Jennifer Merin interviews “Freedom Writers” Director, Richard LaGravanese

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Oscar-nominated screenwriter and acclaimed director Richard LaGravenese certainly knows a good story when he reads one, and jumped on “Freedom Writers” the minute it came to his attention. The film‘s based on the real life story of Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank), an idealistic novice teacher who steps up to inspire at risk teenagers being neglected by other faculty in a newly integrated high school.

“In 1999, my office-mate showed me the script of the “Freedom Writers” segment his wife had produced for Primetime Live, about Erin and her class, and gave me a book of the students’ diaries that had been published. I was at a point in my own life where I was going through a lot of personal and professional stuff that was leaving me a little disillusioned, and I wanted to work on something that just made me feel something. The moment I read the book of diaries, I knew this was it. I had to do the project. I called Stacy Sher, my producer, and told her about it. She read the book and said yes, and we went after it, got the rights, I wrote the screenplay, and then it took six years to get the project set up– you know, because of the political and economic climate.

MERIN: Was one problem perhaps that everyone thinks they’ve seen this story– a white teacher crusader with at risk black kids, like in “Dangerous Minds,” for example. How’s “Freedom Writers” different?

LAGRAVENESE: For me “Freedom Writers” is in the lineage of “Blackboard Jungle” and “To Sir With Love” and that period. Everyone brings up “Dangerous Minds,” but I actually promised the real freedom writers who wrote the diaries, I wouldn’t make “Dangerous Minds.”

The way I approached that challenge is that this movie can’t be about a white knight who comes in and saves at risk black kids– Erin had to be a human being with her own flaws and problems, a woman who comes in with her own naïve ideas of what integration is and how to handle it. Then the kids wind up teaching her how to teach them. It was because she listened to them about their realities and not just that they listened to her, that the transformation took place. Erin’s path wasn’t, isn’t a one way street. That‘s what’s so moving and important about this story. That’s what I wanted to show in the movie.

You know, teachers– well, adults in general– tend to not respect teenagers and don’t’ treat them like human beings, don’t give their feelings much credit, and don’t understand the wars that they face. I have a teenage daughter, so I know they face wars everyday– they may not seem important to us, but to the kids, it’s life or death. With the freedom writers, they’d all been shot at, were really facing life or death every day.

MERIN: The diaries present individual impressions, but they’re not really telling a story. How’d you get your plot– how‘d you get to the point where it’s legit to introduce the toast for change, and have it mean as much as it does?

LAGRAVENESE: This is the hardest adaptation I’ve ever done. I culled from the diaries, then interviewed the students, whom I got to know well. They gave me additional stuff, which I put into diary form.

I didn’t want to make a movie where there’s graduation and hats go up in the air. I decided to focus on the moment of transition– in this kind of movie, you have it‘s hard, it‘s hard, it‘s hard and suddenly she gets them. If that moment comes too easily, the story doesn’t work. It wouldn’t be honest. You must feel she’s earned that moment. That’s act one.

For me the key turning point is where the kids see the picture of the holocaust, and start to really talk with each other, arguing about it, and their truths start to come out. That communication was my in to their stories– and I was using their words, about 85 percent from the diaries, the rest from interviews. I didn’t make anything up. The toast for change diary, for instance, is verbatim from the fifteen year old boy, right out of the book.

Act two‘s about Erin’s battle with school bureaucracy to keep the class together. When I interviewed the school principal, Dr. Cohen, he said what Erin did, turning the class into a family many kids don‘t have outside, is key to transforming school environments so incident’s like Columbine don’t happen. But the bureaucracy doesn’t always support teachers’ efforts. Erin’s an inspiration– she’s a teacher who fought the bureaucracy and created something that changes future prospects.

And, the story has to show Erin’s growth and what she gave up, too. I don’t think people become a heroes because they decide to. It just happens as you do whatever comes next in solving a problem– okay, the kids need books, so what must I do to get them? One thing leads to another, then you look back and see what you’ve created. It wasn’t intended. It just became that, and Erin lost her marriage in the process.

MERIN: There are 150 freedom diarists in the book, presented by number, not name. Are your characters composites? How’d you choose them? What’s become of the real kids?

LAGRAVENESE: Because I’m a writer, it was the writing I responded to– some diaries just stood out, grabbed my heart and squeezed it. Some characters are pretty much based on one writer, but some are composites.

Some of the kids have recently graduated from college Others haven’t been as successful. But the movie’s about that specific time in their lives, and what a miracle it was for them.

MERIN: You’ve directed documentaries, very successfully. Why not do “Freedom Writers” as a doc?

LAGRAVENESE: I think we’ll reach more audiences, although I’m glad to see feature-length documentaries in wider release.

I’d say there’re are documentary-like qualities, too– the script is all their words. We auditioned thousands of non-actors to find our cast, some were at risk kids. We worked intensively with them, having them write their own diaries, taking them to the holocaust museum, as Erin had done with her class. Erin and the original freedom writers were constant consultants on the film. So, we’ve been responsible in the way good documentaries are to their subjects.

Published in New York Press

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).