This video is part of our exploration of “the Edge of Texas” that we began with our May issue. Filmmaker John Carrithers explains his process behind “The Price of Stargazing,” a short piece he did for us that explores the edge of youth.

When I started thinking about a film that meditated on the edge of youth, I immediately thought of the stars. As a teenager, I would lay on my parents’ rooftop at night staring at the Milky Way, wondering if I would ever get out of that small military town. I felt excited. I felt scared.  I felt determined.

It’s been many years since my last rooftop stargazing session, and though I still carry some of those same ruminations with me, I thought it would be better to collaborate with someone who’s living at the edge of youth right now. Donald Val is a Sharpstown High School senior and a talented poet. I met him while making a video for a non-profit called Writers in the Schools, and I knew he would be an excellent collaborator. We met at a coffee shop and I spent a few minutes outlining the kind of themes I’d like him to explore in a new poem for this film. As I continued to speak he started to scoot closer to the edge of his seat. When I finished he replied, “I think I just wrote the poem!”

He recited “The Price of Stargazing” in the middle of the coffee shop, and I was floored. It took me right back to my parent’s rooftop, and the passion behind his words left me breathless. My plan was to film Donald at a great location that nodded to the themes of his poem, ideally with the Milky Way over his shoulder. Unfortunately, in Houston we don’t see the stars that often, the lights of downtown obstructing natural brilliance.

I decided that having Donald surrounded by a constellation of city lights was the next best thing. I called in a favor to a client and they provided access to the rooftop where we filmed Donald, not knowing that our star was afraid of heights. But he mustered up the courage and performed the poem beautifully a few times on a chilly Friday night.

Next, I wanted to capture portraits of other teenagers, connecting Donald’s words to every teen I could find. Through friends and high school teachers across the city I started building my cast of characters. Most of them I met at their homes and would try to find something for them to do on-camera that made sense for each teen. Seventeen-year-old Adrian Hernandez said after work he likes to spend time with his little brother, so I filmed the pair on their front porch. Ty Gates likes to skateboard, so we headed over to a nearby parking lot where I filmed him skateboarding from a car window while his mother drove.

But I also wanted to capture a portrait of each teen staring into the lens. Staring into someone’s eyes isn’t something we do that often, and I would imagine it is nearly impossible for a teenager. Having the camera as our buffer allows us to glimpse at something we wouldn’t normally get to see: the excited, scared, and determined gaze of young men and women on the edge of youth.