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included a role in Todd Solondz’s “Palindromes”; George, the Max Fischer-esque go-getter; Mike, a seemingly withdrawn type who cruises by on his looks and charm; and Alex, the ill-prepared basketball player — the resulting election reveals a generation of teens that is at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

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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