Tribeca 2021 Interview: Dan Chen on the Hard-Earned Education of “Accepted”

You’re likely to tremble in your seat as the students at T.M. Landry College Prep in Louisiana did upon hearing the school’s co-founder Mike Landry speak to a class of 12-year-olds in “Accepted,” pacing around the room outlining what their futures hold if they aren’t proactive. As a Black man in charge of educating a mostly Black student base, he doesn’t mince words when recounting statistically “three of you will die before you’re 21,” noting that one of his own brothers died and the other went to prison in their mid-twenties — and careful not to leave the white students in the room out, he says “[Right now] being a white guy and being average is like being last.” Naturally, he wraps things up with a few choice words from DMX, a fitting conclusion for the shocking yet rousing pep talk that may have left the class with plenty of questions but answered what had drawn director Dan Chen to Beaux Bridge to film at the school.

“While you’re filming it, you’re just like, “Oh, are we in focus? Then afterwards you take stock and you’re like, “That was pretty crazy,” recalls Chen, of the film that will premiere this weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival. “It’s multifaceted, because on some level, it’s refreshing to hear someone lay out the cutthroat, American politics in such a clear way, like when he says, ‘If you’re this race, this is your situation,’ [and] obviously, we would rather not have it [be the] case, or wish it wasn’t the case, but on some level, what he’s saying is true as far as how this country operates. At the same time, you’re like, ‘Yeah, but is that fair to say to children, and lock that in as their worldview, or can we create something better?’ There was always something tense and ambivalent about that monologue, [and we thought], ‘This is going in, some way or another,’ we just had to figure out where it was the best place to put it, and why.”

The speech is left largely unbroken as the transfixing centerpiece of “Accepted,” though you find yourself unable to ever look away during the arresting documentary in which Chen follows four students — Alicia, Adia, Isaac and Cathy — who are led to believe that they’ll attend one of the Ivy League schools whose flags fly in front of T.M. Landry if they endure the rigorous curriculum that Landry, in concert with his wife Tracy, has put together and his unorthodox teaching methods where greetings come in a variety of different languages and there is no set schedule. For the students of limited means who, in most cases, would be the first in their family to attend college, the potential of getting into Harvard and Yale as promised by the countless viral videos of acceptance letters Landry seniors film themselves receiving every year was impossible to pass up, but when the school’s success has brought scrutiny, culminating in a devastating New York Times investigation into its practices as Chen’s cameras were rolling, the film unflinchingly captures what unfolds as the kids’ dare to dream of a higher education start having it turn into a nightmare, particularly when told that what happens in the short time they’re in high school will dictate the rest of their lives.

While the access is remarkable, the actual insight in “Accepted” is more so, illuminating how the education that will last for these students, all of whom radiate a natural intelligence, won’t consist of what they’ve learned in any classroom, but how it’s not what you know but who you know in navigating systems that are less invested in future generations than keeping the current institutions of power in place. Provocative and entertaining in equal turns, the film will be available virtually throughout the U.S. from June 13th through June 23rd after its in-person premiere at Tribeca on Saturday and Chen spoke about completing a movie he wasn’t always sure he could finish, being sensitive to students whose senior year was more pressure-filled than most, and the patience required to see the story through to its full potential.

How did this come about?

Jason Lee, a producer on the film, had brought it to me first in early 2018 saying, “There’s a school in Louisiana that’s sending most of its students to elite universities, and they don’t seem to have the same resources that other private prep schools for colleges do.” And when he told me this, my thought was, “What’s it like being a student here?” I’ve watched some of the news stories and the viral videos and I was like, “What is it like to be a 16 to 18-year-old growing up in this environment, being launched to a place like Yale, or Stanford, or Harvard? What is the work and the prep that you go through to do that?” That was what I first latched onto, as far as what I wanted to explore.

When race is a central issue of this, was there any hesitation on your part that you were the right person to tell this, or to create a team to tackle this in the right way?

It’s definitely something that I thought about for a while. I had some previous documentary experience, meeting people from all over and with all sorts of racial identities and backgrounds, so my approach was as long as I come in with a curiosity and openness, not wanting to frame things my way, but really just allowing whatever we happen to bring as far as a filmmaking team, it’s really just about letting these people tell their own stories. With that kind of approach, and obviously with input from the people we were following themselves, we’d always ask them, “Are you interested in this? What are you interested in talking about?” Letting them lead it rather than us. As far as race goes, I’m not Black. I am Chinese-American, and grew up in Kansas, so I felt at least there was something that I could key into, as far as growing up a minority and battling perceptions about you, and the stuff that I didn’t know, I could let them take the lead as far as what they wanted to talk about and what they didn’t.

How did you find the four subjects you followed?

We interviewed at least everyone in the senior class that was interested in talking, and we followed a few more of them throughout the year, but it was just an organic process of who was available and who wasn’t. Who stopped wanting to talk to us and who was like, “Hey, I still have something to say, or something I want to get off my chest.” We really just stuck it out through a school year and in the editing room, we [looked] at who was addressing this part of what it was like to be at the school. Ultimately, it boiled down to the four that you see in the film.

Once you get on the ground there, is there anything that changes your ideas of what this could be, or what the dimensions of it were?

It’s interesting. When you enter into a documentary, you need some idea of what the structure is going to be. The only thing that stayed constant as the story went through a lot of twists and turns — unbeknownst to us when we first went there — was that this is the story of their senior year. We started filming [our subjects] when they were juniors and we were just going to be like, “What is this slice of time going to be like as you’re applying to college, you’re going to graduate and you’re going to head off to college. Then obviously, as we learned about the things that were happening at the school, we had to recalibrate each time something like that happened, but it was always going to be a story of a crazy school year, whether the New York Times article happened or not.

Without spoiling the film, the rules of engagement must totally change in terms of access not only to the school but the students themselves after that article hits. Are there actually thoughts of, “Maybe we shouldn’t continue filming, given what’s going on?”

Yeah, obviously, the goal was to see the school year through these students’ eyes and we were at the school for a fair amount of time before the article came out and we had actually learned about some of the allegations before, because some of the people we had met in the community pulled us aside on one of our trips and said, “Hey, by the way, you may not know this, but this is some of the stuff that we’ve experienced. This is some of the stuff that other people here have experienced and we’re no longer affiliated with the school. We don’t want to be a part of this documentary you’re making, but we just wanted to let you know.”

We knew that it was being investigated by journalists and we were like, “You know what? If they can talk to the New York Times, that’s maybe something that the New York Times was equipped to deal with,” and because we were telling [the story from] a student-grounded point of view, and many of those students were still at the school, we honestly [thought], “Let’s pause. Let’s not continue,” because I don’t think we were interested or equipped to do a journalistic expose. I wanted to let the experts reckon with the facts on the ground. It wasn’t until after our students that we had been following left the school and started pursuing their academics outside of the school, and were having their own stories, through having their own frustrations of [thinking] “This part of the story still isn’t being told,” that we found something that we could provide that was useful and productive. Because the last thing we wanted to do was make something that’s like, “Oh, like, look at this. Gotcha.” We really weren’t interested in that, but [when] the students have stories that they’re interested in telling, at that point, we resumed and picked back up.

When you take a pause, do you look back on the footage you previously shot in a different way?

It does make you look at it in a different light, for sure, but it [also] doesn’t in a way. We knew even before the article came out that at times these kids are going through some gnarly experiences and we weren’t privy to all the experiences because, obviously, we’d been told things were different at the school when cameras were there versus when cameras weren’t at the school. [People] would tell us, “Oh yeah, this would happen as soon as you guys left,” and we’d be like, “Oh, please speak on it. Let’s help get that out there.” But there’s that scene where [Mike Landry is] dividing up the classroom into two halves and it’s like, “This doesn’t feel necessarily right or normal.” So even before that article, part of the story we were exploring is, what is the psychology/process of getting these kids to these Ivy Leagues and why is it that this school is the one sending them there? Is that process correct, or morally just, or is it they’re stuck in an unfair system where they see this as a route to success? Because you have to wonder, “Well, I don’t think a kid going to a wealthy, private prep school is necessarily going through this, and why is that the case?” Whether or not the article’s there, that still was an uncomfortable question that I was interested in asking.

What’s it like getting to the finish line with this?

We started this in early 2018. A lot has changed since then. Speaking to that one time when we were [thinking], “We’re no longer making this film,” there were a few points that we were like, “You know what? This is done,” or “We can’t figure this out,” so to really lock in all these pieces that we wanted to talk about [I’m thankful] I’ve worked with as many talented people as I did, who contributed their voices to this project, a crew and producers that persevered through the whole thing, and most importantly, the students themselves who went through a really, incredibly tough time. [They] weren’t always down to talk to us, understandably, and we would have to be like, “All right, we’re standing by. We’ll go film some B-roll in Louisiana while you take a break from us.” All of those elements persevering and coming through this together is pretty surreal, and I hope that there is catharsis and discussion to be sparked as the film comes out.

“Accepted” will screen at the Tribeca Film Festival in person on June 12th at 2 pm at Brooklyn Commons at Metrotech and virtually beginning June 13th through June 23rd.

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