At Tribeca, we love a good story, and writer/director Chris Modoono has one for the Festival record books. Back at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, we were charmed by Teacher of the Year, directed by Modoono and co-written by Modoono and Gil Zabarsky (who also stars). The funny short follows Ethan Collins, a depressed, foul-mouthed elementary school teacher, whose obsession with his wife’s recent infidelity consumes his lesson plans, much to the shock and awe of his young class. Cut to three years later, Modoono and Zabarsky are returning to the Festival to celebrate the world premiere of Tenured, their feature adaptation of their hilarious short. How did Modoono do it? Modoono fills us in on how things came together, his process and why short form storytelling is a vital experience for any director. Before you read our interview, watch the short that started it all:
Tribeca: A lot can happen in just three years! How did you get started down the road to making Tenured? Can you talk about the impetus behind the character of Ethan Collins?
Chris Modoono: Gil and I had worked on other short film before Teacher of the Year back in 2012. He pitched me this really funny idea about an adult teacher speaking to a child like he would a therapist. Gil started to do the character for me so the idea for Teacher of the Year was really birthed during an improv session. We’d always wanted to write something together, so we sat down and started asking each other questions. Why would the character be like this? What would cause a teacher to start acting in this manner? That’s when we started to develop the backstory and really began to develop the character of Ethan Collins.
Tribeca: Did you always intend to make your TFF 2012 short, Teacher of the Year, into a feature?
CM: No, we didn’t at all actually [laughs]. I think we had discussed it at some point but that possibility wasn’t even on our radar. We were actually in the middle of writing another feature together, which we have since turned into a pilot for a TV show that we’re going to try and shoot this year. We wanted to use Teacher of the Year to promote that project, and someone from Fox Digital Studio saw the short on Funny Or Die. They reached out to us to see if we were thinking of doing a feature, and things developed from there.
Tribeca: How did you and Gil tackle the challenge of expanding your short film into a feature-length film?
CM: There were a couple challenges involved. If you’ve seen Teacher of the Year, you know that quite a few scenes from the short made it into the feature version, Tenured. However, the original meaning of those scenes had changed in this new context.The audience is able to spend so much more time with Ethan, which enriches its understanding of the story. I had to be careful not to try and match everything from our original short. Though they share the main characters and the setting, Tenured is a completely different story from Teacher of the Year. You’re spending 85 minutes with Ethan Collins instead of 17 minutes. Everything takes on a new meaning. We just had so many opportunities to develop and expand the characters and the scenes from the short film.
I would literally leave the set feeling like I stole something everyday.
Tribeca: I know exactly what you mean. For instance, Miss Brentfield’s speech about the cheerleading tryouts is in one context for the short film and in an entirely different one for the feature.
CM: Absolutely. That’s a great example about how we were able to enhance those moments from the short. Originally, it was just supposed to be a funny story she told Ethan that had the opposite effect of what she intended. In the feature, though, her speech is a much more connective moment for the two teachers whose relationship can develop over the course of the longer film.
Tribeca: Teacher of the Year premiered at TFF 2012. Tenured will premiere at TFF 2015. Essentially, you turned your short into a feature in only three years. How long were you and Gil working on the script?
CM: [laughs] We started the first draft in the middle of May 2014. Fox Digital Studios had only reached out to us in March or April. They asked us if we wanted to do it, and we said “sure.” We turned in our first draft on July 1st and then a second one in the middle of the same month. Our first day of real production was in early September. A long time passed between the short and the feature, but the amount of time we took to go from zero pages to the script for a finished feature was insane.
Tribeca: Can you describe a typical screenwriting session between you and Gil?
CM: Of course! It started out with us playing two to two and half hours of Super Smash Brothers on Nintendo 64 [laughs], which was essential to the process. After that, we’d finally write for two and half to three hours. Part of our secret for getting the script done so quickly was that we already had 15 or 20 pages of the short written, which was a great jumping off point. Also, with my experience as a teacher and Gil’s experience as a student at NYU, we both brought a lot to the writing process. We had a bunch of table reads, and because of that, we knew these characters so well and had so many ideas for where the story could go. Because of those factors, Tenured wasn’t the most challenging project Gil and I have written together. We had a great base to build on.
Tribeca: Tenured is hilarious, but it manages to feel really organic rather than contrived. Did you encourage improvisation on set?
CM: One of the big advantages of doing the short beforehand was that I really developed a trust in members of the returning cast like Gil and Kathleen Littlefield. I knew they knew their characters so well and had great comedic instincts. It was important for me just to let them have fun. Both Gil and Kathleen were more expert on their characters than I was, even though I helped to create the roles. Also, many of the actors who joined us like, Kate Flannery, had a lot of improve experience. So I would have them do one take of the scene that was scripted and one take in which they could experiment, if there was time. Plus, when you’re working with children, there’s so much spontaneity going on that you don’t want to kill the creative things they want to try. That’s the interesting part of being a kid.
Also, we had one day that I called our “adult day” when Marc Evan Jackson came in to play a member of the school board. I had him and Kate Flannery together in the same room, so I just tried to get out of the way once we got the shot, you know? They are so good at improv and finding that joke in the moment. They just went for it every take.
Tribeca: While Gil and Kathleen Littlefield reprise their roles from the short, some actors are new to the project. Most notably, Kate Flannery from The Office now plays the Assistant Principal, who is Ethan’s nemesis, instead of Rachel Dratch. Can you talk about the casting process?
CM: I’ve always loved Kate’s work, especially from The Office. I think she’s just fantastic. Rachel Dratch was obviously amazing in Teacher of the Year. I just have the highest respect for her, but at the time we were set to start filming, she was in a play on Broadway. She just wasn’t available. Also, the Assistant Principal role is different from the short to the feature. Kate just really made it her own and brought a lot of great ideas to the project.
Tribeca: Were there any “wow” moments that occurred while you were making Tenured?
CM: We had only a 12 day production period, which is an insanely short time for a feature film. My “wow” moment was getting in the car at night and realizing that I had gotten through the day. We got all the shots we allotted for each day and never once went over schedule. I would literally leave the set feeling like I stole something everyday. We got what we wanted to get—what we thought was really good stuff—and it was so satisfying for me and Gil as writers to see our original intentions being met. Everything was happening right in front of our eyes! On a 12 day shooting schedule, the reality is you usually are going to have to make some sacrifices, but we never really did. We got everything we wanted.
Tribeca: For comedies, the editing process is extremely important. Can you talk about working with Bryan Gaynor to hone the timing and pacing of the comic scenes?
CM: Bryan did such a great job. He was actually recommended to me for his work on this little movie called How To Be A Man. He’s also an NYU alum. He was fantastic, especially since we had such a short turnaround. When I showed up to start working with him, he already had most of the film in a rough cut for me to watch. Bryan himself has an amazing sense of comedic timing. Actually, he has the same comic sensibilities as Gil and me. He brought a lot of great ideas to the table and understood the comedy we were going for. As a director, I had a specific idea of how the film should be cut, but I’d like to think I’m smart enough to know when someone has a better idea. There were so many times that Bryan had a great suggestion to move something here or cut there that worked so well. He really brought so many smart, funny ideas to the table.
This movie was shot in such an insanely short period of time, so the amount of useable material was whittled way down [laughs]. We weren’t sitting in the edit room with the burden of choice. Sometime there wasn’t another option or different line read or angle, and Bryan just made it all work together beautifully anyway.
To me, short filmmaking is important, but short films are not the only outlet available to aspiring filmmakers anymore.
Tribeca: So many young filmmakers want to skip short filmmaking and jump right into feature length narratives. Why do you think short filmmaking is important?
CM: To me, short filmmaking is important, but short films are not the only outlet available to aspiring filmmakers anymore. If you have the ability to go do a web series or something using one of the other storytelling outlets, you should go do that. You should work a lot. If you want to be a director you should direct as much as possible and run into all the scenarios and opportunities that come along before you attempt to direct a feature. That way you will have some experience on how to troubleshoot issues or answer questions that you will be asked.
Short films give you that experience, which is invaluable. Though, one thing I didn’t feel prepared for—even though I’ve done shorts and web series—is that feature filmmaking requires that you shoot much more out of order than what you might be used to. You have to shoot out of order for budgetary reasons, but I found it challenging to keep everything straight in my mind for storytelling purposes. You have to remember what you did at the end of Day 2 to make that scene you’re shooting on Day 8 work. You have to worry about how that’s going to cut. I think you can only experience that kind of stress and pressure when you make your first feature.
Tribeca: What are you most looking forward to at this year’s Festival?
CM: Well, I just moved to L.A this November so I’m excited to come back and have a bagel [laughs]. As far as the Festival goes, I’m excited and also nervous about the idea that my work is going to fill up the entire block of time that the audience is coming for. With Teacher of the Year, it was part of a program of short films made by a bunch of amazing filmmakers. Bryan Buckley’s short ASAD was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short that year!
I felt so lucky that my work was in such a great block of films. If people didn’t like my short, they would still leave happy because they had to like one of the others in the program like ASAD. Now, my work is going to fill up the entire block. Will they like the movie? Will they be entertained? Hopefully, the answer is yes. If not, I’ll just do a lot of big fake laughter from the back of the house [laughs].