I had the opportunity to sit down with director and screenwriter Sara Colangelo at Sundance to discuss her new film The Kindergarten Teacher, an American adaptation of an Israeli movie with women directors at the forefront!
Joi: I’m here with a very special guest at Sundance 2018, the director of The Kindergarten Teacher, Sara Colangelo. Sara, thank you for chatting with me.
Sara: Yeah, my pleasure.
Joi: First off, have you been able to see any films while you’ve been out here? I know the press and craziness that usually comes with the territory when you have a film premiering, but have you had the opportunity to kind of investigate any other films?
Sara: Sadly no. There’s so many I want to see. It’s such an incredible line up this year. But no, I have a one year old as well who’s here with me. And so I’ve been kind of like bogged down with press and then childcare. Hopefully later in the week though.
Joi: I want to talk about The Kindergarten Teacher, which is a recreation of an Israeli film that premiered in 2014. What inspired you from that story to do an American version of it?
Sara: So the producers from the original film actually approached me wanting to remake the story. And they pitched the project to me, I was like, “Wow, this is interesting poetry, a kindergarten teacher that especially becomes obsessed with a child. Okay, this is interesting.” And I saw the original film at Lincoln Center and I was really blown away by it.
And I don’t normally jump into the idea of a remake so easily. But I felt that this one had such good bones, and I felt that I could make this my own and really anchor it in a female point of view, first of all, and also tell a really different story about art in the United States right now, because I feel sort of under siege as an artist and I thought there is something there.
Nadav Lapid’s original film is set in Israel and it’s really something different, it’s more about the young poet in a sense, and it’s also about masculinity in Israel, it’s about art in a country at war. So I felt like I could really take this and make it something new.
And so I did, and I was really excited about the fact that this was a complicated female character. It was a challenging character, she’s sort of an anti-hero, and I thought, “This is rad. I want to put a different type of female character on screen.”
Joi: I like that point about the anti-hero, because oftentimes when we’re talking about female directors there’s a little bit of that fear of making a character that’s unlikable. It’s more of a trend now to have unlikable female characters, which I like, because I like the complexity of those characters. Is that something that you sought after in all of your work, having those characters that are not just cookie-cutter that everyone can like?
Sara: Yeah, I mean, I like to think that, yes, I’m not putting forth this like 1950s female on the screen that is like, oh, trapped in a man’s desire. And certainly all of my characters—hopefully it’s understood that they have flaws.
This was obviously different. She’s crossing boundaries that are so kind of sacred. So I knew that the likability of this character was very much in peril, but I said to myself, “I don’t care. Let’s go there. Let’s go into uncomfortable territory.” And that’s the beauty of the project. If you don’t embrace it then you’re kind of losing a great piece of what’s interesting about the story.
Joi: Speaking of towing the line, midway into the film I said, “okay, she’s going to get arrested.” Because there’s just certain boundaries that I think we’re all accustomed in terms of having those relationships between a child and a teacher. For an actor as young as Jimmy [played by Parker Sevak] plays in the film, how did you help him get into that headspace of, “Hey, it’s just for a role, but this is not appropriate in real life.”
Sara: It was actually the first thing that Maggie [Gyllenhaal] and I talked about when we met for lunch the first time, that [what] she was in touch with the project is how are we protecting him above all. And so we talked to Parker about the story, and he seemed okay with it. And we were just very cognizant of what we were doing every day; we try to go kind of in order so he understood what was happening at the story.
Part of the story [is] that he does have an affection for her, and so we said, “Okay, well, this is kind of wrong right now, but you like her, she’s trying to be your friend here.” We kind of…we went slowly with it with him. And he was great. I mean, we ended up probably being too worried about it, like he seemed okay with it and he was having a great time.
But he had an ability. I mean, the reason we cast him too is like, he has this great ability of understanding sort of the forest from the trees, and kind of wrapping his head around the story in the way that was kind of okay, so it worried us, I think, less. But I think he didn’t take it to heart or ever get scared. I think he knows he had his parents there and there was a very supportive environment for him. And when he needed a break, he could get a break.
Joi: You play double-duty here, doing both writing and directing. Your work has been very timely considering the shout out of women directors at the Golden Globes. As a female director, what do you hope this film does, or any of your films and projects in the future for 2018, during awards season?
Sara: Well, I think this is above all an incredible performance by Maggie. So I hope she gets recognized for it, because it’s just ballsy, it’s bold, it’s just cool. I feel like it’s not something that you see that often, so I hope it gets recognized.
For me, I don’t know what it will do, but I’ve just really enjoyed making it and I hope it opens up new projects that are not just indie projects. I think a lot of us, indie filmmakers, want to kind of get bigger projects and do bigger things, and I think that’s where we’re seeing women underrepresented—at the studio level—and that’s where change needs to happen.
And it’s tough, it’s like this is a systemic problem that’s like the systemic racism in the industry took, and these are hard things to fix. It’s like there are these kind of like ancient rituals that we have to kind of break apart and it feels violent, but it’s got to be violent. And we’ve got to get out there and put our foot down.
Joi: Final question. It’s 2018. Obviously we are now premiering The Kindergarten Teacher here at Sundance, what are some future projects that you are working on for the rest of the year?
Sara: Well, I’m working on a really interesting war story, it’s set in World War II but with a female protagonist. So that’s interesting, that’s something I’ve never taken on, something with bombs going off in the background.
But it’s really interesting, and that’s something that I’m kind of challenged by. How do I recreate a war movie from a female perspective as well, and what does it mean to make that kind of a feminine film, what’s that going to look like? So that’s kind of cool. And see what else comes in there. But yeah, that’s something that I’m kind of excited about.
Joi: Sara, thank you so much.
Sara: Yeah, thank you. This is awesome.
BGN is a proud partner with Pop Culture Collaborative for the 2018 Sundance Festival.
The Pop Culture Collaborative is a 5-year, $25 million fund organized by leading philanthropies to support artists and activists working at the intersection of entertainment and social change.