Even in your early 20s, it’s interesting to look back on those hazy days of adolescent ennui where the world felt infinitely smaller and less consequential. Peering back at high school, the world moved much slower, the future was completely uncertain, and perhaps that was the only time when that felt okay. Thinking to then, I process those times with a mix of nostalgia and pleasure in knowing that adulthood offers an entirely new sense of freedom that one only dreams about at that age. But however you see it, those years are a defning time of change and seminal in one’s life, and with Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet’s debut documentary feature, Only the Young, the filmmaking duo have managed to capture that essence.
Only the Young follows three teenagers—Kevin, Garrison, and Skye—that live in the small desert town of Santa Clarita, California—spending their days hanging out in the foreclosed and abandoned spaces of the town, skating at the local park, and navigating their way through young love and familial issues. We follow the trio through their day-to-day lives, getting an intimate view of their own unique take on the world around them, shot in a way that’s subtly unfolds into something profound and meditative about a time that’s so important in all of our lives. We caught up with Mims and Tippet to dive deeper into the stories they want to tell as filmmakers, getting to know their subjects closely, and the exploratory process of documentary filmmaking.
Can you tell me how you started working together?
EM: We first started making work together at CalArts while we were there for undergrad. There we kind of developed a style with our first short called “Thompson,” which was very similar to Only the Young. So we made our first short at CalArts, and as soon as we graduated we wanted to make something bigger, and started looking for some subjects.
Did you know you definitely wanted to be working in documentary film?
JT: Actually, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do before Cal Arts; I was just taking a few random classes at a junior college in Santa Clarita—I actually grew up where we shot the movie So I ended up taking a film class and we had to do these portraits on these people in this town; he showed usAmerican Movie and after that it really opened my eyes to what kind of films I wanted to make because I felt like I knew a lot of people like that growing up. I love stories about underdogs and I’m kind of a sucker for stories about.
So why did you both decide that this was the story you wanted to tell for your first feature?
EM:I think at first we didn’t really know what we were going to have with this. We really weren’t necessarily planning on making a feature, we were planning for it to probably be a short but then as soon as Skye came into the picture she added so much contrast to everyone else, we kind of realized we had something bigger that could be more of a feature. These relationships, they got more involved and they were interesting as time was progressing and we realized we had something longer. I think it was still really difficult for us to know that it was leading to something being feature length and that it would be coherent and people would enjoy it. But we stuck through it, although it was a little wandering at first.
JT: I think, at least for me, what kind of clicked and why I think this could be a longer story was, it felt like we were capturing a love story as it was happening and unfolding. Like watching Billy the Kid and seeing a similar situation with these young people in terms of these different. It felt like we were getting something in the moment instead of retelling a love story that already happened; we were catching these fresh feelings that war much more intimate it felt like.
So even though you thought it would most likely be a short going into it, did you have any general themes or ideas you really wanted to capture?
JT:Yeah. So Kevin and Garrison are kind of like a sweeter version of Beavis and Butthead. They just had this great banter together; I really loved how natural they were around each other. Also, they didn’t really change when the camera was on, and for us, that was something that was really attractive. They were telling us about this abandon house in the desert, so the opening of the film is kind of what we thought the movie was going to be. We thought it would be about this abandon house and this half-pipe they’re trying to fix, Kevin would go to this big competition in the end, and if he won or lost that’s how we were going to end it. But about two months into it, we ended up meeting Skye and of course that completely changed everything.
How did you meet Kevin and Garrison in the first place?
EM:We met them randomly one day. Jason wanted to go see the new skate park they had rebuilt in Santa Clarita, and Garrison and Kevin came up to us asking if we had lost keys to a Jaguar—which we definitely hadn’t. We were flattered. But then they ended up arguing in front of us the way really good friends do where they don’t have any regard for anyone else.
Did they feel weird at first about you wanting to film them?
JT:Kevin told me he was pretty weirded out, actually. When we first initially asked them if we could do an interview, I think they were both like, oh that’s kind of strange. But I think the reason it wasn’t like totally creepy is that we’re close enough in age to them where we wouldn’t have been able to make this movie if we were much older.
Did they have any reservations about opening up to you guys, especially in the one on ones?
EM:I think that first there was a little bit of difficulty, but we went through so many different experiences with them that it built a kind of a trust where they looked forward to telling us about certain things—especially with someone like Skye who has so much going on in her life that’s difficult to talk about. Jason and I, in terms of how we would shoot, would make a big difference. We would usually the first hour of shooting and it would be really casual and just questions to get them talking about whatever they want to talk about and it kind of became this relationship where they knew a lot about us and we knew a lot about them.
JT:They kind of brought me back to being a kid a lot. There was one time we got chased by bees. I think we just slowly had these really strange stories together.
EM: Garisson and Kevin had to throw me over a fence once because I couldn’t climb.
JT: And Liz would wear dresses and cowboy boots, so.
How long were you filming for and how long did you spend with them?
EM:We were filming for like a year and a half with them and then we edited, so it probably took us like about two years and it’s still going on right now. But yeah, we spent a year and a half with them. It doesn’t even seem like a year and a half but it was a while.
Did you notice a lot of changes in them since you began filming?
JT:Yeah, I mean, that was probably the best part: seeing how they were when we first started and then even like now, what they’re up to and what they want to be doing. It’s just now that they’re kind of finding themselves and we caught that transition period. I think it’s very apparent with their clothes, like how they slowly are changing with that and figuring themselves out. I feel like they grew up in a matter of a year.
EM: I think too, what was really eye-opening was when we finally showed it to them all together. No one had seen anything, we had everyone sit down, Kevin brought his new girlfriend—which was interesting. So Jason and I kind of hid behind the couch waiting to see what their responses would be. Of course there are moments like when Kevin says that Skye’s a sloppy kisser and she started yelling like, "I’m never talking to you again!" and we had to pause it and calm everyone down. But in the end, they handled it so well. They were even coming to realizations about certain things we hadn’t expected and the things we thought would be really hard for them to watch, like Skye going through those things and saying her feelings about Garrison, they came back to us saying like, I understand why these moments were so important now.
Skye was definitely my favorite to get to known. Sometimes she would just say things that were so unexpectedly beautiful and profound.
EM:Oh yeah, always. She would always surprise us. She always had some sort of advice or thoughts that are kind of amazing.
You see these young kids running around skateboarding and you don’t really think about the maturity of them but with someone like Skye you realize how mature had to be.
JT:The whole time shooting with Skye, first of all, she controlled us. She called us "the filmers," she wouldn’t even call us by our names. She’d be like, "Grandpa, the filmers are here,” and would totally just like fool with us. I would turn around for a second and she would like lick my lens and I would come back and be like, "oh my god there’s crap all over the lens!" I don’t know she’s just that kind of person, she’s so bold and I think one of those people you meet as a younger person and they feel like they’re 25, like they can easily be hanging out and going out with you regularly. So she’s pretty ahead of her time and I’m really excited to see what she does with her life because she’s worried, but I’m definitely not worried for her; I think no matter what she does it’s going to be impressive.
I feel like in the past few years I have seen a lot of films—be them narrative or documentaries—that have this sort of southwestern suburban ennui coming of age tales in these empty spaces. This has a somewhat similar feel to the narrative Pavilion, a film that Oscilloscope actually picked up this summer. Do you feel like you’ve seen more of these kinds of stories in recent years?
EM:I mean, Jason and I felt like we were at this age too where we weren’t that far away from these kids, it was the only time we could make something like this. So for us, it was like how writers write what they know, this is something we kind of just went through a couple years ago so we wanted to do something with it while it was fresh. That part of it is different.
JT: Also, I grew up there and with what Liz said, it’s making something that’s really close to us. I grew up skating and it was something I really was interested in making a film about—like what it’s like to not have a car and be in this place and just taking the bus all over. Santa Clarita, when I was growing up there, when we were breaking into these places they were being built, like that mini-golf course. And when we went back and were filming, a lot of these places had gone under, so we were hanging out with them in these very different settings. Now they’re like delapedated and just kind of these ruins that they enjoyed exploring and hanging out at, and there’s so many places like that in Santa Clarita. So yeah, there’s so many good films about these rural areas and these kids growing up. It’s easy to shoot in these places; you don’t have to worry as much about permits, no one ever stopped us.
How did you guys get funding for the film?
EM: We literally went into it with a computer and a camera and then shot it on our own time. And then Derek Waters, our producer, we met him at Sundance and he fortunately helped agree to pay for a hard drive, so we literally just kind of worked odd jobs while shooting and no one wanted to give us money first. It’s hard to pitch a film like this we realized because it’s even hard for us to describe it and make it sound like the movie it is. Fortunately, we got to make it exactly how we wanted.
JT:It was a really strange time actually, because when we were originally showing people, I don’t think they were like that into the movie. It was something that I think we really wanted to make but we weren’t completely sure it was the right move. It was like six months in already and we were still trying to figure out where the story was going and we put so much time into it. So the movie was truly like no guarantees, independent filmmaking. And I’m so glad it’s not going to be lost now and Oscilloscope is helping us get it out there. In college I dreamed of these things and didn’t think they would be happening this quickly at all. This year’s been kind of strange.
Only the Young opens Friday, December 7th in New York at IFC.