Behind-the-Scenes with “The First Grader’s” director, Justin Chadwick Pt. 1

I spoke with Justin Chadwick, director of “The First Grader,” one day after having seen it at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center – for free!  Always the right price, but particularly so during a toilet bowl economy.  As with many independent film-makers, he is down-to-earth and pretty much a straight shooter.

"The First Grader's" director, Justin Chadwick, with Will Wright (courtesy Wright's Words)

Will Wright: It’s common and typical for Anglo film-makers to make movies about black people, where the anchor of the story isn’t black him or herself.  It’s refreshing to see that there isn’t a heroic, superior Anglo who comes in to “save the school.”  We had “Dangerous Minds,” 15 years ago, and “Freedom Writers.”  How concerned were you, being a man from Manchester, who wasn’t introduced to all the dynamic and violent politics coming in and doing this story?

Justin Chadwick: Well I was very aware from the outset that I am from Manchester England.  And I had not been to Kenya before, and it dealt with a period of history, as well as Kenyan history that hadn’t been told.  There’s very few records remaining of that time.  At the time of making this film, the British press side of things.  They’re represented as being these guerilla army that basically murder people in their beds.  There’s that, but this other side.

So I knew going into Kenya, that, I was from outside.  I had to use that to its advantage, to use it as a way of me being able to go in as a guest in their country.  The first three or four months I was there I basically observed, and listened and let people tell their stories.  I’d go speak to the elders in each village that I’d go it.  And because of that approach, everywhere I went I was open-heartedly received.  I wasn’t like the other movies that’d been there: “Tomb Raider,” “Out of Africa,” even “Constant Gardener,” had shipped everything in to that country.  I was living with the people I was working with, living in the community where the school was.  Even from the very first, I was with Kmani Maruge in his hospice.  I would go in with Kikuyu, which were his tribe.  So they built an openness and between me and the people I was representing and also the people I was working with.

Mr. Chadwick directing "The First Grader"

I didn’t know what it was going to be like in Tudor England, or with the “Other Boleyn Girl,” or I didn’t know what it was going to be like when I did “Bleak House,” in Victorian England.  With this I actually talked directly with the people that this story involves, to try and find the truth.   And I think that’s what stood me in stead for it really.

W: You’re the second film-maker I’ve met recently who’s spoken of having that observational approach, attitude.  Can you tell me how many of your peers use that approach?

Ang Lee, when he did sense and sensibility – I remember reading how he felt like an outsider coming into English, period, costume drama, would use that eye that he had, and that sensibility that he had to try to understand.  He made a film from being like that, in that way.  He made a film that was really true.  And yet you know, he was from a different world, and a different country.  And I remember that was something that was in my mind when I was going into this.

This began for American newsreaders in 2004, when the New York Times’ Marc Lacey wrote a Sunday profile piece.  There he described what “changed when the Kenyan government declared a year ago that primary school education would be free through grade 8. Millions of new pupils showed up at neighborhood campuses, swelling enrollment from 5.9 million students to 7.3 million virtually overnight. Mr. Maruge, with his gray beard and weathered face, was among those in line.”

According to Robyn Dixon’s reporting for the Los Angeles Times, a year later, “As a young man, he was angered over his lack of education. He put those feelings away, but the thirst for education lay dormant most of his life. Now it has burst out, perhaps too late to keep up with the whirl of his belated ambitions: primary school, secondary school, university and a career in veterinary science.”

Oliver Litondo as Kimani Maruge in "The First Grader"

W: How did you design the proportion of Mau Mau flashback scenes to the proportion of the present-day, desire to learn kind of scenes?

To get that kind of balance is tricky in a film.  I wanted to put in that backstory because it was so important to the man that he was when he went to the school to learn to read, he wanted to understand his past, to move on.

I worked with an editor called Carol Littleton; she’d done films like “ET” and “The Big Chill,” and she’s a brilliant editor.  She always talks about the playability of a film; you go into a cinema, and the film has to play.  That you’ve got to sweep your audience with you to the end of the film.

It was something, from the very beginning, that I’m very conscious of, when I’m working on the script: it was, yes, a simple story about a man going back to school and being educated.  But also it had to propel forward with an energy.  So that was something – just the pacing of the film, how we put the flashbacks.  Each time there was a scene, it pushed on to the next.  So there was a momentum to the film; it always had pace to it.

As Mr. Lacey reported in 2004, having access to lessons and a great teacher is splendid.  But then to have that teacher plucked out from under you, like the first rug and hint at stability, was rough and short-sighted.  Mr. Chadwick mentioned an anecdote that Jane Obinchu, Mr. Maruge’s sole headmaster in the film, told him about how her students reacted to her having been away from that school, and aborting her trouble-making.

“Jane Obinchu was the one who told me about the riot at the end of the movie; that was something that wasn’t in the film’s original script, that Ann had written.  Jane said,’Oh did they tell you what had happened?  Let me tell you about what happened when I was thrown out of the school.’  And then she told me about these amazing children.  This stand, as their parents were welcoming the new headmaster for the school, the children closed the gates of the school, stood-up against them with rocks, not plastic rocks and bits like it is in my film. And they refused to open the gates to the school.  There was this big, huge riot.  The parents climbed over the gates of the school.  The police had to be called to break it all up,” Mr. Chadwick said.

He continues, “Yes, it feels extraordinary that kids rise up, against their parents.” That climax wasn’t in the original script.  He mentioned it because, that is something like from a Hollywood film, but it wasn’t.  I know, when people see that in the film, they’ll think gosh that’s a figment of a writer’s imagination.  But it’s absolutely true there.”

Click, if you’re hunger for the second half of this conversation with Justin.

Justin Chadwick harnesses child power

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Alpita Patel, “La Mission’s” producer, reveals the trials of filming in San Francisco

I met Ms. Patel for a brief conversation prior to La Mission’s first evening screening in Minneapolis.  I wrote a critique of the film. Her film career began on the ground floor of one of Hollywood’s blue chip talent agencies.  At different times, she wound up working for William Morris and International Creative Management.  This thoroughly contemporary, and American, Indian professional spoke about how hard it is producing a film in costly San Francisco, the slow increase of South Asians in the film industry, and why blaming it on bigotry misses certain cultural circumstances.

I wish I would’ve brought my danged camera!  Solo photos of Alpita Patel are not strewn across web.

"La Mission's" primary actors, and its producer, Alpita Patel, 2nd from the right

If La Mission’s Che Rivera is struggling, as he says, “to make $1 out of 15 cents.”  The film’s budget was approximately $2.4 million.  What should the budget have been to make a full $1?

I mean that’s a hard question.  You kind of go by what the industry says.  The budget sort of keeps decreasing, in terms of what you can get financed.  So, comfortable for us would have been $4 – $4.5 million.  I mean to really not have to stress about it.  And to shoot in San Francisco really, you can’t go below $4 million.  We also had to make a lot of cuts in the script in order to do it for $2.25 million.  Also, if we had anything left over, it would’ve helped for marketing.

During the post-screening Q&A, she mentioned that the production had struck it lucky: they had “really supporting private equity investors who did not want a return.”  They were the executive producers.  One of them put up 85 percent of the money; the other, the balance.  She said that equity is really the only money.

I remember when a typical Hollywood movie budget was $20 – $30 million.

I think what you’re seeing is a dichotomy.  The studio movies have gotten more expensive.  The studios don’t make $20 – $30 million movies.  They only make movies that’re $100+ million and then it has to be a movie that can justify that kind of budget.  So it’s gonna be an Avatar, or it’s gonna be a Salt, or Twilight, and Batman.  And then what happened, independent movies, a lot of the funding sources have dried up, especially internationally.  There’s a cash flow issue.  Ten to 15 years ago, you could make a film for $12 million and get independent financing.  Definitely even $8 – $10 million would not have been a big deal.  Now, raising even $2 million is a huge deal, on the independent side.

Basically what’s suffering is you’re not getting a lot of quality films.  Ultimately, you’re not getting enough drama.  You’re either getting comedies and you’re getting, you know, big action movies.

Did you pursue the brothers Bratt or did they pursue you and your skill set?

It was a very organic relationship.  I’ve known Benjamin for over 10 years.  When I was training to be an agent, I assisted, and learned from his agent.  So, when I was promoted, he had seen me come up through that process.

When I was promoted, I actually started working with him, so I was one of his agents.   His brother (Peter Bratt, La Mission’s director) had the script.  So, unofficially I said let me just work this with you.  That just worked.  Now, the three of us, having gone through this project, have realized that we want to continue making relevant, thought provoking, and conscientious films together.

We created a company called 5 Stick.

On a completely different topic, I had to ask her to discuss, ever so briefly, her experience as a South Asian female in the business. She began at ICM, and was the first “one” there.  She said that the problem isn’t necessarily or simply bigotry.  She said that, in South Asian culture, children are raised to become professionals, not artists, not in entertainment.  As South Asians become more Americanized, it’s changing.

She said that the situation in Hollywood has definitely improved.  When it comes to the idea of a swelling cadre of South Asians in the business, she kind of scoffed.

“Are there hundreds?  …Dozens?”

“There are over 10 – 15, in agencies, with authority,” she said.

Now that you have a taste for producing, you want to stick with it?

Absolutely!  I love it.  You know, what’s great about producing is that you can be creative in a much more overall way; sort of like putting together the ingredients in a recipe.  You’re not in charge of the black pepper, or making it, but you want to get the best quality that you can to help your chef make something, so to speak.

So, I like that process, and I like helping artists.  I like protecting the artist so that he or she can make a product and have the creative freedom to do that, so that they can do their best work without any interference.  As a producer, that’s my job.  My job is to protect the director and give him the tools, and everything he needs to or she needs to make the best movie – to make the movie that they envision.

So a problem solver, protector for the filmmaker.

In the process, I’ve learned that I do have good taste, and I can find quality people, on a budget!  So I’m proud of the elements that I’ve added as well.

What’s next?  Do you have a set of scripts, of projects to work on over the next two or five years?

Absolutely.  Peter and I have a list of projects that we’ve been mulling back-and-forth.  We’re honing in on a bunch, because you have to.  You just don’t know which one’s gonna go next.  And Peter’s actually writing, called the “Silent Spring,” by Rachel Carson.  is sort of the mother of the environmental movement.

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