Chalk. A film by Morgan Spurlock. Movie review by Ester Molayeme.
Morgan Spurlock presents CHALK, a film written and directed by teachers, from the teachers' perspective on the High School experience. As its premise it uncovers why 50% of teachers quit teaching within the first three years. The cast cohesiveness and their exceptional performance won CHALK the 2006 Los Angeles Film Festival special Jury award as Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble Cast.
CHALK is the debut release of Morgan Spurlock’s (Oscar nominated for Super Size Me) new distribution company venture with Hart-Sharp Productions, to release films with social relevance.
In their first feature film, the feature was shot in 18 days at the High School where Mike Akel taught in Texas. Writer/director Mike Akel along with writer/actor Chris Mass, named the film’s teaching characters after actual teachers that impacted them the most (but without necessarily representing those teachers in the movie), hired their own students, and brought to the screen some of their funniest classroom experiences as High School teachers.
Harrison High’s new academic year has a special meaning for Mr. Stroope (Chris Mass), who is determined to win the highly sought title of “Teacher of the Year”. Chris states in my interview that playing Mr. Stroope was a natural role for him, since “I play a teacher in real life. Also, because I created the character along with Mike, I felt confident in how to play it out.” Chris had a lot of fun playing this character because he loves to laugh and enjoys making others laugh. He explains that “Mr. Stroope is able to bring some of the comic relief to the film, although painfully at times. I like that Mr. Stroope is so outrageous, yet very real in his need for other’s approval causing him to step over the line at times.” Chris recalls that while in High School he “was a handful but not disrespectful or mean-spirited. As a class clown, I was under-utilized in that I spent most of my time being booted out of class and wandering the halls.”
History teacher, Mr. Lowrey (Troy Schremmer), new to the Harrison High’s faculty, is facing a big challenge. He has no experience, and therefore tries his hardest to bring order to his classroom. What Troy likes the most about Mr. Lowrey is: “His lack of skills. I liked all the stuttering and stammering. It feels so awful in life to be put on the spot and not know what to say. As Mr. Lowrey, I could just freeze up in the simplest situations and wait for the comedy to begin! There was something very fun about being so inept.” While being a “good boy in High School”, Troy confesses: “I was a bit of a troublemaker in elementary school – but it was a parochial school so it was hard to be good with all those nuns around.”
Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan) has been recently appointed to the Assistant Principal position. With newly acquired administrative powers, Mrs. Reddell is tightly enforcing school policy, a difficult task especially when that enforcement strains her close friendship with the former teaching colleague, Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer).
Shannon relates: “Quite honestly, because there was no script, the amount of [role] preparation that I actually could do was minimal. Coming from a stage background, so much of my prep time is usually centered on the script, and things that can be mined from the actual text. We had none of that! So I did what I could, which basically was to try to understand the role of an "AP" better (the first thing I learned was that AP stood for assistant principal -- I had no idea!).
Mike Akel put me in touch with Jeannie Acton, one of the Assistant Principals at the High School where he had worked. She was incredibly helpful. After that conversation, I really had quickly developed an enormous respect for this position. What AP's do in a given day, the responsibility they carry, is HUGE-- and I really think most people just have no idea!! I know when I was in school, I just kind of thought of the AP as the Principal - lite. Softer around the edges, not a lot of responsibility, mainly there to be pals with the students and assist the principal. I was soooo wrong.
Once I arrived in Austin and we started shooting, I would say what really helped the most was the reality of the surroundings, being in a real High School with real students, the props (the walkie-talkie, the keys), and the clothes. I typically don't dress like Mrs. Reddell, so that definitely made me feel very different.
And then there were the improvisational curve balls that Mike would throw us! In almost every scene, he would either whisper something to one of the actors, bring another character into the scene that we weren't expecting, or throw in a wrench in some other way. Having to navigate and deal with those things in a very honest way helped us feel grounded in the created reality and in our characters.”
Shannon shares that: “Something a lot of people don't know is that Mike asked the four of us to name our characters after our favorite High School teachers. This is not only an example of the collaborative spirit of the project, but also an example of how Mike really desired to love his subject matter. This film is rooted in a deep love and respect for the profession -- and I got to take a personal part in that in this small way, and honor my favorite High School teacher, Mr. Harlan Reddell. (For my character's first name, I tried to find a female equivalent to "Harlan," but couldn't -- so settled for similar vowel sounds: Charla). Another thing that was just funny to me is that because of my stage background, not being at all used to the language and practices of film, it probably took me two weeks before I would actually WAIT for the word "action," before I would start. We had to restart every single scene because of my jumping the gun.”
In P.E. class, students wonder whether the highly athletic and compassionate Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer), is in reality gay. Janelle liked most about Coach Webb is her passion. She says: “There were lots of things that didn’t make it into the movie, and one was that she cared a lot for the kids who weren’t so great at sports and wanted P.E. to be a place where they could feel comfortable and have fun. Having a P.E. teacher like that would have been a dream come true for me when I was a kid.”
“An interesting little anecdote for Troy and I” confides Janelle, “is that we got pregnant with our son Huck sometime during the first few days of shooting CHALK. So Coach Webb is secretly pregnant through 99% of the movie and obviously pregnant during some of the interviews, which were shot in New York about a month before he was born.”
CHALK gradually transitions from the teachers’ first day of class filled with a sense of novelty and uncertainty, to the development of cohesiveness and trust toward the end of the academic year, bonding with the students as well as with the audience.
Remarkable is the projected realism acquired through the verite’ style, having actors, and non-actors, improvise from developed storylines and characters rather than a completed screenplay. The realistic tone was enhanced by the extraordinary photography of Steven Schaefer capturing emotions for which at times there are no words, as for example the scene where Mr. Stroope communicates to his students the “Teacher of the Year” award outcome.
There are several hilarious moments throughout the movie but most importantly it is about truly dedicated teachers who, notwithstanding the obstacles, are sincerely determined to make a difference.