Interview with Becky Smith by the Beijinger

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Recently the Beijing magazine, “The Beijinger” did an interview with  Becky Smith on “16 to Life”, The movie will premiere in Beijing in May.

1. Why did you want to make “16 to Life”?I have been directing television and documentaries for a number of years, and longed to direct a feature film.  I realized that I needed to stop waiting around for someone else to say “yes”to me – I might be dead before that “yes” came!  So I got the project going myself.   I chose “16 to Life” as my first feature because I wanted to make a small romantic comedy based on the desires and dreams of a smart teenage girl in a rural area.

2. By US standards, what does it mean to be sweet sixteen and never been kissed?
That’s a great question.  I think teenagers in the U.S. are very knowledgeable – technically –  about sex, perhaps much more than a generation ago.  But they are still teenagers – with  feelings of confusion, inferiority, shyness, inexperience. This particular girl (Kate) sees 16 as a symbolic age – there is an American saying “Sweet sixteen and never been kissed” that means, “growing up, but still an innocent child”.  I think Kate, the girl in “16 to Life” wants someone to appreciate and care about her. She feels sexual feelings that she doesn’t know what to do with.  She feels that she has somehow “missed the boat” in terms of finding connection with someone romantically.  She also wrestles with her conflicting interests; she wants to be a sensible girl, but she also wants to have passion in her life.  She doesn’t know how to fit the two together.

3. What is it exactly about that age, for girls, that makes everything so mortifyingly embarrassing?
I’m trying to remember what it felt like to be sixteen! I think teenagers have a lot of self-focus, probably due to hormones.  They have a heightened awareness of themselves and all the new and confusing feelings they are experiencing.  Some of them feel sure that the rest of the world is just as fascinated with them as they are with themselves.  They assume the rest of the world is sitting in judgement on them, and they aren’t measuring up. It seems to be a universal teenage feeling – and a good reason not to long for the Fountain of Youth.

4. Can you think of any painful-yet-funny moments from your own youth?
I needed to wear glasses when I turned 12.  But the first day I wore glasses, a boy at school called me “four eyes”.  I immediately took the glasses off and wouldn’t wear them again for three years.  I could not see the blackboard from my seat, and often did poorly on tests because I couldn’t see the blackboard and wouldn’t admit it to the teacher.  The funny thing is, I wasn’t a particularly “feminine” girl, but I felt that wearing glasses was a humiliating weakness. I have many more stories of humiliation and hard-headedness, but I’ll stop there.  I did not kiss a boy until I was seventeen, so I’m sure there is something autobiographical here, but I won’t confess any more than that!

5. If you could go back and tell your 16-year-old self something, what would you say?
I would say “You are going to get to go out and see the world.  Don’t worry about that now, just appreciate your family, the beautiful place you are growing up in, and the friends you have.”  But my 16-year-old self probably wouldn’t believe me.

6. While you were living through these issues yourself, did they strike you as being as hilarious as you make them out to be in the film? Or is it just in hindsight?
I was considered the humorist in my class, and by some of my sisters.  I think I’ve often been able to look at my own predicaments and be both mortified by them and amused at the same time.  I think I may have been voted “Funniest girl” in my high school yearbook, but maybe that’s just my revisionist imagination.

7. What elements of coming of age for teenage girls do you think are universal? What are uniquely American?
I think all teenagers get raging hormones. All teenagers become focused on themselves, and wonder if they are measuring up to an ideal.  All teenagers feel romantic and sexual longing.   But some teenagers have a stronger sense of themselves, or more confidence, and can handle that period of their life better.  Some teenagers have a better relationship with their parents, and don’t become as antagonistic toward their parents as others. 

8. If she’s lucky, what lessons will a girl escape her teenage years having learned?
If I had a teenage daughter, I would hope that she could keep some sense of herself, some confidence and humor about those tumultuous times.  I would hope that her sense of what’s important in life would remain steady, under all the understandable, but sometimes superficial longing for the right friends, the right look, the right romance. I think the best thing that can happen is that teenage girls don’t compromise themselves to their insecurities.

Directing /Queer Eye for the Straight Guy/ must give you a pretty broad view on issues of what defines sexy, and what is important in terms of sexuality.
9. How is sexuality different for teenage girls than it is for slightly older men?
Wow, that’s a very hard question.  I wish I could get into the head of a boy or a man (as a writer).  I’ll need to survey a number of slightly older men, which could be a fascinating project.  But I suspect that men have the same insecurities about their attractiveness, their ability to impress someone they are romantically interested in.

10. Are there any differences between US and Chinese culture you are particularly interested by, or issues you would like to know the Chinese perspective on?
I am quite interested in Chinese culture and Chinese history, but I haven’t had the opportunity to visit China yet.  China is a huge country, with rich traditions in art and culture and a fascinating history.  In some ways, China seems (from what I’ve read) to be different culturally from the U.S., i.e., more emphasis on family, on serving the community and society before thinking about personal gain.  The U.S. is very young by Chinese standards!  I am interested in how China is adjusting to rapid technological advancements, to more active exchanges with the west in terms of business and culture.  I’m most interested in how these changes have affected families, their goals and their relationship to their community.  I’m interested in how Chinese people look at the Cultural Revolution from the perspective of forty years later.  I’m interested in Chinese writers and Chinese filmmakers and other artists – the kind of art they are producing and what issues are most on their minds.  I wonder how the Chinese see the west. 

11. Is there anything else you’d like to say about the film you think a Chinese audience should know before seeing it?
The film shows the perspective of a young American girl who is reading a memoir of the Cultural Revolution in China written by a Chinese woman who lived through the Revolution as a teenager.  Kate (the American girl) tries to imagine the Cultural Revolution from her own perspective – and to understand why people behaved the way they did.  She grows to realize that people from different cultures have more similarities than differences. 

13. What actors will be joining you in Beijing?
My lead actresses, Hallee Hirsh and Theresa Russell, are both quite interested in attending the Beijing screenings.  We are working on logistics right now.

When/where will the film premier in the US?
“16 to Life” is having a first screening in Los Angeles at the Method Fest Film Festival on March 28th.  The festival focuses on films with great performances by individual actors or an ensemble and “16 to Life” has been chosen as the Premiere before the Red Carpet Party.

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