Part psychological thriller and part provocative character study, ‘A TEACHER‘ explores the unraveling of a young high school teacher, Diana (Lindsay Burdge), after she begins an affair with one of her teenage students, Eric (Will Brittain). What starts as a seemingly innocent fling becomes increasingly complex and dangerous as the beautiful and confident Diana gets fully consumed by her emotions, crossing boundaries and acting out in progressively startling ways. Lindsay Burdge delivers a deeply compelling and seamlessly naturalistic performance that brings us into the mind of an adult driven to taboo against her better judgment.
Anticipating ‘A Teacher‘ Theatrical release (Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories) we talked with the films Director Hannah Fidell and Star Lindsay Burdge about the films life, influences and festival run, amongst much more. ‘A Teacher‘ opens in select markets on Friday, September 6, 2013 and is NOW AVAILABLE on iTunes and Video on Demand.
Hannah, what was the original influence for the film? Why did you want to tell this story?
Hannah Fidell: There are a few answers to that. First, I wanted to make a film about a woman in crisis. Also, I wrote and organized the film in a way that would be easy to shoot. Finally, I was working in a restaurant in Austin, where I was living at the time, and a high school boy walked in and it sparked the idea. I didn’t talk to him at all but I wrote the idea down on a napkin to remember.
Was the boy involved in a similar situation?
Hannah: No. He was just an attractive 17 year old, but it would be wrong to even say that to anyone.
There was great chemistry amongst you (Lindsay) and Will (Brittain). What was the ratio of the written word to improvisation that ended up translating from original script to screen?
Lindsay Burdge: We did not do too much improvisation. I would say that most of what ends up on the screen is what is written in the script. Obviously it is interpreted by us and if something did not feel right we would, maybe, say it a little differently or not at all. I think the naturalness and compatibility you are talking about is a byproduct of having a performance driven set. Everyone on set was very much working towards a performance first mentality. Sometimes you show up and blocking a scene is very cut and dry, but here it was the opposite. It was a different attitude to what was being captured so that allowed us to be very free and loose.
As a writer/director, how do you approach directing your own words?
Hannah: I look at what I write to be a guideline. As Lindsay has said in the past, it is more of an “emotional beat” for her to hit. If she changes the dialogue, as long as she captures the intended emotional outcome of the scene, I am perfectly happy.
How did you go about casting the film in the first place?
Hannah: I have known Lindsay for some time. We worked together on a short film I made a few years ago. Will came to an audition. At first he auditioned with me and I called him back to have him audition with Lindsay so I could see what their chemistry was like, but I wrote the part specifically for Lindsay.
Did you draw any influences from other films? One that stood out in my mind was ‘Notes on a Scandal’, as it deals with similar subject matter…
Hannah: …was it just the subject matter that drew that comparison?
It was the subject, as well as the presentation. What I mean by that is the reversal of traditional gender roles in such situations. Maybe this is a result of my own experiences in High School where a male teacher and female student were caught in a similar affair. I think this has resulted in a very gender specific impression on my behalf. As for ‘Notes on A Scandal’, I believe it was my first film-specific example of a female teacher and male student relationship…
Lindsay: Hannah and I are both very influenced by ‘The Piano Teacher‘. It has been a favorite performance of mine for a long time. I was not, in any way, trying to do what she did but it was a major influence. Also, Gena Rowlands in any number of films. I am also very inspired by Liv Ullman. Also, Cate Blanchett. I saw her in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire‘ at BAM and the performance was incredible. ‘Notes on a Scandal‘ did not really work for me, personally. Not her performance, but it is just not my kind of movie.
Hannah: When we first talked about making this film together we got together and watch ‘Notes on a Scandal’ and….
Lindsay:…and we decided that is NOT what we wanted to do (laughs).
Hannah: I understand the Judi Dench character study though.
You premiered ‘A Teacher’ at Sundance. Is there any advice or protocol you would give to a filmmaker looking to submit to Sundance for the first time?
Hannah: It’s luck…
I’ve heard many pieces of “advice”, from finding a relationship with a specific programmer to luck of the draw…
Hannah:…I think those programmers have a lot of “friends” because of that, but I don’t think it is necessarily the thing to do.
Lindsay: I think timing is everything. It is something that has to be natural. I don’t think pursuing someone at a festival is a very good idea.
Hannah: By luck I mean that every year festivals recognize a pattern in subject matter. This past year was women dealing with sexuality so we were lucky enough to fit into that genre.
Lindsay: I feel like the thing is to just make the best movie you can make and find the people who like the kinds of movies that you make.
Hannah: Don’t make a movie just to get into a festival. I know someone who made a film about a returning soldier with PTSD, but his girlfriend is an illegal alien who is dealing with deportation. He thought that in dealing with two cultural issues it had Sundance written all over it. Instead it came off looking forced.
Lindsay, aside from acting, you have your hand in a variety of different aspects of independent film production. I find consolidation of responsibility, in particularly creative and administrative, is a vital skill in this evolving landscape. Do you find that to be the case? How do you compare the responsibilities of acting to producing or casting director?
Lindsay: I agree with you. I have noticed this trend. It seems there is something going on where people are appreciating content creating actors, which is not surprising to me. I think there are people who are excellent at their jobs that only do one thing and I think there are people who are very impressive because they do a lot of different things. For me, that style of person shows you are passionate about film and quality projects. I came from a theater background so that is how I grew up. I always thought that if I could not act in a project I would do whatever I could on it. It happened along the way that I was good at casting and I enjoy producing because I like knowing everything.
Lindsay: Its funny for me because lately I have been acting more. It is hard to turn off the part of my brain that is thinking about the schedule or catering. Sometimes I think it is helpful because I now what is going on on-set but sometimes it is also distracting.
Since we are talking about independent film and its evolution, I wanted to talk about distribution and new distribution models. ‘A Teacher’ is already on VOD with a theatrical release in a few days (September 6). How did your distribution strategy evolve from development to completion?
Hannah: I was more concerned with making the best film possible. In terms of our distribution strategy, to be honest, once we sold the film we have no control over it.
Again, as I talk to filmmakers there are several impressions on distribution models and what is “right” for their film. Some are adamant about having a theatrical release first followed by DVD and VOD, but this traditional model is probably what is changing the most.
Hannah: Since this is my first film that has been distributed it is all new to me but I have been following what has been happening with distribution models. It was interesting for me that playing theatrical is really a novelty in terms of making money. That is the truth.
Interview Conducted, Edited & Transcribed On Site by Steve Rickinson