An Interview with Lance Bangs of Young Americans

by Thomas Britt

18 August 2013

Celebrated filmmaker Lance Bangs discusses the second season of his insightful Vice show Young Americans and his flexibility as a filmmaker.
Photo: Nathan Sanborn/The Superslice 
cover art

Young Americans Season 2

US: 29 May 2013

Paramount’s first trailer for Bad Grandpa exceeded ten million views in its first few days of availability on YouTube. Full of the prankster terrorism long associated with the Jackass brand, Bad Grandpa is not intended to be taken too seriously. It remains to be seen whether the comedy’s subversive vision of young and old behavior will cause any controversies, but its exploitation of children and the elderly is played for broad comic effect rather than as part of a national discussion on those important issues.

Though Bad Grandpa seems a world apart from any genuine documentary categorization, one of the individuals responsible for bringing it to the screen has been working to update the social issue documentary tradition for the millennial generation. Cinematographer Lance Bangs, a longtime Jackass/Spike Jonze associate, enjoys a career whose boundaries are wide enough to accommodate everything from the grossest of gross-out comedy to globally conscious documentaries like The Lazarus Effect (2010), which he directed.  One of his most recent efforts (as producer/director) is Young Americans, a Scion AV/VICE series “about what it’s like to live as a young person in America today, as told straight from the source.”

Bangs says the 2012 presidential election was a motivator for his involvement with Young Americans: “I’ve produced and directed several other projects with Vice over the years and in 2012 Eddy Moretti and I were talking about the election cycle. He asked if I would be interested in traveling the country in my personal approach, discovering and interviewing young people. I was curious about whether they would get engaged or sit things out, so I took off across the country with my cameras.”

Season two of the program focuses primarily on ethnicity, and its eight episodes are available now on the Scion AV YouTube channel. Though Bangs and his camera operators/editors illustrate the episodes with footage that accompanies talking head interviews, the series is (refreshingly) executed without too much editorializing. The faces, the voices, and the personalities of young people are front and center.  In each ten minute episode, the juxtaposition of their stories and opinions is what makes a cumulative impact.

I ask Bangs to describe his casting/selection process for the participants. He says, “My approach was to find interesting characters in my personal travels, and then as themes emerged to make sure that I was balancing out representation to push further into certain subjects. I also had colleagues and fellow filmmakers in other regions pick up additional interviews for me to keep it well rounded.”

The press release for the second season states that some of the other goals were to cover “body image, socializing and media representations”. I observe that these subjects appear to be interrelated, as young people take their cues from media for how they perceive themselves and their positions among peers. Bangs agrees, in the sense that these young people are increasingly concerned with attaining/maintaining certain media-influenced physical ideals.

“People were decidedly tallying what they were consuming and how they were exercising, in a way that contrasted with my memories of being their age. I don’t think my peers were as conscious or involved in balancing things out every day as these respondents seemed to be.” Beyond body image, another difference he perceives when comparing the current youth to his peers is that he “used to see more internal conflict in people when they were coming out as being anything but heteronormative, and often harsher reactions from their families or social surroundings.” Nowadays, he says they are “less uptight or threatened by social reaction to their sexual identity, and less judgmental of other people.”

I ask if any of his own conceptions were challenged by his encounters with the young Americans. “Sure,” he says, “one of the best aspects of engaging in conversations with strangers is to challenge your conceptions and update your own range of experiences. In 2012, I thought young people might sit that election out in a disillusioned counter-reaction to their engagement in 2008. They ended up voting in larger than projected numbers.”

As Young Americans is a show produced for the Internet, it is playing out on a platform that for many young people has become the primary place to meet and socialize with those who share similar interests and experiences. Bangs sees such interactivity as both good and bad. “I see it absolutely forming shared spaces between niche interests, but the anonymous commenting dynamic of other sites is caustic and destructive rather than generative. I’m ready for people to own up to what they write instead of acidly cowering and sniping.”

Another key aspect of the online experience is the ability to self-represent. Now more than ever before, young people are equipped to write, direct, and star in the stories of their lives through YouTube and social media. Of this evolution, Bangs is optimistic and says that even the problem of sharing too much information will soon become less of an issue. “Self-representation is crucial,” he says, “and I’m always happy to see people gain more access to creative tools. Now that dissemination is instantaneous and hard to scrub or delete, people will have to maintain identities that include their younger expressions. I think within fifteen years society will move towards being less judgmental of online ‘youthful indiscretions’ because so many people will have written or appeared in things they regret.”

Turning the conversation to his own decision-making as a non-fiction filmmaker, I ask how he handles ethical dilemmas when they arise. He says, “I have a personal ethical code that I operate from, and when shooting documentaries you absolutely encounter problematic situations. You want to stop shooting and directly help people who are in any sort of need, so you have to know when to do that and when to keep shooting so that the story can get out. I like to remain in contact with people I’ve filmed and keep checking in with them as time passes after the filming is done.”

In addition to his recent work with Young Americans and other online videos, Bangs is active in multiple formats, including music videos, television shows, and films. He says the creative and practical considerations change according to the form. “I frame things differently if I know they will be projected large in theaters or galleries than I do when I’m producing pieces to go online, which play better in close-ups. Young Americans is deliberately structured to let people’s ideas come out at their own speaking pace rather than cutting as quickly as my television work might.” Is any single type of shoot more satisfying than the others? “The most satisfying things to shoot remain a great musical performance when there is a charge in the air, or nightscapes when I am out exploring alone.”

Bangs’ current/upcoming projects combine documentary with music and comedy. “I finished a long term feature documentary about the band Slint and their album Spiderland and have been making some pieces with Earl Sweatshirt for a record he is releasing in August, while also directing a barrage of comedy projects: standup specials for Marc Maron and Nick Thune, a new episode of The Greatest Event in Television History with Adam Scott, and a comedy roundtable with Ben Stiller, Mike Myers, Seth Meyers and Michael Ian Black.” And now that the Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa advertising has begun, he says he “can also now admit that we snuck around the country with Johnny Knoxville in heavy prosthetics shooting a new hidden camera feature film coming out in October.”

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//Mixed media