Interview: Won’t Back Down Director Daniel Barnz

Filmmaker Daniel Barnz first got attention with his Sundance movie Phoebe in Wonderland, starring Elle Fanning as a young girl with Tourette’s trying to navigate school by escaping into a dark fantasy world. Barnz’s next movie Beastly was an adaptation of a novel that put a modern spin on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast,” and that also dealt with school dynamics. With his third feature film, Won’t Back Down, Barnz sets aside the fantasy and fairy tale elements to direct a movie set within the realities of the public school system and the problems inherent with it.

The movie stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jamie Fitzpatrick, a hard-working single parent of a dyslexic girl having problems in class who comes to school and is shocked how little the teachers seem to care. The one teacher who seems to want to make a difference is Nona Alberts, played by Viola Davis, so Jamie convinces her to help try to turn the school around and make it one where kids can actually learn enough that they can eventually go onto college.

It’s an inspirational story that builds upon ideas brought up in docs like Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for “Superman” and The Lottery, both which explored ways to make a difference in a public school system that has been weighed down by financial cutbacks and unions protecting teachers that no longer care about doing their jobs. Everyone has an opinion on what’s best for kids, whether it’s their parents or teachers or politicians, which is what makes the movie so much more interesting than just the normal fluffy Hollywood drama.

As learned when we sat down with Barnz at the New York junket for Won’t Back Down this past weekend, there’s a reason why teachers and school play such a large part in his work and why he’s so passionate on the subject. You can definitely see a throughline between your movies “Phoebe in Wonderland” and “Beastly,” and this one also deals with schools but this time based entirely in reality. How did Walden Media and/or producer Mark Johnson contact you about this or was it something you started on your own?

Daniel Barnz:
Well, the conversation originally began with Walden, and it was sort of a mutual discussion. They’re a company that’s very committed to making movies that have an educational bend to it. They have the whole book division. I come from a family of teachers–my parents are both teachers, my grandmother’s a public school teacher, my sister-in-law and mother-in-law are both teachers so education has always been part of my family and a part of my blood, so I think we were sort of a natural fit for each other.

CS: It’s interesting that there’s so much conversation about this stuff in recent years. I feel like when I went to school there wasn’t as much concern over public schools. I don’t know if teachers were just better then, but in the last couple years, there have been more and more conversations about the growing problems with schools.

It has really become more of a hot button issue right now, but I think it’s really healthy. I think there’s some serious problems facing our schools, and I think it’s great that there’s, for the most part, a healthy discussion about what it is that we can do to help change things.

CS: When you started doing this, was there another screenplay that you were working from or was this something you started yourself?

Brin Hill, who was the other writer on the project, had been working on something that was similarly-themed, and then I kind of came in and worked on it, on the screenplay as well, and then obviously directed it.

CS: What kind of research did you do? Other than having a family in the business, did you have to do a lot more research?

So much research, yeah. Because it is such an incredibly complicated issue, and fundamentally, this is a movie about people who feel powerless and they see that there’s something wrong in the world and they want to go out and change it despite insurmountable odds. That’s how I hope audiences will respond to the movie. That was the story I wanted to tell, about powerless people who feel like they can go out and kind of create change. That was the number one purpose. Secondarily, I wanted to explore some of these issues of education. As a filmmaker, my primary job is to tell the best story that I can, to entertain, and if at all possible, to inspire people. It would be a mistake for me to say that I have any answers to the problems facing public schools. The best thing that I can do is to pose questions. That’s what I really felt like my job was, so in terms of the research, I wanted to make sure that the research was really careful because I didn’t want there to be elements of the film that would be distracting because they were inaccurate or not true. I really wanted people to focus on this central message of an underdog story and people who want to go out and create change.

CS: You have a lot of actors playing teachers and Board of Ed people so did you want them to do their own research into their roles in what’s happening or did you feel the script was enough to inform them?

It was both. Viola’s sister is a public school teacher so she knew from very personal experience what was going on here, and as I said, I come from a family of teachers, so I think between all of us we had a great sense of what this world is alike.

CS: It was quite a coup to get Holly Hunter who doesn’t do many movies these days. Did it take a lot of convincing to get her?

I was on set pinching myself; I couldn’t believe it was Holly Hunter. She’s an icon and I just love her so much. One of the things that’s interesting about Holly is she has a great love for the craft of filmmaking so when we sat down initially, I showed her this elaborate mood book that I had with all these photographs and images and gave her a CD and a clip reel so she really embraces being included in the filmmaking aspect of it and that appealed to her as well.

CS: This must’ve been a tough movie to write, since there are no real good guys or bad guys in the school system. There are people with their own agendas or reasons for doing things, and it just ends up being that some things work and others aren’t working.

Exactly. God bless you for saying that, because that was exactly my intention. It is interesting because I think that’s how audiences respond to the film. We screened it a number of times, and we’ve had discussions with them afterwards. They see the antagonist in the movie as the system. There are a lot of things that make up that system for them – bureaucracy, a school board, poverty, parental apathy, all of these elements. But what’s interesting is, when they finish the film, they’re really not thinking about the antagonist in the movie or who to blame. They come out of the movie feeling, “What can I do to go and create change?” So, it’s a very positive thing. They’re coming out not saying, “Who can I blame?” but “What can I do?” and that was always my intention for the movie.

CS: The movie also doesn’t feel preachy, which is very hard to do, because when the movie started, I immediately thought, “Oh, boy. Here we go.”

Here we go, yeah.

CS: I see a lot of movies and my guard immediately goes up when I feel like the movie is trying to have a message or when a doc ends with inspiring words like “You can do something!” With this, you leave people wanting to do something without actually having to be told.

Thank you. That is such a nice compliment. That is seriously one of the nicest things that I’ve heard about this movie. Yeah, that was absolutely my intent. Again, I didn’t want to preach in any way. I wanted to pose questions. I think also to tackle it on that much more kind of basic, profound level of these human stories about people who feel like they have no power, but they see that something is wrong and they want to go out and change it, you know? I think if you can kind of keep to that level and without being sort of preachy and dogmatic about it, then people can really respond to that.

CS: The movie’s title used to be “Learn to Fly” and it was changed to “Won’t Back Down”…and you have both Tom Petty songs in the movie, so what gives with all the Tom Petty?

Well, I think there’s a lot of love for Tom Petty, you know? The idea was that we wanted to land on a title that was going to speak to a certain kind of gritty defiance. My concern with “Learning to Fly” was if you pair that with a movie that’s about two women and schools, it just sounds kind of soft. I think the movie is actually about something that’s much more gritty and raw and defiant, and that seemed better reflected by “Won’t Back Down.”

CS: You shot the movie in Pittsburgh, and I’ve actually been down there quite a bit to visit movie sets and the biz down there is booming. What was it like shooting the movie there and what was the reaction to the subject matter?

The making of this movie was particularly exciting because people sign on to do a movie for all different reasons, you know? A lot of times it’s just they need to be hired for a job. They don’t necessarily even know what the movie is about. When they came to discover what the movie was about, it had this sort of personal resonance for them. We would see this all the time when we were shooting scenes with extras. There are a lot of scenes with extras in the movie. One day we had 750 extras that are there, and they’re coming, they’re playing parents and teachers who are coming together to create change for schools. What was so interesting was that when they discovered what the movie was about, they’d get really impassioned about it. Frequently, they would come up to me or the people in the crew and they’d say, “I am a parent and I have a kid who’s in a failing public school,” or “I am a teacher. I’m so supportive of what this movie’s about,” and I think you can actually see the difference on screen. I think when you see those people responding and reacting, they’re really actually drawing on something that was very close and personal to them.

CS: I can see that and all four of the actors I spoke to have their own interest in getting people thinking and talking about public education and it’s hard to convince people to see docs on the subject apparently.

Exactly right. I know. That’s the thing. I think that’s the thing that everybody in the cast like, and everybody in the audience (Laughs) had that teacher who made a difference or that parent who’s willing to lie down in train tracks for them or a child who inspires them. So, I think everybody was able to bring that into this movie. When people ask me, “Who’s going to respond to this movie?” Well, it’s everybody. Everybody’s had those teachers and parents and children.

CS: Have you had a chance to show the movie to politicians and other people who can actually make a difference with public education?

Yeah, absolutely. By the way, I have been shocked by the level of people that are seeing the movie and responding to it. I mean, it was shown at the U.S. Conference of Democratic Mayors, so every single democratic mayor in the country has seen it. We screened at both the DNC and the RNC. When we screened at the DNC, even though we had Mayor Villaraigosa from LA, Mayor Kevin Johnson from Sacramento and Mayor Cory Booker from Newark, all coming to that screening and advocating for the movie. It has been a fantastic exposure to that level of people, and I think that they all see that this is a movie that can help because it’s about how teachers and parents can come together to create change. That’s something that all of these people believe in.

CS: It’s hard to ignore that there are people who have spoken out against the movie because the school takeover idea at its core is something that hasn’t actually worked anywhere. Watching this movie, you wonder, “Well, why hasn’t this worked?” What’s stopped people from succeeding?

Well, part of it is that it’s a very new movement. What exists now, though, is not really what’s told in the movie. This is one of the things that I really struggle to explain to people because they assume that the real world application of this movie are parent trigger laws. Those are the laws that exist in California and three other states, in which if you have a failing public school, then 50 percent of the parents can come together and take over the school and they can determine what happens to that school. The movie tells a different story because it creates a fictional law in which 50 percent of the parents and 50 percent of the teachers have to come together to transform a school. So it’s a law that doesn’t even exist in the world right now, and that was really important to me because I come from a family of educators, so for me, I wanted to ask the question, “Can we include educators in this process?” I’ve always found that the most successful public schools are the ones who are driven by passionate, visionary educators. I think a lot of these people who are worried about the film in terms of parent trigger laws haven’t actually seen the movie, so they can’t understand that it’s not a movie that’s about the parent trigger laws. It’s about something different.

CS: Right. You never actually mention those words in the movie either.

Exactly right, yeah.

CS: The controversy behind the movie seems strange though. Do you find it odd that people might be against the movie even before seeing it?

It’s a bit perplexing because the movie is really basically about how people can come together to create change, so I think when you put a movie out like that and you see the debate get kind of divisive and negative, it’s sort of surprising because I think there’s something in this movie that everybody can really rally behind because fundamentally, it’s about, “Let’s go out and make better schools for kids.” Who wants to argue with that?

Won’t Back Down opens nationwide on Friday, September 28.


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