Dusty Rose Ryan and Delia Cunningham in "All This Panic"

Tribeca ’16 Interview: Jenny Gage & Tom Betterton on Bringing Out Beauty in “All This Panic”

You won’t find a group of smarter, more articulate young women that the ones featured in “All This Panic,” though perhaps the point of Jenny Gage’s arresting first feature is you’d find their equals all around if you just looked a little harder. Filmed with the keen eye Gage and creative and life partner Tom Betterton honed as celebrated still photographers, the film, which takes its title from an offhand remark by Delia, one of its seven subjects, about what to wear before the first day of junior year of high school, is the type of vivid, radiant snapshot of the transitory moment in which one begins to discover who they are apart from the people that raised them that you can’t believe everyone involved poured so much of themselves into for the benefit of an audience.

Unfolding with the same grace as its opening scene of two friends riding bikes together, “All This Panic” follows sisters Dusty and Ginger, who are as cool as their names imply though they might not just know it yet; Lena, who finds herself reversing roles with her parents after they separate while en route to Sarah Lawrence; Olivia, a slight introvert whose openness about her sexuality is only the start of revealing herself to the world; Delia, Dusty’s aforementioned wily partner-in-crime; Ivy, a free spirit who brings Ginger into the bowels of New York nightlife; and Sage, who clearly inherited some of her fierce Jamaican mother’s spirit as a feminist firebrand and facilitator to some of the other girls. Within the span of just 80 minutes, the film covers three-and-a-half years in their lives, transcending typical teenage concerns to illuminate the young women’s growing confidence as they’re faced with decisions that not only will have implications down the road but speak volumes about their character, which is everything to them, particularly at this time.

Intimate in scale yet grand in its stakes, Gage’s debut is assured from the start, every bit as vivacious its subjects but careful to breathe, with each scene more intoxicating than the next as “All This Panic” runs alongside its subjects as they take Manhattan and beyond. Naturally, the Tribeca Film Festival was as good a place as any to start, and following the film’s triumphant premiere, Gage and Betterton were joined by Lena, Ginger, Dusty, Olivia and Ivy to talk about capturing this period in their life, the partnership between the filmmakers and their subjects to make a film like this work, and why the best is yet to come.

How did this come about?

Jenny Gage: Ginger and Dusty were living down the street from Tom and I, right about the time that we had our daughter, and I would see them walking to school, walking to the subway and Tom likes to say that, “Pink hair one week, maybe different [the next]…” — they were fascinating. Basically, I approached their parents, who I knew a little bit, and asked if we could follow them around with a camera. Both said yes. The funny thing is Ginger and Dusty never even knew we were coming. We just showed up one day with a camera and they got used to us very quickly and they started introducing us to their amazing friends.

Were you okay with that?

Ginger: I had no idea what I was in for. I don’t think any of us did, because there was no story where they were like, “Oh, we want to film this.” They were just like, “Hey, can we follow you?” We didn’t know how long it was going to be for. We didn’t really know where it was going to go. [Jenny and Tom] just went for it and as it started to spread out, it ended up with all of us, and all of us were mutually confused, I think, up until six months ago.

Lena: It was always like, “Is this going to be like a miniseries? Is it going to be a documentary?” You were always going back and forth between different things, to the point where all of us were like, “It’s not going to happen. We don’t have to worry about this at all.”

Dusty: “Probably 10 people will see it, like on a projector. It’ll be a little thing.”

It’s such a beautiful film. Were there rules about how you would shoot it?

Tom Betterton: Yeah, we decided very early on to make it look like a narrative film, so we decided to shoot everything with a 50 millimeter lens, which is a rarer lens that’s more like a feature lens, as opposed to a wide angle or a zoom lens and we stuck with only that lens for the entire time. Because we wanted [the film] to be 100% about the girls, inside their heads, we never shot any B-roll or additional photography, because it felt like we’re not paying the respect to them if we do all kinds of shots of taxis driving by and silly stuff like that. So if something’s in the film, it was because it happened to be near them.

Jenny Gage: You definitely decided early on to blur the parents’ look, right, like back and forth?

Tom Betterton: Right. It was meant to be from [the girls’] point of view. The other thing about using that lensing is we were never really able to step very far away from [the girls]. You had to literally be sitting right next to them the whole time. It forced us – and them – to be engaged entirely. We never could spy on them. We had to be in contact with them all the time, in their space, which helped to shape the intimacy of the film.

Were the cameras something that you had to adjust to?

Lena: It was pretty simple. At first, it was a little, “Oh, camera,” like, “Don’t look at it.”

Ginger: I feel like every time I’d be like, “Wait, am I supposed to look or not?”

Olivia: It’s like a bad blind date.

Ivy: You learn what the camera wants from you. If you spend enough time around it, you know that it just wants you to do you without noticing it, but also respect it and be in the light.

Lena: I didn’t know to be in the light. I didn’t know what it was.

Ginger: I was just like, “Can they see me scratching my head? How much is actually getting recorded?”

Dusty: Eventually, you forgot about it, but the hardest role for me was not looking at the camera. After that, it was just like you make eye contact with Tom or Jenny or whoever was asking the questions. You’d stop looking at it and stop paying attention to it, so it disappeared.

Lena: The weird thing was always when [Tom and Jenny] were like, “Lie down and go like this,” and I was like, “How do I go like this? Like this?” and they were like, “No, normal,” and I was like, “Normal? How is that done?”

The film opens with a couple of the girls riding around on bikes, asking some pretty deep questions, like if you could do high school again, would you do it differently, and you’re all so thoughtful, but I wondered were those questions that would naturally come up or did the filmmakers instigate them in some way?

Jenny Gage: It was really a combination. Sometimes it was Tom and I coming up with the questions, and sometimes they were questions that they’d ask themselves and we would notice and it’d be like, “Oh, let’s revisit that question.”

Tom Betterton: Yeah, it’s the difficult thing where when they were talking and being with each other and being in the moment, they would sometimes say something that would just blow by that we would see. We would realize it was actually a super important thing and [you’d want] sometimes go back to it and ask more. We wouldn’t ask them to ask the exact thing, but we would get them talking about that subject and all the good stuff in there is them talking. We just pulled it out of them.

Dusty: Yeah, one of my friends was like, “Oh, that line is definitely planned out, when you asked [that question],” because she watched the trailer and I just asked Delia a question like, “If you could go back and do high school over, would you?” and I feel like that’s something that I’d ask. I don’t think you guys asked me …

Ivy: Yeah, everybody thinks that. People asked me that like two nights ago, seriously.

Dusty: It’s like whether you’re happy with the decisions you made, or you could do it all a little differently.

Was it interesting for you to have this experience of having to analyze what’s going on in your life because of this film?

Olivia: I don’t think in the moment, I was thinking about it a ton. Looking back on it now, and having it filmed is when I really started to think about what was going through my head. In the moment, I thought it was just so important and crazy and [what was going on in my life] never happened to anyone else. I wasn’t reflecting on it. It was just happening to me, and it’s really cool to be able to look back on it now.

The structure of this is really remarkable in how you’ve got Lena and Ginger as the central stories, but the film grows out to a number of different young women within their circle of friends, giving each their due. Was that difficult to achieve?

Jenny Gage: It was difficult in the filming and in the editing, but we really wanted to make sure that each person really had a story and was a full character. Then it came about naturally. It was definitely a challenge filming seven girls over three years, and producing it via texts – not so much on the e-mail, like it’s mostly texts for this generation.

Lena: I like e-mails, generally.

Ginger: Dusty does not like e-mails.

Olivia: We’re amazed Dusty just made it here, even, without checking her e-mail.

Jenny Gage: In fact, we did follow more – one or two other girls, but we felt like we couldn’t give their story justice, so we dropped them from this part of the film, because we just didn’t want to have any characters that felt like surface only.

So would something interesting happen in your lives and the girls would get on the phone?

Lena: We were supposed to do that.

Ginger: The best example of that for me is that I’m sure you’ve noticed my hair destroyed any form of continuity in the film [changing colors], and that’s because Tom and Jenny would be like, “Hey, can you text us when you change your hair?” and I would just forget, so I’d come back in for filming and they’d be like, “Your hair is blue. Your hair is short.” It was long, and they’re just …

Dusty: Yeah, Lena’s is blue.

Olivia: They had to put that in as part of the narrative, whenever Ginger or Lena would change their hair.

Did the film actually keep you guys connected? Because many of you go in different directions when high school ends.

Ivy: Somewhat. Ginger and I actually reconnected over the film, like this was a bridge to reconnecting, somewhat. But I feel like we’re all connected by the film, inevitably.

Ginger: I have to say I got a lot closer with Olivia because of this film – I knew her through Lena and I’d seen her at Lena’s house, but we’d never really talked. Through this film, we ended up talking and becoming friends.

Olivia: Thanks Lena. Thanks Jenny.

Lena: Ginger and Olivia are the people who I know the best. I really love them and hope that we would stay friends, even if there were no film.

Ivy: I knew Sage from high school, so that was another connection that I had, but girls just want to know other girls. They’re awesome.

Sage actually says something pretty profound at one point about how she feels she’s envisioned as a young woman — “People want to see you, but they don’t want to hear what you have to say.” Was that actually a general feeling that you might’ve had, and did you feel the film was an outlet for that?

Ivy: Totally, and I always would just say what I wanted to say, because people should want to hear what I have to say, but I hope that girls in the future can be aware of that, and just totally not care about that fact.

Ginger: Like people will tell you that. Guys will be like, “Oh, I like a girl who doesn’t talk too much.” It’s like a common thing that’s said. It’s not something that’s just a little ingrained in society… People say it. People will literally be like, “Oh no, shh. Guys want a smart girl. They want that element of mystery.”

Lena: …Make them feel emasculated.

Ginger: Same with if a girl is angry, “Aw, that’s cute,” and then it’s like you can never really be angry …

Lena: Also, if you’re angry, you’re hysterical and it’s just because you’re …

Ginger: On your period or something.

Ivy: Yeah, it’s really bullshit.

Since filming on this could’ve gone on forever, when did you decide was the right time to stop?

Jenny Gage: We were thinking about that recently and Lena was going on her bus trip across the country and Tom went to get her to a Greyhound station at like three in the morning, and on that ride, we felt Lena basically summed up, we felt, all of adolescence and it really felt like she was ending that chapter in her life. We came back and we looked at the footage and we were just like, her story ended for the film. Then we really wanted to go and see Ginger again, and do it with the other girls as well, but not let them know anything. We just had a feeling that things were ending, and then Ginger had her amazing scene at the end of the movie, where she talks about going places and we were like, “Okay,” we were just like on a roll — Olivia had done it two months before with her scene in the snow. Ivy, Sage and everyone…it was like they told us when their story was ending.

It’s likely too early to ask, but is it nice to have a record of this time in your life – something you’ll be able to revisit?

Dusty: I think so. It’s a little bit of a time capsule [where] we will be able to watch this in the future and look back and just re-experience it. It’s a weird stage of life and I don’t know if any part of life really is like this, because you have a lot ahead of you, and that’s like the worst part of it — there’s so much future that you don’t know what to do with it.

Jenny Gage: It’s so funny that you say that, because I thought you were going to say it the best part of it. Like as an older person, I’m like [takes breath] … but I know what you’re feeling.

Lena: Everyone keeps saying that when they watch the film, [this is] “the most exciting part of their life” or “the best part of their life,” and I’m like, “I hope not.” I want to do something [with the rest of my life]. Doing this documentary, there’s this fear. A lot of people come up to us and they say congratulations and my feeling on it is I didn’t do anything. All I did was be honest. Jenny and Tom were the ones who took something very ordinary to us, elevated it and made into art and my hope is that one day, I can do something like that, too. Maybe not a documentary, but [in] writing or something else.

Olivia: For once we’ll be reaching towards something — like the film shouldn’t be the end of what we’re doing. I still want to be reaching for something.

Ginger: I think it’s a tool, too, having something like this. The way you remember things is never the same twice. You look back on a memory and you’re going to re-edit it and change it and it’s inevitable in the way that human beings think, that we will never have a full recollection of anything we did that’s genuine. With this film, it’s right in front of you. That was who you were. You have that, and then you can move forward into who you want to be and maybe who you are right now. It gives you a chance to accept things in a way that otherwise you might not have.

Olivia: Because the film is true. For everything that makes me feel uncomfortable about it or felt awkward, or it’s weird to look at, it’s all true.

“All This Panic” opens on March 31st at the IFC Center in New York and the Facets Cinematheque in Chicago and on April 14th in Los Angeles at the Arena CineLounge. A full schedule of theaters and dates is here.

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