When Erin Gruwell began teaching high school in Long Beach, California, in 1994, she faced a class of black, Latino, and Asian gang members seething with anger. These were the “unteachable” students, the ones who had been abandoned by the education system, the ones beset by violence and abuse before they even entered a school building. The Rodney King riots had just taken place, and the novice teacher quickly found herself stripped of her idealistic attitudes about how to best instruct her class.
Gruwell’s struggle to connect with her students forms the basis of Freedom Writers, a Paramount feature written and directed by Richard LaGravenese. He first learned about Gruwell’s program after watching a “Primetime Live” segment about the teacher. When he read Freedom Writers Diary, a book published as a result of Gruwell’s class, LaGravenese told his producing partners that it was a story that needed to be filmed.
The teacher’s breakthrough came when she realized that her students were unaware of how social issues were shaping their lives. When Gruwell introduced her pupils to writers like Anne Frank and Zlata Filipovic, teens whose diaries detailed their experiences during war, her class suddenly took on new relevance. The diary format became a way for the students to discover their own voices and identities through writing, and to find their place in the world. They now not only had an outlet for addressing the violence they faced daily, but gained a new understanding of the importance of tolerance.
Speaking from Ireland, where he is filming his next project, LaGravenese describes the impact Freedom Writers Diary had. “The voices of these fifteen- and fourteen-year-old kids, the lives they were living, the eloquence with which they wrote about the violence they were living in, the racism they were dealing with, their fear of even getting to school alive, moved me tremendously. It was a wonderful story that needed to be told.”
LaGravenese tried for six years to finance a film about Gruwell’s class, working in the meantime on various production rewrites. He credits Hilary Swank with finally setting the project in motion. He met Swank on the set of Million Dollar Baby, for which she received a Best Actress nomination. “Right before she won the Oscar she called and said, ‘You know, I’ve never forgotten the script, and I would love to do it. In fact, I’ll attach my name to it as my next film.’ Because of her, because she signed on as executive producer, it got green-lit. Before that, studios were like, ‘Well, we don’t know how to market it.’ So you can say Hilary is the reason why Freedom Writers got made.”
But translating the real lives described in a diary format into a feature film proved difficult. LaGravenese went through twenty-one drafts over the years. “There was so much material there. I had to focus in on the structure, and I had to be careful not to make a movie about a white teacher who comes in and saves the day. I also had to protect the students, do right by them yet still tell an entertaining story. I tried to make it an ensemble piece about what Erin learned and what the kids learned from her.”
Apart from Swank, LaGravenese cast almost exclusively non-actors. After a three-month search resulted in two thousand candidates, casting director Margery Simkin helped whittle the potential actors down to a group of about thirty. LaGravenese then led the teenagers through an equivalent of Gruwell’s course. “I had them keep diaries and journals. I took them through some of the same processes. For example, Erin Gruwell took her kids to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. That was the beginning of them becoming a sort of unit or family. I did the same thing, taking them to the museum before we shot there, because I wanted them to have that experience. And on their own they would share stories with each other, go through trust exercises. They started to become these characters.”
The teens earned the respect of both cast and crew. “Hilary told me, ‘I never learned as much as an actress as I did from them.’ They gave one hundred per cent all the time. They didn’t know how not to. Even when the camera wasn’t on them, she said, ‘I can’t believe what they’re giving me back in terms of authenticity.’ There was no trouble with vocabulary or technique. They would ask, ‘You need me to do this now?’ and they would just do it. I was very lucky in getting an extraordinary group of kids who were completely uninhibited.”
LaGravenese sees his roles as screenwriter and director as collaborative ones, with the script evolving through the entire filmmaking process. He’s had experience on both sides of the camera, writing scripts for directors like Terry Gilliam (The Fisher King), Robert Redford (The Horse Whisperer), and Clint Eastwood (The Bridges of Madison County). “This is a director’s medium, and as a writer the script is really only yours when it’s in your head and you’re writing it. Then, if it’s working right, it takes on a life of its own, and starts to tell you what it is. What I love about directing is that it’s a more social effort, you have all these people around that you can jam with for ideas. I remember Terry telling me a long time ago, the director’s like the captain with all these great people around him. You listen to everyone’s ideas and you pick the best ones. It doesn’t just always come from you.”
The director is working with Swank again in his next film, an adaptation of Cecelia Ahern’s novel P.S., I Love You, about a young wife’s efforts to resume her life after her husband dies of a brain tumor. (Ahern is the daughter of the current prime minister of Ireland.) Along with Swank, the cast includes Kathy Bates, Gerard Butler, Harry Connick, Jr., Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Lisa Kudrow, and Gina Gershon.
Gruwell is currently training teachers, and has two books coming out as the film opens, a teacher’s manual and a more personal reflection on how the Freedom Writers have changed her life. LaGravenese is anxious to see her program implemented in more schools. He cites his nephew, a disillusioned teacher who found that he was working against the system in trying to reach his students. The Freedom Writers program has revitalized him, giving his work a new energy and purpose.
“Our education system is based on the last factory model, which is the assembly line,” LaGravenese argues. “You push them in, you test them, you score them, and if they don’t do well they fail and you get rid of them. But what we are trying to say with this film is that there’s no such thing as an unteachable kid. There are more ways to teach and more ways to educate than our current system provides. If we can give our teachers the leeway and the support to do that, to reach kids, then fewer of them will fall through the cracks. And there are creative passionate teachers out there who can make a real difference if given a chance.”
LaGravenese also emphasizes the second theme in Freedom Writers: tolerance. “Some of these kids grew up all their lives as gang members, hating other colors. The process of being in this class, learning about world, opening up to what other people had been through, helps them understand tolerance. They can make a 180 degree turn. Whoever you are, Latino, black, Asian, if you dream it you can be it. You can figure it out. Don’t let anybody tell you that you’re not good enough.”