Freedom Writers: Written and Directed by Richard LaGravenese

After reading about Erin Gruwell and The Freedom Writers in a 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.

Oscar-nominated writer-director 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 self-righteousness 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 reflects that.”

Two-time Oscar 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 self deprecating 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. She’s 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.”

Realism and Authenticity

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.”

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.

Over the course of a few years of writing the drafts, I continually kept Erin and the Freedom Writers included,” recalls LaGravenese. “I asked a lot of questions, conducted endless interviews, participated in their events and eventually earned their trust. I promised them that I would do the most honest representation possible.” 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 upit’s either based on my interviews or on their diaries.”

In preparation for the start of production, Richard LaGravenese, Hilary Swank and the cast of inexperienced actors playing her students went through an intense rehearsal period. Throughout the process, the relationships among the kids began to mirror that of their characters as they became more enveloped by the open nature of the film.

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.

Holocaust Museum

“When Erin took the kids to the Holocaust Museum, it proved to be a huge bonding experience for them,” explains Swank. “Similarly, when we were first getting to know each other during the first week of rehearsals, we went to the museum and it was the exact same experience for us. We bonded strongly over how those stories affected us. It was definitely life imitating art at that point.”

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.”

Montalvo recalls going to the Museum and the powerful impression it made on him. “When I came out of there I couldn’t laugh or smile after seeing that. Richard saw that, pulled me in his office and I broke down. He and Hilary both explained to me how I could use what I was feeling for my character.

Working with Hilary was almost working with a Mom,” continues Montalvo. “When youre having a bad day she makes you laugh and embraces you. She’s such a humble person. It’s just like the Bible says: ‘Whoever humbles himself is gonna be lifted up.’ She’s amazing.”

“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.”

Writing Real Moments into the Script

During the making of the film, LaGravenese witnessed real moments between the actors and wrote them into the film. “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.”

Challenging Intolerance

“What is so compelling about this story is how through learning about the Holocaust, Sarajevo and other enormous conflicts these students came to really understand both what violence creates and to understand the joy you can have in your life,” says Sher. “The film is about challenging intolerance, because intolerance is the fundamental thing that sparks a Holocaust, gang wars, drive-by shootings or any form of racism. Once you decide that people are people and let down your guard, all those issues begin to fall away.”

“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.”