It wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe the subject matter and the technique of Hannah Fidell’s “A Teacher” in the same seductive terms, sneaking up and teasing you with its sidelong glances, often lingering in the room to draw you closer. That the presence of Lindsay Burdge as its lead enhances the film’s magnetic pull only complicates matters once you discover Burdge’s high school teacher Diana is engaged in a torrid affair with one of her students (Will Brittain), a relationship that seems as if it’ll inevitably come to light under the well-lit suburban streets of Central Texas.
Armed with a hail of skittish violins that composer Brian McOmber unleashes from the heavens and the ominous, oblique cinematography of Andrew Droz Palermo, Fidell crafts a character study as thrilling and unsettling as the fling Diana embarks on with the young Eric. Utilizing the full expanse of the screen to express Diana’s isolation with Burdge able to convey the wealth of emotions to fully fill it, the film finds its twentysomething central character at the precarious moment where she’s completely in control of her sexuality, but not her life and once she loses control of both, she’ll be truly screwed.
Burdge, Brittain and Fidell are all at the cusp of a similarly critical turning point — in their careers, but bolstered by strong notices at its festival dates at Sundance and SXSW earlier this year, they’re all on track towards exciting futures and it was my pleasure to sit down with the three in Los Angeles recently to talk about how Burdge and Fidell’s first film together proved to be an important trial run for “A Teacher,” when acting took precedence over the real emotions of the cast and how Fidell’s own move from the East Coast to Austin shaped the tone.
It seemed like you placed a premium on discovering the relationship between the teacher and student for yourselves, but did you actually do much research on how these affairs happen?
Lindsay Burdge: We did a bit of reading of case studies with women who had not been caught, so we had more access to the honest journal entries, then we also went to schools and studied teachers that way. I know I definitely watched some interviews with some of the more famous teachers online, just to know what I wasn’t going for. [laughs] The kind of woman that [Diana] wasn’t, really, because Hannah did want her to be very different from those people.
Lindsay, I understand you really only heard a pitch for the film before committing. Does that mean you were able to really build the character from the ground up with Hannah?
LB: Hannah was definitely spearheading the movement. If anything, the collaboration was such that she was closely observing me at times and maybe trying to figure out how she could best use me. [laughs]
LB: And then once Will came along, it was the same thing.
Will Brittain: But Hannah had a very clear idea of who the characters were, especially for me.
HF: You definitely brought stuff to it. Will, you fought me on some stuff, which I appreciated. It made the movie a lot stronger I think.
I’ve heard Hannah say that her first film “We’re Glad You’re Here,” which Lindsay also starred in, wasn’t such a great experience. What made this one different?
HF: Very, very, very different. The thing we made together was the first thing I’d ever made. Essentially, it was my film school, and I had made a few things after that as well, so I felt much more prepared. Also, I knew how to work with Lindsay.
LB: [looking at Hannah] Just from observing you, I also feel like the learning curve in filmmaking is so steep that you really threw yourself in with that first film and by the second film, not to say anything about the people we worked with the first time, but you pulled together a team of people who you could really trust in every single department so you didn’t have to feel like you were micromanaging in any way.
HF: And being spread too thin.
LB: Or being spread too thin. Since Hannah had so much trust in everyone, we could then trust ourselves to do our jobs. The whole thing was much stronger in that way. Also, the script [for “We’re Glad You’re Here”] was more like a mumblecore film and it was lighter. It was like a little bit meandering whereas this was very focused and concentrated.
HF: It was the exact opposite. [laughs]
LB: So the process was totally different.
It’s such a quiet film in places, but also so dramatic in others. Was it difficult to keep the performances on the level?
WB: Not for me because of good writing, good directing, good acting. When it’s good, that doesn’t really happen in my experience.
HF: Also, if things did get too melodramatic, we just cut it.
LB: We just tried to play to the best of our ability the reality of the situation. You just have to trust that you’re doing the right thing and not worry too much about being melodramatic. In life, people act super dramatic.
HF: It was also good because we were filming in real locations as opposed to on a set, so it wasn’t like we were creating this fictional world. There was a world that we could just step into.
WB: It was such a treat to walk out onto the porch of the house and you get to look out and see the sunset. It’s there. That gives you so much.
Hannah, how did getting to know Austin help shape the film after moving there from New York?
HF: A lot. I was living in Austin and feeling very lonely and sad when I was writing this. I think that loneliness really made its way into Diana’s character and laid a good groundwork for her emotional inner life.
Was it a crazy headspace to get into? Diana is such a fascinating character, both assured and distant in public as her world’s falling apart in private.
LB: It was a crazy headspace to get into. It was also so awesome now that I look back on it. I was aware pretty early on that it was a great role. I knew it was a great opportunity, so even though it was hard in a way emotionally, as an actor, that’s all you want really is something that you can really get passionate about, that’ll keep you up at night and that you don’t want to go back to your regular life between shooting days because you’re so interested in the character. That doesn’t always happen.
Not to be lurid, but I heard after the first sex scene, which was a first for Will, you wanted to know whether he was comfortable, but as an actor, you didn’t want to break character even though the scene was finished.
LB: Actually, it was Will who came up to me because in that version of that take we had just done, I think he pushed me at one point. I was like “Owww…” because we’re just in the moment. And afterwards, he [gasped], “Are you okay? Did I hurt…?” And at that point, we were so deep in, I wasn’t really thinking like oh here’s this young man who wants to make sure this girl that he’s fake fooling around with is okay. I wasn’t even thinking about him in that way. We were just so deep in. So it actually was Will who had to say hey, I just want to make sure you’re okay and I was like, “Oh yeah, yeah, bye. I gotta go.” [laughs]
WB: That was tough. That scene was hard on me emotionally, personally.
LB: I’m sure.
WB: Because she was in it, man. I mean, deep in it. So it’s upsetting to see a person like that, even if they’re acting, but it helped immensely in the scene.
“A Teacher” opens in Los Angeles at the NoHo 7 and New York at the AMC Village 7 on September 6th. A full list of theaters and dates is here. It is also currently available on demand and on digital.