"Freedom Writers" Movie Production Notes
ABOUT FREEDOM WRITERS | THE PRODUCTION | THE CAST | THE FILMMAKERS
Twotime Academy Award® winner Hilary Swank takes on the role of Erin Gruwell. “True stories resonate with me,” says Swank, who won her first Academy Award® for her portrayal of Brandon Teena in the truelife story “Boys Don’t Cry.” “I was inspired by the screenplay and moved by its humanity. I felt in my heart and soul that I needed to be a part of telling this story. When I found out that I was Erin’s first choice to bring her story to the screen, I thought it would be an honor to do so.”
“I poured out my heart in an email to Erin,” Swank continues. “After I read the script, I wanted to meet her, talk to her, and tell her how important I thought her story was.”
“I felt that in some way teaching was the most noble thing that I could do in our own country, working with kids who oftentimes don’t have the best teachers, supplies or the best schools,” says Gruwell. “I really wanted a school that had diversity, that had been affected by the riots and could be this wonderful eclectic mix of races and economics and cultures. On paper, Wilson seemed to be perfect because it was this fusion of affluent kids and abject poverty, and included every ethnicity under the sun with kids who could be headed off to Harvard or off to jail.”
After a tragedy shook the student body, Gruwell searched for a way to address the issues in her students’ lives. Assigning them The Diary of Anne Frank, she found that many students were able to identify with Anne’s challenges growing up in a warzone.
It was Gruwell’s next assignment that would profoundly change her students’ lives: she asked them to keep a journal, recording their experiences, their emotions, their challenges, and their triumphs. “The kids learned to pick up a pen instead of a gun, and the act of writing saved them,” explains director Richard LaGravenese. “Erin asked them to write about their wars and battles and it opened the gates for them to share their lives, which no one had ever asked them to do before. Through Anne Frank, she opened their eyes to a thirteenyearold girl going through a war of her own and how writing helped her cope with her situation and then, Erin showed them how to apply that to their own lives.”
The film is produced by Stacey Sher, Michael Shamberg, and Danny DeVito, who previously produced “Erin Brockovich,” which was an Academy Award® nominee for Best Picture. “One of the things that drew us to making this film was the notion that one person really can make a difference,” explains producer Stacey Sher. “Erin Gruwell is a hero like anybody else can be a hero. She was frightened but saw that something had to be done and couldn’t turn her back on these kids. She empowered them with the tools to essentially help themselves.”
INSIDE ROOM 203
In postRodney King riots Long Beach, Wilson High School seemed like a perfect stage to test the legitimacy and ideals of integration. Located in a predominantly wealthy area, the kids assigned to Room 203 were generally classified as the “unteachables”: an assortment of untouchables who faced a variety of challenges that included being underprivileged and undereducated, a history of criminal activity and/or drug dependency, family members and parents incarcerated, and heavy involvement in ganglife. An aspiring teacher and dogooder, Erin Gruwell chose Wilson High School in hopes of making a difference.
Instead of finding a program based on fairness and equal opportunity, what she found was an atmosphere dominated by racial tension, gang culture, intolerance and hopelessness. Selfsegregation seemed to dominate the kids’ social behavior as a means of survival; upon first stepping into her classroom, they immediately established the division by using their desks to create boundaries between them.
“In the film, when the kids first come into Room 203, they transform the room into territories by turning their desks into each others groups and away from Erin,” explains Richard LaGravenese, who wrote and directed the screenplay, based on the book by Gruwell and the Freedom Writers. “Turning their desks was an act of defiance and an act of unity within their own group.”
Forced to deal with the realities and challenges of this atmosphere, Erin knew that she would have to approach teaching these kids in a more unconventional manner. After intercepting a racially charged drawing in class (depicting one of the AfricanAmerican students with exaggerated lips and nose), Erin lost her composure for the first time and exploded in front of her students.
“When I made the parallel between this note and propaganda from the Holocaust, I got blank stares from my students. I remember trying to draw these parallels between pain and discrimination, but these terms were not something they understood,” explains Gruwell. “Even though all my students had experienced discrimination themselves, they didn’t understand it when put into words. I started yelling and screaming and for the first time my façade cracked. I was no longer perky, I was no longer this cheerleader. In that moment of seeing me so passionate and so angry, the students kind of sat up and thought, wow, she’s really serious.”
She asked how many of the kids in the class had been shot at; shockingly, all of her students raised their hands. After seeing this shared commonality between each other, the boundaries that separated them began to fall away.
“After they raised their hands they started to compare their war wounds of gun shots and stab wounds, she noticed that the racial groups were talking to each other for the first time, sharing these war stories,” explains LaGravenese. “For a moment there was silence and a new respect, because nobody in her position had ever asked them that before. There was a break in the ice and she saw the possibility of becoming a group, and saw the effect that talking about the struggles of the victims of the Holocaust had. This moment gave her the idea to introduce The Diary of Anne Frank and other materials dealing with intolerance and the struggles of other young people.”
Desperate to continue the forward momentum created from that moment, Erin began using unexpected materials to engage her students that ranged from reading other wartime texts Elie Weisel’s Night to rap lyrics by Tupac Shakur. “I made a conscious choice not to water down the curriculum and babysit them. I wanted them to find relevance in everything that was on my syllabus, whether it was a sonnet or a book like The Odyssey,” recalls Gruwell. “I wanted to make education come to life, to make the words leap off the page.”
“They initially didn’t understand why they should care about a Shakespearean sonnet or Homer’s Odyssey when they would rather get a record contract from Dr. Dre,” continues Gruwell. “I wanted my students to realize that each and everyone of them had an odyssey of their own, their own kind of journey, and so I wanted to make every single lesson relevant to what they already knew, and to create some kind of bridge to validate who they were and where they came from. I was hoping to bring them across that bridge and teach them that education is a great liberating force and will equalize the playing field. Being educated didn’t mean that they had to disregard who they are and where they came from, but it was important for them to understand that there was a whole world out there.”
After hearing her students’ shared stories of survival, Erin had the idea to help the kids empower themselves with the use of the written word. Distributing blank journals, Gruwell gave them their assignment: to express themselves on the page, regardless of whether it was a drawing, a poem, or a diary entry. The results were astounding: for the first time in their lives, the kids of Room 203 saw themselves and their relevance within the world at large and in return, knew that someone was listening to what they had to say.
“I find it so amazing that Erin could see the parallel between Anne Frank and these kids,” says Swank, who plays Gruwell and serves as executive producer of the film. “Anne Frank was trapped and judged because of her religion. When Erin saw that they could relate to that, she thought that maybe this could help spark their interest to read a book and begin to write themselves. Although writing in their journals wasn’t necessarily a book report, they were writing. In the end that’s what mattered.”
“The kids learned to pick up a pen instead of a gun, and the act of writing saved them,” explains LaGravenese. “They saw a thirteenyearold girl suffering through a war of her own and how writing helped her cope with her situation. Erin asked them to write about their wars and battles it opened the gates for them to share their lives, which no one had ever asked them to do before.”
This unlikely group of diverse “unteachables” that at first couldn’t stand to be in the same together room became an extended family that provided a safe haven, support system, and renewed sense of self. This family, initially thrown together for their shared lack of hope and promise, now proudly referred to themselves as “The Freedom Writers.”
ABOUT THE STORY
After reading about Erin Gruwell and The Freedom Writers in a small piece published in the Los Angeles Times, “Primetime Live” news producer Tracey Durning was curious enough to take a trip to Long Beach to learn more about this teacher and her eclectic group of students.
“Something about that little blurb in the Times intrigued me, so I took a trip to meet Erin and the Freedom Writers and was totally blown away,” recounts Durning, who serves as executive producer of the film. “I was blown away by their energy, intelligence, and very special understanding of race and tolerance. It made such a powerful impression on me and was so moving that I knew I had to do the story.”
Director and Academy Award® nominated writer Richard LaGravenese saw the “Primetime Live” piece; equally inspired by their story, he recognized the potential for a feature film. “I was extremely affected by the piece because it was about kids being transformed and the dedication of a teacher,” recalls LaGravenese. “I then read the book of diaries written by the students, and immediately called my producer, Stacey Sher, and told her that this was a project we had to do.”
“One of the things that drew us to making this film was the notion that one person really can make a difference,” explains Sher. “Erin Gruwell is a hero like anybody else can be a hero. She was frightened but saw that something had to be done and couldn’t turn her back on these kids. She empowered them with the tools to essentially help themselves.”
What most impressed LaGravenese was that Gruwell’s story is not one of a veteran teacher “rescuing” her students, but rather, a story of a teacher and students leaning from each other through collaboration, support, and mutual respect.
“There seems to be a tradition of films with a tough grizzled veteran teacher coming in and saving the poor children, but what makes this film different is that Erin had a unrealistic sense of harmony and integration,” one that the reality of the school’s racial dynamics soon makes clear to her. “Also, the kids put her in her place and showed her how to become a better teacher. This is their story as much as hers,” says Sher.
“I think it’s the first time that this story has been told where the kids teach the teacher the realities of what’s going on, and the teacher, to her credit, respects their stories enough to learn how to teach them,” says LaGravenese. “There is no selfrighteousness and inherent superiority over the kids because after you read their diaries you recognize how raw and honest they are and how much they are artists in their own lives. It’s impossible not to have a great respect for them and it was important to me that the film reflect that.”
Twotime Academy Award® winner Hilary Swank shared the filmmakers’ enthusiasm for the story and joined the project as star and executive producer.
“The fact that this is a true story was amazing to me,” says Swank. “I’m a sucker for true stories they’re stranger than fiction. After reading the script, I immediately fell in love with it and knew I had to be a part of this film.”
“Hilary was very affected by the script and felt deeply connected to it because of her background,” explains LaGravenese. “Besides being an incredibly powerful actress, she brings a quality that she shares with Erin Gruwell, which is absolute earnestness. That quality allows her to be selfdeprecating and seem foolish in front of the kids, not really knowing how to be hip and use the right slang, which essentially makes her endearing and allows others to feel at ease around her.”
“Yes, Erin was a mentor to these kids and was an incredible source of unconditional support, but ultimately the kids had to go within and do the work themselves,” adds Swank. “They had to make the choice to make a change in their lives, to break the pattern of history, family, and society and defy all the odds. I think we all have the power to go within and face what scares us this story illustrates that power.”
“The first time I saw Hilary wearing polka dots and pearls, I felt like I was looking in the mirror,” recalls Gruwell. “There’s so much that she embodies that I respect and look up to, and I knew that she was going to bring so much to this role that was pure and genuine. She’s so unassuming, unaffected, and willing to be gritty. This story is about somebody who’s willing to get in the trenches, have chalk on them, be vulnerable, and to go through that emotional journey.”
“There’s no better person to play Erin than Hilary,” says Sher. “She has such great passion for the project and understands why it is so much more than just making another movie. She understands that it is a movie about the status of education in our country, and her grace, humor, intelligence and inability to take no for an answer made her the perfect choice for Erin.”
To fill the classroom with as much realism and authenticity, the filmmakers went on a nationwide search for kids to bring the Freedom Writers and their stories to life. “We saw over two thousand kids,” recalls LaGravenese. “We looked on the West Coast, East Coast, in schools and on neighborhood basketball courts, because I wanted real kids and honest performances. For me, a lot of it was about the faces of the kids and what their eyes and expressions could bring to the part that my words alone could never bring.”
April Hernandez plays the pivotal role of Eva, a young Latina who, after witnessing her boyfriend committing a crime, becomes conflicted by guilt and the ramifications of testifying against him. Hernandez recognizes the importance of the journals and how the assignment helped Erin breakthrough with her students.
“Miss G gave out the journals as a way for them to express themselves privately,” she says. “They could say whatever they wanted to say and only she would read it. The kids felt like they were always being judged, but this situation had a comfort zone no one was going to judge or grade them on their grammar or anything. It was a huge breakthrough.”
Chosen for the role of Andre, a tough teen who is dealing with his brother being sentenced to life in prison and a mother suffering from fading health as a result of extended drug use, was Grammynominated artist Mario. In preparing to play the role, the young actor was at first intimidated, as the character’s experiences are similar to his own and strike close to home. In the end, however, he realized that he could draw on that well of personal experience to give an emotional, honest, and true portrayal. “Because of everything I experienced growing up, with my mother’s substance abuse problems, I didn’t know how it would affect me, or even if I’d be able to finish the movie,” he says. “But, I figured that would be best for me if I do a movie role, do one where I can connect with the character. It’s like that for every kid you see in the movie every actor actually experienced the same things they’re acting. They’d leave the set and go to these same types of situations.”
While a few members of the young cast had some acting experience, several had never acted before and went to a general casting call just for fun.
For Jason Finn, who portrays Marcus, one of the “writers” who has been living on the street after his mother threw him out, the experience of trying out for the film was something he lucked into. But to Jason, his decision to audition was a harbinger of some divine correction in his life which was no accident.
Jason had dropped out of high school and was living on the streets. In a bout of remorse and realizing the futility of his situation, he “dropped back in” to school and wandered into a video production class. There, he found he was able to “vent my anger and frustration,” he says, over a shootout he’d been involved in that nearly cost him his life. One thing led to another, and in turn, a production class interview led to an invitation by a student filmmaker to get involved in an independent film, “Mercy Street.” He really got involved, playing the lead role and even helping with the script by adding details from his own life.
One day, while filming “Mercy Street,” Jason visited his old high school - the one he had dropped out of and a teacher named Mr. Pullum, he says, asked him what he was “doing with his life.” He answered, “I’m doing an independent film,” to which the teacher responded that he should “try out for a real movie.” That project he tried out for turned out to be “Freedom Writers.” After three auditions, Jason received a call from a casting assistant, who cautioned, “If I were you I wouldn’t cut my hair.” From that day forward, Jason’s vocation was set.
“The newfound world of moviemaking and performance,” says Finn, “changed me on the inside and forced me to believe that I still had a chance to make it without selling drugs or living the street life.”
Jaclyn Ngan, who plays the role of Sindy, a Cambodian teen who spent years in a refugee camp, is a student at Los Angeles’ Fairfax High School and also had no prior acting experience.
“Three weeks after my last audition, I had totally forgotten about it,” recalls Ngan. “When I got the call I thought they had made a mistake, I was totally speechless.”
To remove any anxiety the nonactors may have had walking onto a film set for the first time, director LaGravenese reassured them that they were chosen for what he saw within them.
“The first time we all met for the big cast reading I thought it was important to tell them that they all belonged there and that nobody had anything to prove,” recalls LaGravenese. “I told them that I loved who they were and that whatever we did together started from that moment forward.”
“The first thing Richard said to me was, ‘You’re here because there is no better person to do this part.’ It put me at ease to know that he really believed in me,” Mario remembers. “He already knew what he wanted for this film and what he wanted to see; getting us all together was really emotional for him. You could see it in his eyes.”
The actors were not only chosen for their acting ability but for potentially sharing something with their character that they could bring to the role.
“I live in South Central and the lifestyle that I live is the same as my character Alejandro’s,” explains Montalvo. “I live in what society calls a bad area, where you hear gunshots every day and cops talking through megaphones. I grew up believing that cops were the enemy and falling asleep to the sound of helicopters. In my life, I walk outside of my doorstep looking for member of a rival gang, hoping I won’t get shot.”
“The film takes place right after the riots, when there was so much anger,” explains Hernandez. “These kids came from such intense backgrounds and no one had ever asked us how they felt. Miss G showed them that someone actually cared.”
After making such a strong connection with her students during their freshman and sophomore year, the thought of passing her class of Freedom Writers onto another teacher was too much to bear for both Erin and her students. Knowing that the administration, school board and fellow teachers wouldn’t be supportive of her effort to continue teaching her students for junior and senior year, Erin enlisted the support of educational superintendent Dr. Carl Cohn and argued her case. Considering the unconventional nature of what Erin was trying to do, it was important to writer/director Richard LaGravenese to present a fair and even outlook on all sides of the argument, whether they were proErin or not.
“It was important in writing the script that everybody’s pointofview was established and evenly based,” explains LaGravenese. “Those who were against Erin had to have balanced pointsofview so that it wasn’t so black and white that Erin was right and everyone else was wrong. What’s happening with education is a difficult situation; there are no easy answers, and I wanted to illustrate that.”
To play the role of Margaret Vail, Erin’s superior teacher and greatest adversary, the filmmakers cast Academy Award ® nominee Imelda Staunton to flesh out the complex character. Like many teachers who’ve taught in the system for several years, Margaret is threatened by change and only knows how to function within the existing system.
“My character, Margaret, has been teaching for thirty years and is very oldschool,” explain Staunton. “She is a very good teacher but is very stuck in her own ways. She doesn’t understand what Erin is trying to do and finds it very threatening. It seems to me that a lot of schools are stuck with bureaucracy and red tape, and some feel that if children can’t meet the standards, then there’s no sense in wasting precious resources to educate them. Erin challenges that notion and Margaret tries to stop her.”
Gruwell’s commitment to her students included helping to supplement the lack of funds for resources by taking additional parttime jobs to help buy books and finance special outings. Spending many late nights in the classroom or working at another job didn’t allow for a lot of time and energy for her marriage. Although Erin’s husband, Scott, was hugely supportive of her work, he was ultimately unable to go on the journey with her and had to let her go.
“When some of her students wanted to stay late after school and admitted to not having anywhere to go at night, how do you say, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t stay. You’re gonna have to figure it out?’” says Swank. “If they don’t have a place to do all the reading and writing you’re asking of them, then you have to give them that place. That kind of commitment took a toll on her marriage. Sometimes people’s callings are so strong that there’s not enough of a person to go around.”
Chosen for the role of Erin’s husband Scott was film and television star Patrick Dempsey, who is currently starring on the critically acclaimed television drama “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“I really wanted to be a part of this project because I think the ultimate message is more important now than ever,” explains Patrick Dempsey. “I think we have to take a look at the educational system in this country and revamp it. A lot of kids are getting lost in the system and we need more teachers like Erin Gruwell to step up and challenge the system, because it’s not always so black and white.”
Although it would have been easy to portray Scott and a bad guy and an unsupportive husband, the subtlety of Dempsey’s performance offers insight into the loving nature of their relationship and the sorrow of its demise.
“Scott was extremely supportive of Erin and is an important character in the story because it illustrates what she ultimately sacrifices for her work and the kids,” says the actor. “As the relationship with her students grew, it took them down two separate roads. What we tried to do was to develop the love, warmth, and intimacy of their relationship and progressively show it falling apart. When you’re that committed to something, there’s always a sacrifice on some level. Nothing comes easy.”
“There are so many characters in this film; to flesh them out and make them complete humans in a short amount of time is a difficult task,” explains Swank. “The role of Scott was a difficult one in that sense, but Patrick did so much with limited story time. As an actor, he embodies a lot of the attributes that make Scott a great character: he’s charismatic, smart, easygoing, and really cares. I think he did an amazing job.”
The veteran actor also has high praise for Hilary Swank. “Hilary never gives a cheap shot,” he continues. “She’s passionate, but at the same time, has a bluecollar mentality about the work she does. She is always right there, in the moment with you, and prepared always. She’s great.”
BECOMING FREEDOM WRITERS
In an attempt to maintain optimum realism and authenticity, writer/director Richard LaGravenese used materials gathered from his extensive research and interviews with the original Freedom Writers to develop the characters within the film.
A large part of maintaining the truth in storytelling was using real excerpts from the diaries within the film.
“Several of the Freedom Writers gave us permission to use their actual diaries in the script, so their own words and experiences are represented,” explains LaGravenese. “Nothing in the script or in the film is made up it’s either based on my interviews or on their diaries.”
“When we were first rehearsing, I remember the kids were very much in their shell,” recalls Swank. “They were trying to be very professional and confident, but didn’t really know what to expect from the experience. They slowly began to open up and allowed themselves to fall down and wear their hearts on their sleeve.”
“The camaraderie between them grew incredibly fast,” explains LaGravenese. “I found out during the rehearsal period that when I wasn’t around, the kids were doing trust exercises on their own and sharing the stories of their lives together. They began to get to know each other which mirrored scenes in the movie.”
Much like what was experienced by Erin Gruwell and her class of Freedom Writers, an important turn in the actors’ journey together occurred when visiting the Museum of Tolerance. It was at this point that the lines between reality and story began to bleed in to each other.
At the museum, the actors met with the Holocaust survivors who had met the original Freedom Writers: Renee Firestone, Eddie Ilam, Elisabeth Mann, and Gloria Ungar. The survivors appear in the film as themselves.
“After seeing the museum and listening to my story… I guess I was a symbol of hope for them,” says Firestone. “If I could live through what I lived through, they said, maybe they can go through what they have to go through. They come from different backgrounds, but they saw some hope for the future.”
“Being in her presence has been incredible,” says Mario. “Hilary’s funny and loves to have a good time, but when it’s time to roll she’s in the mode. I find it so incredible how she can get from one point of emotion to the next. I’ve tried to soak up everything I could from watching her and have learned so much.”
During the making of the film, the filmmakers didn’t expect the extent of transformation the actors experienced through the cathartic nature of the story. “When casting the actors to play the Freedom Writers, we never imagined the extent to which they were such kindred spirits with the original students,” says Stacey Sher. “This film proved to be a movement for these kids and their lives, and their experiences have begun to mirror that of the kids they’re portraying. It has really become a movie for them.”
“These kids’ experiences and what they’ve lived through are so intense,” comments Swank. “After this experience they are now realizing how much more their lives can be and to see that hope instilled in them is the biggest gift. They feel like my kids and I think every parent wants that for their kids. They want them to be hopeful for their future and to know that they can do anything they set their mind to.”
“I realize now that there’s a bigger world out there and a lot of opportunity to succeed,” says Montalvo. “Just like they matured, I realize that there’s more to life than what you see. When you stop looking with your eyes and start looking with your heart you realized that life is so much more.”
“Hilary and the kids became such good friends that whenever possible I would incorporate real moments witnessed on set into the film,” says LaGravenese. “One example of this is prior to shooting the ‘Line Game’ scene in the film I played music on set to get them in the mood. Mario and Deance started doing some incredible unrehearsed choreography and pulled Hilary into it and it became this wonderfully fun and intimate moment that I had to put into the movie.”
Hilary Swank appreciated Richard’s ability to inspire his actors, create organic moments and infuse his passion into the material. “Richard is one of my favorite writers and he brought so much passion, heart and soul to this film without being over sentimental,” says Hilary Swank. “Just like life, the film is gritty and honest and he directed with the exact same passion he writes with.”
“I really want a lot of the kids and parents who see the movie to understand that it’s no one’s right to judge another,” says Mario Barrett. “Wherever you may have grown up and whatever your experience has been doesn’t necessarily mean that your future is already set. You can be whatever you want to be and I think that every kid needs to know that.”
“In this country we dismiss kids who aren’t showing up for class or aren’t doing well and say that they can’t learn,” says Richard LaGravenese. “We never take that step that Erin Gruwell took to find out why and learn about the life they’re living on the streets, the poverty and the violence that they face everyday. After reading their words and hearing their stories you realize how can they possibly we thinking about homework or showing up on time? To me, the whole point was being able to tell a story that showed their lives and how a teacher listened and respected them enough to figure out how to teach them instead of letting them fall through the cracks.”
‘Freedom Writers’ is about looking within, finding out who you are and having the strength and courage to face whatever scares you and be the best you can be,” says Hilary Swank. “It’s about honoring everyone’s individuality because ultimately in the end we are all the same no matter what we think our differences are.”
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The Freedom Writers Diary : How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them (Paperback)