It had been six years of reading scripts, veto-ing scripts and dreaming of that perfect script for Craig Zisk. ”As much as I wanted to direct a movie,” he says during our one on one talk, “I wanted it to be the right one.” Zisk may be a first time feature director, but he is no newbie; his repertoire includes directing TV shows such as Weeds, Parks and Recreation, American Horror Story and countless others. Zisk’s experience in directing the comedy/drama genre earned him 4 prime time Emmy nominations and one win, a pretty solid accomplishment for someone still breaking into the industry. Even though he was happy with his Emmy noms and TV life, Zisk was still aiming for that feature script.
So patiently he waited, until one day he got a call while on set of United States of Tara, and this time it was different. “My agent/manager said there was a script he wanted to send to me [that night], they want to talk about it tomorrow morning… one of the producers wanted to meet me for breakfast somewhere near the airport because he’s literally getting on a plane [to New York City]. ‘Would you read it tonight?’ he said, ‘because I think you’d really like the script.’” Zisk recalls reading the script and falling for it from page one, ”I knew exactly how I wanted to shoot it,” he said. ”How I wanted the color pallets to be… it was so clear to me.”
Not only was Zisk’s vision for the film well received, his priority casting choices were also met. Julianne Moore and Nathan Lane were his top choices for the roles of passionate nerd Linda Sinclair and over-the-top theater teacher Carl Kapinas. When The English Teacher finally got into the hands of Julianne after about 6 months, Zisk explains that “everything fell into place at that point.” The most difficult role to cast for was the role of Jason Sherwood, the lovable guy who you want to root for but makes it sort of difficult. “Julianne told me that she was at this party,” said Zisk, “and she was talking to somebody and told them about the movie and this part [of Jason] and they told her ‘Have you heard of this guy Michael Angarano?’” Zisk said that wasn’t the first time Michael’s name had been thrown around and decided to give him a shot at an audition. Angarano was filming The Brass Teapot at the time and took a break on set to jump on Skype to meet with Zisk. “He just did such a great job,” said Zisk, “Once he fell into place I felt like, ‘ok, we’ve got a movie!’”
Greg Kinnear and Lily Collins were also eager to do an indie film and were both on board with Craig and his vision for The English Teacher. With only 23 days to shoot the movie, Zisk assembled his all star cast and started production in New York. The one notable quality that Zisk brought over from his days in TV was his approach to pre-production. “We didn’t do any rehearsals in this movie; we did a table read, I took some notes… we’d rehearse on the day right before we’d shoot but we did no pre-production rehearsals. It was something that Julianne felt strongly about and something that I agreed with, especially in comedy that it can get stale pretty quick if you rehearse too much.”
What Zisk brings to the screen feels like a feature length TV show (maybe inspired from his directing days on Glee) but nonetheless he creates a balanced comedy/drama film with an encouraging message about following dreams and pursuing goals. The English Teacher brings out some of the best in Julianne Moore as Linda Sinclair, the reserved, literary-obsessed cat lady with a heart of gold and Michael Angarano as Jason Sherwood, the failed New York playwright who returned to visit Ms. Sinclair for advice on his latest script. Jason’s over-bearing father is played by Greg Kinnear, a solid addition to the cast of notable actors. Nathan Lane plays the theater teacher and Linda’s colleague, and is definitely the scene stealer. The English Teacher does come with a few surprises, but for the most part, it’s setup as the typical 3 act film that’s pretty straight forward. Funny? Yes. Dramatic? Somewhat. Memorable? I’m not too sure, but if you’re looking for a feel good, everybody wins, happy film, The English Teacher is just the film for you.
The English Teacher opens in theaters Friday, May 17th