A Teacher is a tense, unflinching piece of film that gets under your skin and refuses to let go. It’s the tightly drawn portrait of Diana (Lindsay Burdge), a young high school teacher who is having an illicit affair with her all-too-appealing student Eric (Will Brittain).
We are dropped into the affair without knowledge of its origins. Automatically, the stakes and the tension of the situation are apparent, as we watch Diana try to balance her day to day life–teaching, running, interacting with her roommate and being set up with terrible guys her own age. Her interactions with Eric amount to secret rendezvous in the backseat of cars, homes where roommates or relatives are absent, and the urgency between the two is palpable. Inevitably, the relationship — and Diana — fall apart. Written and directed by Hannah Fidell, the film is sexy, scary and heart-grippingly tense. She masterfully navigates the unraveling of a woman weighted down by her choices, yet she does not does judge those choices.
I spoke with director/writer Hannah Fidell, star Lindsay Burdge and producer Kim Sherman about the film, women on the verge and their inspirations.
Women and Hollywood: You mentioned in the post-film Q&A is that you wanted to do a portrait of a woman on the verge. What attracted all of you to that?
Hannah Fidell: I realized that the films I enjoyed watching were films like that. Opening Night by Cassavetes, The Piano Teacher by Michael Haneke and other films of that nature. So, I thought why not make a movie that I would want to watch.
Lindsay Burdge: I’m drawn to movies with strong female characters. She’s not strong, she’s kind of falling apart, but it was great to hone in on one character and her head. For me that’s a gratifying film experience. So, when Hannah told me about it, I was interested. It’s hard to find roles where you can throw yourself into it.
Kim Sherman: Specifically, I felt like Hannah did a really great job in taking something that we had seen a million times in different films, and could be sensationalized in the wrong hands. I loved the way the story was structured. The beginning point, after the romance had already begun, and we were really dealing with the psychology of what was happening. And that specific woman rather than the overall taboo of the relationship. I felt like that was a lot more relatable and an almost experimental way to tell the story.
WaH: Kim, how did you come to be involved in the project?
KS: I came to the project through friends who had worked with Hannah on her short film A Gathering Squall. They were actually my Missouri-based collaborators. They mentioned that Hannah was looking for production help with A Teacher because she was the main producer as well as the writer and director and she wanted to take the producing hat off for a while. We started working together in pre-production and it went really well, so she asked me to stay on as a main producer with her through the project.
WaH: Women on the verge stories tend to have a weird built-in judgment of the character. The way that you told the story, we understand that Diana’s choices are obviously not great, but you left the audience to come to their own conclusions.
HF: That was very much on purpose. I think I came to that in two ways. First, I wrote this story from the perspective of what would have to happen for me to find myself in the situation that Diana finds herself in. And, also, looking at the films I enjoy, not to reference Haneke too much, but the way that he draws in viewers and in a way forces them to identify with the protagonist no matter what they are doing interests me because it’s different. That style of film-making and storytelling breaks convention. I think it also creates a non-passive viewing experience when you find yourself so actively, not necessarily relating to the character, but being in the character’s head.
WaH: Lindsay talk about how you came at the character.
LB: Hannah and I did research and read some case studies so we did get into the psychology a bit. When Hannah told me the idea, I could imagine that happening. Also, I feel like a lot of the emotions that Diana goes through are very relatable. It’s what’s so brilliant about what Hannah did. It’s this topic that is kind of a hot button, but the journey, the emotions I feel are relatable.
WaH: Do you think that if the gender roles were reversed that there would be a similar criticism? If it was a male protagonist, would they say, “He clearly has borderline personality disorder,” as he’s Facebook stalking?
HF: No, absolutely not. They would just be like, “oh, he’s cold, or something.”
LB: “Aww that’s so sweet, he likes her.” But, I do hear what you are saying. So quickly, the crazy card gets pulled.
HF: Okay, I get that she acts a little bit crazy, but she’s not crazy. She’s complex.
WaH: Working in the film industry and working in entertainment women obviously isn’t the easiest thing. Do you all have female mentors or filmmakers, people who have helped you in your careers or people you have looked up to as an inspiration?
HF: Filmmaker-wise, if I’m going to mention female filmmakers, Catherine Breillat of Fat Girl. She is fantastic and doesn’t shy away from, even as a woman filmmaker, putting women in a negative light because women aren’t always positive. I also like Joyce Carol Oates, even though she’s in a different field. I just admire not only her work ethic but also her incredible mind and her incredible storytelling ability. She is just a complete inspiration. There are some producers who I very much admire like Jules Daly. She runs a company called RSA Films, where I worked at the front desk right out of college. That’s where Lindsay and I met. She’s a force and I just sit there in awe of everything that she was doing and how she organized her business.
LB: As an actress Liv Ullmann and Gena Rowlands and all these woman who really throw themselves into things and aren’t afraid to look ugly and scary. They just go there, which is awesome. Just watching their performances is so inspiring. Also, people who have contemporary careers like Cate Blanchett. She just does everything. She always gives 100%.
HF: I think, Lindsay, that you are not afraid to look not your best or to have your character make the wrong choice.
LB: Yeah or be a shitty person. Anyway, all those women I think as actresses are amazing. I’m really excited and in awe of like the women more in our immediate scene, our independent film scene. Obviously, like Hannah and Kim, Amy Seimetz. She’s an amazing actress and has been producing for a bunch of people. She’ll just hustle and make a movie happen and then go and act or whatever. Sophia Takal writing a movie, then just making it, then making another one.
WaH: Kim, what about you?
KS: I feel like I’ve been very lucky, especially coming up through the ranks of horror films which can be inherently sexist. I worked with men who were very respectful of me. So, I didn’t experience that as much as women who have come before me, for sure. I have had a lot of help from various women at the Sundance Institute. Eden Wurmfeld, she was a producer on Swingers and a bunch of bigger independent hits in the 90s. She was actually a mentor of mine through the Sundance Institute. Rebecca Green, Anne Lai and Michelle Satter all from the institute, were really great and so knowledgeable about all aspects of production.
Amy Seimetz, I should say that more importantly. Watching her [Sherman worked as a producer on Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine] –she’s so well-rounded in all aspects of production, but also we talked a lot about the things that we are able to do because there wasn’t this kind of alpha male competition the entire time. There was something about the way that we were working that was different from the way that we had worked in the past. We didn’t have to butt heads and bully our point-of-view across in an aggressive way. It just worked differently.
Something that Hannah and I talk about a lot is that we had really strong women in our families who raised us. Because of that, we never thought there wasn’t anything we couldn’t do. There is nothing that’s off limits to us. I think that that is one of the strengths of being a woman in our generation because women who came before us had to fight really hard and they had obstacles and were able to push them down to a certain extent for us. So, we are able to do a lot more, more easily because of that.
WaH: Now back to the film the music really stood out for me.
HF: From the start I told Brian, our composer, that I wanted to have a horror film score. We did that by using very sparse drumbeats and single notes. Brian is an incredible force. I like to imagine that this film is like a female horror film.
WaH: Kim, I saw that you have a music background. I wanted to know if you had any input.
KS: I think Hannah had a very clear vision of the film from the beginning. I definitely wholeheartedly supported that decision. She’s worked a longtime with Brian from Dirty Projectors and Brian McOmber, who actually composed the soundtrack. And I think that in talking to her that was one of the elements that brought me to her project. She did want to add horror elements and my background is horror. The way that she wanted to treat the film was very much in line with what I had done in the past and a sensibility that I could relate to.
WaH: What’s next for all of you?
HF: I just finished a script called That Girl on TV and it’s a critique of reality television and specifically a girl who becomes famous for dating a reality television star. I’m really excited about that. My goal is — it’s not going to happen — to make it this summer and go back to Sundance because it was so much fun.
LB: I just wrapped a film up here in Austin called the Sideways Light which was directed by another female director by the name of Jennifer Harlow. It is a mother/daughter film. And, I’m going back to New York finally. I have a film that’s playing at TriBeCa called Lily that I cast and play a supporting role in it. Another film that I cast last year called Gimme the Loot is premiering in New York. I’m doing a small role in Lawrence Levine’s upcoming film Wild Canaries, which should be awesome.
KS: So, I have many projects coming up. I am in production now on Wild Canaries, written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine, and am in development on Sophia Takal’s Always Shine.