Four-time Emmy Nominated Executive Producer/Director Craig Zisk has spent the past two decades crafting some of the best television programming available. Luckily for film fans, he has finally made the jump to feature filmmaking. ‘The English Teacher,’ is a lively comedy that is filled with some of the industry’s brightest talents — Julianne Moore, Michael Angarano, Greg Kinnear, Lily Collins and Nathan Lane. The film centers around Linda Sinclair (Julianne Moore), a forty-year-old unmarried high school English teacher in the small town of Kingston, Pennsylvania. She shares a small apartment with two Siamese cats and her rich collection of great literature. She maintains no close personal relationships aside from those she has with her favorite authors and stories. Her life is far less complicated than the dramas she devours on the page, and she likes it that way.
But Linda’s simple life turns an unexpected page when former star pupil Jason Sherwood (Michael Angarano) returns to Kingston after trying to make it as a playwright in New York. Now in his 20s, Jason is on the verge of abandoning art, pressured by his overbearing father, Dr. Tom Sherwood (Greg Kinnear), to face reality and go to law school. Linda can’t stand the thought of Jason giving up on his dreams so she decides to mount his play – a dark, angst-ridden, ambitious work – as a Kingston High School production, with flamboyant drama teacher Carl Kapinas (Nathan Lane) directing.
As Linda, now well out of her normal comfort zone, takes further risks in life and love, the stage is set for highly comic downfall. With the play, her reputation, and her teaching career on the line, Linda finds an unlikely ally in herself. Amidst the ruins of her formerly perfect life, can she find a way to her own unique storybook ending?
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with director Craig Zisk to discuss is early years in the entertainment industry, the challenges of making his feature film debut, what is talented cast brought to the project and more!
Thanks for talking time out to talk to us today, Craig. I wanted to find out what it was about the entertainment industry that intrigued you and made you pursue it as a career?
Woah! good question! I was always attracted to the arts. When I was a kid, anytime there was a school play or any activity that revolved around art, I had an instant attraction to. I also watch a lot of television as a kid. I was fortunate enough to have a TV in my room and I was never a great sleeper, even as a room kid I would just leave the TV on and watch and watch and watch. It seemed like a fantasy world and I wanted to be a part of it! Fortunately, it all worked out in my favor!
Who would you cite as your biggest influences, be it other directors or a personal mentor?
A big personal mentor for me, who is highly responsible for the early part of my career, is Gary David Goldberg. I had met him when I was in my teens. I became friendly with his family and when I moved out to here to go to USC, I stayed in touch with him, and while I was still in school, he hired me as a PA on “Family Ties”. I had one other prior internship but that was really my first experience working on a show. At the time, “Family Ties” was a huge hit. It was in it’s fourth or fifth year and to be around that was amazing. Gary was incredibly generous. There is a long list of people who would say his mentoring is legendary. He really wants to see people succeed and gives you the opportunity to do that. A few years after that, after I had started producing, he had spoken with CBS and had the show ‘Brooklyn Bridge’ picked up. He hadn’t written it yet and asked me if I would come on as a producer. He hadn’t done a great deal as a producer because he hadn’t done a great deal of single camera work he had mostly done multi-camera work. I said “Yeah! Anything for you!” and I asked if there would ever be a chance for me to direct. He said “If it goes for a second season, I will give you the opportunity.” That was invaluable. It really launched my directing career. It was also the best experience I have had on a television series throughout my entire career. He is such a mensch and is so supportive, even to this day! It has been really great!
As you mentioned, you got your start in television and you have an amazing resume in that medium. What made you feel now was the right time to make the jump to the big screen with your first feature?
I had been seriously reading features for about five years. They were being sent to me to see if I had any interest and I would read the majority of them. I had the same feeling with all of them — just doing a movie to do a movie doesn’t make sense. I wanted to find material that was as good or better than what I was working on in television which is pretty spectacular. I spent seven or eight years at Showtime on ‘Weeds,’ ‘United States of Tara’ and ‘Nurse Jackie’. Those shows are so well-crafted and the production value we were putting into those shows was so high, I felt like going off to do a studio movie where I was questioning the material or a little indie film I wasn’t sure was the right package didn’t make sense. I was very patient. When the script for “The English Teacher” was sent to me, my representation said “I think this is one you are really going to like!” They had heard me picking up the phone or sending out an email before saying “Ehhhh, this is just not the one for me!” I think they were getting semi-frustrated! [laughs] I read this script and they were absolutely right! I instantly fell in love with it. It spoke to me in so many ways, not only with it’s themes but it’s style and tone. At that point, I had a meeting set up with the producers for the next day because they were going out of town. I did everything I could to get this movie! Fortunately, it all worked out because I am really proud of the film. I had a great script to start with and an obviously amazing cast. We all feel like we elevated the material and made a great movie!
Absolutely! You cast was absolutely terrific. Did anyone bring something to the table that you might not have expected going into the project?
Julianne [Moore] is so spectacular. She is a great person and I can’t imagine a better actor to be working with on my first feature. She does all of the little things that make a good actor great! We really saw her part in a very similar way, which obviously helps. She has such nuance in her performance and you never know what you are going to get with each take. They are similar enough that you could interchange but all so different in their little specific moments that you get a lot of options. I would say the biggest change from script to screen was in Nathan Lane’s character. That part went through the largest re-write. It wasn’t a large change but done to tailor the part to Nathan. We had long discussions about what his character could be. It was written much more flamboyant and much more over the top. I didn’t want that for the character and he definitely didn’t want to do his character from “The Birdcage” or “Modern Family”. We really thought about it and I pitched him an idea on who this guy could be. He really liked that idea and that let us give the character a little more depth and do a little more re-writing for his stuff. I was so blessed with everyone from Julianne, all the way down to the one or two line actors. I also had terrific performances Jessica Hecht, Norbert Leo Butz and a few others who I had worked with before. It is always fun to show up to shoot because you never know what you are going to get and I would just sit at the monitor, laugh and hoped what I was seeing would translate into the final product and I think it did!
Looking back on the entire process of making this film, what do you consider the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge was the schedule. We shot the movie in 23 days, which is not a lot of time. I was used to shooting fairly quickly from my television background. Vanja Cernjul, who is the director of photography, had worked together on a previous project. We spent a lot of time in prep mapping everything out so when we got to location, we wouldn’t be wasting our time lighting or coming up with new angles. Obviously, things happen on the day but we wanted to ensure we were leaving enough time for the acting. It was a challenge but I think we did a pretty good job. There were no major headaches. The cast was so well prepared. We did not rehearse beforehand, so I was seeing most everything for the first time on the day we did the table read and that was it. I really feel like things lined up and worked out great. What was crazy was that we were shooting in New York in the Fall. There is a scene at a cafe where it is raining outside when Jason [played by Michael Angarano] is signing the paperwork. It was scripted as rain and it actually rained that day. When we finished the scene and moved on to the next one, it stopped raining. We had one day, on a Saturday, where it snowed five inches! Obviously, we didn’t want any snow in the movie! Luckily, by Monday it was cleared up! I feel like someone was watching over us to make sure this was going to come out ok! [laughs]
Have you given thought to your next project and is a return to the world of feature film something that’s on your short list?
Yeah, definitely! I am reading scripts now. “The English Teacher” has been out on VOD for a few weeks now and is starting up in the theaters on May 17th, so that helps in terms of the scripts that are coming my way. I am doing a lot of reading now and will likely go back to do some television because I really enjoy the process and like to continue to directing but the near future definitely holds another feature!
That is great news! I really enjoyed your work! Thanks so much for taking time out to talk with us today!
Thank you so much! I really appreciate it!