“This is who I know you to be – completely unafraid,” Laura tells her sister Cecilia Aldarondo in “You Were My First Boyfriend,” as the two are preparing to reenact Tori Amos’ music video for “Crucify,” bundling themselves up in bath towels for an immaculate recreation. The reassurance may seem necessary in the moment as Aldarondo becomes deeply vulnerable returning to the point in her life when there was nothing more profound than a pop song with seemingly more on its mind than to entertain and reminded of when she felt inferior to her older sister who always seemed to have it more together, but you know by putting herself in that place to begin with that the filmmaker has become as fearless in her life as she’s been known for in her craft as she dives back into her experience of being a teenager.
As one of the young actors she casts to appear alongside her says, “This seems like a pretty elaborate version of psychotherapy,” but Aldarondo and co-director Sarah Enid Hagey are hardly selfish in their aims with “You Were My First Boyfriend,” a wildly fun and more than occasionally profound investigation of memory when the filmmaker submits herself as a guinea pig to look back at the things she felt were important at the time and what truly mattered upon reflection. Getting from point A to point B may seem easy at first as Aldarondo can only laugh as she reads the endless poetry she spilled out for her first crush Joel and restages scenes from some of the pop culture that meant the most to her like “My So-Called Life,” but reentering her high school years summons less obvious recollections of classmates she may have taken for granted or didn’t see their pain while nursing her own from not making it into the cool clique.
While hindsight is 20/20, Aldarondo and Hagey inventively use the form to compassionately offer retroactive closeups to those who were once out of focus such as Aldarondo’s friend Caroline whose entire family was so accepting of her she never gave it much thought or Joanne, a classmate who was more mercilessly teased by the mean girls than she was. Watching the direct impact these realizations have on Aldarondo is moving on its own, but one senses its reach will extend well beyond her when regardless of what was popular at the time, those teenage years remain an incredibly lonely time for so many and when the filmmaker can come to recognize how much love there actually was out there for her, it’s bound to spark others to take stock of their own support systems they may be blind to.
As the film premiered at SXSW, Aldarondo and Hagey graciously spoke about making the ultimate teen film, developing a rapport when one of the co-directors was also the main subject and the fun of pulling out camera tricks rarely used in nonfiction.
In the film, your sister calls you fearless, but what makes you decide to put yourself through something like this?
Cecilia Aldarondo: We’ve talked a lot about morbid curiosity. There’s a certain amount of “Well, what if I actually just did do the thing that I’m most uncomfortable doing? For example, reconnecting with my high school crush Joel – a lot of it was [asking], “What if I actually sat down with him? What would he say?” And it was almost too delicious. The possibility of what it might mean was just too interesting, but from a psychological standpoint, it was pretty telling to me how viscerally I didn’t want to do it. They talk about facing your demons, and this felt like the stakes were that high.
Sarah Enid Hagey: Usually, it’s not so literal.
And at some point, Sarah, you’re actually playing Joel – how did the two of you come together and what was the dynamic when this is obviously so personal to Cecilia?
Sarah Enid Hagey: Cecilia had been already working on this for five years when HBO came on board. And she was like, “How am I doing this by myself? This is haunting me, but how do I think about this in terms of an audience?” She knew that she wanted to have all of these teen movie references peppered throughout for it to be like “what if Cecilia’s life was a teen movie“ and we have a mutual filmmaker friend in common, Iva Radivojević, who recommended me because she knows that I am a teen movie and horror genre fanatic across the board. But additionally, I’m a writer and I do some performance myself, so we met, and the first conversation we both talked about how adolescence is this thing that we’re supposed to just outgrow and as adults, we’re supposed to be walking around as though we were just such idiots [then]. We’re not supposed to take that period seriously. But it was clear that both of us think about that stuff all the time and our references were very similar. So after our first conversation, I really wanted to work with her.
I sent her a photo of myself as student of the month, grinning, and sent her a picture of my copy of “Carrie” – I have an original paperback copy, and then an excerpt from my diary that was about my crush and it was something along the lines of, “Nothing makes sense. I understand how I feel about him, but I don’t know how I feel about anything else,” and it was just this idea of the longing teen heart. That was the jumping off point, and the initial recognition of our teen selves and each other. And then it was about almost like, I’m going to help you write your memoirs? I’ll be in the position of the audience and see what’s most resonant to me. And more often than not, it was the more specific of the details of the memory were, the more I felt like I related to them and really knew that other people would too.
Cecilia Aldarondo: Yeah, and Sarah came on as a kind of sounding board, and we didn’t know what it was going to mean to work together. I just had a sense that I needed a writing partner. And then it was so clear that we had so many [shared ideas] – the aesthetic of the film, the way it’s shot, the way it’s written is very much our mutual creative contributions and it just grew. Sarah was with me every step of the way, and I’d never been on-screen in a movie in this way, so I really needed a perspective. It just ended up being “you are co-directing this with me,” and she also co-edited it and brought all of her artistry into every phase of the process. It’s just been a super fun nerdy teen movie, obsessive mind meld.
Sarah Enid Hagey: Yeah, when she was on camera, I was able to be behind the camera and be her proxy as much as possible because we had written it all together. We also could pull each other to the side and be like, “Okay, this is really, really stressful right now” or “this moment I’m feeling this,” and we would watch every shot together and come to a consensus because I was going to be editing, and [Cecilia could say] “Is this going to work? Is this going to go together?”
I’m guessing the recreations might’ve been foundational, but did the ideas around them evolve, like getting the actors to reflect on their own connection to what was going on?
Cecilia Aldarondo: I had been really obsessed with reenactment for a long time. I have a background in art criticism, and I had been seeing a lot of visual artists who were using reenactment in interesting ways, so when I had this idea that by putting on or staging the past there was a possibility of inhabiting the past that would be potentially cathartic, it’s one thing to depict the past or write about it, but I was very interested in what it would mean to try and put myself in my younger shoes in a literal, theatrical way. So that was always there, but then once Sarah and I started working together, I was talking to her about theory I had. And we watched this film Martha Coolidge directed as a film student in the ’70s [called] “Not a Pretty Picture” and this film was a crystallization of the methodology that we were circling around. We watched it together, and it helped us understand that the meta nature of the filmmaking was really key. I had been saying all along that most documentary reenactments are there as a product. You’re not interested in the making of, but in this case, it was really important because the process is where the transformation comes. It’s the act of undergoing it. So if we just showed you the reenactments, you as an audience member wouldn’t have a sense of what it might have meant for me to undergo the process and we realized by watching that film that we’re like, “Whoa, we need to shoot this.”
Sarah Enid Hagey: We basically shot two films at the same time – these fictional recreations, and then we had our documentary [cinematographer] Jess Bennett constantly following us, but also as a way to comment on why we were choosing the stylistically. Obviously, in the Tori [Amos] video, that’s very clear. It’s so intertwined. It’s so enmeshed with the context of that relationship of the twin ness of the sisters, but also with “My So-Called Life,” if we have just plunked that scene in there, we’re putting it in the context of the teen crush [I had]. A lot of people connect with “My So-Called Life,” but to be able to go behind the scenes and actually talk about this process and “why this scene? Why this moment? Why this recreation?” – that’s the other part of it, so it’s not just like, “here’s a scene from my memory.”
Sarah Enid Hagey: There’s also something obviously very playful in the way we shot everything and it was super fun to in let ourselves indulge in all the looks and the styles of these teen movies, but it wasn’t all fun and games. There was something really profound at work and I really think the emotional heart of the movie is in the verite. It’s not in the recreations. Even the teen bedroom where Cecilia was like, “Oh, I didn’t have a phone in my bedroom” or just getting to fantasize and beautify those moments.
The film is brilliantly structured where you’re not only moving between the past and its impact on the present but the kind of frivolous teen obsessions that seemed like life or death at the time and the more profound things that were actually going on. Was it difficult to crack?
Cecilia Aldarondo: Sarah co-edited the film with Shannon Kennedy, this incredibly masterful editor who’s particularly fantastic when it comes to narrative structure and they had a very elastic collaboration where they played to their strengths. Sarah had a lot of real gravitation towards the fictional elements and then Shannon was the structure queen and we also had to be pretty ruthless because we were trying to get the film done relatively quickly, so we were moving at a pretty rapid clip. But we always had a sense that the deepest meaning of the film was around my friendship with Caroline, and that for instance, Joel, my crush, always felt like he was a bit of a red herring, so we knew that if we’re going to include him, we have to leave him behind at a certain point.
We were really thinking a lot about the structure of a journey, and it’s very different, but Ross McElwee’s ”Sherman’s March” from the ’90s [was in mind because] that’s a journey film, a way in which you go from person to person, learning things along the way, so we always had this idea that the way that the film was going to work was to gather insight. But as we were editing, we were starting to sense that the film makes this pretty dramatic tonal shift. It’s very humorous and silly up top, and we started to realize if we could make this work, this is going to do a number on people because it actually turns out to be very dramatic. And one of the things we talked about was “Steel Magnolias,“ because that’s a film that has a similar thing where it’s all really hilarious and funny and fun and then somebody dies. So it was a lot of trial and error and ruthless decision making, coupled with just trying to see what would work.
Sarah Enid Hagey: And Shannon Kennedy has the mind of an engineer because we laid everything out and had this very loose idea, but she locked these things in and one thing that she and I share is that we edit documentary as if we’re editing a fiction film and if you think about what experience you have when you’re watching a fiction film, it’s what you do know, what you don’t know, what is the sound, what is the mood and what is the tone, and where are you being carried? We always wanted it to have the anatomy of a teen movie, so it’s [structured] like the crush, then the friend and the sidekick, and the big moment of the prom, but that teen film anatomy is completely deconstructed.
Ultimately, this isn’t something you would explicitly say in the film, but I was really moved by the idea that all these people in Cecilia’s life participate in the film, even when they know what it could dredge up for themselves, making this seem like a real act of love. Was that nice to be a part of?
Cecilia Aldarondo: I think this is something that I’m invariably attracted to – unresolved pasts and painful stuff [like my first film “Memories of a Penitent Heart”]. I’m definitely the one who’s often like, “Oh, you don’t want to talk about this stuff. We’re going to talk.” And there was that sense. But I bring that up because the process of making this film was in a lot of ways really healing. Our strategic use of absurdity and comedy really made it so fun to work on, and I think there was a kind of magical energy of people gravitating towards the material. We also made this at a time when people had been through some really emotionally exhausting and painful stuff during the pandemic, so I think people [participating] just felt like, “Oh my God, thank you. It’s so fun to work on.” But at the same time, I’m super grateful to my sister Laura, my partner Gabe, and people like that who were willing to go along with this insanity and make themselves vulnerable. In an ideal sense, making films should be joyful. We should come out the other end feeling like a different person in a positive sense and we had a lot of camaraderie and just a lot of fun making this.
Sarah Enid Hagey: And I just keep saying, we approached this like we’re going to take our adolescence very seriously. We take everyone’s adolescence very seriously, and this is just our open love letter to our joint teen years.
“You Were My First Boyfriend” will screen at SXSW on March 15th at 11:45 am at the Alamo Lamar A.