Public school I.S. 318 is a chess powerhouse, producing national champions straight out of junior high. The secret to the school’s success? Coaches who hold leadership skills and divergent thinking above standings and trophies, and students eager to learn and improve. Brooklyn Castle follows the challenges and triumphs both on and off the chessboard as the financial crisis brings severe budget cuts to after-school programs.
CanCulture: Some of those kids got to miss out on regular class and spend a lot of time learning chess. What do you think the value is for alternative types of education?
Katie Dellamaggiore: I think chess in particular really teaches the kids how to think about how they learn things. Learning chess and becoming good at chess teaches you about how you learn things so someone like Patrick can figure out what his boundaries are and his barriers are to learning through the process of learning chess because there’s a lot of studying that you do on your own and there’s a lot of analysis you do on your own. There’s also the element of thinking five or six moves ahead, and having to think slowly and contemplate, which I think is a really important quality. And there’s a lot of skills you can’t measure like confidence Patrick become really self-confident and Pobo has a lot of confidence. And creativity too, I think that Chess can be a really creative activity when you are looking at the board and trying to figure out what’s my best move and you have think outside the box.
CC: How much knowledge did you have of chess before making the documentary?
KD: We weren’t chess players. I still don’t play chess, although I know how to move the pieces now. We went into it as non-chess players and I think that was important because it allowed us to make a movie that was accessible to other non-chess players. Chess to me was really mysterious, complicated and really complex. So when I was making the movie I wanted to figure what this is about and why people are so drawn to it. And having that curiosity as a non-chess player is partly why [the film] was more accessible. If I was a chess player that understood everything I think I would have gone in a different angle and I’m glad that I waited to learn how to play until after we made the movie.
CC: This is the first film that you’ve made, tell us about the experience and what the reception has been to the doc.
KD: Nelson and I are married. He’s my husband and he’s the editor and producer on the film and I’m the director. It’s our first film. Working together was interesting as a couple, I think that we work really well together, but of course there are challenges of being a married couple working together, but there’s no one else either of us would have wanted to have make this movie with. The response has been great we premiered at SXSW and we won the audience award, which for me, was such a huge honour. The remake rights have been optioned by Scott Rudin to remake it into a Hollywood movie with actors. So Scott Rudin is one of the best producers in Hollywood, so for him to think that it was a good enough film to make into a Hollywood blockbuster is a huge validation for us. And every film festival we’ve been to so far the crowds have been cheering and laughing and that’s been the best part for us to sit in the theatre and hear people react, then you know it’s working.
CC: How long did it take to complete the documentary?
KD: I read the article about the team in 2007. And we started shooting in 2008. We shot for two years and edited for a year, so three years of production, but from the moment I read about the school until now it’s been four year. It’s been in my brain for four years. Most of my time working other jobs, I had a day job working as a shooter and producer for MTV and Nelson works a day job as an editor for MTV and also other television clients. For most of the time were able to balance with a day job and shooting the documentary, but once it came time to edit, we really need to focus on the movie, we’re lucky to bring on an executive producer to provide funding so that we could pay Nelson to work full-time and he didn’t have to split his brain between half-movie and half not-movie.
CC: What were some of the challenges in making the documentary?
KD: Funding is huge. And I just think making mistakes and figuring out what mistakes to make. It’s a hard process anytime you do something for the first time. It’s a big question mark, you kind of just dive in, you make a lot of mistakes and you learn from them and do it a little differently the next time, so I think the hardest part is making the mistakes and not giving up. You keep making more mistakes.
CC: When you are working with young characters is it hard to get them to express them?
KD: No. Actually it’s even easier sometimes with young characters because they are so honest. It’s just that age before high school where I think kids have a real genuine honesty. And they are not self-conscious enough yet where they are too worried about being cool or too worried about saying the right thing. The youngest kids, like Patrick had no problem talking about his feelings. Someone like Justus, I think it’s his nature to be introverted, so whether he’s 11, 12, 18 or 24, I think he’ll always just be a little like that. I think that the kids are surprisingly really open.