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A Conversation with Sara Colangelo (THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER)

I spoke with director Sara Colangelo (Little Accidents) on Wednesday, September 12, 2018, after my return from the Toronto International Film Festival (but while she was still there) to discuss her Sundance award-winner, The Kindergarten Teacher (which I also reviewed). The film is an adaptation of a 2014 Israeli film of the same name, and tells the story of the titular teacher, who develops a rapidly inappropriate obsession with one of her students, who she decides is a poetic genius. Maggie Gyllenhaal (Hysteria) plays the main role, Lisa, with young newcomer Parker Sevak as Jimmy, her star pupil. Gael García Bernal (Museo) joins the cast in a supporting part. The movie disturbs, but also engages, its portrait of a midlife crisis resonating against a backdrop of the superficiality of modern life. Here is a condensed digest of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

 Hammer to Nail: So, your film is based on the 2014 Israeli film Haganenet, by Nadav Lapid, which I have not seen. Could you tell me about that film and how yours differs in terms of story and tone, if at all?

Sara Colangelo: Yes. I was pitched the project and liked the idea of it and quickly went to Lincoln Center and watched Nadav’s film and really fell in love with it. But certainly, it wasn’t…I didn’t necessarily think that my second film would be an American remake of an Israeli film and I didn’t think it would be an adaptation of material that had already been made into a film. I signed onto the project saying, “Okay, I’m only going to do this if I feel I can really reinvent the story and make it my own and make it something unique and try to talk a little bit about art in the United States, specifically.”

I think Nadav’s movie is brilliant and beautiful and it sort of weaves the point of view of the student with the teacher in a way that I think is great. He talks about masculinity in Israel and art in a war-torn country, so to speak. I knew that I really wanted to talk about the state of art in the United States from…at the time we were in the middle of an election…I think in any of our latest administrations there’s always a question of art within curriculums, art within society. Is it given enough space? Is it given proper value? And that was something I wanted to look at.

At the same time, I really wanted to anchor the story more in Lisa’s point to view and really give the character a little more agency and intensity. Once Maggie came on, I knew I had a great partner in doing that. She could kind of…she had a beautiful way of being both relatable and intense and sort of risk-taking and bizarre at the same time. I think that was something I needed for this particular character.

HtN: I’ll have to check out the original film, then. So, as you mentioned, you only have that one previous feature, the 2014 Little Accidents, which I loved. I understand that you were approached by these two producers from Pie Films, Talia Kleinhendler and Osnat Handelsman-Keren, to remake Haganenet. Why did they want to remake the film? And what had they seen, do you think, in Little Accidents that made them think that you, Sara Colangelo, would be the perfect person to do that remake?

SC: You know, I don’t know. I think they felt that this was a story that could kind of cross boundaries and I kind of agreed. There’s something almost like a Greek tragedy, it has these feelings of…it has an archetypal sort of structure to it that feels like it could be, I don’t know, resurrected in different time periods because it has this kind of lovely conflict between the practicality of society versus art and creation. I think that’s something that is hopefully universal, and I think they felt, “Oh, maybe this needs a bigger audience.” So I think that’s why they probably wanted to come to the States.

I think they loved the female character, as well. They’ve mentioned that to me, and I think they wanted a female director that would kind of take the character and run a little bit more with it and someone that could dig her heels a little more deeply into the character. I think that’s why they picked me, specifically. You’d have to ask them, but I think they told me they were really moved by Little Accidents and they loved the performances. Beyond that I’m not sure.

Maggie Gyllenhaal in “The Kindergarten Teacher”

HtN: I loved those performances, as well, so I have no problem understanding that. In this film, you leave open this possibility that despite Lisa’s unquestionably questionable behavior towards young Jimmy, she may have had a point that his artistic talent will now vanish once no one is paying attention. You have that ambiguity there, so I’m just curious, if you were Lisa, what might you have done differently to promote Jimmy’s genius? What do you think?

SC: Well, a million things. She makes bad decisions left and right. And I think her intentions are always good, but she sort of manages it pretty poorly and crosses a lot of sacred boundaries as both someone that is an authority figure and someone that is a trusted mentor to him. She does a lot of things that I wouldn’t stand by in any way, morally. But I think what’s so interesting about this story is that there is this moral ambiguity, and at the end you are left wondering, “Well, had Lisa not been there or if Lisa’s not around, what will happen to him?” I think that’s the element of the story that feels almost like an allegory.

 HtN: Yeah. It makes it more than just a tale about a person making really bad decisions. She does all those things, but it does raise it above that. I like the ending very much. Before I ask about the casting, I want to ask about this production company, Maven, that is behind the film. It’s a company of women to promote women filmmakers, right? Can you tell me a little bit about them?

SC: Yeah, they came on, I would say maybe about six months or so before we started shooting, and they really loved the script. We were trying to figure out how to shoot the film in New York City, which is where it was set originally in my script. Maven was really supportive of that. They said, “You know, this is such a New York story. We’re New Yorkers, as well.” And they really wanted to help us execute that. I think they were really excited about both a female director, and Talia and Osnat, and the fact that this was such a female-centered movie.

HtN: Speaking of how the film was shot, your cinematographer was Pepe Avila del Pino, who, I noticed in his credits, hasn’t done a lot of features. How did you find him?

SC: Well, actually, we had gone to school together and I knew that he was just an incredible talent. He had been doing a lot of big TV shows…

HtN: Yeah, I think he shot part of…Ozark, right?

SC: He shot Ozark, he did the pilot to The Deuce, and a lot of great stuff, including Quarry. Yeah, he’s done a lot. He has sort of a director’s brain and what’s lovely about him is he’s not just technical, he really thinks on an emotional level. So I found a great partner in him. We really talked about, you know, how would we lean into the psychological genre and still keep this relatability and emotive quality to the film and make us feel for Lisa. Those were the discussions we had early on and he felt he had such a great nuanced and complex way of looking at how the visuals would help us tell the story.

HtN: Yeah, and I think he does a wonderful job. I love, right away, that first shot of Lisa in the classroom, alone, setting up for the day. It’s really well-composed and kind of tells the whole story. So, now, speaking of Lisa, let’s talk about the casting. I read that you wrote the script with Maggie Gyllenhaal in mind. What made you pick her and then how did you get the script to her and cast her?

SC: Yeah, I mean, I’ll just correct. Not necessarily. I never really write with anybody in mind, because I feel like it can sometimes be dangerous. But I think very quickly, when we felt the script was ready to send out, we actually sent it out to her first. And she loved it, so it was actually one of those moments in movie-making where the stars aligned, and it felt really good. And she had a really beautiful take on the character that really aligned with my own.

HtN: So, you just sent her the script and she said, “Yes.”

SC: Yeah, it was that simple. She had the script on a Friday or a Thursday and by Monday she was attached. We were all pretty elated. And then Maggie and I would sort of meet every few months, in the beginning, then every few weeks as we got closer to shooting, and we just kind of started outlining the character a little bit and began talking about the particulars. And as we got closer, you know, what does she wear, what curtains does she hang in her house? What’s the artwork like in her house? What books does she like to read to the kids in class?

We both, actually, separately met with a lot of kindergarten teachers in the New York area, private schools and public schools, to get a sense of, “Okay, what kind of teacher, specifically, is Lisa?” In the writing of the script, I had really liked the idea of Lisa being almost like a Waldorf- or Montessori-type teacher stuck in a public-school setting with a lot of kids in the class, not able to always push art in a way that she wanted and had this core curriculum that she’s always wrestling with. And I think Maggie really liked that idea as well.

HtN: I’m glad it worked out and the stars aligned. But how about the remarkable young boy, Parker Sevak?

SC: Parker’s so great. When we began casting for that part, we did it maybe three months out, because at that age kids grow so quickly and change. We really looked all over New York City for actors, kids that had no experience acting. I believe Parker attended school with one of the children of our casting directors. And she said, “This kid’s really charismatic and interesting. Let’s bring him in.” We had no idea if he could memorize a script or even be comfortable in front of the camera. But we found that he was really natural and really open. He was the youngest of the kids that we looked at.

In a way, it’s funny. You know, by first grade, second grade, kids kind of shut down a little bit or they almost listen to directions too literally and want to please you too much. And there was something about Parker that … he had this very innocent, childlike quality and was kind of a rascal and wanted to play soccer with his friends and he had that natural thing that we wanted in a Jimmy and yet had, I think, a beautiful connection to poetry. We did a lot of reading of poetry in the auditions.

SC: You know, the kids and Maggie would do scenes one-on-one together and go off script and on script. And he was able to really beautifully and very fluently move on and off the script. He was very playful with her in terms of…she would just start playing a game, he would then follow suit. And it was actually pretty remarkable. So I think he’s really something special and, I think, gives the film, I don’t know, a real energy and innocence.

HtN: He has a wonderful, natural presence, with great behavioral acting, and you can also see the intelligence behind him. How old was he during the filming? Five?

SC: Five-and-a-half.

HtN: Amazing. And then there’s, of course, Gael García Bernal, who’s such a remarkable actor. He’s one of my favorites. But it’s such a small, though important, role. I’m just curious how you cast him. He seems like he’s everywhere, he does so much. How did you come to cast him in your film?

SC: Yeah, he’s a pretty busy guy. Well, I love him in Mozart in the Jungle and I was just thinking about who could be an interesting poetry teacher in New York City. What does that look like or what could that look like? And I really feel like poetry, certainly in the US…it’s a really diverse world, in fact, and I think it kind of beautifully illustrates America’s diversity and multiculturalism. I don’t know if you know, but the poetry in the film is written by a group of people that are an Iranian-American, a Vietnamese-American, and a young girl adopted from China.

And as I was looking through the poetry of contemporary poets right now, it felt like it was vast. It wasn’t just sort of white men anymore. And I thought it’d be really interesting if it could be a Mexican-American or somebody who was not born in the United States teaching the class. And he had this real connection, Gael does, with poetry. He had done a film on Neruda and, when we met, he was just like, “I really love poetry. It’s really important to me. I actually read it on a, I don’t know if it’s a daily basis, but I go through books and books of it.” So, there was something, I think he had a real connection to it and really liked the script. And I could see him as a teacher. There’s something about him. Maybe it’s the Mozart role.

HtN: Right, exactly. Especially after Mozart. It’s certainly a far cry from Y Tu Mamá También, the first film I saw him in. So, you just mentioned that the poetry in the film is by very specifically chosen people. Are you talking about the poems we hear in the class, for example? Or at the poetry readings?

SC: No, I’m talking about…Jimmy’s poems, and Lisa’s poems, are actually…you know, Maggie and I worked on this a lot, but they’re written by a number of, actually, pretty famous poets. One is Ocean Vuong, who’s in the New Yorker a lot. He’s just a wonderful…they’re all really young poets. Ocean is originally from Vietnam and came here and has stunning poetry. He was really excited about the film and was really gracious enough to give us some of his poetry. We tweaked it a bit to fit Jimmy’s voice. And then Kaveh Ackbar is an Iranian-American poet and he gave us some beautiful verses. And then Dominique Townsend is another poet. She did all of Lisa’s poetry, specifically.

HtN: That’s a challenge, to write something that’s not that good. In terms of…

SC: Well, you know, but I think the question, too, is, “Is it not that good? Or is it just as good?” I think that’s one of the questions of the film.

HtN: Well…I would argue that her opening haiku is pretty…I would agree with Gael García Bernal’s take on it. But, yeah.

SC: Yeah. But I think that’s one of the questions of the film.

 HtN: Sure.

SC: And then there’s a poem that’s transcribed on the phone. And that’s actually written by a five-year-old girl. I put up a post on Facebook before we started shooting, “Anybody know children who write poetry? Young children?” And I got this response and it’s just incredible poetry by this young girl who lives in Massachusetts.

HtN: Wonderful! Well, Sarah, I very much enjoyed the film. Thank you so much for chatting with me.

SC: Thank you!

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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