MM: How do you structure a film like this? It’s finite, because we get to the end of the school year, but you have to make a lot of decisions about what to show and what’s relevant. What was that editing process like?
DR: We had a lot of footage. We filmed over two years, and then we decided in the editing process to use the second year for chronology, but also because children change from year to year, and it was going to be complicated blending two years. We didn’t have a clear narrative structure until we started the editing process. The film was definitely found in the editing suite, but we did know that John and Amanda’s arc was there. Right through the film, we knew about their possible retirement.
NC: At the beginning of the year, Amanda was actively looking for a house to move away from the school, but John couldn’t retire. The very idea of leaving the school is just an impossibility for him. That’s how the film opens, with this discussion of whether Amanda is well enough to keep teaching, and if she’s happy enough to keep teaching, because they were 69 and 70 when we filmed. A lot of people would have had to retire 10 years before that, but because it is the school that it is, as long as they are physically capable of doing it, and as long as they are interacting with the kids and the kids are getting something from them, they’re allowed to continue teaching, because they have amazing teaching left in them.
DR: We took 450 hours of footage, and pretty much documented all of it, and made notes on all of it, and got it down to 25 to 30 hours of what we thought were the strongest scenes and the most emotional scenes, and inevitably, John and Amanda were in many of those scenes. Then we decided on the characters, the children that we wanted to feature. We obviously had more than three that could have been in the story, but those three were all taught by John and Amanda, and they all had character arcs that finished positively, and that was very important for Neasa and me. We’re dealing with very young children. We had the trust and the permission of the parents, and we wanted those stories to end positively, and not leave a child in a negative space, so when they went on to their next school, they would be seen as the child who was always in trouble, or whatever. So those character arcs were found in the editing, and they worked with John and Amanda’s story, so the film came together around that. Dermot Dix has an overarching story as the headmaster who leads the school and guides them as well, and that was very important to the final structure.
MM: You mentioned it was meant to be observational. What were some of the documentarians that you referenced, or the visual style that you wanted to employ? And what are the challenges in that style?
DR: Both of us are big fans of documentaries of the observational style anyway, so we would have watched a lot of Pennebaker and Weisman and Maysles Brothers, and then more recently, people like Kim Longinotto. The challenges of the observational style are obvious.
NC: It requires time. It requires a lot of investment of time, and it requires building relationships with people, because to get that level of intimacy, which is what we always search for in our work, it’s not just the surface. You’ve got to get right underneath and try to understand what’s behind the façade. Because it was just David and me filming for most of the film, we could invest that time. Had we been paying a film crew every day, no budget could have covered that. That’s the way we like to work. We’re more interested in really penetrating a world, rather than just seeing it from the outside. We wanted to be part of it.
DR: We set certain rules. In the edit, there was the rule of not leaving a child with a negative character arc, and we also decided not leave the school in the filming. We never left to go back to a child’s home with the parent, for example, and even when we were in John and Amanda’s house, which was within the school grounds, we never left the school grounds. Imposing those rules on ourselves as filmmakers, I think that really helped.
NC: And we had a big question as well: Is there such a thing as a surrogate family? That’s how we structured the film in the end, because we really did feel like this was a genuine, actual surrogate family. This community is very tight, and they will continue to keep those relationships well after they leave the school. We’ve seen that, with Olivia, the gap student who comes back to help John in the band room. She represents many, many Headfort kids who come back in between college, or in between secondary school and going on to college, or some of them come back when they’ve just finished their degrees, and they just want to hang out and revisit their childhood, and they get involved in the mechanisms of the school. The younger children love that, because they love listening to all of the stories of what it was like in the ’70s, what was it like in the ’80s. With John and Amanda, there’s a well-worn path to their house of ex-students coming back to spend time with them. Any day, you can see a 50-year-old in there or a 20-year-old, hanging out with them, and I thought, “That’s not normal.”
DR: It goes the other way, too. John and Amanda remember every child who’s passed through their care. We would encounter people who’d come up to after festival screenings at Sundance or Sydney Film Festival, and they’d say, “I went to that school,” and we’d say, “What’s your name?” They’d say, “John,” and they might be a 50-year old, and I’d send John a text, and I’d say, “This guy came up to us, and this was his name.” He would reply, “Oh yeah, he was a great kid,” or “He was really good at art.” He has whole stories and he would remember them. He says, “They are one of ours,” and he doesn’t mean one of John and Amanda’s kids, but one of the school’s kids.
MM: Do you feel that documentarians perhaps overlook very interesting human stories that might on the surface seem mundane?
NC: For me, it is always about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, because I have very little interest in sensational stories or celebrities. That does not interest me in the slightest. I want to know about ordinary people just getting on with what they’re doing in their daily lives, and you always find extraordinary people who make a difference. That’s an important message to put out there, because we all play our part, and we can all shape things and make things a little better, and contribute to elevating our communities, our societies, our countries, whatever. MM
School Life opens in theaters September 15, 2017, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.