SXSW 2008: Caroline Suh on “Frontrunners”

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03172008_frontrunners1.jpgBy Stephen Saito

Kofi Annan once told Alexander Payne that “Election” was the most purely political film he’d ever seen, which makes one wonder where the former U.N. Secretary-General would place the nonfiction “Frontrunners,” Caroline Suh’s study about the real life political process at New York City’s Stuyvesant High School. As the film immediately lets the audience know, Stuyvesant is one of the most prestigious schools in the country and a proving ground for some of the best and brightest — where a term as student union president could equal a ticket to Harvard or Yale. With so much at stake, the race for student government involves primaries, televised debates, newspaper endorsements and, yes, the usual schmoozing with constituents (which in one candidate’s case involves serving glasses of Pellegrino in the middle of a hallway “lounge”).

For most, this isn’t the typical high school experience, but then again, what is? Although the four candidates at the center of “Frontrunners” represent the familiar cliques of high school life — Hannah, the drama queen whose extracurriculars included a role in Todd Solondz’s “Palindromes”; George, the Max Fischer-esque go-getter; Mike, a seemingly withdrawn type who cruises by on his looks and charm; and Alex, the ill-prepared basketball player — the resulting election reveals a generation of teens that is at once diverse, but also media savvy and unafraid of resorting to old fashioned stumping for votes. The documentary is the first to be directed by Suh, who had previously been a producer on various PBS documentaries with Erika Frankel. Suh discussed the highs and lows of the campaign trail following “Frontrunners'”s world premiere at SXSW.

Coming from a producing background, did your heart sink when you found out that one of the candidate’s strategies involved blasting “Born to Be Wild” and “Teenage Wasteland” (songs with expensive licensing fees) to grab the attention of students walking to class?

Both Erica and I begged George, when we found out that this was part of his campaign strategy, to not play The Beatles or things that we knew we couldn’t license and of course, he kind of ignored us and played very expensive music. [laughs] We have a lawyer who’s very aggressive in terms of fair use issues and she’s been guiding us through the process. But as two people who are used to producing, it was very disturbing, but we had to go with it because it was the story and we couldn’t control what was happening.

Had you been wanting to direct for a long time?

I started doing this because I wanted to make films and needed to learn the craft and also, we need to support ourselves, but this was a great opportunity to not produce and do something that was my own, to not have boundaries and not have to make a program to time and not have to take notes that we didn’t agree with. It really was a great experience in that way.

03172008_frontrunners2.jpgA high school election also seems like a nice subject to ease into as a first project since it’s self-contained. Was that a consideration?

That was definitely a consideration. We wanted to tell a campaign story and we don’t really look at the film as a competition film, but more as a campaign film. We knew that there was an arc to the story, so that definitely made it more manageable, and we knew we’d be shooting for a limited amount of time, which actually enabled us to make the film because we could afford to. It wasn’t a situation where it would stretch on for months and months and we couldn’t afford to have a [D.P.].

Last night in the Q & A, you said you didn’t want to work with adults, but usually the maxim is “no kids, no animals” — how did high school politics come up?

CS: [laughs] Well, to be honest, we’ve worked on a lot of a serious subject matter docs and I wanted to do something where I didn’t have to be professional. As a producer, it’s also different — you do have to present yourself professionally, and I wanted to do something that was more relaxed, more one-on-one. I also look young and I’m a woman and when you’re dealing with “adults,” it’s a different kind of interaction. So it’s nice to work with teenagers where some of that outer stuff falls away.

Because of the Stuyvesant setting, you probably knew the election would be interesting, but in most high schools, elections seem to boil down to pithy popularity contests. Was that a concern of yours going in?

When we started filming, that was definitely a fear that oh, what if there’s no story? We didn’t have any control over it or the characters — luckily, they ended up being great and all very different from each other. But it was a huge fear. There could’ve easily been no story. We know there were going to be debates, and that’s great and fun, but we started to relax when we met the Spectator people [the Stuyvesant school newspaper, which must endorse a candidate] because they provided a context for the election that gave it some gravity.

Were you surprised by how civil the election was?

I don’t know if we had any expectations going in as to what it would be like. We were concerned that bad things would happen, because they’re only 16 and 17, and we didn’t want this to be something that ruined someone’s whole life, so we really were hoping that there wouldn’t be real world ugliness. We were lucky that didn’t happen.

You also kept the focus on the election, although there seemed like there could’ve been a natural inclination to learn a bit more about the adults.

That’s what we wanted to do. We felt strongly that the film is really about the election and how the kids have decided to be at school. It’s really their story, their public persona, and their private persona too, but it really is all about who they are at school. It was important to us that we keep it that way.

[Photos: “Frontrunners,” Suh Films, 2008]

For more on “Frontrunners,” check out the official site here.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.