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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included a role in Todd Solondz’s “Palindromes”; George, the Max Fischer-esque go-getter; Mike, a seemingly withdrawn type who cruises by on his looks and charm; and Alex, the ill-prepared basketball player — the resulting election reveals a generation of teens that is at once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.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.