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Hannah Fidell and Kate Mara Share the Long Path to Crafting ‘A Teacher’

Executive producers Hannah Fidell and Kate Mara spent six years collaborating to crack what makes "A Teacher" tick.

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Consider This: Conversations highlight television’s award-worthy productions through panel discussions with the artists themselves. The above video is in partnership by FX, produced by IndieWire’s Creative Producer Leonardo Adrian Garcia, and hosted by Libby Hill.

There’s something so seductive about second chances. Who among us hasn’t looked at a decision we’ve made or a path we’ve chosen and wondered what would have happened if we’d gone a different way? If we could go back and have a do over, knowing now what we could never have known then.

This is not necessarily what Hannah Fidell was thinking when making the FX on Hulu limited series “A Teacher,” an adaptation of her eponymous feature film released seven years earlier. But even though that wasn’t the intent, it was still the opportunity, and judging from the significant changes between the two works, the writer and director made the most of challenge.

“I don’t know any other creator or creative who wouldn’t be thrilled by the idea of having the ability to not necessarily redo their own work, but to, I guess, yes, redo their own work with a bigger budget and the time and space to really spend with the story, in a way that an indie film that’s the size of the original movie, I just couldn’t do,” Fidell said to IndieWire in a recent interview alongside series star Kate Mara.

“On top of that, the cultural shift with #MeToo made me able to be open and want to dive into my own experience with sexual assault and what it means to be a victim and the changing nature of victimhood,” she said. With the film, Fidell explained, she was attempting to explore what the perpetrator of her own assault might have told himself to justify his actions, which meant limiting the project to a very small POV.

“But with the time that elapsed and the cultural conversation that was happening, I as a creator could then sort of open it up to be able to tap into my own feelings and tap into the character that Nick [Robinson] played in a way that I couldn’t do before,” Fidell said. “But also I think it didn’t feel as scary for myself and also for the network to be able to tell a story like this.”

The limited series tells the story of high school teacher Claire Wilson (Mara) who is dissatisfied with her life and finds herself drawn to a 17-year-old student, Eric Walker (Robinson). While early episodes unfold in a way that many people might find familiar with regards to similar stories they’ve seen told before, as the series unfolds, the power differentials between Claire and Eric make themselves more evident and the real and lasting emotional and psychological toll the events are taking on the young boy become undeniable. This is no scandalous-but-sexy tale of being hot for teacher. It’s a story about abuses of power and gender roles and the unending road toward healing for survivors.

A TEACHER "Episode 1” (Airs Tuesday, November 10) - - Pictured: (l-r) Kate Mara as Claire Walker, Nick Robinson as Eric Walker. CR: Chris Large/FX

Kate Mara and Nick Robinson in “A Teacher”

Chris Large/FX

It is, in a word, complicated.

Beyond having more time and more resources, Fidell also had a secret weapon in crafting a new take on her old tale: Mara.

According to the actress, Fidell and executive producer Michael Costigan reached out to her some six years earlier to discuss turning the film into a limited series. “When Hannah and I spoke, I could just tell we had a really easy time talking to each other, we clicked, we had great chemistry, and I was like, ‘Oh, I feel like we will be good partners in this,'” Mara said. “And I was so lucky. Because they came to me saying, we’d love you to star in this, but we would also, if you’re open to it, like you to produce it with us.”

While Mara had previously produced on other project, she was excited to do more, and “A Teacher” provided her with an opportunity to produce a series for the first time.

“The collaboration, with especially Hannah, really was like such a special experience. And you know, as she said, it took a long time. I mean, it was like six years in the making. So I learned a lot and it was just a really great experience, not just as an actor, but also as a producer.”

“Having Kate attached at such an early stage was really just creatively — helpful is an understatement — but it was helpful in terms of being able to write for her, being able to get her thoughts and guidance. It was just incredibly invaluable,” Fidell said. “We had a very, very intense shooting schedule, that was very quick. And I think if we hadn’t done all that work in the development process, Kate, you and I would have had to spend more time on set really talking about intent and character. And because you were so involved early on, and I say this, some actors get EP credit as just part of their deal, that is not what the situation was with Kate. She was a true active producer.”

A TEACHER

Nick Robinson in “A Teacher”

Chris Large/FX

One of the elements that makes “A Teacher” in all its forms so fascinating is its inversion of what audiences might expect to see, which is to say, a young male teacher getting inappropriately involved with one of his students. And because of the complexities of gender roles and cultural assumptions, people don’t necessarily understand how to process the idea of male sexual assault victims, and their stories aren’t as readily explored.

“It became very clear early on in the writing process of the show just how far we were going to expand the stories. So Kate and I and Nick and the writers in the writers room, we all spent time talking with therapists who specialize in male victims of childhood sexual trauma,” Fidell said. “And through those conversations it became clear that we had to jump ahead 10 years because male victims, unlike female victims, oftentimes don’t see themselves as a victim until later on.”

“That very much informed how Eric’s arc was going to go throughout the course of the season, and that he might not see himself as a victim and we assumed many of the audience might not see him as a victim either. Like I said, victimhood is not clear cut. Consent is not clear cut. The fact that Eric, he’s one of those kids in high school who, even though he’s 17 or 18, he looks like he’s 25. That was very purposeful in our casting of Nick. We just didn’t want to make it easy. Because these things never are.”

FIdell is right. Few things about “A Teacher” come easily. That’s what makes it such a thorny, uncomfortable triumph.

“A Teacher” is available to stream on FX on Hulu.

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