Sara Colangelo is an American writer-director who made her feature debut with 2014’s Little Accidents, inspired by her short film – made four years earlier – of the same name. She returns with her sophomore movie, The Kindergarten Teacher, a remake of 2014’s Hebrew-language drama Haganenet by Israeli director Nadav Lapid. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Lisa Spinelli, a pre-school teacher who begins to pass off poems – written by a gifted 5 year-old in her class – as her own.
ASFF: The Kindergarten Teacher is a remake. How did you get involved?
SC: The film was originally called ‘Haganenet’, which means ‘The Kindergarten Teacher’ in Hebrew. It was an Israeli film that came out in 2014 and its funny…the two producers, Talia Kleinhendler and Osnat Keren, retained the rights, with Nadav Lapid’s blessing – he was the original filmmaker and was fairly excited and flattered by the idea of doing an American remake. They came to the States and started taking meetings. They met with me over coffee and I actually had no idea what the meeting would be about. They said, ‘Look, we have a film that did very well critically. Not a lot of people saw it. We’re really interested in re-launching it with an American setting. Would you be interested?’
ASFF: You set the film in Staten Island. Why?
SC: The first few weeks I was living with the project, I pondered a New England setting. And then I thought New York would be fascinating. I became really attached to the idea of Lisa having to travel between Staten Island and Manhattan, an Emerald City. This almost metaphorical transformation and movement that she has to do every time she moves from her kindergarten class to her poetry class, which was really important to her. That’s how it started.
ASFF: How early was Maggie Gyllenhaal involved?
SC: Very early. Once we felt that the script was in a good enough shape to send out to actors, she was really the first woman that we sent it to for Lisa. I didn’t write it for her per se, because I never do that really, but I was thinking of actors that are both relatable and have a sense of daring and element of risk-taking, and Maggie immediately came to mind as someone who could be perfect for it.
ASFF: Did you want to explore the idea of child prodigies?
SC: I didn’t want the movie to be about a child genius. There’s such a genre of films that are about that and I didn’t want it to be such. I always have had a skeptical opinion on genius. I was a history major and I feel like it’s a 19th Century invention. I do think some people are really exceptional but it’s also cultivating a talent and being creative and open-minded.
ASFF: The film is very ambiguous and can be read in a number of ways. Do you agree?
SC: I think it can be a lot of things for a lot of different people. Some people really connect with the fact that this is a story of a true artist, that Lisa is in fact the artist, and she’s doing everything she can to stay involved in the creative process, even though it’s through the life of a 5 year-old. So everyone has a different take, which is what makes the story interesting.
The Kindergarten Teacher opens in cinemas on 8 March. For more details, click here.