We at Film Society of Lincoln Center are excited to debut another ongoing series tomorrow night, Art of the Real, dedicated to showcasing innovative and consciousness-raising nonfiction filmmaking. The series opens with Alex Rotaru's Shakespeare High, a moving and energetic new documentary about a Shakespeare competition in Southern California that brings together students from diverse backgrounds and boasts alumni like Kevin Spacey, Sally Field and Richard Dreyfus. Following several competing groups, different in every way except their enthusiasm for the tournament, the film presents a stirring a case for the exigency of arts education in America.
We asked director Alex Rotaru to answer a few questions about himself and his film by means of introduction:
Can you tell us a bit about your background as a filmmaker?
I grew up in Romania, with film and theatre surrounding me day and night. My father is a playwright and producer, my mother is an actress. I, myself, was a working film actor in my teens. After a detour at MIT, where I studied Physics, I went to grad school at USC to study filmmaking formally and it was there I realized that my childhood and adolescence had been the best film school I could ever wish for.
How did you get started and what other projects have you worked on?
Soon after graduating from the USC School of Cinematic Arts, I had the immense fortune to have my two mentors, Mark J. Harris and Jeremy Kagan, advising me on how to go forward. I felt stifled in a script development job and was hankering for production—so Mark recommended me to documentary film legend Mel Stuart (also the director of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory!) for a cameraman position. This was “the beginning of a beautiful friendship” that spanned over a dozen collaborations and got me accustomed to documentary filmmaking. It was through Mel that I met worldwide superstar educator Rafe Esquith and co-produced, shot and edited The Hobart Shakespeareans for PBS POV, which ignited a passion for films about the arts and arts education in me. I was ready to direct—and over the next few years I followed up with They Came to Play, Kids with Cameras, and Shakespeare High, and now I'm prepping my first fiction film.
What is your approach to documentary filmmaking? Are there any specific rules you set for yourself?
I had to prep for a TEDx talk I did last year in Bucharest and reflected on this a lot. I'm not an aesthetic-method purist by any stretch, although I could take a strict approach if the material demanded it—since I believe that form must follow content. However, if there is a general rule I instinctively abide by, it's cherchez le personnage. I seek out the characters who best embody the theme; you could call it casting, but it's really more delicate than that, and you've got to get lucky. Once I find the right characters, I try to get out of their way and gently encourage them to be free to be themselves in front of the cameras—usually with humor.
How did you come across the subject for this project?
My love for Shakespeare goes back as far as I can remember; the first book I ever read as a child was a children's retelling of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and my mother performed in Shakespeare plays while she was pregnant with me. In my late teens I saw Ian McKellen and Brian Cox touring in Bucharest with the Royal Shakespeare Company—in Richard III and King Lear. This was the first time I saw (and heard!) Shakespeare in English, and I was hooked. Years later, I filmed Ian McKellen and Michael York for The Hobart Shakespeareans, and with that project the hook went in for life. By the time the Drama Teachers Association of Southern California's Shakespeare Festival came to my attention, it felt only too natural to embark on the Shakespeare High journey, although it did take some time to convince myself that the world needed another “Shakespeare in the classroom” documentary. However, once I saw the kids in action, I knew this was a unique event of very high emotional resonance that had to be shared with the world—especially at a time when arts education is on its last legs in so many parts of this country.
Were there any specific challenges about working with young people (and young actors, at that)?
My only challenge with the young actors was to edit down the performances—and the worst part was eliminating from the film students, groups, and schools. We cast a wide net, covered at least three times more than we needed, and this embarrassment of riches lead to an embarrassment of choices. It was more challenging to work with the legendary actors-alumni/ae of the Festival who came to our aid: Mare Winningham, Richard Dreyfuss, Val Kilmer, and of course Kevin Spacey, who became our Executive Producer and biggest supporter. The main challenge was to manage to get a window in their busy schedule to film them; then there was my own level of emotion and nerves, which naturally spiked when dealing with such genuine stars—but once we started rolling, everything went great.
Can you take us through a bit of the timeline between the film's inception and its completion? Did the project change once you started filming or editing?
In April 2008, I was a judge in the DTASC Shakespeare Festival and the decision was made to embark on the journey, despite not having secured any outside financing yet. We obtained the rights and crewed up, and in January 2009 we started filming schools preparing for the Festival, which is in April, on the Saturday closest to Shakespeare's birthday. We identified the groups we wished to focus on and continued covering them, culminating with the frantic Festival Day, where we had 24 cameras crews shooting. Then came the hard part: fundraising for editing and finishing, wading through the four hundred hours of footage, trying many things until we found the best through-line… We had to stop and restart editing several times, and finally at the end of 2010 we had a cut we were happy with. We won several grants which helped us finish in time to premiere at Tribeca Film Festival in 2011, and from there we went on the festival circuit, and now we are releasing theatrically, beginning here in New York at Film Society of Lincoln Center—which is so thrilling! It's been almost four years since inception, and slightly over three years since beginning of principal photography. If I were to change anything about the project, I'd try to shave one year off the editing (which would mean better fundraising, often the main challenge of indie docs!)—but looking back it's amazing how close the finished project came to our original “shot-in-the-dark” pitch. Usually, documentary projects change or take shape differently as you start filming or editing, but this one is remarkably close to what we dreamed it would be, and we have the kids to thank for it… We definitely got lucky!
Alex Rotaru will be in person for a Q&A following Wednesday's 6:30pm screening, along with several of the film's subjects. If you can't make it, don't fret: Shakespeare High starts it theatrical release in the Film Center Amphitheater this Friday!