The Kindergarten Teacher is a psychological thriller about a woman who craves something much more than the simple life that she leads in Staten Island as a kindergarten teacher. With a thirst for writing and creating poetry, Lisa Spinelli takes a nightly poetry class in hopes of spurring her artistic abilities but to little avail. One day, Lisa discovers a 5-year-old boy in her class that has a natural talent for writing moving poetry that sparks something within her. Lisa becomes obsessed with trying to nurture the boy’s talent and in the hopes of supporting it begins to make questionable and often dangerous decisions. I sat down with lead actress, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and writer and director, Sara Colangelo to learn more about the intricacies of making this poignant film that leaves a lasting impression.
The film first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and it is an adaptation of an Israeli film by the same name. Sara Colangelo won Best Director at Sundance for it. ‘The Kindergarten Teacher’ will launch on Netflix on October 12th in the U.S and Canada. It will also have a limited theatrical release.
What initially attracted you to this project?
Sara Colangelo: I think it’s really the intensity of the character and the ambiguity of this character that really attracted me. It’s also this sort of discussion about the importance of art within society that attracted me and the journey of this woman. But whereas the Israeli version really beautifully weaves the point of view of the student and their teacher, I really wanted to take that story and set it in New York between Staten Island and Manhattan while rooting it in Lisa’s point of view. And I think once Maggie came on I was even more excited because I think she has this great relatability and intensity and risk-taking that made it really exciting.
How did you prepare for this role?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Well, I started reading poetry. I have a couple of really good friends who are poets and poetry professors so I reached out to them and one of those friends actually put us in touch with Ocean Vuong and Kaveh Akhbar who wrote the poetry for the little boy in the movie. But I started reading poetry. And then how do I prepare for any role? I turn my attention to it and then everything that’s happening in my own life, that’s happening in the world becomes grist for the mill in terms of working on the project and that definitely happened with this. I spent a lot of time in a kindergarten class. I felt that was really important because, of course, the character crosses all sorts of boundaries and does all sorts of problematic things that I didn’t think would really work unless she’s a wonderful teacher. Unless she’s a soulful, curious, interesting woman, who has been starved and as a result has been driven crazy by the culture that she finds herself in. As opposed to someone who’s mentally ill. I don’t think that’s who she is. So yeah, I spent a lot of time in a kindergarten class and we actually shot all of the scenes as if we were in a kindergarten. The children were so young that I think we would have gotten really stilted if we tried to do it in a conventional way. So we would sing these songs and do the paintings and the letters and keep the camera really far away so they wouldn’t feel its presence. Just let the kids feel like they could be free.
How could you relate to Lisa?
Maggie: I think all of us can relate to Lisa. I think she is a woman who I said is bright, curious and an artist. I read an article or two where people said: “oh her poetry is mediocre.” But, if her poetry was written by a brilliant, published poet it wouldn’t work the same. The movie is much easier to take if her poetry is mediocre. It’s much more difficult and painful if her poetry is actually worthwhile. And I think in the movie she is like many women, right now, where she is waking up to the fact that she is starving. That she’s compromised and given up all sorts of things that she needed. In a lot of ways, the movie is about what happens when you starve a woman’s mind. What are the actual consequences of it? And I think because the movies made by a group of women, I think our feelings are that the consequences are really dire. So I relate to her in that way.
What are some of the challenges you faced when adapting this movie?
Sara: I think there were challenges but it was also a lot of fun. I let myself be free from his version. I think he was doing something very specific- talking about masculinity and Israel and art within a country at war. And I think the challenge for me is like: okay I really want to root this in her point of view. And that meant visually, narratively, so everything was in service of that. But I had a lot of fun doing it and I also really wanted to ask questions about the subjectivity of art and our relationship with ourselves. How we perceive our own mediocrity and genius. Especially in the classroom, where were all a bit vulnerable and a teacher’s judgments can really affect us. I think it breaks my heart when Giles character steamrolls over Lisa’s poems so I was looking at that as well. But I think the challenge really is “okay I’m creating a whole new world here.” But I try to keep the elements of the story that I loved. And I was really excited to set it between Staten Island and Manhattan. And I love this metaphor of Lisa traveling on the ferry. And the feeling of transformation that she gets. I thought that was super fun.
This is the second time that you’ve been a producer and an actress on the same project, how was that experience for you on this film?
Maggie: I feel like on one level producing is a way of guaranteeing that you’re a part of the conversation. And in a very small movie like this one, you need everyone to be lifting as much as they can be lifting. And if you’re the lead actor in a movie you’re already taking on some of the jobs that a producer does. Helping to find a DP and writing the letters and helping to find actors that will bring you financing and helping to get it distributed and making choices about what’s on the poster and those kinds of things. You can do that and I think that’s very welcome. Then there’s this whole other element of producing that has to do with like the real details, the fine details of production and of financing and in those ways, I was really a beginner in this. And I learned so much from our producers and I find that it is something that I’m genuinely interested in. Partially because I have a visceral, vested interest in it because a lot of movies I make are hard to finance. But for me, a lot of it has to do with having a seat at the table and being guaranteed that my voice will be taken seriously.
Since you’ve started in this industry how have you seen it progress for females both in front and behind the camera?
Maggie: I feel like there has been a real shift lately – a real energy toward supporting female filmmakers – but I think that the money always lacks. I think it’s the last piece. So artistically people are saying we want to see movies about women, for women, by women and yet we went to Sundance with this movie, Sara won Best director, and it still took us a few weeks to sell it. And we did, we sold it to Netflix, which has been amazing and it has been a wonderful collaboration. But there was a moment there where I was like “oh really guys? Are you going to put your money where your mouth is?” because we got beautiful reviews, Sara won this award, the movie is everything that everybody says they want. The money just has to catch up. And we’ll see. The other thing I would say is our movie- we didn’t have enough money to make it. We did it and we did it beautifully and we were all like, “of course, we don’t have enough money, we’re used to it, we’re women” but like not money to put in our pocket.. money to make the movie with and when I look back on it in retrospect I think- that’s not right. We did it, we’re used to it, we just made it work because we do because we’ve been doing it our whole life..
Sara: I find that female filmmakers and maybe actors as well, there’s this feeling that you have to constantly be grateful. And I’m all for gratitude but it’s this constant #blessed and there has been a little shift in me too where I’m a little more hungry to get the resources. I push a little harder now to get the resources that I need to tell the story that I want to tell. And I think there’s been for me, between my first and second film, a big shift in that. And I think also this experience for me, kind of like bolstered my confidence and within these past two, three years I have felt this nuanced difference. And I also feel like the boys are being more careful and that’s good. I actually really feel it.
Maggie: I do too.
Sara: Both on phone conversations and on set. There is something in the air that has changed.
I feel like the finance part hasn’t been as talked about.
Maggie: It’ll come. These great movies by women are going to start to be out there, and they’re going to raise the money and they’re going to be fine. But I do think that sometimes we say “it’s okay I don’t even need to be paid. I’ll put my entire salary behind it. I’m just so grateful that I get to tell the story that I want to tell so badly.” And I totally agree with Sara. We need the right amount of money and we need to be paid.
What do you hope people will take away from this film?
Sara: I think that the end is so interesting because you don’t know what you’re supposed to feel. You’re not sure if you’re supposed to feel like, maybe Lisa was right all along. And I think the film challenges you to really see things through this point of view. And to see what she’s missing from her life and what she wants for this boy. I think that she has the greatest intentions but she’s kind of not managing how she executes them. It’s sort of a film about a woman, that in a way, is screaming into the woods in a sense and I would love for people to see it that way. But I don’t want to over-interpret it either. I think the beauty of this film is that people are going to take what they want from it. It has that kind of flexibility to it.
Maggie: I think at the end you take her apart, you see how much she’s fallen apart and we’re revealing to the audience look how bad it is if you like I said, starve a really vibrant woman’s mind. And yet at the end, you are sort of forced to double down again on the possibility of her value. And I read this thing, I think it was Wim Wenders maybe, who said there are some movies that comfort you that make you feel better and then there are some movies that when you finish watching them, make you want to get up out of your seat and immediately do everything you can to make some change in the world. And I think the Kindergarten Teacher is the second one.