'The Kindergarten Teacher' Director Sara Colangelo On Crafting Her Award-Winning Drama [Sundance Interview]

For her second feature at Sundance (after her highly praised 2014 debut Little Accidents), writer/director Sara Colangelo has chosen to remake a four-year-old Israeli drama to examine the dying practice of encouraging and protecting artistic genius. Like the Staten Island educator at the center of this film, The Kindergarten Teacher pushes boundaries and crosses lines as it navigates its way through a tricky story of a five-year-old boy (newcomer Parker Sevak), who shows an unreal gift for poetry, and his teacher, Lisa (a career-best performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is also one of the film's producers), who struggles in her adult-education class to be a poet as well, if only to add a bit of culture to a home life that offers her little by way of intellectual stimulation.

This interview with Colangelo took place at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, where The Kindergarten Teacher premiered and earned Colangelo the festival's Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic category. /Film spoke with her about the appeal of this difficult story, the decision not to paint her protagonist as mentally unbalanced, and the risk of losing the next Mozart without proper encouragement. The Kindergarten Teacher has yet to announce a distributor or release date.

This film is a remake of an Israeli work from a few years back, and you've retained its structure and story for the most part. How do you sell this sometimes troubling story to prospective financiers?

Sara: Here's the thing, I saw the Israeli version, which I think is beautiful. I think Nadav Lapid is an incredible filmmaker. He's examining masculinity in Israel and arts in a country at war. He's looking at other things. He was a child poet, so it's kind of autobiographical to a certain extent. When I saw it, and again, you're right, I didn't say, "I want to do a remake," especially of a wonderful film, you're always a little tentative. I really thought with this, I could make it my own and really anchor it in Lisa's point of view. That really excited me. What also excited me was the fact that this was not a perfectly likable character. In fact, she is awful sometimes. I think that excited Maggie, too.

People have asked, "What's the connection between this film and the #MeToo movement or the presidential campaign?" I'm sick of women having to be so likable all the time. We're nuanced creatures, like men. Men get to be antiheroes in cinema, and we should too. I think it makes for wonderful cinema and it makes for something that I think women relate to, too. Even though this is a warped and twisted tale, at moments, I think there's a side to this that we can understand. I like the story, because I find that I myself vacillate between saying, "I totally get this as an artist or somebody that appreciates the arts," and then sometimes I'm like, "Oh, gosh. What are you doing now? This is making me incredibly uncomfortable, and you're crossing a sacred boundary." But I like that. I like the ride of that as somebody in the audience. It's not perfectly linear all the time. You're going back and forth. I was interested in that too, narratively.

Basically, you're saying you didn't care.

Sara: [laughs] Yeah, I am saying I don't care.

Which is exactly how it should be.

Sara: Yeah, I don't care. There's something to the story that's naturally a little bit an allegory, or it's a parable. I was listening to, who was the filmmaker [Joachim Trier] that did Oslo, August 31st? That's such a beautiful film. He was saying, "That's a film that I would love for people to adapt it, because it's a film that could be set in a different time period and in a different place." Almost like it should be made every 10 years. I thought that this, too, there's something about this that is timeless, like art in society, and how does a person push art through the banality of everyday life and the gadgets of modern life? I think every era has its blockers, its obstacles to art.

Teachers are in a unique position to spot talent and gifted children so early, and they often be convinced, like Lisa is here, that they're not going to be encouraged or nurtured in the right way, and that their talent is going to fade away at some point, or they're going to lose interest, or they're just not going to get enough positive feedback for them to say, "I should pursue this." That's what I saw here. Almost everything Lisa does is, in a way, forgivable.

Sara: Yeah. It makes you wonder if she was right. She's clearly not right. She's doing something incredibly unhealthy. But yeah, I think that's the Greek tragedy element of it, it doesn't always make perfect sense. You do wonder if she was right all along.

There's a discussion about Mozart and about how anything he had to concern himself with that wasn't about making music was taken care of by somebody else. Where did that level of nurturing go? I'm not necessarily saying people should be that pampered, but at the same time, the level of encouragement resulted in some beautiful things. Are you hoping that maybe that will come back into fashion to a certain degree?

Sara: Well, no, I'm not saying that. I was actually pregnant when I was writing the screenplay and then gave birth right before shooting the film. So issues of being a parent were very much running through my veins a bit. How much do you push a child? You want to encourage them, but what is going too far? I ultimately think this is a story not about genius, because there is that genre. There is the child genius genre. To be honest, I kind of find them boring. This is a film about a woman's projection. This is about a woman who's hungry to be an artist herself and using the child to self-transform. That's what I think it's about.

Does she think that being next to genius will rub off on her somehow?

Sara: Yeah. Part of the plagiarism [Lisa pretends that Jimmy's poetry is her work to her poetry class] to me is also feeling for a second what it's like to be adored in a classroom. That's so moving to me too, because it's like we're not clear if she's a good artist or a bad artist. It's totally subjective. Some people like her poems and some people don't. It's in a gray area. I think so much of what the film is asking is, who really gets to decide what art is? Who gets to lavish praise onto whom? To me, it's heartbreaking, because she's kind of trampled on.

Maggie and I were talking a lot about that as we were filming. Somehow, with the finished film, we were watching it, and we were like, "Wow, you feel this caretaker who's been trampled on, and she's getting blocked everywhere she's trying to go, even when she's creating her own stuff. She's trying to be part of creativity in some way, and here's this kid, and that's the only way she can do it." To both of us, that was moving. I noticed to some people, it's sort of funny. It veers off into black comedy. To both of us, we were watching it at the premiere, and it was the first time I let myself go and watch it. And we were like, "Wow, it's a bit heartbreaking at moments."

It's funny what you said about her getting a taste of it praise, because there are a couple moments, like when she sleeps with her professor [played by Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal], that is her living that free, artist's lifestyle. It's not her reality. It's more of her saying, "Let me just see what this is like. This is how I would be if I were great and people recognized me."

Sara: Yeah, she's got some identity crisis issues going on.

Let's just talk about collaborating with Maggie and working with someone who's in every frame of your film. How was that different than what you'd done before?

Sara: It was an incredible experience, because she's just so smart. She brings so much nuance and idiosyncrasy to the role. I had an idea of what Lisa would be on the page, but she was just really wonderful in saying, "She should wear weird outfits and animal necklaces. She wants to inspire these kids." We really crafted this idea of a Waldorf or a Montessori teacher stuck in a New York City public school. She was so much part of the idiosyncrasy of this character. It was just so great, because she elevated what this character was in my script. And I think this being my second feature, I let go a lot more on set, because I trusted her so much, and I let myself be surprised at where she would take it. That was a lot of fun.

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In terms of a partnership, that's got to be a huge relief knowing that the two of you have done all the work before you start shooting and that you just let her go with it.

Sara: Yeah, she really does her homework. She's a worker. For her, it's all about the work. That was so great. We had met so many times to talk about Lisa. We both were going to kindergarten classes separately to observe kindergartens in New York City. We just really enjoyed the process. It was so great to have a collaborative partner who enjoyed the work.

You said it during the Q&A, but I could tell, just from watching the early scenes of her being a teacher, that you just let the cameras go, and let her do her thing with those kids. Was there ever an attempt to direct those kids?

Sara: No, no. In fact, there was this interesting thing that we had to present to the producers. We're like, "We know this is going to seem chaotic, but we're going to let the camera run, we're going to let Maggie teach these classes, and go through these activities with the kids. Just let us do it." The kids didn't realize that she was an actor. It was fascinating. I think it made for a situation where the kids were just being themselves and really wanted to please her, too. It was actually incredible how quickly they snapped into being students. And she was just wonderful. She just really talked to each child. All of the kids went by their own names, except Parker, who went by Jimmy. Besides that, it really functioned as a kindergarten.

Talk about finding your Jimmy, because Parker looks like a nervous little kid that had a camera put in his face.

Sara: Yeah, he's really incredible. We went through a process, about three to four months before shooting, we started the process of finding our Jimmy. We looked at kids who had experience in front of the camera and kids that didn't. He hadn't. There was something that we liked about that. There was a naturalness to him. He wasn't bogged down by memorizing the lines, he was actually really able to go off-script and on-script beautifully with Maggie. We were down to three or four kids at the end, and he was the youngest of them. He was only five, and we were like, "This might be risky." It proved not to be, because he was open. He could play with Maggie. They just had an incredible connection from the first time they worked together reading. Maggie would bring in poems, and we would just watch how each child would respond to the poetry and play with the words. He was able to do that. It was really great.

Did you test drive certain poems with him to see which ones were easier for him to memorize or that he felt more comfortable with, or did you have those specific ones pre-selected?

Sara: No, in fact, we were using a lot of poems in the audition process that were not going to be in the film, because we didn't want to kill it. We didn't want to kill his performance. Even the "Anna" poem, we didn't want to feed it to him too early. The only poem that we ended up using in the film was the Robert Frost poem, because actually, it was just such a beautiful poem that they shared in the audition process. Maggie ended up saying it on the spot, on the set, and it was just beautiful. She'd already been dealing with herbs and talking about these flowers to the kindergarten and she just read the poem.

Lisa takes very small steps over the line leading up to the end. And by the time she just full-on goes over that line, we realize she crossed it long ago but we just accepted it because she was doing it a little bit at a time, and we believe she has this child's best interests at heart. The underlying tension is so beautifully handled. Was that something you did in the writing or during the editing? When did you realize you had a little thriller in the middle of this story?

Sara: The tone was so tricky for this. The first week in the editing room, I was like, "Alright, how am I going to craft a tone that's consistent?" It was tricky, because there was such an earnestness to Lisa, and I didn't want to undercut that by mocking her or by saying outright that she's crazy. I didn't want to pathologize her. She's very sane in the beginning. She's a great teacher in the beginning. Even with the music, there's a bubbling of "something's not quite right here" underneath it. I did start that out from the beginning.

I'm curious about the scene where she brings Jimmy in front of the poetry group. Why did she do that? Why did she reveal that these poems weren't hers to her teacher, especially. Why was that the best time for her to give that up?

Sara: I think ultimately that's what she's wanting. She wanting to put him up on stage, and she's wanting to publish a book with his name on it. She's wanting to do all these. That's the ultimate goal. I think there's a surprise element to that that's fun, so I kept that in the plotting. And I kept it because I thought it was such a fun way to do it and surprise Gael's character, as well.

How's the prognosis look for finding a distributor?

Sara: Yeah, it's really good. The reviews have been good, and Maggie is just awesome, so I hope people appreciate that.

Congratulations. Best of luck with this.

Sara: Awesome, thank you.