A high school English teacher goes to disturbing lengths to protect his favorite students from bullies…
By: Patrick Donovan – Author/Screenwriter
Seattle, WA (The Hollywood Times) 8/7/2019
“This film hit home with me and brought back horrific memories from when I was bullied and that is not a bad thing. Adam Dick helped me to let out my emotions while I watched this film while I was being bullied from the 5th grade – 10th grade. Thank you, Adam!”
– Pat Donovan
Teacher is an unflinching portrayal of trauma as a contagion passed between people and generations, all set within the prism of modern suburbia. The film follows the downward spiral of a high school English teacher (David Dastmalchian) as he goes to disturbing lengths to protect his favorite students from bullies and challenge the power of a wealthy patron (Kevin Pollak) within the community
Child being chased by bullies. Pushed his face into a pond. He’s a mess. The bullies leave him laughing. James goes home to his dysfunctional family. It’s a cycle for James Lewis as a child then, as a teacher he’s now in class, teaching kids about victims through the Shakespearean story of Shylock. Shylock is a character in William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. A Venetian Jewish moneylender, Shylock is the play’s principal antagonist. His defeat and conversion to Christianity form the climax of the story.
A fight outside the classroom breaks out after dismissal but no one sees anything except one child. This begins the cycle yet again, but for another child. Mr. Lewis takes two kids to the Principals office for fighting. James Lewis, the teacher, the boy from the beginning has issues from his childhood that transcend into adulthood. Sometimes you just can’t escape what was because it won’t let go of you or you can’t let of ‘it!’
As a child, James was bullied and witnessed his parents fighting. Preston Walsh, being bullied by two other kids so is history repeating itself with James through Preston? In discussing Shylock with students, they speak about victims and that being a victim isn’t something that happens to you, not something that you do. Is being a victim good? That’s the paradox, right?
Preston Walsh witnessed Tim Cooper starting a fight. Now, Preston is the mirror image of James when he was a kid. What you notice is that if you’re rich, you write a check, if you’re poor, you suffer. There’s a story within a story here which help you to not only understand James’ pain, but you see that through Preston. In another classroom scene, we see on the board a breakdown:
Hero | Victim and as James teaches, the theme of this film is revealed.
- HERO: Warns Antonio, he’s loyal, pious — victim.
- VILLIAN: Schemes, resentful, murderer
So Shylock is also a victim, or is he?
James is dealing with his past, his drinking, his anger and his divorce. Now Preston deals with his bully in his own way with his new friend Daniella who also is cyberbullied by finding something online which creates others’ mocking her and making fun of her. As the tenure is almost up for James and summer is almost here an incident happens, threats are made, revelations are shown and a visit to the principal’s office is warranted. This whole bullying thing escalates. No one saw anything and parents are providing cover while Preston and Daniella suffer needlessly. They turn to the teacher for help when there are no witnesses, and no one will step up. James is left to make painful decisions which lead to painful results and this film for me, drove home my own bullying experience from my childhood from 5th grade all the way to the 10th grade when it finally stopped. I’m going to share this with you as I did with Adam Dick and Matthew Helderman. Then we’ll follow with a Q&A with Adam to get what happened to him and why he made this fantastic film.
This is my bullying story and I hope that through this anyone who was bullied or being bullied will see that you are not alone. I’m revealing some names here and places that are real. It’s been over 40 years so I’m no longer fearful.
I cried through parts of this film. I was bullied when I was a kid. I was beat up for money. I chose to steal from my parents to keep the kids at school from beating me up. All through Jr. High School from late in Elementary School.
10 kids were expelled when I couldn’t take it anymore. My late father and I went to the principal’s office of Craig Hill Elementary in Greece NY, I was in 6th Grade. I sat outside the principal’s conference room as they walked in. One half hour later, they all walked out crying and never came back to Craig Hill. Then in Greece Athena, Jr. High School, the bullying continued. I was trapped in rooms and was late for classes, treated like garbage even by a teacher in the 9th grade, who made fun of me. It was so bad that I had to leave class and never went back. They all laughed at me as I left. Every one of them. The teacher didn’t stand up for me, he perpetrated the incident.
My parents once again intervened and transferred me to Cardinal Mooney HS, a catholic school in Greece, NY where I “thought” I’d be safe, until a single student wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t leave me alone. I told Brother Edward Boyer, the principal at the time to help. He had an idea to hide in the last stall of the men’s room where this boy was known to come and bully me. At that moment, Brother Edward stepped out of the stall, grabbed him by his ear and dragged him out. He was never to be seen again. Removed from CMHS. My life continued from 10th – 12th grade uneventfully, finally being free. But that bullying affected me emotionally and transcended into my adulthood affecting me throughout my entire life even to this day.
Arabella was right, when she spoke to James in the bar scene. You don’t forget what happened to you and the people that do the things they did go on with their lives without a second thought. But I spoke out and I sought help from family and the school. I will not lie, it was tough.
He was brought up in a strict Italian family. I suffered in a dysfunctional family and I’m still in pain, today. At 58, I’m am doing great with my son whose 11, and my grandson whose 13. I have NOT and will NOT repeat my father’s ways. I always hug my son and grandson and I know and feel my son’s pain as he enters the 6th grade. He will be bullied, and I’m scared for him. I want to wrap my arms around him and protect him, but he needs to grow and learn. I don’t want him to be like me and go through what I went through, but I have to let him learn and support him every step of the way. The same with my grandson as he becomes a freshman this year.
Q&A with Adam Dick (Writer/Director) and David Dastmalchian (James Lewis the Teacher)
THT: This was an incredible film, Adam and I have to say as I shared my story of being bullied, what drove you to make this film and can you share a bit of your story?
ADAM: Teacher started as a short story that I wrote for a writing class around 11 years ago. I wanted to explore the premise of a person who, through legitimate pain and outrage, becomes a version of his own enemy on a certain level – taking him from victim to victimizer himself. It was only years later, in 2014, after a film I co-wrote and produced called Nightlights was distributed, that I decided to try and write a script that I could as a producer get made and hopefully direct. I started to adapt the premise into something hopefully a bit more nuanced, taking chunks from my own experience in school, that of my friends, and a slew of stories about bullying, and especially cyberbullying, that had been flooding the news in recent years.
The late, great Roger Ebert once referred to how movies were machines for empathy, making foreign and impersonal stories personal, and making stories that are personal a bit more universal and felt by audiences. With Teacher, my thinking was, through the power of dramatic storytelling, something could be said about the way in which cruelty inflicted on one person can then convert and transfer into a spiraling cycle of cruelty inflicted on others, and then explore and possibly deconstruct the fruitless and self-destructive nature of the revenge fantasy.
THT: David, I really like your portrayal of James in this film. Although I never had a teacher protect me like you did with your character. Can you tell me what it was like for you to play James and was there any bullying in your past that helped you in playing James? If it’s too personal, I completely understand.
DAVID: I saw both sides of the bullying experience as a kid. In elementary school, a new girl moved into our school and people were really mean to her. I sat back, held my tongue. We became friends by high school and remain friends. Then when I was in 7th and 8th grade I had a pretty awful bullying situation. There was an older boy on the bus to school every day who was very cruel to me, and then several peers who picked up the bullying once he was gone. The bus driver, his name was Jerry, he tried to stand up for me, but the nature of bullying is so insidious and usually happens outside of the view of witnesses, so it was tough. I eventually fought back and was suspended from school for a few days. When I got to ninth grade, I was part of a group of boys who picked on another boy one fall. I felt guilty to be a part of it and it was a dark time. Luckily that boy and I mended our relationship, he forgave me, and we became friendly. I have seen it from each perspective. It’s toxic, it’s dangerous and we need to address it as a society.
THT: Adam, thinking back on what drove you to write this film; please tell our readers what was the single tipping point for you? How did you endure through your childhood and what support did you have growing up?
ADAM: I think it was important that, even during my loneliest times, I had at least a few friends to find a social bond with. The most difficult year might have been in sixth grade, when most of my friends from the neighborhood were still a grade earlier and at a different school. I had to navigate that year mostly alone. But I’d say bullying occurred on a near daily basis for me from about 4th grade through my sophomore year of high school, and then sporadically would occur even into college, when some drunk guys would find my name in the directory and prank call me at three in the morning now and again. To backtrack, beyond my friends, members of my family were there to provide as much support as I would let on needing when I was young, which wasn’t much since I was often quiet about my experiences. I think people who feel isolated need at least one or two sources of genuine love and support to pull them back. It’s not hard and fast, but often those who take the most extreme action to themselves or others are the ones who feel the most hopelessly on their own.
Beyond people, books and movies really provided me an avenue to explore a lot of the emotions I was feeling in a safe way, where I could see both similar and diverging experiences on a page or on screen that evidenced the fact that others had been through similar experiences and had lasted through them long enough to convert them into art. That was inspiring for me, and it’s something I hope can be brought to audiences who are ready to receive this kind of material. The film is full of difficult subject matter, so it’s not for everyone and needs to be regarded with a certain sensitivity and context, especially if young people end up seeing it. I actually do recommend some type of parental guidance because anyone vulnerable who might be affected by the film should have some support and someone to talk to afterwards.
THT: As writers, we mirror in our work what happens in real life. In my novel FUTURECAST, I speak about a father who physically abused his son. This modeled my late father in some ways. Are any of the characters in Teacher a reflection of your past or perhaps experiences not totally related to your past?
ADAM: As I mentioned, the characters were pieced together from a variety of experiences that I both witnessed up close and afar, in my youth and as an adult spectator. One aspect of fiction that I find particularly wonderful is that fiction can both reveal truths while camouflaging their sources. This helps, I believe, free both the writer and audience from being constrained by a singular context of a singular person’s experience and expand a character to encompass more than what a typically autobiographical or biographical rendering might offer.
THT: David, what drew you to this story? What about James did you like or not like and how hard was it for you to become James?
DAVID: I received a really thoughtful message from Adam (writer/director) wherein he explained his vision for the film and why he wanted me to play James. I read the script, found it very moving and was excited by both the idea of such a challenging role AND the prospect of getting to get back to Chicago for a project. Some of the best artists in the world reside in Chicago and the actors in that city are some of my favorites. Around the time that Adam reached out to me about doing this film, I turned on my TV and saw this ridiculous man leading a political rally where he was calling out his opponents with ridiculous nicknames, leading antagonistic chants, basically behaving like a grotesque version of a very unprincipled, vulgar bully who has nothing substantive to say other than base and ignorant insults. I could see the twisted, enlivened faces of a riled-up, angry and bigotry-fueled crowd. It was ugly. I was embarrassed for my country. I was so deeply saddened for the example being set for our children. I called Adam and said, “I have to do this film.”
THT: Finally, for everyone, what can you share with our readers that will help them by seeing your film, to speak up and speak out about bullying and what we all can do to help those who are pain? Also, what are your next projects you have coming up that you’d like to touch on? Thank you so much for your time.
ADAM: I hope that the film engages people on a dramatic level but also resonates enough for them to think twice before inflicting pain, emotional or physical, on another person. It’s natural to connect what we see happen to others to our own lives, whether those others are fictional or real, so when people see the film, I hope they at least wonder what unseen ramifications being mean or hurtful might have, and how that might feed into a greater culture of cruelty that affects all of us. I’m not at all speaking for a perspective of perfection or ascendant moral status. I’m just as human as everyone else, and I think art provides a great opportunity to live through mistakes in a safe way so that our own lives can be healthier. That stems back from the origins of western/Greek tragedy and has evolved into modern dramatic forms. I hope this film lives on the positive end of that continuum.
DAVID: I had such a great time working with Adam. He’s a kind and brave guy and I hope we get to tell more stories in the future. I’m currently in Wilmington, NC, filming this incredible new show for Hulu called “Reprisal”. There’s never been anything like it. Imagine if Blue Velvet were written and directed Quentin Tarantino. It’s a kind of Rockabilly Game of Thrones. I’m also very proud to announce that Dark Horse is publishing my first comic book, COUNT CROWLEY: Reluctant Midnight Monster Hunter. We hit shelves 10/23/19 and comics shops everywhere are taking pre-orders so please stop by your local shop and let them know about it. This is the definition of a “passion project”. My childhood love of monster movies, horror hosts, heroes is combined with all of the difficult questions I’m wrestling with as an adult; i.e. my battle with addiction and depression, my attempt to be a “grown up”, my bewilderment at the horrifying real life “monsters” who have taken over our airwaves with division and prejudice… it’s a wild time to be alive.
Photo Credits: Falco Ink