A remake of Nadav Lapid’s 2014 drama of the same name, The Kindergarten Teacher tells the story of a teacher who becomes obsessed with the prodigal poetry skills of one of her five-year-old students. More importantly, it’s a metaphor for how creatively starved we are in the world of smart phones, video games, guns, and Trump. At times, the film is incredibly dark. And others, it’s strangely funny. Here, we chat about its complexities with the film’s director, Sara Colangelo and leading star, Maggie Gyllenhaal.
I saw that you had said that even though this is a remake, it’s a completely different movie than the original. What drew you to retell it?
Sara Colangelo: “I saw Nadav’s movie at Lincoln Center and was really blown away by it. I loved the bones of the story. I think there’s a beautiful allegory going on in his and in mine. Structurally, it’s talking about art in society. How much do you value practicality? How much do you value art? I thought rebooting it and rooting it in a woman’s point of view in this beautiful character of Lisa. To me that was special and was the pivot I wanted to make. I think Nadav very beautifully weaves the story between the student and female teacher’s point of view. I really wanted to get into the minutiae of Lisa’s life and her psychology. Even from a camera and visual standpoint, I wanted to tell the story through her eyes. I thought Nadav was doing very particular things. He was telling a story that was set in Israel in a country at war. He was looking at art in that realm. I felt that the United States has a different discussion that we can wage in a way.”
What is the movie about to you?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: “I think in a lot of ways this is about the actual consequences of what happens when you starve a woman’s mind. It’s told from the point of view of a group of women filmmakers. Our point of view is that it’s fucking dire when you starve a woman’s mind, whereas maybe if a group of men made it, they would say, “That must be awful.” It’s funny—the way people respond to it. I don’t know if you saw the interview with Trevor Noah. It was about The Deuce but we were talking about The Kindergarten Teacher too. He’d seen only the trailer. He said, “I don’t understand. Is this a thriller or a horror movie or an intimate story about a woman?” I responded, “I love that you say that.” It isn’t any one of those things. In a way, it’s a combination of all of them. I think that it’s something new. It’s new because it’s feminine. Sara was able to make the space in her mind to express something feminine. It’s hard to do when you live in a masculine culture. She did it on the page and we did it in production. It’s a new thing.”
Sara Colangelo: “There were moments in the editing room when I was watching it and I was like, ‘I didn’t even necessarily intend for this to be like that.’ There’s this moment when Lisa is holding the snacks and I don’t know why but it’s so moving to me. We wanted to tilt the camera up to [her] but we didn’t know what [she] was going to do in that moment. There’s a dark comedy aspect to it at moments. I’m not sure I necessarily intended to move tonally in that direction. I think people sometimes feel a certain discomfort when you’re crossing boundaries and they laugh.”
You both have children. How did that impact your perception of this character? On one hand it’s an intimate portrayal of a woman and on the other hand you’re questioning a child’s safety.
Sara Colangelo: “I think we both went in knowing that this character commits awful transgressions and is abusing her power in a certain sense to feed herself. I remember in one of our first meetings, [Maggie] said, ‘I really want to make sure whoever plays Jimmy understands that we’re making a movie.’ It’s a really intense part for him to absorb the story and, in a way, Lisa’s intensity through this. I thought that was really sensitive and kind of [Maggie] to be thinking about.”
Maggie Gyllenhaal: “There are people who really have an understanding of children without becoming parents. I have a child who’s exactly the same age as Parker Sevak, the actor who plays Jimmy. I was totally in the mindset of what it means to be five because every day I was with someone who was five. It’s hard for me to remember now what it felt like to be with someone who was five because now [my daughter] is six. It shifts. I was living with that level of vulnerability and the reality of what that is every day.”
Maggie, people are calling this the best performance of your career. Do you think it being a female production helped that come to fruition?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: “It starts with the script. It wasn’t that I made a certain decision and thought, ‘I want to work with female filmmakers.’ I mean, I would, but that isn’t the thing that drew me to this. It was the product of something written by a female filmmaker who was allowing herself to be expressed on the page that drew me and our producers and everybody to it. It was this opportunity to actually express something real that’s inside me and inside many women right now. It was an opportunity I’d never gotten before to do something like that. Our set was different. It’s not just because Sara is a woman. I’ve worked with other women where the set felt like every other set. Something about [Sara’s] leadership was different.”
Sara Colangelo: “There was an openness to it. Something about this story allows for it, too. The way the story is told…I felt like there was a lot of experimentation. We obviously stuck to the story and it was a structured set—not total chaos. There was something very open to it. Sometimes the kids weren’t doing what they needed to do and we’d change it up. It always felt fresh, buoyant, and challenging. I thought the collaboration…there was something feminine about it. I can’t figure out what it was exactly other than that we were all attuned to each other.”
Maggie Gyllenhaal: “Maybe there’s something about being primarily with women where there’s some kind of guard you can let down. It takes a little while to realize it. It was interesting—there’s one little chapter of a day and a half where Gael (Garcia Bernal) was there. He’s a wonderful actor and lover of women. To have this masculine energy all of a sudden…we were like, ‘There’s a whole other world out there!’.