an interview with director Tom Isler

Q: How did the idea for this project come to you?
Tom Isler: Jim and I and FHS director Dede Waite had been talking about it for a long time because we thought that Festival was inherently dramatic and was an interesting subculture of high school in Maine that didn't usually receive a lot of attention or press. Both Jim and I had lived through Festival when we were in high school—we were on stage for Falmouth when the school won three of its four championships—and so we knew how important Festival could be to those who were involved in it. We wanted to document and honor the intensity kids have and the commitment they make to Festival and perhaps show viewers something they'd never seen before, something they had no idea existed prior to seeing the film.

Q: Whom do you think this film would appeal to the most?
TI: What I love most about the film is that it captures teenagers in a way that is rarely seen in film, without condescension and without succumbing to stereotypical representation. It's a film that will certainly appeal to anyone with an interest in theater or anyone who participated in any kind of organized competition in school. The kids graciously deal with adversity and learn that life is totally unpredictable, that the course of events in life can change on a dime. I think a lot of people will be able to relate to that. I think the characters are engaging. There's a lot I like about the film.

Q: What was it like for you to go back to Festival?
TI: It was great fun, because although the kids are different now, the emotions, the atmosphere were exactly the same that I experienced when I was part of the FHS company. It was exciting to see that the experience of the 2004 state festival was perfectly characteristic of the experience I knew to be true. It was also fun to go back and document Dede during Festival season, because that's the time when she's at her best, when she's completely plugged into the kids and the production like at no other time in the year.

Q: How did the kids react to having a camera following them around?
It must have been a new experience for most of them.

TI: I believe it was. The kids were absolutely great with the camera. You tend to wonder: did the camera affect how they behaved? It's hard to argue that the camera doesn't somehow affect the kids, but you can also tell when they are performing unnaturally for the camera and you can cut those moments out of the film. The kids didn't seem nervous at all. My having an established relationship with Dede set that tone. And the whole company approved the project at the start. We wouldn't have been able to do it unless everyone was willing to allow us into his or her life.

Q: How did you decide to follow Falmouth High School?
TI: As a practical matter, it made sense because we could walk in, already having the trust of the director and the cast and crew. Dede was very encouraging. But we also knew that Falmouth students were talented and would take Festival seriously—and we suspected that the film wouldn't work if viewers couldn't believe that the kids were good actors. Those two elements—talent and true dedication—had to be there in the cast or else the film might come off as parody.

Q: Turning to the film, could you talk about how the real life events depicted in the film mirrored the content of the play that Falmouth produced?
TI: That was the biggest surprise—a wonderful surprise. In the play, a writer narrates several different stories that are acted out on stage, and in a number of them, he ends the story one way and then stops and presents an “alternate ending”—one that's more uplifting than the first had been. When the Falmouth students left the awards show at the state festival having not placed in the top three spots, they were a bit demoralized. Then, Dede walked in and announced that they were, in fact, headed onto the New England festival as the “alternate”; it was the perfect “alternate ending.” It would have sounded contrived if it had been fiction, but that's how it actually happened.

Q: What exactly did happen with the scoring? How did that situation arise?
TI: When Dede made that announcement to the cast, she explained that both Herman High School, which had been one of the top two schools, and Yarmouth High School, which had been named the third-place “alternate,” had already told the officials that they wouldn't perform at the New England festival. Schools are entitled to do that; usually they'll do it if cast members have scheduling conflicts with the festival or if they have other productions to focus on. Officially, according to the Maine Drama Council website, Falmouth came in fourth place, and thus Falmouth was invited to advance when both Herman and Yarmouth turned down their invitations. That's the simplest explanation, but it's not completely satisfying. As I understand it, it was a mistake to name Yarmouth the alternate to begin with, because they had already said they wouldn't go on. You must sign an eligibility form before the regional competition if you are to be considered to advance past the state level. Yarmouth didn't do that and had no interest in advancing. So, Falmouth should have been awarded third place initially, because Yarmouth was, effectively, ineligible. It's possible that greater mistakes were made; perhaps someone tallied the points incorrectly. It's also possible that Dede misunderstood Rich Ash when he seemed to imply there had been a mistake in the scoring. I wasn't present for that conversation, so we'll never know what exactly was said and what it all meant. No one, as far as I know, has ever clarified the situation for Dede and the kids, who were just happy to be moving on. This was all too complicated to explain in the film, so in the film we simply watch Dede explain that Falmouth was next in line to go to New Englands.

Q: Where was the New England festival held?
TI: It was held at Lawrence High School, in Maine, and, of course, Lawrence was one of the schools that advanced from the Maine state festival. Some of the kids questioned that; they wondered if Lawrence had been given preferential treatment because they were hosting. The thought crossed my mind, certainly, because there were a number of great performances at the festival that easily could have won. But I never saw any evidence that Lawrence was given preferential treatment, and that wasn't really important to the story that we were telling in the film. At one point, we see Pat say how “political” the festival is, but there's never been any real proof of that. Sometimes judges make decisions you disagree with—that's the nature of a completely subjective competition. I think the kids make up theories about judges fixing the scoring to comfort themselves about their own performances. I think Pat's comment about how “political” the festival is just shows how seriously the kids take it—which is important for our film. At the same time, I have to admit that having lived through Festival as a participant, there certainly have been schools that won that I believed had no business advancing over others that gave better performances. But, again, that's the nature of a theater competition.

Q: Did you film at the New England Festival as well?
TI: No, we didn't. I think it would have been anticlimactic in the film to go to New Englands, since it isn't a competition and the footage would begin to be repetitious. We didn't think that a scene at New Englands would add much to the film, so we went with our instinct to end it after the state festival.

Q: What feedback have you gotten so far about the film?
TI: We've shown it to the cast and crew members that are still at FHS and to some family and friends and industry people. They've responded to it very favorably. D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus saw it and they thought it was by far the best film of mine that they've seen. To this point, everyone who has seen it has been enriched by the experience in some way, which is all you can really hope for as a filmmaker. My wish is that as many people as possible get the opportunity to see it and, hopefully, get something out of it.
Date: April 5, 2005