By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—In his feature directorial debut, “The English Teacher,” Craig Zisk has a cast that would be the envy of any veteran filmmaker: Julianne Moore, Greg Kinnear, Nathan Lane, Michael Angarano and Lily Collins. The Dallas native considers himself lucky, but he also knows he had good material, having spent six years sifting through dozens of screenplays before he found “the one” penned by husband and wife writing team Dan and Stacy Chariton.
“I knew from the first page it had the right tone and the right attitude, and with the right cast it could really be something special,” he says by phone. “The Cheritons wrote an amazing script and I knew I could do something with it that I could make even better.”
Though new to feature-length filmmaking, Zisk had honed his directing skills on episodic television. His credits include “Nurse Jackie,” “Weeds” and “The United States of Tara.” He won a Golden Globe for the CBS comedy “Brooklyn Bridge,” and earned multiple Emmy nominations for his work on “The Larry Sanders Show” and Weeds,” including a nomination for Best Director for a Comedy.
“The English Teacher” tells the story of a 40-something small town Pennsylvania English teacher (played by Moore), who has committed her life to her students and literature. Bookish and single, Linda Sinclair devours classic literature but has never had a true romantic adventure. Out of the blue, former star pupil Jason (Angarano) arrives at her classroom, dejected that no one in New York will produce his plays now that he’s out of college. He complains his overbearing physician father (Kinnear) is insisting that he give up his dream of being a playwright and, instead, wants him to go to law school.
Appalled that anyone would give up their dream, Sinclair agrees to read Jason’s play and finds herself completely moved by the dark, angst-ridden drama, so much so, that she passes it along to the school’s flamboyant drama teacher Carl Kapinas (Lane), who also is impressed with it and agrees with Sinclair that it should be produced as a school play.
The school’s principal, however, wants to make changes to the play, namely the climactic suicide of the story’s protagonist. The changes don’t sit well with Jason, who threatens to pull the plug on the entire show if his work isn’t performed as he wrote it. Sinclair assures him she and Kapinas will pretend to write a new ending to appease the principal, but the original version actually will be performed.
As production of the play gets under way, Sinclair and the 20-something Jason find themselves sexually attracted to one another and have a one-night fling. This causes problems later when Sinclair spies Jason making eyes with the beautiful Halle (“Mirror, Mirror’s” Lily Collins), one of the stars of the student production, and she plots her revenge. Her half-baked scheme backfires, nearly costing her her job when her own indiscretion with Jason is revealed. With her career in near ruins, Sinclair must find a way to put things right with Jason, his father, Halle and school officials. After all, in the words of the Bard, “the play’s the thing.”
Zisk, whose own career in storytelling was inspired by a caring teacher at his Dallas prep school, says making his first feature film was a rewarding experience, and he is looking forward to making other films as well as continuing his career as a TV director.
Q: How was this experience for you?
Zisk: It was an amazing experience from beginning to end. It’s been the most rewarding project I’ve ever worked on.
Q: What made you decide it was the time to make the leap from television to film directing?
Zisk: I’ve been very fortunate to work on a lot of great projects. I’ve been reading feature scripts for about five or six years. Some of the things that were coming my way were really in my wheelhouse, and the opportunity to do a feature has been very enticing. But I knew waiting for the right piece of material was going to benefit me in the long run.
Q: Was Julianne Moore already attached to the project when you came on board?
Zisk: When I first met with the producers (Naomi Despres and Robert Salerno), she was not involved. They were securing the financing. I knew the majority of financing would come through as soon as it was cast. We talked about casting at that meeting. I was giving them my pitch of how I saw the movie and at the top of my list was Julianne. It was about seven months later when they got back to me and said Julianne read the script and loved it. How quickly can you come to New York and meet with her, and we’ll see if we can make this happen?
Q: I guess the other cast members followed suit, once Julianne was on board, right?
Zisk: It never hurts to say, “I’ve got this really great script and Julianne Moore’s going to star in it. Would you be interested in coming on board?” Nathan was at the top of my list for Carl, the drama teacher. Greg Kinnear really loved the script when he read it and he really pursued the part. I was shooting a show at the time, and his agent said he really wants to meet with you. He came and met me at Warner Bros. and we had a nice lunch during a break. He had such passion for his work. When you have someone who really wants a part that badly and you know he is talented, it’s so set up for success. I feel that way with everybody. Michael (Angarano) was very similar. We’d seen a lot of people for (Jason). A friend of mine recommended Michael. He was shooting “The Brass Teapot” at the time in Canada. We were Skypeing and I was giving him notes and he was doing audition tapes for me and sending them back and I was giving him more notes. I knew he was the guy. Lily, similarly, read the script and loved it. We met for breakfast one day and I was enchanted as anyone would be if they were having breakfast with her. She’s really lovely, and she did a great job.
Q: Greg and Lily also co-star in another new release, “Stuck in Love.” Is that a coincidence?
Zisk: They did that movie afterwards. Lily had just finished “Mirror Mirror” with Nathan before doing this. The Six Degrees of Lily Collins didn’t need to go that far out. (He laughs.)
Q: It seems the trickiest casting might be Jason, because that character is deceptive with Julianne’s but you also root for him.
Zisk: It was tricky. You either got the brooding kid who you were rooting for or the kid that was so soft, is he worth being concerned about. Michael just hit every note. He understood the material so well. We’d talked through each scene the day or two before we’d shoot. We’d go over every beat. He was so on point with understanding that this is a guy you have to like. You have to root for him even though he’s being childish, but in a lot of ways Julianne’s character also is somewhat immature. She wants to do the right thing but keeps stepping in the bucket. They’re all flawed characters that need each other and are learning life’s lessons in self-discovery. For Michael, he was the perfect mix of childishness and charm.
Q: You have a device of a British narrator throughout. Did the Cheridons’ original script have the narrator? How did you end up casting British actress Fiona Shaw?
Zisk: It originally was scripted that way. We may initially have been thought of Maggie Smith because (the narrator) has that iconic “(Prime of Miss) Jean Brody” voice. I interviewed Fiona over the phone and as soon as she spoke I heard the narrator’s voice in my head. It was reminiscent of all the Merchant Ivory movies. Those were a big influence on me in terms of the look of the movie. We shot it in anamorphic format. I wanted a big screen feel to it. We were making this period piece set in the modern day.
Q: Julianne has a traditional English teacher look, especially at the beginning where the color of her wardrobe is very drab, but then becomes vibrant as the story goes on. Was that intentional?
Zisk: Our costume designer Emma Potter will definitely thank you for that. She was amazing. Yes, it was intentional. I’ve always tried to incorporate color themes into my work. I felt that choosing the colors of the walls in the classroom to make her blend in at the beginning and then how it contrasts with her wardrobe after she’s had her tryst with Jason would help her pop more. We were really conscious of everyone’s palettes but especially Julianne’s. She was onboard with the ideas from the very beginning. The first time I met her, she brought her own style and ideas, which made it even better.
Q: Was there a teacher in your life that made a difference?
Zisk: It was my seventh grade English teacher, John Connolly. I grew up in the Dallas, Texas and went to a St. Mark’s, a prep school. It was very competitive and I wasn’t always the greatest student in the world. He knew it. I picked him to be my advisor. He had taught my brothers as well. He was kind of an old curmudgeon-y guy but very funny. He would play old “Bob & Ray” cassettes for us in the morning before we’d start school. He was a big influence on me. I remember we’d have to recite a poem we’d memorized every week. One time we had to memorize The Gettysburg Address. He came to me on the first day, pulled me aside and said, “I know and love you but tomorrow when I say, ‘Who wants to do it?’ you’re going to put your hand up first. I’m telling you, you’d better be prepared.” It was a life-changing moment for me. He got it through my thick head that I had to do the work, and I became a much better student after that.