Based on a real life story, “Dangerous Minds” is a Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer production which stars acclaimed actress Michelle Pfeiffer as former Marine LouAnne Johnson, who leaves an officer’s commission and a nine-year military career to pursue her dream of becoming an English teacher. But while earning her credentials at a Northern California high school, she is assigned to a group of students who change her life forever. And she changes theirs.
Although each of her charges exhibits a seemingly impenetrable facade, these kids are desperate to connect with someone who cares about them.
However, life has already taught them to trust no one and count on nothing. As their new instructor, the feisty Ms. Johnson defies all the rules, creates her own curriculum and instructs this class of tough, inner-city teenagers from college-level
Frustrated that her students, whose standardized test scores range from average to excellent, have come to accept failure as a way of life, she cajoles and tricks them, even bribes them, into learning. More important, she loves them and helps them to believe in themselves, in their spirit and in their potential.
One teacher’s account of the education crisis in America, and her effort to make a difference, “Dangerous Minds” is a Hollywood Pictures presentation of a Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer production, in association with Via Rosa Productions. Directed by John N. Smith, produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, the screenplay is by Ronald Bass, based upon My Posse Don’t Do Homework by LouAnne Johnson. Executive producers are Sandra Rabins and Lucas Foster. Buena Vista Pictures distributes.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
After reading author LouAnne Johnson’s book My Posse Don’t Do Homework, at the behest of executive producer Lucas Foster, producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer were inspired to bring her remarkable story to the screen. “This is a picture about one teacher and how she goes about getting her students’ attention so they can learn,” says Simpson. “She helps them understand the importance of knowledge and the ultimate power an education affords everyone in our society.”
Bruckheimer agrees. “Our school systems are under-financed and under-staffed and as a result we are losing a generation of kids. Don and I would like to make teachers heroes again. We wanted to show their struggle with the system, with the kids, and with the environment in which the kids grow up — which many times is their biggest deterrent — and demonstrate that these teachers really are significant role models.
Indeed, the producers recognized that LouAnne Johnson’s book told the unique story of a teacher who was a hero. “Teachers do something incredibly necessary and valuable under terribly difficult circumstances most of the time,” notes executive producer Lucas Foster. “And there in LouAnne’s book, was the story of a woman who was struggling every day to do a good job as a teacher; pushing the rock up the mountain, so to speak. We thought this was a valuable thing, because teachers are under represented in our society. They don’t seem to have any champions.”
“When teachers like LouAnne take a personal interest in students and in the students’ efforts to create better lives for themselves and for their children, we need to bring attention to that kind of drive and determination,” Bruckheinner continues.
“It’s what attracted us — and everybody involved — to the project.”
When producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer first saw Canadian director John N. Smith’s controversial film “The Boys of St. Vincent” at the Telluride Film Festival, they knew he was the appropriate man to bring Johnson’s story to the
screen. “We were literally scouring the universe for the right director,” executive producer Foster recalls. “We needed somebody who had a kind of ‘man-of-the- people’ approach.”
“Out of all the directors we considered, Smith, in his award-winning ‘The Boys of St. Vincent,’ showed us that he had the sensitivity and the intelligence to tackle this subject,” says producer Don Simpson. “Quite simply, he is a talented director who is perfect for this project.”
“When they sent the script to me, I was immediately intrigued,” notes director Smith. “It’s such an added bonus to get involved with a film that’s about something of importance. This picture is about the fact that one individual can make a difference. It’s also a statement about what education, in the best sense can be learning through an inspiring teacher who instructs not only in the course work, but about life, too.”
Written for the screen by Academy Award® winner Ronald Bass, “Dangerous Minds” was adapted from the book by LouAnne Johnson who wrote her story at the behest of her agent, Ruth Nathan. “She suggested I write Posse because I kept talking her ears off bragging about ‘my kids’ and she fell in love with them,” Johnson recalls. “At first I thought I was being a bit presumptuous, writing about teaching when I’d only been in the classroom for three years. But then I realized it wasn’t my story, it was my kids’ stories, and I knew that putting them on paper might help other kids who are facing similar obstacles.
“My hope for the film is that kids will see themselves in the characters and say, ‘Yeah, that’s me. I’m not alone.’ I want them to know they can be successful in spite of other people’s prejudices. Energy they once expended on anger or on getting even, is energy they can now focus on themselves. That’s real power.”
Johnson was more than pleased when the producers told her that Michelle Pfeiffer would be playing the lead. “I was incredulous,” the former Marine laughs.
“I was really happy, and when I met Michelle, I couldn’t believe how much alike we were. I have this habit of telling the truth and saying exactly what’s on my mind, which always seems to get me into trouble. Michelle’s the same way.”
“Michelle Pfeiffer is one of the greatest actresses working today,” says producer Jerry Bruckheimer. “We were very lucky that she liked the project and felt as strongly about it as we did.”
“I found LouAnne’s story fascinating,” comments three-time Academy Award® nominee Pfeiffer. “Not only was the topic compelling, but LouAnne, the woman, interested me as well.”
To prepare for the role Pfeiffer spent time with Johnson, read a variety of reports and studies outlining and comparing educational systems throughout the world, and for some practical suggestions, she contacted two friends who are both
“It can be more difficult to portray a real person because one feels a certain responsibility to that individual,” Pfeiffer says. “In a few situations where artistic license needed to be taken and we needed to alter something in some slight way, I
always felt that I had to stay within the truth of LouAnne’s character and not compromise the story.
“LouAnne stayed amazingly objective that way,” the actress emphasizes.
“We communicated throughout shooting, and she was always clear about her feelings. Her main priority was, and is, the kids. That’s all she really cares about; it’s not about her own ego.”
Mixing nonprofessionals with experienced actors is director John N. Smith’s trademark. The chemistry such pairing inspires leads to an exciting dynamic on the set and on the screen. “I’ve done a lot of work with nonprofessional actors, so I feel
very comfortable introducing film elements to people who are not experienced with film,” he explains. “One of the refreshing things about the kids who are not actors is that they are not self-conscious about what they’re doing. They are simply
themselves. It’s up to us as filmmakers to capture that freshness.”
Smith and producers Simpson and Bruckheimer decided early on to conduct a nationwide casting search to fill LouAnne’s classroom. Smith and casting director Bonnie Timmermann interviewed, auditioned and videotaped thousands of kids across the United States.
“We found an extremely talented group of young people,” remarks Simpson.
“A handful of them had some training or had appeared on television and in films, but by and large, none of them had been called upon to carry what could be considered a major role. They proved to be true professionals.”
“There’s a discipline to filmmaking,” Bruckheimer adds. “Being on time, working long hours, learning dialogue and blocking, not to mention getting along with a wide variety of personalities. These kids made the commitment and worked hard. They were serious about their contribution and about the entire process.”
“Initially, I was a bit concerned about some of the kids’ lack of experience,”
says Michelle Pfeiffer. “But after the first couple of days of shooting, it was clear they were going to be consistently good. They brought so much to the characters, they actually brought the scenes to life. They exceeded my wildest expectations.”
Outside the classroom, LouAnne’s primary relationships revolve around three of her students: Emilio played by Wade Dominguez whose first professional audition was with Michelle Pfeiffer; Ca!lie played by Bruklin Harris who, although she has appeared in two other films, was found in an open call out of hundreds of applicants; and Raul played by Renoly Santiago who has dreamt of being on the big screen for as long as he can remember.
Hired two weeks into rehearsals, Dominguez came into the classroom only days before shooting began. “Although Wade is a newcomer, he is very talented and had a natural instinct for the role,” notes acting coach Bob Burgos. He was in a difficult position in that his character, as the leader of the group, needed to fit into this company of young people who had been getting to know one another for weeks, without creating an upheaval or stepping on anyone’s toes. He’s a very
hard-working, likable young man, and it’s to his credit that the transition went so smoothly.”
“Emilio is a smart, street-wise kid,” explains Dominguez. “Like a lot of kids transplanted from other countries and cultures, he’s a little disoriented. He doesn’t feel like he belongs anywhere, and when he’s bused into an upper middle class
neighborhood to go to school, he’s constantly reminded that he’s not good enough.
“I’ve felt that way many times,” he smiles. “But I’ve been very blessed; I’m surrounded by a very supportive family who are my best friends. And having the opportunity to be in this film, I feel like the luckiest man in the world.”
“As with Wade, developing the character of Callie was simply a question of finding out who Bruklin Harris was as a person and cultivating a character that would go beneath the surface,” says director Smith. “Bruklin has a tremendous honesty about everything she does; she’s incapable of being false,” he says.
“There are a lot similarities between Ca!lie and me,” Harris says. “I grew up in the projects and got into my share of trouble. The drugs, the violence, all the things that happen, that you see — it can’t help but affect you.
“What really got to me about this story was the reality of the situation,” she continues. “Even though LouAnne did all these great things and tried to help everyone in her class, it didn’t always work.”
“Living in this country as a person of color has taught me a lot and given me a big taste of reality,” says Renoly Santiago. “You feel like you have to try that much harder and perform that much better to be respected.
“Raul is a kid from the ‘hood and his reality is surviving and making sure he doesn’t look like a punk in front of other people,” he explains. “Meeting LouAnne changes Raul’s life. She’s able to redirect him because she respects him without
his having to prove anything to her. He can really trust her, this white woman from Pennsylvania.”
“The casting of these roles was done with such honesty,” notes executive producer Lucas Foster. “We had open casting sessions and got actors who were exactly like the kids in the book. You could have replaced the actors with real kids
from the school in Belmont, California where we did a lot of research, and you wouldn’t have known the difference — and vice versa.”
“LouAnne’s brilliance is her ability to get her students reengaged in the learning process. She gets them interested by taking her cues from them rather than trying to fit them into any set curriculum.”
“Because this was John N. Smith’s first American film and he was coming into town not knowing anyone, we tried to put together a crew who would be compatible with his style of filmmaking,” says producer Bruckheimer. “I think we
“Film is not really a director’s medium to the degree that it’s portrayed,” he further explains. “Film is a group activity. It’s a collection of very separate arts and crafts and has everything to do with the actors, the director of photography, the
designer, the editor, the composer and everyone on the crew.”
Director Smith and director of photography Pierre Letarte became friends early in their careers, but did not work together until 1981 when they shot “For the Love of Dance,” a portrait of a ballerina, which won awards at New York’s Annual Dance Film Festival and at Spain’s Public Scientific & Didactic Film Festival.
Letarte has shot Smith’s last two projects, the four-hour miniseries “Dieppe” and the critically acclaimed telefilm “The Boys of St. Vincent.”
“Pierre and I see the world in the same light and we have the same vision for filmmaking,” says Smith. “It’s a very comfortable relationship — a good partnership.”
Notes Letarte, “Both John’s and my approach to this film essentially has been influenced by our documentary backgrounds, not in terms of the technical approach, but rather with regard to how we play and shoot every scene in its entirety, our consciousness of editing, and the particular relationships we establish with the actors.”
Principal photography was conducted in and around the Los Angeles area.
More than one third of the picture was filmed at Washington Middle School in Pasadena, California.
“I needed to have the flexibility of shooting not only in a classroom, but to be able to invent scenes in hallways, other classrooms, stairways, etcetera,” director Smith says. “I wanted the variety of physical facilities a real school offered rather
than building a classroom on a stage.”
“Our basic approach to the art direction was to create a simple visual structure based in reality through the use of physical space to support the character driven script,” explains production designer Donald Graham Burt. “For example,
the space where LouAnne and the students were introduced and where their relationships developed needed to be warm in tone and yet very textured to reflect the ‘edge’ of the students.”
Other locations included exteriors in Pacoima, Monrovia, Glendale, and Sherman Oaks and interiors shot on stage at the Warner-Hollywood Studios. The final week of filming took place in Northern California on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk
and at Burlingame High School.
“The homes of the students’ ranged from a project apartment to a simple neighborhood house which helped to create a separation between the characters and to establish a singular identity for each individual while maintaining the sense
of a cohesive environment,” describes Burt. “Here, the colors were much cooler and stark, but in all instances throughout the film, when color was applied, it was done so in glazes to enhance the dimension of a particular space and relieve the
flatness of the set.”
Producers Simpson and Bruckheimer are personally credited with discovering talented costume designee Bobbie Read, who worked directly with production designer Burt to maintain the warm color tones throughout the film.
“Originally the plan was to make the look of the film very gritty and grainy,” acknowledges Read. “Because we wanted a lot of texture — a streety quality — we dyed everything and brought down the strength of the colors so there was more texture in the patterns. The whole movie has that sort of non-color. The story is about the kids, not about what they’re wearing,” she adds. “It just didn’t work to do bright colors. But as LouAnne comes into their lives and sparks up their interest in life, the tone lightens up and their clothes get lighter, too.