[EDITOR’S NOTE: indieWIRE is profiling the Narrative and Documentary Competition filmmakers who are screening their films at the Los Angeles Film Festival as world premieres.]
Screening in the Documentary Competition at the Los Angeles FIlm Festival, Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker‘s “Pressure Cooker” follows three inner-city seniors at Philadelphia’s Frankford High School as they take on Wilma Stephenson’s Culinary Arts class. With her assistance, the students prepare for a citywide cooking competition for scholarships to some of the country’s top culinary arts institutions. Both directors talked to indieWIRE about their experience and the film’s screening at LAFF.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking?
Jennifer Grausman: I’ve been an avid filmgoer, writer, and list maker since I was a child. But it’s the collaborative nature of filmmaking that makes it the most appealing way for me to tell stories. And in addition it lets me be creative while indulging my passion for organization and logistics.
Mark Becker: I fell in love with the verite films of the 60’s and 70’s. The Maysles films like “Salesman” and “Gimme Shelter.” Pennebaker’s “Don’t Look Back.” But even before I ever saw these, back in the 70’s, my father and I used to edit our super8 home movies with splicing tape and “sound-on-sound” recordings. When I was eight I narrated an edited-down version of our trip to California. It was overlong and I’m not really into narration these days but then I was young.
The remaining answers were made jointly by both directors.
What was the inspiration for this film?
Since I was a teenager, I have been inspired by the incredible stories of the students who participate in the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP) and its annual cooking competitions. Founded by my father, Richard Grausman, C-CAP is a non-profit organization, which provides career counseling, job training, and college scholarships by working with existing public high school culinary classes across the country.
Over the last few years, my father kept mentioning the success of a particular teacher in Philadelphia, Wilma Stephenson. Her students were always incredibly well prepared – winning the lion’s share of the scholarships – and they also wrote the most intimate and heart-breaking personal essays for their scholarship applications.
We went down to Philadelphia to meet Wilma. She was dynamic, emotional and incredibly compelling – her passion for teaching culinary evident in the first few minutes. But, ultimately it was her love and respect for her students – the way she creates a surrogate family in the kitchen classroom – that made it clear there was a story waiting to be told in room 325.
Please elaborate on your approach to making the film…
The kids in “Pressure Cooker” are fighting for their lives. They are not just trying to make the perfect crepe or tournee the perfect potato. They simply have to prove their skills in the kitchen: Without a scholarship to college they could likely end up being stuck flipping burgers at a fast-food joint or working at Walmart in Northeast Philly.
With her drill-sergeant methods, their culinary arts teacher Wilma Stephenson has devoted herself to getting her kids into to college, doing everything in her power to make it happen. Her devotion is forceful, uncompromising, and studded with hilarious taunts. She may shock you with her unfiltered manner with the kids, but they know that she is the one person in their lives that truly cares.
With this in mind, we decided that the film would work best if the audience felt fully immersed in the lives of our kids. The narrative should answer the question: What would make a high-school student choose to walk the gauntlet of Mrs. Stephenson class? So we fought hard to get the kind of access that would show the world in which these kids lived, and that would bring an emotional honesty to the filmmaking.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making the film?
With the kids, the hard part was making appointments. Try scheduling an appointment with a graduating senior: it’s no simple task. We were stood up countless times. But we tried to not take it as rejection (sometimes it was hard). And just as importantly, we tried to negotiate our own impact on the kids – you know, not to be annoying adult figures in their lives, or another phone call they had to screen.
As for Wilma, I think everyone on the production feared her. She had a way of reducing us all to teenagers. Her philosophy at Frankford was always to command respect from her kids, and she by no means left this mode for us. There were times when we both had that sinking feeling like we were in trouble for something (like shooting a sensitive moment, or getting too close to her on a tough day). And neither of us liked being in trouble. We’d drive back to New York kicking ourselves wondering if she would let us back in the kitchen. We were suspended from the kitchen a few times but never expelled.
What are your goals for the Los Angeles Film Festival?
There is so much blood and sweat you put into a film during production and post-production. It’s gratifying work but it’s absolutely exhausting. So now being able to show our film in Los Angeles in a movie theater that seats five hundred people – with the kids and Wilma in attendance – feels like an incredible privilege. We also feel lucky to be given the opportunity to spend time with (and see the work of) so many other exhausted filmmakers.
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