearing off boys it was really giving the girls centre stage – they were never supporting, they were never relating to each other through some boy that was taking up more space” – Jenny Gage
Did they all go to LaGuardia?
Jenny Gage: No, they didn’t. About half of them went to LaGuardia. Ginger and Dusty went to LaGuardia, as did Lena and Delia. Sage didn’t and Ivy didn’t and Olivia went to a private school in Brooklyn. But, like Ivy and...
Tom Betterton: Ginger had been friends since they were younger and Olivia and Lena had been friends, so when we went to the party, the first party, that’s when we met Olivia that you see in the film.
Jenny Gage: And Sage and Ivy had been friends when they were younger.
Tom Betterton: So we actually went to a party, that you only see a teeny bit of, which is when Ivy is getting her hair cut and that’s when we met Sage as well. It was kind of like following...and there were other girls that we would say we’d love to come and film you. Some of them would say no and some of the ones that said yes would lose interest or they’d be busy, so it was probably 12 people in all that we at least started with at one point or another and then it was pretty much those seven were the ones that stuck with it.
Jenny Gage: Once we were filming a girl, if a new girl came into the film one of them had to have known her. So, it was important that there’d be at least one friendship connection.
Just focusing on young women and girls, was that a more personal interest?
Jenny Gage: Yeah, that was for sure a plan of ours – to keep it really about young women. In the beginning, we didn’t have a rule to absolutely not have boys in it, but it was interesting because we felt that by clearing off boys it was really giving the girls centre stage – they were never supporting, they were never relating to each other through some boy that was taking up more space. About half way through, the girls were really, like, this is our film right? They didn't want the boys to be in the film. It was for sure our choice if we had said we wanted to film boys, they would’ve gone along with it but I think they really liked the idea of a film for them, by them – I kept saying, “Why don’t we have a Stand By Me? Why don’t we have a Boyhood? Where are our films?”
The girls come across as so wise and insightful, how did you get the characters to open up?
Jenny Gage: I agree with Sage when she says, “they want to see us but they don’t want to hear what we have to say”. In fact, that scene could’ve gone on twice as long – she had so many powerful, interesting things to say about women and young girls’ representation in the media. We were really interested in hearing what these girls had to say and giving them a platform. There was no scripting – there’d be certain themes that would come up over and over again that we would ask or bring up in a three month period and say, “Okay, so what has happened with sex?” or “How are you and Ginger doing?” – to Lena and Ginger. But, really I think we spent a lot of time with them and really let them work through things, (to) vocalise things, verbalise things. When I was a young girl – nobody put a camera up to me and I feel like if they had I would've never been as articulate, I wouldn’t have been able to put a finger on what I was going through. But I think these girls felt the same way. I don’t think they had it figured out. Even when they look at it now – Ginger will say, “Oh, so much of it makes me cringe”, but the growing up side of me sees the little Ginger in the movie and says, “Wow, little Ginger was trying, she was really trying” – she wasn’t always right and she was stumbling along the way but she was trying and I think these girls are absolutely special, but teenage girls are special [Laughs].
That's why it’s such an important film – it gives a platform to those voices to really be heard. Whether they’re flawed or not, it’s just about actually still listening to them. What do you think could be done in the way of getting teenage voices, that people are so quick to brush aside, out there and valued?
Jenny Gage: I think it’s already starting to happen so much with platforms like Lenny, Rookie...you know? All the online platforms. I think there’s a real movement for girls and young women to support each other and to push each other forward and I would say that young women are at the forefront and it’s everyone else that needs to catch up. I think they’re showing their power in a big way in the last couple of years and it’s getting stronger and stronger and I think that as filmmakers and especially filmmakers that are interested in young women, I think the entertainment industry should hurry up and catch up. They’re desperate for that demographic, they’re terrified of that demographic and they think the only way to appeal to them is to...
Tom Betterton: Speak down to them.
Jenny Gage: Exactly, and young women won’t stand for that anymore.
Were there any films that you referenced or thought about as inspiration while you were making it?
Tom Betterton: One of the things that Jenny brought up (is that) the girls would talk about films. They loved to talk about what films get it and they loved that movie Palo Alto by Gia Cappola. So we looked at a lot of docs.
Jenny Gage: Well, there were films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and they all love The Virgin Suicides, Doctor Honey – you know what a 13-year-old girl feels like or whatever that great quote is. It’s kind of like nobody gets a teenage girl.
Tom Betterton: That is the time in your life where you feel like everything is as important, like you’re starring in a movie or something – we wanted to make, on every level, that movie basically and make it look like the movie you thought it was going to look like. Make it feel like how it feels like to be a teenage girl and also to just like take something, on the one hand, exceptional, but, on the other hand, not anything special about them on the surface, girls and you know, put as much care and effort and love into it as you would any other movie and in some ways it’s small and in some ways it’s kind of epic just like a teenager’s life, you know? So, hopefully that comes through.
All This Panic is in cinemas from March 24. Get tickets here.