Set in the outer boroughs of New York City, Nick Bentgen’s latest documentary #LoveYourz follows a group of teens who have formed a self-love creative collective as they look to pave a way for themselves into the future. What makes the film so compelling is Bentgen’s ability to capture these teens on their own terms. The camera often floats through organic scenarios, catching moments on the fly, whilst maintaining an intimacy that feels immersive. This is also backed by the use of multiple visual mediums, with great high res photography combined with retro VHS-style footage to give the film a fresh aesthetic buoyancy that keeps you engaged. DN sat down with Bentgen to talk over the creation of #LoveYourz, revealing the serendipitous moment that led to its creation, the decision making behind his multi-camera setup, and the filmmaking rules he followed to tell his story with authenticity.

#LoveYourz is such beautiful and tender depictions of teenage relationships, how did it come together?

I remember walking through Grand Army Plaza, late to meet Lisa Kjerulff, my girlfriend and artistic collaborator, in Prospect Park. It was one of those beautifully crisp spring days on the cusp of summer, but that wasn’t gonna stop me from being a stressed out Brooklynite. Several film projects of mine had stalled. All I wanted was to be out making something creative and I’d be damned if I was going to let beautiful weather get in the way of a good brooding. It was then that I heard the unmistakable shrieking of teenagers up to no good. A group of relentlessly cool looking youths were climbing all over one of the plaza’s priceless pillars, and I immediately wanted nothing more than to join the mischief.

I walked into the thrum of twenty five rambunctious Brooklyn teens. They were lobbing opinions like Molotov cocktails, on art, music, fashion, and self-love, staking out their identities right there in the street. It was like watching flowers bloom all around me. Lisa eventually found me talking with a couple of the group’s skateboarders. “I knew I’d find you here” she said. Lisa and I hung out with the kids for another half hour, and they were so open, about their hopes, their home lives, their thoughts about the world and their place in it, that our hearts exploded. Even in such a short meeting, we saw that behind the bravado, was a desire to be seen and understood, and through each other, these kids hoped to overcome a harsh and indifferent world. “We’re LoveYourz, this is a movement!” Jasmine told us. We set a date for filming the following weekend, and Lisa and I got to work.

Wow, I can’t believe it was that serendipitous! What was it about these teens that struck a chord with you?

Embarking on a film about teenagers immediately made me recall my own youth. I grew up a 90s theater kid in a blue collar town in Wisconsin. Like every teenager, I felt I didn’t belong. My mom had cancer, my dad felt impossible to reach. I had so much creative expression welling up inside of me with too few meaningful outlets. The truth is I didn’t know how I fit in anywhere, and I felt I couldn’t share that with my friends.

I wanted to capture the feelings they were going through as they built that beautifully messy punk safety net for each other.

Music videos and movies were my lifeline. Dazed and Confused, Pulp Fiction, Boogie Nights, Kids, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Y Tu Mama Tambien. Those films spoke to me. It’s life-changing to see an emotional experience that reflects your own, if only through media. I had to wait until I was in my twenties and moved to New York to find a sense of community and belonging. But the kids of #LoveYourz were sussing that whole identity thing out much earlier and creating a community for each other right here right now. I wanted to capture the feelings they were going through as they built that beautifully messy punk safety net for each other.

What does putting a film together look like with you?

We begged and borrowed and called in every favor we had from friends. I managed to borrow a RED camera from the ever generous Sam Wootton, and Sam and Greta Zozula joined to film successive days as cinematographers. I dug up my parents’ old VHS camera, the kind with the fifty pound tape deck you sling over a shoulder that connects to the camera via an umbilical, that I had used to make my first forays into filmmaking when I was six. And I found a way to power the beast with some portable batteries on Amazon.

To me, the overwhelming sensory overload of high res cinema images and the ultra-impressionistic, ultra-nostalgic quality of low-res VHS felt like the perfect alchemy, especially when set to music.

And how did you approach production? Did you keep things loose to capture LoveYourz as organically as possible?

We drove our van full of hope and borrowed gear to Queens’ Highland Park for our first day of shooting, where we had arranged to meet a few members of LoveYourz and had the moment of truth every filmmaker faces on day one of production. Will anyone show up?

I don’t know why I doubted. More than fifty kids from all over Brooklyn and Queens came through, and as we interviewed, took portraits, and just hung out with these kids, their generosity of spirit gave me the confidence to make the film’s style as fluid as the kids who inhabited it. There’s this lovely book called In My Room by Adrienne Salinger that I found incredibly inspiring, and a mind-blowingly beautiful documentary music video by Mike Mills for the band Air that I just plain ripped off. I had shot a film called Teenage for my friend Matt Wolf a year or so prior, and his work was tremendously impactful to me at the time. It still is. But I was also grabbing inspiration from all the media I was consuming then. Mary Ellen Mark’s Streetwise, Seconds of My Life by Jamel Shabazz, I remember that Frank Ocean’s My Calvins campaign had just come out.

Earlier on you mentioned your choice of camera, what motivated that combination of something as contemporary as a RED with the retro aesthetic of a VHS camera?

I decided to combine highly composed digital cinema verite and portraiture with very loose, roving VHS, because I wanted to put the audience inside the emotional landscape of being a teenager. To me, the overwhelming sensory overload of high res cinema images and the ultra-impressionistic, ultra-nostalgic quality of low-res VHS felt like the perfect alchemy, especially when set to music.

My goal was to be as brave and adventurous with this film as these kids were with their lives. What if I could make a film for and about teenagers that was as stylized as the media they consumed, with as much preening nonstop energy as the Calvin Klein ads of the time, without ever falling into cynicism? What if we treated real teenagers like their feelings were valuable, and what if we didn’t exploit those feelings to sell them anything? If that meant the film would strike some as heartbreakingly earnest, or even naive, so be it.

How long were you shooting with the group?

We spent four days filming in free-flowing fashion, grabbing a few interviews or just as often following the LoveYourz crew around as they skated and met up with friends. My direction was akin to that of the ‘cool’ schoolteacher, saying things like, “Hey let’s go over to the gazebo and do a rap battle. Maybe watch your step around the exposed nails in those floorboards” or “How bout we all climb up on those shipping containers to grab a few shots? Is everyone up to date on their tetanus shots?”.

It was important to me that these kids always felt in charge of what was happening, and that we were collectively creating this film. A passerby might have just seen teenage chaos, but inside the group, a sense of exploration, freedom and discovery reigned. That willingness to roam freely, to be vulnerable and to truly listen was the secret to our success. It’s what gave the film its intimacy.

What if we treated real teenagers like their feelings were valuable, and what if we didn’t exploit those feelings to sell them anything?

It sounds like so much of the film was on the fly, did you have a shorthand with your crew to be able to work that way?

Having worked with Cinematographers Sam Wootton and Greta Zozula for years, we were able to communicate about our camerawork in shorthand. To me, verite operating is the most exciting and most challenging that it gets. Filming is never more electric than when the moment is unrepeatable, but as a cinematographer myself, I’ve got to be working with camerapeople who have deep experience in both a fiction and nonfiction environment. We were very lucky to have Greta and Sam on this production, because they have a rare ability to stake out a strong emotional perspective and find great light, all while keeping the eye connected to these kids as they moved.

My favorite part of the production though was the interviews. It’s where I really got to know Jasmine and Teiarra, Trish and Eshe, Honey, Kyle, Tim and the twins Malik and Khalik, if only for a brief moment in their lives. I had a list of questions that were incredibly broad. Just terribly earnest, new-agey questions like, “What does the future look like to you?” and “What would you say to people who called you a weirdo?” But our genuine interest, and my willingness to ask foolish questions, endeared us in short order. After those interviews, I’m especially proud to know these kids because they didn’t bat an eye, and each responded with such individual and emotionally invested answers. I love how real the kids are in this movie, how present they are.

Reflecting back on your approach, would you say you have a specific way of working or rule you follow when filming?

If there was a rule we followed stylistically, it was that we were making a teenager’s eye view of the world. The music, the clothes, the language should wash over you in a tidal wave. We sought to immerse the audience in each kid’s personality and culture, down to the micro-genre, and valuing that perspective opened the door for us creatively. It meant we could use any and all relevant filmmaking techniques; Verite Long Takes, Freeze Frames, Still Photo Collage, VHS Titles, Whip Pans, Jump Cuts, Film burns, Tape Distortions, Expressive Sound Design, Backwards Music, Halation Effects, and more. We projected our footage through a Medium Format camera’s viewfinder and emulated the effect of film jumping out of the projection gate, all of it was fair game. In fact, stylistic exploration was encouraged, because for these kids, style wasn’t something just some surface affectation, style was its own language that carried deep feeling.

How much of a challenge was it assembling the footage?

Eavvon O’Neal came on board to edit the film. His love for and knowledge of music was an incredible asset, especially when it came to pacing out the free-flowing, stream of consciousness structure of the piece. At night while transcribing the kids’ interviews myself, out of the corner of my eye I watched beloved works from my own youth, like Clockers, Requiem for a Dream, Natural Born Killers, He Got Game, Snatch, Christiane F., Lynne Ramsey’s video for Doves, and movies by Nestor Almendros, Terence Malick and Jonathan Demme, especially Something Wild.

If there was a rule we followed stylistically, it was that we were making a teenager’s eye view of the world.

During post-production, I had to balance our edit schedule while filming other commercial projects to pay the bills, but nine months after shooting, we finished editing #LoveYourz. Juan Aboites, our sound designer, gave the film a rich sonic landscape full of whales and trains and LP record pops that valued the emotional undercurrents of the film, while Sam Daley, our colorist, brought out the exuberance and adrenaline of that youthful summer through rich film emulation LUTs, creating a variety of looks to match each mood, from a Black and White glowing vintage Hollywood look to a 16mm Maysles Brothers vibe.

When did you show LoveYourz the film and what did they make of it?

We put together a screening for the kids at the lovely IFP Media Center. It was an incredible feeling to sit in that screening room with them while they watched. I still remember my conversations with them about the film afterwards. I was and still am honored that they both love the movie and feel we captured part of their lives.

This film was always about being young and finding your people, and I’m proud to have captured something beautifully effervescent but also unflinching in the film. We not only managed to tell a story about teenagers, we gave them the depth they deserve. Any adult could tell you utopian movements like #LoveYourz don’t last. But they’d be missing the point. In the moment, nothing is more important or more beautiful than when the young artists and the weird kids find their people.

What will we see from you next?

I’m working on a few projects right now. Lisa and I have a hybrid nonfiction feature coming out later this year, called Fourty Pounds. It’s a love story set in the world of subway dance and Litefeet culture, in which the cast plays themselves, an epic, six year long shoot with incredibly talented performers in East New York. We’re all so excited for that film to come out. I’m also writing two features, both thrillers, shooting commercials and music videos, and raising two kids.

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