Teaching Themselves

The filmmakers, cast, and crew of 'Chalk' learned valuable lessons with little in the way of a plan or a budget

(l-r) Graham Davidson, Mike Akel, Mike McAlister, Angie Alvarez, Chad Darbyshire, Chris Mass
(l-r) Graham Davidson, Mike Akel, Mike McAlister, Angie Alvarez, Chad Darbyshire, Chris Mass (Photo By Mary Sledd)

Travis High School, August 2004

School is out, but something's going on. Laughter reverberates through the hallways. People wander around carrying clipboards and extension cords. It's 105 degrees outside. And inside, a movie is being made. Everyone's working 12 hours a day, six days a week, for no pay on a feature film written and directed by two guys who've never been on a professional film set before. Shot on a mini-DV camera for a budget of $10,000, Chalk is the brainchild of co-writers and former public high school teachers Mike Akel and Chris Mass. Gathering together all of their friends and resources, they're attempting to tell the story of three public high school teachers and one assistant principal over the course of a school year.

Three years later, the film has toured the festival circuit; won three grand jury awards, two audience awards, and three best ensemble awards; and received an Independent Spirit Award nomination. Akel and Mass have secured an agent and a manager and signed a two-picture deal with Universal Studios. The film has been well-reviewed by Variety, Los Angeles Times, and The Hollywood Reporter and is the first theatrical release under the label Morgan Spurlock Presents. And on the eve of Chalk's theatrical release in Austin, the place of its birth, cast and crew – several of them my close friends – look back on their long journey.

"Mike was teaching, and he kept saying, 'I have to make a film,'" recalls story editor Chad Darbyshire. "I told him, 'Go and write your first page. You will slip into depression if you don't start now.'" Partnering with childhood friend and fellow teacher Mass, Akel began writing the story in 2003 during the predawn mornings before class. Both knew that this film could be their last opportunity to transition from teachers who make movies into filmmakers who used to be teachers.

"You kind of get to a point when you think, well I don't know how much I can have people volunteer for free anymore," Akel says. "This was our last shot."

Adds Mass: "My wife was like, 'This is a really expensive hobby. You could do more biking.' [Laughing] We really had those discussions."

As relatively new teachers (both taught for three years: Akel at Travis High School and Mass at Lanier), they'd both heard the veterans joke that half of their peers will have quit within the first three years. This warning became their starting point. Previously, the two had collaborated on a 60-minute comedy, Butcher's 15. While they knew that Chalk would be funny, they also wanted to reveal some of the reality of the teaching experience. Says Akel: "As teachers, we both had a lot of strong opinions about the profession. But we didn't want to push an agenda. We wanted to tell a story from inside the world of teachers. So, while we knew the film would possess an underlying comedic tone, we didn't want the satire to be insulting."

Intending to employ a mockumentary style, they mapped out a scene structure with emotional objectives and characters, but left most of the dialogue to the actors. One of the film's producers, Angie Alvarez, says, "Mike was writing but didn't even know how to format it. I remember researching how to get my hands on a script, and we wound up buying the Spinal Tap script. And that screenplay became the outline for how you write mockumentaries."

Akel and Mass recruited their good friends and former Austinites to play the lead roles, among them Shannon Haragan as an assistant principal who's in over her head, while husband and wife Troy and Janelle Schremmer portray a frustrated first-year teacher and creative PE coach, respectively. Mass rounds out the cast as an ego-obsessed veteran teacher.

"The actors dictated each scene based on the character arcs Chris and I had given them," Akel says. "As a result, the camera operators and sound recorders were at the mercy of the actor's intuition." Calling on former students and friends, Akel and Mass populated the classrooms with everyone they knew. They even wound up recruiting the second assistant director, Jeff Guerrero, to play a background teacher. (His improvs remain some of the funniest scenes in the film.)

After production wrapped, the laborious editing process began. A plot needed to be mined from more than 60 hours of footage. As the story editor and contributing writer, Darbyshire was recruited to help structure the film. He remembers the beginning of the editing process: "Mike was totally exhausted, and so was everyone on the production team. But I was never more fired up; I was laughing my ass off at all the footage. I told Mike, 'You totally have something.'" Executive producer Mike McAlister: "I immediately felt like we had something special, even watching the dailies." Still, once the editing began, the struggle continued.

Executive Producer David Gonzales' House in Austin, January 2005

Key members of the cast and crew gather for the first screening of the rough cut. "It was a big night," Alvarez says. "It's the first time that we were seeing the cut. I remember watching it and feeling really disappointed. Dave's famous line afterward was 'So, what's the story?'"

The film's other producer, Graham Davidson, admits that "it didn't have much of a story. It felt like a random collection of scenes." He smiles. "Not that the movie has any story as it is."

But that became something to embrace.

"Let's say this is much more a slice-of-life film, an emotional picture versus an event-driven film," Davidson says. "It took us some time to realize that and really take hold of it." Over the next year, the team, including Darbyshire, Davidson, Akel, and editor Bob Perkins, accelerated its focus, honing and refining.

Recalls Darbyshire, "We had to make some very tough decisions all the time. There was tons of footage that could have turned this film into a dark film, a flippant film, or a sarcastic film. But at the end of the day, the film loves teachers, and that's why people walk away with this strange hope and this empathy for teachers, and that's why the film is successful."

Late in 2005, time came for the first festival submissions. And the first rejections. "Just like any filmmaker, we had hopes of Sundance and at least, if nothing else, South by Southwest," Alvarez says. "I mean, hello! We're Austinites! But no. Just a string of disappointments: Sundance, Slamdance, South by." When they opened up their scope, they realized there were a lot of festivals that did want them. But it wasn't until they traveled to the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Mo., in February 2006 for their first screening that they had any idea of what was to come.

Davidson: "The whole town already knew about us. That was the first time we'd been able to see the response, and it was a huge affirmation and a huge blessing."

Alvarez: "It was dumbfounding to see the consistency of the audience response and the warm reception."

The film began to pick up momentum at other festivals, including Cinequest, Independent Film Festival of Boston, the Los Angeles Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival.

Davidson: "Each festival we'd think, well, nothing could top the last one. We'd show up to a theatre right before the screening, and we'd wonder, 'Wow, what's the hot film at this festival?' And we'd naively ask, 'What film are you here to see?' And they'd say, 'Chalk.'"

Alvarez: "There were a lot of ideals that, yeah, we'll premiere at Sundance and get picked up by a studio and get millions of dollars. It's humbling. There were no bidding wars. We had to prove festival after festival that people are responding. We held acquisitions screenings, made phone calls to producers' reps, and everyone loves the film, but no one's buying," Alvarez continues. "Meanwhile, years are going by, and you start to wonder."

West Hollywood, Calif., August 2006

Chalk has played packed screenings at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and the team is there to promote the film. Akel and crew are hosting a party. In the crowd, Akel spots Morgan Spurlock. Encouraged by friends, Akel approaches Spurlock to introduce himself.

"I didn't know anything about Morgan Spurlock Presents," Akel says. "I just knew I wanted to meet him." Unbeknown to Akel, Spurlock had just finished an interview that day about his new distribution company aimed at helping those interesting little films that just need one break.

"I watched Chalk and thought it was so funny and so brilliant," Spurlock says. "This was really the whole reason we started the distribution line. Here's a film that cleaned up at every festival, played packed houses, everyone loved it, and no one was stepping forward and saying, 'We want to put this out.'"

After that, things happened pretty fast.

Mass: "The wild card for me was one day, a New York number came up, and I thought it was one of the actors, and this voice said, 'Hey, it's Morgan Spurlock.' And I'm like, 'Well, hello, Mr. Morgan Spurlock.' We talked about the movie, and I figured, 'I guess he actually watched it.'"

Spurlock's company decided to give the film a theatrical release. "The more we heard about the response to the film and talked to Mike and Chris, the more we thought we should really let this movie have a shot," Spurlock says. "And as soon as it got the Independent Spirit Award nomination, we thought, 'This has got to go into theatres.' I grew up in a family of teachers. My mom was a teacher; all my aunts were teachers. And my mom would complain about how much she hated teaching and how much she loved it. There are a lot of teachers out there who are going to feel that and relate to it."

Austin, May 7

On the eve of Chalk's theatrical release, a small crowd of cast and crew gathers to watch Conan O'Brien talk about their movie.

"Morgan texted me and said they didn't show a clip," Akel shrugs.

The mood is sober as everyone learns that there won't be a clip. But when Conan finishes up his opening monologue with "Morgan Spurlock is here to talk about the new film Chalk," a shock of excitement runs through the room. And by the time Spurlock is chatting it up with Conan, referring to Akel and Mass by name, the group is literally leaping out of their seats in excitement.

The film began its theatrical release last Friday, May 11, at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles, and will continue with seven other cities (Austin, Dallas, Chicago, San Diego, St. Louis, New York, and Atlanta) during the next few weeks. The hope is that word of mouth will extend those runs and move the film into other cities.

"I don't think it's fully settled in that it's actually playing in theatres," Davidson says. "We've got high hopes for a small release. But the way we've seen crowds react, we're hoping for more than eight cities. But even if it's just those cities, it's still way more than we could've hoped for, and it's a huge honor."

Alvarez: "I realize now that we could never go back and replicate what happened. I know you don't shoot without a locked script; I know you don't not pay people and expect high-caliber performances. But ignorance is bliss."

Darbyshire: "It was bar none the best thing that ever happened to me. I started writing and directing commercials after Chalk, because Mike showed me how to do it. I would never have had that confidence."

McAlister: "Regardless of whether we ever see a dime from it, I'm just so proud. It makes me want to do it again. It's just so fun. Sure there were many days when I thought, 'I don't want to do this anymore.' But making something good and doing something worthwhile isn't supposed to be easy."

Alvarez: "At a certain point you have to sacrifice. You have to choose to risk going for it. You have to set the time and create the space and be willing to risk disappointment and nothing coming of it."

Davidson: "When you see your name listed as a producer on a film that's being reviewed in Variety and then you've got a nomination for an Independent Spirit Award, you think, 'That's got to be another Graham Davidson.'"

Alvarez: "Had any of us known how long the journey would have been and how many ups and downs there'd be, we probably would have all still done it. But we would have been shocked." end story

Chalk opens in Austin on Friday, May 18. For a review and showtimes, see Film Listings. At the 6:45 and 9:20pm Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar screenings on Friday and Saturday, May 18 and 19, the filmmakers, cast, and crew will be on hand for Q&As.

Additional Q&As will take place on Thursday, May 24, at the 6:45 and 9pm shows to celebrate the last day of school.

Teacher discounts are available at all screenings throughout the run.

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Chalk, Mike Akel, Chris Mass, Morgan Spurlock, Graham Davidson, Angie Alvarez, Chad Darbyshire, Butcher's 15

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