POV: How did you decide to focus your story in Lubbock, Texas?
Rose Rosenblatt and Marion Lipschutz
Rose Rosenblatt: It took us a year to find the Lubbock Youth Commission. We researched communities all across the country, looking for a story that could translate well to film. We got a call from a man by the name of Cowboy Fred Ortiz, who was the Youth Commission adult advisor at the time. He wanted publicity. He said, “Listen, I got a group of kids here who are lobbying for better sex ed, I know you’re looking for a sex ed story, come on down.” It sounded colorful, the idea of kids lobbying for better sex ed.
Marion Lipschutz: It took us a long time because we started with the issue, then had to find a story with enough drama to carry it. Sex ed was an important policy issue, but policies weren’t yet being felt on the local level. Also, President Clinton hadn’t made it a high profile issue. President Bush has. Add to that the fact that people don’t really relish talking about teens and sex in their community. They don’t mind if it’s their neighbors’ community, just not their own. A couple of times, we were onto a good story and we were shut out. A school teacher was barred by her principal from continuing to talk to us, we lost another potential story when community leaders realized we were going after controversy. The upshot was that we went to 29 communities in 20 states, from Minnesota to California to Florida. By then we had an active network on the lookout for a story. We also used the internet, but there’s no substitute for human intelligence, so we made hundreds of phone calls, usually starting with a local reporter to get an overview, then activists, pastors, health department representatives, anyone who would talk to us. We also did several site visits.
POV: How did your relationship with Shelby come about?
Rosenblatt: I like to say that we didn’t find Shelby Knox, she found us. Picking Shelby from a group of 25 was easy, in a way, because she was eager to do this project and very motivated. She showed up on time, which is very unusual for teenagers. She was very comfortable in front of the camera. As a singer, she knew how to perform. And she was also very interested in politics.
Lipschutz: Shelby was remarkably precocious. She understood the issues and what she was fighting for on a very mature level. She combined that with all of the sturm und drang of the 15 year-old teenager, which was just an electric combination, really terrific. We knew that because she was so emotionally open she was going to let us in for the ride of our life through her high school years.
Rosenblatt: The question of whether she could carry the film was really the biggest challenge. Whether we could give up the “omniscient narrator voice” and go with a much more personal, character-based point of view. Given that she was a 15-year-old, we had to ask ourselves, will she really transform in a way that will give this film the needed dramatic arc?
POV: How did you establish trust with Shelby?
Rosenblatt: As with any documentary project, it takes a while to develop trust with your characters. People have to feel that you’re on their side, and then they can get caught up in the filmmaking process and can get inside the story to such a degree that they forget the camera. And that’s a very magical moment.
Shelby was very eager to do this film, but that’s not quite trust. Trust takes time. Shelby is very, very smart and it didn’t take her long to understand what this film was about. And she saw that we were committed to the issue of sex ed. At that point, she began to bring in her parents. When they sensed that she was really behind this film, they came on board, which was a very important thing for this film.
POV: What’s challenging in making a film with teenagers as characters?
Lipschutz: This the first time we’ve made a film about teenagers. And it is a tremendous responsibility because they are in the process of formation. You have to be really careful with what you do. Teenagers look like adults, sound like adults, but they’re not adults. And with film, what you see is what you get. So even though I, as the filmmaker, might know an awful lot about why that teenager is saying or doing what they’re saying or doing, an audience doesn’t — without the proper context — and that’s a tremendous responsibility.
When we were editing, we would often re-cut a scene many, many times with the aim of being fair to the other kids, especially since the film showed Shelby’s point of view on them. That meant checking with Shelby, and giving the other kids the opportunity to talk back. I was dealing directly with Corey and so I felt a really powerful emotional responsibility towards him. Corey knew that Shelby saw him as her nemesis, so I think Corey was expecting that the film would be from her point of view. We hope that an audience understands that it’s Shelby’s point of view on Corey, not who Corey is completely.
POV: What does Shelby’s family think of the film?
Rosenblatt: Danny and Paula Knox are so proud of Shelby — she’s their daughter and she’s famous and wonderful and an activist and strong and she does what she believes in. They were very supportive of sex ed, so it was easy for them to support the film, with one exception. Shelby saw the connection between the gay rights issue and the sex ed issue. She saw that it was a natural extension. So when she brought that back home, her parents got a little nervous. They weren’t sure where this was going or whether that was something they could support. It was difficult for them and I think it still is.
Lipschutz: As a parent, what’s not to like?! Shelby’s family is very, very proud. They went to Sundance, and were there for a standing ovation at our last screening. Danny Knox, who is a salesman at Alderson Cadillac, says his clients are interested and supportive. But I also bet that, along with being proud, they may be a little bit nervous about the broadcast. Not a lot, but a bit.