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A Teacher: Hanna Fidell and Lindsay Burdge
Director Hannah Fidell and actress Lindsay Burdge of “A Teacher” | Paula Schwartz Photo

Why choose the difficult subject of a young high school teacher who has an affair with one of her teenage students for her feature film debut? That’s the question I asked 27-year-old director Hannah Fidell, in the sunny offices of Oscilloscope Laboratories on Canal Street where she and her star, Lindsay Burdge, chatted recently about the sexy and dark film.

“I knew going in that I wanted to do a film about a woman in crisis, and I knew that I had budget concerns,” Fidell said. “But I knew that I could make this type of film for a small amount of money and honestly, it’s just a sexy topic and I knew that was a way to grab people’s attention.”

A Polarizing Film

Grab people’s attention “A Teacher” does. It’s also polarizing, especially for women. After the screening, I found myself discussing the protagonist’s self-destructive bent with a group of women in the ladies room. Some of them said throughout the 77 nerve-wracking minutes of the film they wanted to shake sense into the character of the young teacher. Others felt sorry for her and hoped she would pull herself together and save herself from certain disaster.

Lindsay Burdge, who stars as Diana, appears in nearly every scene of the film, and gives a breakout performance as a young woman whose life is so empty she latches onto a teenage boy for her sexual and emotional needs. The film opens in a dark bar where Diana giggles as she reads a text message on her cellphone. Minutes later she’s in the back seat of her car having sex with a fresh-faced kid who is way too young for her.

Soon afterwards, we find out he’s one of her students. To say the affair is inappropriate is an understatement. Diana risks her career. Even worse, she faces jail time. Long on atmosphere, with noirish, moody shots and spare dialogue, we’re not sure exactly what will happen except that things will end badly for Diana.

“A Little Bit of Improv”

Burdge, who laughs easily, comes across as nothing like the dark and moody character she plays on screen. She offered me a chocolate donut as she happily munched on a glazed confection. “Maybe I’ll stop eating soon, but for now I’m going to eat this donut,” she laughed.

A Teacher: Lindsay Burdge
Lindsay Burdge, star of “A Teacher” | Paula Schwartz Photo

Fidell wrote and developed the project especially for Burdge, who is a longtime friend. I asked the actress about their collaborative process and how much was improvised.

“We did do a little bit of improv sometimes to get into a scene or out of a scene, and Hannah was very allowing as far as, ‘if you don’t want to say those words the way they’re written just say them a different way.’ But I happen to really love the script so I really enjoyed saying what was there.”

The dialogue in the script is spare. “I didn’t want to always be saying what I was thinking, which Hannah obviously didn’t write,” the actress said. “But there were just times when the dialogue would actually become more of a way of knowing the beats for me, the emotional beats, and then we could do away with the dialogue altogether and hopefully you could still get some of that information without us saying anything.”

“And Lindsay has an incredibly expressive face too,” Fidell interjected.

“Yeah, I’m so bad at talking,” Burdge laughed.

“A Teacher” Controversy?

I asked Fidell how concerned she was about portraying another woman onscreen who gets punished for being lusty and sexually aggressive. This rarely happens to men in the movies. She admitted it was a concern.

“The fact that no one’s really called us out on that has been surprising to both of us, I think,” Fidell said. “But at the end of the day we felt that, and I don’t want to speak for Lindsay, but I felt that women make mistakes just the same as everyone else does, so why should I feel like it’s my obligation to show women in only a positive way? As for any punishment, it’s part of the nature of the story.”

Will Brittain: “A Sensitive Actor”

Will Brittain is terrific as a high school senior, Eric, who can handle the sex just fine, but doesn’t have the emotional maturity to handle the emotional part of the relationship. The production notes stated that initially, his character was just interested in sex and the presumption is he will come out of this just fine. But the way Brittain plays the role has more depth. His character comes to care for Diana, and he’s concerned and protective towards her but doesn’t know how to handle her neediness and desperation.

A TeacherI asked Fidell why she changed her mind about Eric and rewrote the part. “He fought for that and I’m so happy that he did,” she replied. “Yeah, initially my idea was that he was just out for sex.”

“Hannah may have been coming from a little bit of an angry place,” laughed Burdge.

Fidell said it was a comment by Burdge that make her rethink Eric’s character. Her star said it’s usually actresses who get supporting roles that are one-dimensional.

“It was interesting that in this film it was the supporting actor who got that, and I don’t want any character to be just surface level and one-dimensional,” Fidell said. “Lindsey has to go to such depths, but also I think for Will, working with Lindsay, forced him to take it to the next level as well.”

“And he’s a very sensitive actor, and I don’t think that he could even play him as an asshole kind of guy,” Burdge added.

As for her take on Diana and if she liked her character, Burdge told me, “I don’t think that she liked herself very much. In that way, I didn’t like her, in the way she didn’t like herself, but I also loved her very much.”

“We Weren’t Interested in Judging Her” 

But both director and star told me they tried to understand her and why she behaved as she did. “What would make this happen to her? We weren’t interested in judging her really,” Burdge said. “We can leave that to everyone else. You know what happens next is that the cops got her and the media got her. The papers the next day would be calling her a number of horrible things. I don’t feel I have to be doing that to her too.”

Next up for Fidell is a remake of “The Hitch-Hiker,” Ida Lupino’s 1953 film noir. Fidell said of the pioneering woman director, “She was incredible, so I’m quite excited about that. We’re still in the casting-writing place.” (Read Vera Marie Badertscher’s profile of the groundbreaking filmmaker Lupino.)

Burdge told me she’s wrapped a couple of films, including a film called ““Up the River” and another one in Virginia called “Some Beasts,” which has some of the same producers as the acclaimed indie, “Upstream Color.”

“A Teacher” opened in New York Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. Visit the film’s official site and follow on Twitter and Facebook.

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