The Kindergarten Teacher: Sara Colangelo on her new Maggie Gyllenhaal psychodrama

Maggie Gyllenhaal gives one of the performances of her career in a tense new psychodrama about a preschool teacher who takes her duty of care too far. Director Sara Colangelo explains why ambiguous characters make for more interesting drama.

The Kindergarten Teacher (2018)

In her 2015 Golden Globe acceptance speech, Maggie Gyllenhaal made a point of lauding the increasing wealth of complex female characters in film and television as revolutionary: “Women who are sometimes powerful and sometimes not, sometimes sexy, sometimes not, sometimes honorable, sometimes not.”

Her latest role, in Sara Colangelo’s taut psychodrama The Kindergarten Teacher, is certainly in keeping with that trend. The second feature from the American writer-director, based on a 2014 Israeli movie, it follows Lisa, a seemingly perfect preschool teacher searching for fulfilment along morally blurred lines when she goes too far nurturing a gifted child.

Colangelo’s tense and carefully crafted film meditates on the pursuit of creative satisfaction in our social media-pervaded era. Gyllenhaal’s Lisa is a subtle and elusive incarnation of a woman of a certain age asking, ‘Is this it?’ with answers that are both suggestive and disturbing.

We sat down with Colangelo to discuss what prompted her to adapt Nadav Lapid’s story, her experience working with Gyllenhaal and how the film sought to challenge its audience through unpredictability and ambiguity.

What did you see in the original film that made you want to redo it?

When I was offered the chance to remake it, I was a little tentative because I love to write and direct my own stuff. But in this case I felt it was such a beautiful story, and the bones of it were so good, that I could lift it and set it in an American cultural context in a way that would feel new and fresh. I was excited at the prospect of anchoring the story more from the point of view of this central female character than in the Israeli version.

The aesthetic you build for the film seems carefully crafted in its colour palette and the proximity of the camera to Lisa. What decisions did you make about your stylistic approach in the making of the film?

My director of photography, Pepe [Avila del Pino], and I knew we wanted to lean into the thriller genre a bit. But we tried to do it in a really humane way that’s not stylisation first. It feels almost like a documentary in its realism at moments. Everything was really rooted in the psychological, so we utilised the slow zoom and tried to tell a story that’s tense but mirrors the character’s obsessiveness and passion.

The soundtrack also plays a pivotal role, summoning a creeping dread as our perspective on Lisa drifts.

Exactly. She’s such the perfect kindergarten teacher in the beginning. And as you’re on the journey, things even musically start to take a dissonant turn. That was the intention.

You’ve got Maggie Gyllenhaal at the centre of your film, putting in perhaps a career-best performance. Did you initially have her in mind?

Whenever I write I try not to think about any specific actor, because you don’t want to disappoint yourself. But she was the first person we sent the script to, and she immediately loved it. Maggie herself has this beautiful relatability and intensity. I had also seen those two things conveyed side by side in her previous roles. It was perfect for this because we needed somebody that would be likeable and convey a sense of empathy but also really take some risks. Someone who wouldn’t be afraid of jumping off a cliff a little bit.

The Kindergarten Teacher (2018)

Here she certainly plays an anti-heroine in some respects, leaving the audience unmoored in terms of where they stand in their judgement.

I know she’s really attracted, as am I, to moral ambiguity. It makes for a really fun viewer experience when you’re not sure which side you’re on, where you vacillate as a spectator between totally understanding her and then being like, ‘Oh, you’re doing way too much here. I’m feeling really uncomfortable with where you’re going.’

Maggie told me that it makes her work more fulfilling when a character is not just one note but has a little more going on. Lisa is challenging and complex but is also allowed to be vulnerable.

The Kindergarten Teacher (2018)

Parker Sevak is outstanding as little Jimmy, and Gael García Bernal as the poetry teacher really makes his minutes on screen count. How did you decide on these castings?

We thought Gael would be perfect. He had actually just worked on Pablo Larraín’s Neruda (2016) and is an incredible lover of poetry so was really gung-ho about playing the part. He was interested in not being a villain. He was so gracious and gave the character so much.

For Parker’s part we auditioned a lot of boys, and actually he was the youngest. He had a beautiful mix of playfulness and natural charisma plus a great dynamic with Maggie. He was also very open in a way a lot of the older children weren’t, with a very fluid way of staying on script and then going off script in the audition. That really caught our eye.

The Kindergarten Teacher (2018)

Did you view Jimmy’s ability to spout these profoundly poetic lines as a kind of magic realism?

An element of that is from the original, which I loved, leaving you thinking, ‘Is that magic? Is it her? Is the whole movie from her skewed point of view and this is something from her brain?’ So much in our world right now is so literal, so black and white, so I think there’s something great about telling a story where reality’s a little suspended, where you don’t know if it’s all a projection of Lisa’s or not. It’s left a bit of a mystery.

It’s certainly a psychological thriller, but it also seems to explore broader issues such as how we can be creatively satisfied in our current era.

There are a lot of themes I was trying to tackle, such as the subjectivity of art: Lisa creates poetry that for some reason isn’t lauded – but it’s actually not bad. It’s very much a portrait of a woman who’s starving creatively. She wants so desperately to get her voice out but can’t; she has to do it through a child and ends up crossing a lot of sacred boundaries and committing some transgressions along the way.

There’s also the larger issue of whether we have space in our culture for poetry. Do we have the attention spans right now? We’re very much in an age of information. We have a constant bombardment of data going through us at any given time. Here’s a woman that’s really fighting for a pure moment in which to create.

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