RICHARD LAGRAVENESES TRANFORMING REALITY
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 films 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 theyve seen this story a white teacher crusader with at risk black kids, like in Dangerous Minds, for example. Hows 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 wouldnt make Dangerous Minds.
The way I approached that challenge is that this movie cant 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. Erins path wasnt, isnt a one way street. Thats whats so moving and important about this story. Thats what I wanted to show in the movie.
You know, teachers well, adults in general tend to not respect teenagers and dont treat them like human beings, dont give their feelings much credit, and dont 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, its life or death. With the freedom writers, theyd all been shot at, were really facing life or death every day.
MERIN: The diaries present individual impressions, but theyre not really telling a story. Howd you get your plot howd you get to the point where its legit to introduce the toast for change, and have it mean as much as it does?
LAGRAVENESE: This is the hardest adaptation Ive 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 didnt want to make a movie where theres graduation and hats go up in the air. I decided to focus on the moment of transition in this kind of movie, you have its hard, its hard, its hard and suddenly she gets them. If that moment comes too easily, the story doesnt work. It wouldnt be honest. You must feel shes earned that moment. Thats 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 didnt make anything up. The toast for change diary, for instance, is verbatim from the fifteen year old boy, right out of the book.
Act twos about Erins 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 dont have outside, is key to transforming school environments so incidents like Columbine dont happen. But the bureaucracy doesnt always support teachers efforts. Erins an inspiration shes a teacher who fought the bureaucracy and created something that changes future prospects.
And, the story has to show Erins growth and what she gave up, too. I dont 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 youve created. It wasnt 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? Howd you choose them? Whats become of the real kids?
LAGRAVENESE: Because Im 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 havent been as successful. But the movies about that specific time in their lives, and what a miracle it was for them.
MERIN: Youve directed documentaries, very successfully. Why not do Freedom Writers as a doc?
LAGRAVENESE: I think well reach more audiences, although Im glad to see feature-length documentaries in wider release.
Id say therere 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, weve been responsible in the way good documentaries are to their subjects.
Published in New York Press