The film focuses on a small ensemble cast. Most notably Mr. Lowery (Troy Schremmer, “All My Children”), a befuddled, first-year teacher, Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer), the unusually rare heterosexual female gym teacher, Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan), the newly appointed assistant principal who is in over her head and Mr. Stroope (Mass), a boisterous blowhard gunning for the “Teacher of the Year Award.”
Mass (pronounced with a long a) portrays Stroope as a flawed teacher. He chastises his smartest students for using big words and rolling their eyes when he gets his facts wrong. Though he attempts to grab the coveted prize of Teacher of the Year, it is his most abrasive attributes that keep him from winning.
When he loses, he's filled with rage. He terrorizes his students, his biggest supporters, and questions them about his failure as if their grades depended on it.
“I wanted Stroope to lose,” Mass explains. “I wanted the audience to see his foibles. I have seen so many movies where teachers are portrayed as super-heroes (Mass lists Mr. Holland's Opus and Dead Poets Society among others). I wanted to show the man, a very real person.”
In homage to the teachers that inspired them, the actors named their characters after their favorite educators. Mass picked Mrs. Stroope, his high school social studies teacher.
“I just changed the missus to mister, for obvious reasons.” It's easy to surmise that he was probably the class clown in her room. “She hasn't seen the film yet,” Mass admits, “but I'm interested to see what her reaction will be.”
Akel and Mass met in the eighth grade and have been friends ever since. Both studied improvisational comedy.
Akel articulates, “I wasn't long into my teaching experience before I felt confident that my best friend and fellow teacher [Mass] and I were going to make a movie about teachers. A high school film that portrayed real encounters teachers face would be a great story. We just had to tell it.”
Once they realized the teaching profession was rife for exploration, their desire to create a film based on their experience grew intense. They met at 6 a.m. before going to teach at their rival high schools at a local Austin coffee house to collaborate on their script. Chalk grew out of the early morning meetings.
“We wanted to show teachers as they really are,” Akel elucidates. “We didn't want to make fun of them, but we looked at the world around us and realized the comedic potential of teachers and their classroom.”
Mass states, “The classroom is this wild world. It's a bizarre and odd place, but it's tough. It's definitely a calling.”
About 50 percent of teachers quit in their first three years of teaching. That statistic is represented in the film when first year teacher Lowery is presented with his contract and agonizes over the decision to sign for another year. The film is peppered with very real and emotional moments in the teachers' lives.
Akel wanted to honor his subjects, not just make fun of them. The director wanted to amuse his audience, but, in the spirit of a true teacher, he wanted to educate them as well.
Perhaps, it's in his blood. Akel's mother is also a schoolteacher.As teachers of Film and Television (Akel) and Geography (Mass), both areas of expertise came in handy as the filmmakers crisscrossed the country on the film festival circuit. They've won many of the competitions, including a Jury Award for outstanding performances at the Los Angeles Film Festival; a Grand Jury Award at the Independent Film Festival of Boston for Best Narrative Feature; the Best Feature Comedy Audience Award at the Cinequest Film Festival; a Special Grand Jury award for best ensemble acting at the Florida Film Festival and recently, Chalk received an Independent Spirit Award Nomination for the John Cassavetes Award for best film made for under $500,000.
Akel comments, “As we traveled to each festival, we were met with more and more encouragement. While we knew that this film would amuse an audience of teachers, we've been thrilled to see the story resonate with audiences of primarily non-teachers throughout 20-plus screenings at 10 different festivals. What began as an intimately funny story has matured into a comedy that entertains across a broad audience.
“While the temptation in portraying the American high school is to be cynical, our goal was to remain honest, respectful and hopeful. Chris and I are teachers, and we know both how much the profession demands of people and how ridiculous the experience can be. The result is the hilariously heartening story of what happens behind the scenes at your local high school.”
Chalk attracted the attention of Morgan Spurlock (writer and director of Oscar nominated doc, Super Size Me ) and Joe Amodei of Hart Sharp Video, who are distributing the film under the label “Morgan Spurlock Presents…,” which is a series of documentary and narrative feature films handpicked by Spurlock and Amodei that have a distinct social relevance and importance to society and the world.
Due to the film's success, Akel and Mass have traded up from meeting with students to studio heads, from attending parent/teacher conferences to press conferences. The duo quit their teaching day jobs to concentrate on film and television. They're shopping Chalk TV, and pitching a mockumentary style idea about little league baseball.
Akel and Mass break the age old adage, “Those who can't, teach” and prove that “those who teach, can!”
Chalk releases in select theaters May 11.