Are you sick of big-budget mega-blockbusters yet? (Not counting The Dark Knight, of course, because who could get sick of that?) Dial it down this weekend by heading out to see American Teen, Nanette Burstein’s documentary about five high-school seniors out in Indiana. When the film screened at Sundance earlier this year, Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman wrote: “The teenagers in American Teen are such full, eager, vulnerable human beings that watching the movie makes you gasp, quietly, at what they’re up against: not just the usual popularity contest, but the odds for and against making it in the world. It’s a heady, eye-opening pleasure to see the forces that have shaped them, and the way they’ve shaped themselves.”
I bring this up because Patrick Morris, one of the executive producers of the film and president of 57th & Irving Productions, coincidentally spent his American teen years in Westchester. Morris grew up in a section of Peekskill that was renamed Cortlandt Manor when he was in high school. How did his experience differ from those in the movie? “High school stays high school,” he says. “With iPods and things like that, it’s a little different, but high school is basically timeless. I think everyone can relate to one of the kids in the movie. I can — but I won’t tell you which one.”
“Actually,” he continues, “These kids are great. They’re all smart. They’re all entertaining. I think everyone can see themselves in every one of them.” (Not me. I was 100 percent geek.)
American Teen isn’t the only film Morris has in theaters now. He is also a producer on August, a film about a dotcom corporation struggling to make it in August, 2001. It stars Josh Hartnett.
For both American Teen and August, Morris says his role was mostly on the financial side (he had more creative input on 2007’s The Cake Eaters, a film directed by Mary Stuart Masterson). I asked him to demystify that crazy alchemy of why some films find backing and others don’t. “First, it has to be a subject matter that I’m personally interested in,” he says. “Then, it has to have some commercial value. Sometimes you do a film just for the art of it, but movies are expensive so generally it has to have some kind of value, either theatrical value or value on DVD. Finally, you have to hope that you can get the people you want to work on it, including the director and cast and all the editors.” Simple, right? And yet there’s no Academy Award for producing.
American Teen had an evergreen topic and a crack creative team, but what made him think it could be commercially viable? The demand for reality TV, he says. So at least something good came out of The Baby Borrowers and Farmer Wants a Wife.