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Justin Chadwick (The First Grader)

Justin Chadwick: The Interview (The First Grader)

Shakefire sat down with Justin Chadwick, director of the upcoming The First Grader which tells the true story of Maruge, an 84-year-old who only wants one thing; an education.

Shakefire: How did you come about this project?

Justin Chadwick: I got sent it by one of the producers who did The Other Boleyn Girl with me. David Thompson used to run the BBC and I knew that I liked working with David and he’s got really good taste and I knew that him being involved would mean that we’d be able to make something we both believe in. The original story has the same premise you see in the film, quite different script, but it was basically the same kind of structure. So I read that and was really intrigued by that and went to Africa, went to Kenya, and met the man. And going around Kenya and seeing the children, seeing the villages and the passion there was for education I though this could be a really good story.

SF: Was there anything in the original script you wanted to include by didn’t have the chance to?

JC: No, I put everything I wanted to in there. I mean I cut quite a bit of stuff but I think what was different about the film, in the very early stages, was it was a film in Africa that wasn’t issue driven. Basically non-issue driven and it was a film that was uplifting that an audience could enjoy. It was an emotionally engaging story. It was uplifting. It was humorous. And while it was all of those things, it dealt with hard hitting issues and a period of history, British/Kenyan history that I didn’t know about and I’m sure audiences don’t know about.

SF: What was it like working with the children?

JC: I was very keen, right from the beginning to make sure the children were the heartbeat of the film. They really had this healing quality that you see in the film. You see something that’s quite moving or quite disturbing and the children have this presence in the film that takes this forward. I wanted to get that right. There was this feeling that we would have to cast all over Africa. I was like, “Why? All the characters in your first grade school will all be in every classroom across the world so we should just choose one school.” I found a school in the rift valley, a very remote part of Kenya that was a couple of hours away from any city, no water, and no electricity; very hostile and unobvious. It had a stunning and beautiful landscape where you’d see wildlife and giraffes around you.

So I chose this location and there was a school on this mountainside with Maasai, Kikuyu children, who had not seen a movie, not seen TV, incredibly gentle and bright children that I wanted to use in the film. Everybody was included in the film. In the end it wasn’t just the children involved it was their moms, dads, grandparents, aunties; the whole community.

SF: Did you run into any difficulties with filming the children?

JC:: Not really. I had to keep on my toes. I basically went in on my own, watched them, saw how they were – was more like a teacher there – and let them come to me. I knew that I would be the oddity from outside and so they had to get used to me, trust me. So I went into the school for the first few weeks just watching and observing them, guiding the kind of characters of the film to them rather than the other way around. But the way we structured the film was that every scene had a lesson or a plan to the scene. On the blackboard there was work for them to do. There was a proper lesson. And Naomi, who plays Teacher Jane, she had to come up with the proper lesson plan so she would have a proper amount of work for the children because I knew that we had to keep them engaged. I didn’t want any acting, I didn’t want anything false.

SF: So she practically was an actual teacher.

JC: Yeah, they called her teacher, Teacher Jane. They called me Teacher Justin. They called the camera man Teacher Rob. He was in there. It’d be, “Action. They would do the work on the board. Cut. It’d be Teacher Justin, Teacher Justin! Mark this, mark this, Rob would be marking work, I’d be marking work, Naomi would be marking work. Then we’d go for another take and the blackboard would have to be changed.” These kids were like really bright, articulate, full of energy, amazing children who had nothing. They had nothing in material terms. They had very little resources at school or at home and yet they had this desire to learn, to be educated. It was fantastic; moving.

SF: So was there a set script for them or was it more along the line of see where it goes?

JC: I mean it wasn’t see where they go. It was very well structured. We structured those classrooms and what we did was try to capture those performances that were created by each scene so that the children were reacting honestly to what was happening around them. So yeah, we structured each scene with a plan but there was enough room for the children to react naturally and some of the scenes developed because of that like when Maruge and the classroom were attacked by the villagers. He went out with his stick and beat up the villagers and chases them away. I kept the cameras rolling because I could see the children all coming out of the classroom to see how he was. They had this amazing protective quality over Maruge and they blurred the fiction and reality with them. So yeah, it was a very clever dance we always had to do to try and get the truth.

SF: Do you feel that we take education for granted?

JC: Yeah, I think we take so much for granted. Now I know the education in the UK and here is not perfect by any stretch. I know there are problems with the education system in both countries but we do have education. Those children there in Africa know to have education, they value it. There’s so much that the children value. They value family. They value the materials around them. They don’t recycle and reuse as a heartfelt kind of thing. They use as a matter of necessity. They reuse and value stuff in everyday life like the way they look after water or materials. It was very humbling because those children didn’t have anything materialistically but they had this sense of community and thirst of knowledge which was truly humbling for me and the team.

Having said all that I think that and this is one of the reasons why I made the film, there are problems in the education system in the UK and here but at the end I wanted this film to open up those thoughts about education. Not only that but also teachers. You’re sitting there because of a teacher. I’m here because of a teacher. You know? I wouldn’t have any kind of career I’ve had without a teacher. As a whole across the world we don’t value teachers enough and we need good teachers. So even if you do have free education, if you haven’t got an inspiring teacher or a teacher who can engage you, you don’t have a chance. That’s why I gave the role of the teacher to someone inspiring, to have somebody that could inspire somebody to go become a teacher.

SF: You’ve done big budget Hollywood type films and other more independent ones such as this. What has and hasn’t worked when going between the two?

JC: Well I’ve always worked with various…I love working with actors basically, whatever their experience. That’s the centerpiece of my work; make sure I’m capturing truthful performances and creating environments where I’m able to do that. Whether I’m working with Hollywood actors or children from the rift valley, my process is the same. It’s about support, encouragement, and giving them an environment where they can feel comfortable and free to perform.

I think the big difference between this film and a Hollywood film is at this point now. Making the film is not really different. The kind of process of the film is not really different but they have a big machine behind it that goes into publicizing it. This is a small film that we’ve shown across the world. This film will stand not by a big machine behind it but by word of mouth and getting people coming to the cinema. And it is a cinema film. People should see it at the cinema. It’s emotional, it’s fun. It’s engaging and challenging at times in some of the history it brings up.

Audiences have been really moved. We’re at a point now where we need different stories that are not…particularly…

SF: Sequels?

JC: Yeah, sequels or big budget films that these stories that have great cinema, good story to tell with good inspiring characters. I think it’s important but it’s up to word of mouth to spread. That’s the big difference; that’s the big challenge. I’ve got everything crossed and I’ll do everything I can to get people to encourage people to go to the cinema.

SF: You’ve said you’re going to be going back to Kenya in the coming months. Can you talk about that?

JC: Yeah, we’re going back to the end of the month to show the film in Kenya. Go back to the school to show the film to the children. We’re going to have to be a bit careful. Take some of the scenes out because they’re quite young, the children so I’m going to take some of the more disturbing flashback scenes out. But yeah, I think for them to see themselves on screen, especially because they’ve never seen a movie before, I think it’ll be really moving. I will be watching them watching it. I can’t wait to see it. You’re out there on and off for a year and you build really lovely relationships and they were just so inspired every day. It was the best single thing I’ve ever done.

SF: Did any of them want to be actors or tell you how…

JC: I’ll tell you if one of them were to it would be fantastic. Or a director. I would have children sitting behind me, on me, jumping on me, watching me watching them. It wouldn’t surprise me if one of those girls or boys were a Kenyan director. I’d love that. I have every confidence they will go on to great things, each of those children.

The First Grader opens in New York and LA next Friday, May 13th and in Atlanta on May 20th.

Matt Rodriguez
Interview by Matt Rodriguez
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