School Life/Neasa Ni Chianain and David Rane

A miracle occurs every day in northwest Ireland. For forty-nine years, the staff at the Headfort boarding school, chief among them John and Amanda Leyden, nurture the young students entrusted to their care to be the best they can possibly be: the most discerning learners, the kindest friends, the most caring citizens. Documentarians Neasa Ni Chianain and David Rane capture a year in the beautiful life of the Headfort boarding school. Availability: Opens September 8, IFC Center, New York City, with national rollout to follow. A Magnolia Pictures release. Thanks to Susan Norget, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: How did you discover this amazing place and these amazing people?

Amanda Leyden and Kevin, center, in a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Amanda Leyden and students in a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

NNC: It started with a hunt for a school for our children. We were living in the northwest of Ireland in a very rural community. We realized we needed something more diverse education-wise for our kids, so we started looking for schools. There’s not a huge choice in Ireland, but we realized we were going to have to move, and we found Headfort’s website. It was the parents’ comments that attracted us first, talking about the happiness of the child being at the core of the education, and we thought that was a really good starting point. We went there, we met them, we really loved the school, we decided to send our children there as day pupils, so we moved out as a family.

Then we realized this was a really special place. David and I have a history of boarding schools. I went to boarding school, David went to boarding school, I had a great experience and David had a traumatic experience, so we were really curious to see what a twenty-first-century boarding school looked like. Luckily the headmaster knew some of our previous work, so he was open to the idea, and that was it.

We discovered the Leydens, the teachers who are the main subjects of the film, a year into working on the film; we spent a year researching and getting to know all the people in the school, the other teachers, the staff, and the parents, and then we spoke to a lot of alumni. We asked them what their experience at Headfort was, and it was John and Amanda’s names that kept coming up. But at this point, John and Amanda Leyden didn’t like the idea of a film being made about the school. I didn’t understand why, and they were very hesitant, so it took about a year to get them on board.

DT: How did you finally do that?

NNC: I think over time they realized we were really serious about making a film, and they got to know us, and they got to know our kids slowly, and I think they kind of liked us. One day at the end of the summer term they invited us to their house for tea. And that was it. About a week later they came back to us and said, “OK, you’re going to do this? We’re in.”

 

DT: Who founded the school, and what was the philosophy when it was founded?

At a concert by the school band, a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

At a concert by the school band, a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

DC: It was founded by Lord and Lady Headfort. It was the ancestral home of Lord Headfort. They were Anglo-Irish, which means they would have come over and been part of the settlers who colonized Ireland. They decided there was a need for a school for children of other Anglo-Irish people, because it was a predominantly Catholic school system. So they set it up. Lady Headfort did that while they were still living there. They moved into one wing of the big house and set up a school in the other wing. Over time Lord and Lady Headfort ran out of money. That often happens with large ancestral homes. They allowed the school to continue. Finally the school raised the money to actually buy the Harry Potter building, and forty acres of woodlands. The rest Lord Headfort sold to developers, golf courses, the usual sort of thing. The school changed then, it became nondenominational, it didn’t cater just for the Protestant community.

It was a boys-only school the first ten, fifteen years, then a couple of daughters of staff were allowed in. That happened a lot in single-sex schools, the children of staff, if they were girls, were allowed to attend the school, and eventually it opened up. It became more and more progressive to the point where the current headmaster would call himself a Marxist. He taught for fifteen years at the Dalton School in Manhattan, and he would have a very progressive attitude toward education. I think that shows in our film. He believes in encouraging children to discuss and debate issues rather than feeding them facts and telling them this is the truth, this is the fact, this is what you have to learn.

 

DT: How did the Leydens fit into the history of the school?

NNC: When we were filming, they were there forty-six years. They both came as young teachers. It was their first jobs. They came independently, they met at the school, and a couple of years later they married. They’ve always lived on the grounds of the school. They raised a family there, and thankfully they’re still teaching there. They’re now into their forty-ninth year teaching.

 

DT: Can you talk a little bit about shooting? You got some remarkably intimate moments, but I’m also curious about how you knew which stories to follow.

NNC: In terms of the children we didn’t know which stories to follow. Basically we shot over three years. We ended up using the footage from the first year to raise funding for the film, because it was 2012 when Ireland was coming out of the crash, and nobody wanted to fund a film about a private school. So we had to shoot footage before people were finally convinced that this was something unique.

In the film you see the footage from the second year. We asked the headmaster from the very beginning if we could have a room in the school where we could hang about when we weren’t filming, because we knew that we had to become part of the furniture and part of the daily routine of the children’s lives so there was no big fuss when the film crew arrived to shoot.

DC: It’s important to note that the film crew was just the two of us. Neasa was doing camera and I was doing sound, and we were also the parents of two children in the school, so we were accepted very easily by the children. That was a critical thing, because children at that age, they played up a little bit for the first week and jumped in front of the camera and pulled faces and all the things that ten-, eleven-, twelve-year-olds do, and then they completely forgot about us. We were invisible to them and they just got on with their lives. We got that intimacy because they trusted us and they allowed us into their space.

The painfully shy Eliza with John Leyden and bandmate in a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The painfully shy Eliza with John Leyden and bandmate in a scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

NNC: We had an idea of what children we were interested in, but we made a rule that we wouldn’t let the child know that we were focusing on him or her because we didn’t want them to carry that throughout the whole year. We filmed with everybody in all the classes, and we filmed things we knew we weren’t going to use that wouldn’t give us stories. It was in the editing that we could really figure out when we had a complete story arc.

We were always interested in Eliza. Eliza was just cinematically captivating from the very beginning, but had she not come out of herself at the end I don’t think we would have used that footage—we wouldn’t have suspended her in this kind of painfully shy state.

For our three main characters we got consent from all the parents, and we made sure they were OK with the storylines we were pulling out of the footage. We said to the parents of Kev, “He’s going to be featured in the film, are you OK with that?” And Kev said, “It’s not possible, Mom, they never filmed me.”

DC: As documentarians we didn’t have an idea of what the observational film would follow. We were following the surrogate family—the idea that all of these staff and teachers and matrons, the women who look out for the care of the children, the nurse, even down to the grounds staff and the kitchen staff, all had the role of surrogate parents. The original title of the film was In Loco Parentis, which means ‘in place of parents.’ We were trying to understand how surrogate family could possibly step in and be there instead of the parents. As documentarians we knew what to follow. The children fit in there, and then slowly we discovered the stories of the children.

 

DT: Let’s talk about the editing phase. You film has been compared to Frederick Wiseman’s work. Was that intentional? He assembles sequences and then he assembles the film from the assembled sequences. Is that how you worked? In the footage that you thought you were just going to throw away, did you discover anything that you ended up keeping?

NNC: We were very influenced by direct cinema  like D. A. Pennebaker, Wiseman, and Kim Longinotto, a female filmmaker in the UK. They were our three heroes. Yes, our approach is similar to Wiseman’s in the sense that because we shot for over three years we had over 450 hours of footage. We decided in the end that we would only use footage from the second year for coherence sake, because children change, and that we were going to hang the film on “a year in the life of” idea. Then we whittled that down to twenty-five hours of our favorite scenes. We always knew that John and Amanda Leyden would be main characters, and then the children who wove in and out of their lives became our primary focus. So it was a process, it took a year, and it was a process of whittling it down.

 

DT: Did you film your own kids?

CNN: Not much. We didn’t focus on them. As it happened, our daughter was in John’s class, so she features a little bit more just because she’s there.

 

DT: Your point was to ask the question, Can boarding schools function as surrogate family? What’s the answer, given your experience at Headfort?

CNN: I think very much so. From what we witnessed of John and Amanda, there’s a well-worn path to their house. On any weekend you’ll find a fifteen-year-old or a twenty-year-old staying with them or coming to visit with them or have lunch with them. John is in constant contact with the kids that have been in the school. They all keep in touch. Amanda still talks about them as “our kids.” “Oh, he’s one of ours,” she’ll say.

DC: They act like parents. They say, “Our kids are coming back. What should we feed them?” The surrogate family is very, very strong at Headfort.

 

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