56th BFI London Film Festival: In Conversation with Jeremy Teicher
Jeremy Teicher is a young director whose short film This Is Us was nominated for a 2011 Student Academy Award. He graduated cum laude from Dartmouth College in 2010 where he studied Film, English and Theater. He recently completed his first feature film called Tall as the Baobab Tree, which will have its European Premiere at the 56th London Film Festival.
VotA: First of all I would like to congratulate you on your first feature film. I really liked it. I would love to know, why did you choose Africa as the setting for your film? And how did you generate the idea to write the script?
Jeremy Teicher: Thank you! I’m glad the film spoke to you.
TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE grew organically as a result of several years working in the same Senegalese village. The stories, people, and locations in the film are all the result of a deep collaborative relationship built over time. A few years ago, I never would have imagined myself making a film like TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE!
A brief history (more background info is available on the EPK/website): I first travelled to Senegal in the fall of 2008, during an off semester at University, to make educational films for a nonprofit group. They were working with a group of students in the village of Sinthiou Mbadane, Senegal. Most of these students were among the first people from the village to ever attend school. I grew close with the students and received a fellowship to return to Sinthiou Mbadane on my own in 2010, where I collaborated with a group of about 10 students to make a short documentary about their everyday lives.
During the course of making the documentary, there was a group of female students who felt passionately about bringing the issue of early marriage to the forefront of discussion. They felt incredibly strongly about sharing their experience as the first generation of girls to grow up torn between the traditional world of arranged marriage and the modern world of school. Several months later, I suggested to the students that we adapt their stories into a fictional film. I felt that a narrative would be able to effectively capture the emotions of this unique period in the village when old tradition (early marriage) was conflicting with modernism (education) for the first time. The students immediately agreed—they jumped at this opportunity to share their generation’s experience.
My co-writer and I developed the script based on my conversations with the students. Ultimately, the students and their families took on the acting roles, blending fiction with reality. On “set,” the dialogue was improvised – and we often re-wrote entire sections of the story as we filmed. The resulting story speaks truly to the life experiences of the students and their families. Of course we still crafted a 3-act plot and had our characters make bold choices, but we consciously avoided over-dramatizing the film… I wanted to avoid falling into the trap of sensationalism that so often accompanies African cinema, especially when directed or produced by a foreigner.
VotA: You filmed Tall as the Baobab Tree in a village with no electricity or running water. How did you manage to do that?
Jeremy Teicher: The logistics were definitely a daunting challenge. The crew and I travelled to the village every day on a horse-drawn cart, loaded with all of our film equipment. (We stayed in a hotel with electricity in order to charge our batteries overnight). Cinematographer Chris Collins designed mobile camera packages centred around the Canon 5d that would enable us to shoot all day running on a backpack full of batteries. We used only two LED litepanels and a flex-fill.
This extremely skeletal camera package enabled our 5-person crew to move quickly and quietly, maintaining an unobtrusive presence. We were filming in peoples’ homes, not on a set!
VotA: Filmmakers have their own unique style, however, were you inspired by any films or directors before making the film?
Jeremy Teicher: -Lee Isaac Chung’s MUNYURANGABO (I met with Isaac in NYC and he gave me lots of great advice) TURTLES CAN FLY and CHILDREN OF HEAVEN – two films that had similar setups as mine, namely disenfranchised youth in a developing country fighting for a chance/dealing with family.
I found Shakespeare to be an influence in how the film was structured. We didn’t go into production with a traditional script — it was more of an outline. As we shot, I found that the actors tended to talk to themselves a lot… they naturally slipped into these sort of expositional monologues. I immediately thought of Shakespearean characters who address the audience while seemingly talking to themselves. Also including lots of double meaning and thematic allusions in the dialogue. Although lots of this material ended up on the cutting room floor, I did keep a good bit in the final film.
While I don’t like to admit it, I did look to some of the “mumblecore” style films that are in vogue today — namely because we both used this documentary-esque style of filming live improvisation to build a narrative rather than careful line-by-line planning. QUIET CITY is a classic example of this. As far as the big famous directors, I love PT Anderson, especially in THERE WILL BE BLOOD. In that film, the landscape takes on meaning and becomes a character. I emulated that in TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE.
VotA: The Pulaar language, let’s talk about it. Why did you decide to use the local dialect? Wouldn’t it have been easier to speak French instead?
Jeremy Teicher: Primarily because the actors really wanted to bring their personal experiences into their performances and Pulaar is their first language; it’s their most natural way to express themselves. Also many of the adult actors did not speak French, as they never received formal educations. As a director, I wanted the story to be told with all the quiet nuances and double-meanings contained in Pulaar. I wanted it to be REAL.
VotA: Tall as the Baobab Tree focuses on a child marriage as well as an arranged marriage. Why did you decide to tackle this particular topic?
Jeremy Teicher: I didn’t decide to pursue this topic on my own – the story came to me as a direct result of the local students’ passion for bringing this issue to the forefront of cultural discussion. I had no real knowledge of this issue until the students brought it up… they wanted this story told. As a writer and director, it was very compelling to hear these emotional stories, especially in the wider context of village culture permanently changing with the arrival of school. I knew there was serious potential to make a film that could spark productive cross-cultural dialogue. However, it was very important to me—and to the students—that we made a film that spoke truthfully to this issue, conveying all the complex shades of grey that come with cultural change.
VotA: What’s it like working with people with no previous acting experience?
Jeremy Teicher: This was a unique situation because the actors’ roles were very similar to their real lives, and because the actors all had a major hand in designing the story. As director, I wanted to keep the ball in their court as much as possible and empower them to surprise me. The dialogue was largely improvised, so many of the scenes played out like mini theater pieces. My role was to create a space where the actors would feel comfortable exploring different choices, and then urging them along paths that seemed to be the most compelling.
VotA: What, in your opinion, would people think after watching your film and what would you like them to take away from Tall as the Baobab Tree?
Jeremy Teicher: In Tall as the Boabab Tree I really strove to truthfully represent the villagers and their changing culture… it’s not a narrative of “good versus evil.” Tall as the Boabab Tree is a peaceful story that seeks to bring people closer together through intimacy and honesty, rather than seeking to entertain people through a highly subjective, dramatized plot.
This has drawn an interesting, almost polarizing response. Many people deeply appreciate our dedication to naturalism, and are very moved by the non-dramatized window that TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE opens onto village life. At the same time, there are others who enter the theatre expecting more of a classic narrative to take place. TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE is most certainly not your standard narrative movie – this film takes a bold step away from the mainstream
VotA: Have you got any new projects in the pipeline?
Jeremy Teicher: I have two feature-length scripts in development. Neither of them are set in Africa! The past 3-4 years I’ve spent working in Senegal has come as a surprise to me… I never expected that this project I started as a University student would blossom into a multi-year journey.
TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE’s narrative does reflect my artistic sensibilities, though: at its core, I see it as a melancholic coming of age story. One of my scripts is also a coming of age, family-centred story. But it appeals more to my tastes as a Wes Anderson and Godard fan. Think Little Miss Sunshine (not Anderson, I know) meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
My second script takes from TALL AS THE BAOBAB TREE’s more political side, and is a coming of age drama about a high school freshman living in a fictional New York City – inspired by my brushes with the Occupy Wall Street protests, my friends from University who work at Goldman Sachs, and my experience as an American living in the era of Fox News.
Thank you for these questions!!
Interviewed by Maggie Gogler
2004 Ghost [s]
2007 Wake Up [s]
2010 This Is Us [doc s]
2011 Foursquare Day [s]
2012 Grand comme le baobab (Tall as the Baobab Tree)