A teacher's fascination with a young student turns criminal in Sara Colangelo's Sundance award-winning second feature.
A story of obsession over a young child's potential gone to waste, Sara Colangelo's The Kindergarten Teacher follows a committed school teacher who should most likely be committed. Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is an overworked overseer of five-year-olds in a New York City public school who looks to inspire and suss out the potential of her incoming students. One particular boy stands out: Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak), a wordsmith savant who recites intensely personal poetry as if he's grasping it out of thin air. Wise beyond his years, Jimmy's gift draws the interest of his teacher, as she begins to encourage—and in the case of her evening Manhattan poetry class, plagiarize—Jimmy's work to reach greater heights. Uninspired by her loving (yet emotionally removed) husband and kids at home, Lisa becomes Jimmy's defacto overprotective stage mom, straddling the ethical line between supportive teacher and overbearing fan. Colangelo's film presents a strong case for the good of both sides.
Based on the 2014 Israeli film by director Nadav Lapid, Colangelo's take is very much her own and, shot in a mere 23 days, is assuredly focused and compact. After her debut feature, Little Accidents, debuted at Sundance four years ago, Colangelo's latest is equally complex and thrilling. Her road to a second feature was long but certainly worthwhile, as The Kindergarten Teacher received the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival last Saturday.
Before it copped the award, No Film School sat down with Colangelo to discuss the bridge between her first and second features, how she distinctly retold this story as her own creation, and how she captured the characteristics of a New York City public school classroom.
No Film School: Approximately one year ago this week, The New York Times featured you in an article researching the paths select filmmakers took after their projects premiered at Sundance. Between finishing your first feature Little Accidents and returning to the festival four years later with The Kindergarten Teacher, how did your career change?
Sara Colangelo: Well, in-between my two features, I was doing writing-for-hire projects and searching for what could potentially become my next feature. I was getting a lot of scripts that I didn’t really love. It's really hard for a director because with a feature (going from development all the way through post-production), you’re going to be dealing with something for up to three years and you really have to love it. I was trying to keep the bar high in terms of content while at the same time happy to work on any budget level. I really wanted a story that was going to inspire me, make me excited, and then this came into my lap in late 2015. The Israeli producers of the original production, Talia Kleinhendler and Osnat Handelsman-Keren, came to me and pitched the story. I thought it would be good and that's how it got started.
NFS: And were you familiar with the previous Israeli version?
Colangelo: I was. They pitched the story to me and I thought "Wow, this is a story about poetry and a kindergarten teacher," and I didn't know what to think. I saw the original film at Lincoln Center and really loved it. I think Nadav's work is so beautiful and he’s a wonderful filmmaker. He was tackling a lot in that film. He was looking at art in society and masculinity in Israel and how masculinity competes with the life of an artist. He was touching on a lot of things. I wouldn't have taken on a remake unless I could really transform it and make it something that's my own. I saw something of a parable in this story and felt like I could set it in an American world, to really tell a different story about the value of art in America right now while simultaneously anchoring it in a woman’s point-of-view. That’s what really excited me.
"When you have a female-centered film like this, you don't always get a lot of investment up front."
NFS: How did Maven Pictures get involved in the project and how did they help to move it forward?
Colangelo: They came on….I wouldn't say late, but we were in development and were trying to get the film off the ground. When you have a female-centered film like this, you don't always get a lot of investment up front. We had Maggie attached, sure, but it was still challenging as this character's not perfectly likable. Some people were like, "Okay, let’s just wait and see…” They didn’t want to jump right in. And so we began to look at shooting in Canada and making it a Canadian co-production. I mean, there were all sorts of ideas that were floating around. Finally, Maven Pictures came in and said, “look, you wrote the story to be set in New York City, and we think it’s powerful and we want do it here in New York.” They were also really excited when Maggie was attached, and so we went forward with Maven probably six months before shooting began.
NFS: Complete with drab blue walls, unassuming plants, students’ paintings, and the alphabet listed right below the ceiling, Lisa's classroom and hallway surroundings are as remarkably unpolished as my New York City public school education would have me remember. How did you work with your production designer to create the look of the school?
Colangelo: Well, it’s funny because I had an incredible kindergarten experience. I grew up in a small town in rural Massachusetts and my teacher was very much like Lisa. It wasn't a public school like the one in the film but my teacher was so exuberant, really into drama, and we were dressing up and painting; it was very arts-heavy. And I thought, "it would be so interesting to have a character be like that but stuck in a public school world,” like literally stuck with bars on the windows. We were really looking for that kind of clash where Lisa's wearing these beautiful hoop earrings with strange animal necklaces and skirts with sunflowers on them, and yet she's stuck in the seemingly dreary [environment].
NFS: She still has to turn that portable fan on to stay cool.
Colangelo: Right, she still has to turn that fan on! And we were literally shooting in a public school in Ditmas Park where there was no air conditioning. There was something really moving about it. I was location-scouting and looking at various kindergartens across the city, and a lot of them had these butterflies in there, and we thought "oh, that's actually kind of beautiful,” and so we ended up bringing in butterflies. We thought it was a nice little detail.
NFS: The color blue is all around her. From the walls of her classroom to various items in her personal and home life…
Colangelo: We talked a lot about that with our cinematographer Pepe Avila del Pino (a wonderful DP) and Mary Lena Colston, our amazing production designer. We talked about the general color scheme. Kindergarten classrooms have these saturated colors, and we wanted to tone it down and find a way to express the confusion and dreariness that Lisa is going through. It clearly had to feel like a real kindergarten classroom and yet the viewer would still see those pops of color. We talked a lot about that. We even talked about the arc of color. In the beginning of the film, things would be brighter, softer, and more innocent, and then we'd move to a higher contrast and it’s desaturated towards the end. And you see that. The blue on the walls comes down and everything around Lisa becomes starker.
NFS: There are a number of chromatic visual changes throughout.
Colangelo: We wanted it to be subconscious and yet still have the audience feel it.
NFS: Although primarily focused on Jimmy, each of Lisa's students are fully present throughout your classroom scenes. How did you come to the decision to introduce them, one-by-one, via individual close-ups? And how did you work to keep them from fading into the background?
Colangelo: The portraits of the kids were really important to me, and it was important, first of all, that the class be very diverse and feel like a real New York City class. There had to be something beautiful to it. Lisa's not unhappy in her role as a kindergarten teacher; she’s inspired by it. I thought it would be interesting to show those faces, to show the beauty and potential in what she's seeing every day. There's a bit of a hopefulness that goes along with the feeling of "Okay, we're doing this again, and it’s just another day…” We were attempting to balance those two things at once.
NFS: And when you introduce Jimmy reciting the first of many poems we will come to hear, you have the actor walk-back-and-forth, in-and-out of the foreground, in a kind of rack focus.
Colangelo: We were trying to make that feel magical and yet not too much so. There's something about the confusion of "what am I hearing?” for the viewer in that moment, and then we visually go in-and-out [to further emphasize that confusion]. I don't know if it worked, but that's kind of what I was trying to do. There's always something to a story where you have to ask, “Is this all in the lead character’s head?” I don’t want to over-interpret this, but everything is projection on the viewer’s part, and there was something about Jimmy walking in-and-out of focus that felt very un-documentary-like, as if it were coming from Lisa’s subjective brain.
"I just tried to remember the emotional story that I had, and I think it made for better directing."
NFS: To get to work, Lisa takes the Staten Island ferry, a location we visit multiple times throughout the film. She’s often wearing dark sunglasses during her ride and in one shot, the city is reflected off of her lenses; it’s a New York Story reflected onto her. What was it like capturing those quick moments of character on the ferry?
Colangelo: I had really thought about the setting of the movie and there’s something really interesting about New York City and how Lisa lives in one of the outer-boroughs. There’s this feeling that she has to take these poetry classes in Manhattan and it's like Emerald City for her. There was both the dreariness and a kind of beauty apparent in being on the ferry and floating on the water to and from Staten Island. It was a bit of an accident in terms of the city reflecting back onto her glasses, but it was a beautiful moment that I didn't expect and it became this little thematic flourish. We were shooting on the ferry for just one-half-day and each time we were like, "Okay, this has to be a different mood," and Maggie had to, within five minutes, change the mood again and again. It was actually a lot of fun.
NFS: Could you take us through the blocking of the hotel room sequence in the film’s final act? It feels of note that you give us Lisa’s perspective (from inside the bathroom) as opposed to Jimmy’s in the hotel bedroom itself.
Colangelo: Well, that choice was so interesting because I saw the Israeli version once and then never saw it again. Maggie never saw it, and nobody wanted to watch it once we began [our production]. In the Israeli version, I remember that it was shot entirely from the boy's point-of-view in the hotel room. You were on his side the whole time and never behind him. I thought that was so fascinating and now I wanted to do it the other way, where we're a little bit with Jimmy but mostly with Lisa on the other side of the bathroom door, seeing the horror on her face.
There are moments you have as a filmmaker where you’re so intent on the result of what you're doing, always, and yet this was a day where I was just watching the monitor and was like, "Wow, I don't know what's gonna happen with this film but this is gonna be an incredible day." It was just incredible to watch Maggie go through all of these emotions, i.e. “Am I feeling a sense of shame? Okay, I’m going to try to save Jimmy and give him the address of the hotel [regardless of how this will affect me]…” It was so much fun. While in the editing room, we were trying to figure out to what extent are we with Jimmy versus with Lisa? It was a really good thing to watch Maggie play Lisa and keep our shots with Lisa on the other side of the door.
NFS: What camera did you shoot with?
Colangelo: We shot with the ARRI Alexa, I think the Alexa Mini, and we shot with anamorphics, which was appropriate because it provided an out-of-focus, shallow depth-of-field. We wanted the beginning of the film to create this feeling of innocence and then have the anamorphics create really interesting framing needed for the film to feel more awkward, more off-balance as the story progressed. It felt like it was working for us in both ways.
NFS: With The Kindergarten Teacher now completed and out in the world, what did you learn from your second experience directing a feature?
Colangelo: Little Accidents was, in a way, a really big movie. I was in charge of three interwoven storylines, trying to examine coal country and corporate America, and it was really hard. It was a big movie and a tough film to make down in West Virginia. With that said, it was an incredible experience, even if it was maybe a little overly ambitious for a first film.
The Kindergarten Teacher felt great because I was excited by a story with one female character, one storyline. There was something really nice about that, and I think what was great about this experience—and this is probably due to working with Maggie, who is always inspiring as you're watching her and asking yourself, "what is she doing here?"—is that I let go a little more. I didn't resist so much. If I couldn't obtain a particular location or a particular couch or kind of furniture, that [was okay]. I didn't freak out. I just tried to remember the emotional story that I had, and I think it made for better directing. Keep your eye on what's important and don't get bogged down by some of the other details. I mean, sometimes the details are what's important, but when you're working with Maggie and she's giving such a riveting performance, you just want to be right there with her. It was a nice feeling to kind of let go and let myself be surprised by her.
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