Rick Stevenson’s “Millennials: Growing Up in the 21st Century,” which will air on Ovation TV, started life as a few interviews with neighborhood kids in the Seattle area. He ended up checking in annually with 60 youths, starting in 2001.
Richmond Beach filmmaker Rick Stevenson has an unusually varied career as a producer and director, with projects ranging from scripted feature films with Robert Redford (1987’s “Promised Land” and 1988’s “Some Girls”) to directing episodes of TV series (“Hope Island” in 1999 and “Ed” in 2003) to producing nonfiction documentaries, including the new cable docuseries “Millennials: Growing Up in the 21st Century,” debuting at 4 p.m. Thursday on Ovation TV.
Stevenson attributed his shift from fiction to nonfiction to a change in life circumstances: He got married in 2000 and his wife asked that he stick closer to home. That request started Stevenson on the path that led to “Millennials.”
“I just came up with this idea to interview some neighborhood kids,” he said.
‘Millennials: Growing up in the 21st Century’
4 p.m. Thursday, May 5, on Ovation TV. Locally, Ovation is available on Comcast (Channel 202 or 715), CenturyLink (531), Wave Broadband (277) and DirecTV (274).
Stevenson worked with the Shoreline School District, which picked 800 children for Stevenson to interview. Of those, he selected 60 in 2001 to follow with annual check-in interviews. With assistance from “Brain Rules” author and developmental molecular biologist John Medina, Stevenson developed a list of age-appropriate questions to ask each time.
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Stevenson’s “Millennials” bears some resemblance to the British “Seven Up!” series, but that ongoing series of documentary films checks in with a group of people every seven years, not annually.
“I also made a decision that was really quite risky but I felt like it was the right thing to do: I guaranteed the kids if they don’t want their story told, they don’t have to tell it, giving them the option to opt out years later,” Stevenson said. “If you watch the ‘Seven Up!’ series, there are people who feel like it ruined their lives. Especially because I’m dealing with kids, I didn’t want any hint of exploitation.”
The in-progress documentary garnered attention from educators locally, nationally and eventually worldwide who wanted their students to have an opportunity to answer Stevenson’s questions that provoke self-reflection. That led to an educational spinoff that’s not part of the “Millennials” series.
Initially called The 5,000 Days Project — the approximate number of days between the start of kindergarten and high-school graduation — when the project’s duration surpassed 5,000 days, it was expanded and now falls under an umbrella project called The School of Life Project (theschooloflifeproject.org/). This educational-outreach effort is now in 10 countries and uses a tricked-out iPad called the StoryCatcher to record children and teens answering Stevenson’s questions and recording their answers to a personal cloud storage site, where the videos are stored for them and only them to access.
Stevenson said that despite, or perhaps because of, social media, millennials (born between roughly 1982 and 2004) feel more alone than ever.
“They have no time to reflect,” he said. “Even when you’re in the bathroom, you’ve got your device. When you’re walking on the street, you’ve got your device. None of the time you used to use to think and reflect and get to know yourself and understand what you’re going through, which is vital, is now eaten up by this relentless game of trying to keep up on your media.”
Each of the six one-hour “Millennials” episode features three different kids, the majority from the Seattle area, usually from around age 12 to their early 20s. The series premiere shows their stories can be challenging, eat-your-vegetables TV. Danielle becomes a cutter following sexual abuse. Jonathan becomes a drug addict as he confronts his sexual identity.
Ultimately the stories have uplifting endings, and Stevenson said not every hour is as intense as the first.
He acknowledged the similarities between “Millennials” and Richard Linklater’s 2014 fictional film “Boyhood,” which Stevenson said he voted for in 2015 as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (“It should have won best picture”). Stevenson said he, like most everyone else, never knew the 12-years-in-the-making “Boyhood” was in production until close to its release. By then, Stevenson was about 13 years into recording interviews for “Millennials.”
“We’re basically the nonfiction version of ‘Boyhood,’ ” he said. “I don’t quite want to call it health food for your eyes and soul because so many people say, ‘I watched it with my daughter and it opened up the best discussion we’ve ever had in our life.’ For kids, it speaks the truth to what they’re going through: ‘I’ve never heard anybody ’fess up to this stuff before, these kids are sharing a lot of the same feelings I have.’ ”