Lessons in Consent

Hannah Fidell’s FX drama A Teacher goes beyond the sensationalism of an illicit teacher-student affair to examine the toll of sexual abuse after the headlines fade.

©2020 FX Networks
Kate Mara and Nick Robinson in A Teacher
February 5, 2021 Written by Paul Brownfield
Hannah Fidell

I’ve had my own experience with sexual assault…We write from places that we know, and for me, I never got to say these things to him.

Each half hour of Hannah Fidell’s 10-episode drama A Teacher, streaming on FX on Hulu, begins with a warning about “depictions of grooming that may be disturbing.”

“Grooming,” in the context of sexual abuse, refers to “manipulative behaviors that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught,” according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest Network.

RAINN consulted on A Teacher, and two psychologists met with the writers’ room. Of the pre-episode warnings about depictions of grooming, Fidell says: “It doesn’t take away from the questions that I want the audience to think about as the show progresses. And I also think it maybe even makes them lean in a little bit more and think about, ‘Okay, well, what is grooming, where is that happening, what am I seeing?’”

On the surface, what they are seeing in A Teacher is an illicit affair between Claire (Kate Mara), a married AP high school English teacher, and Eric (Nick Robinson), her 17-year-old student, a senior. A Teacher charts their affair as it moves from taboo flirting to titillating secret to community scandal. But even as the story cycles through these familiar dramatic stages, there is an understatement to the writing that offsets sensationalism or the obvious paradigm of predator and prey.

Half of A Teacher is about the fallout and the characters’ interior struggles years beyond their relationship. Claire tries to resume her life after serving time in prison (the show is set in Austin, Texas, a state in which it is a crime for a teacher to have sex with a student, regardless of age) and Eric drags his devastation and his guilt through his college years.

For Fidell, a filmmaker and first-time showrunner, A Teacher was the culmination of a six-year process that began with her first feature, also called A Teacher, and which was also about a teacher-student affair. The low-budget film, which covers far less ground than the series, was picked up for distribution coming out of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and rewarded Fidell with a deal to write the material as a pilot for HBO. Then began an elongated development process, during which Fidell wrote and directed a second movie (6 Years), co-wrote and directed a comedy (The Long, Dumb Road) before returning in earnest to adapting A Teacher to series television, with four other writers, Rosa Handelman, Barbara Killebrew, Ruby Spiegel, and Andrew Neel.

In the time that elapsed between the feature and the series, the #MeToo movement exploded the way people talk about sexual assault and re-calibrated Fidell’s own approach to the material. She spoke to the Writers Guild of America West a few weeks after the series finale started streaming.

A Teacher ends with Claire and Eric meeting in a restaurant, 10 years after their relationship exploded into view. Claire apologizes for not stopping the affair from happening, but it’s really Eric’s scene. As he says to her, “I have to live with this forever. So do you.” He finally owns his victimhood.

Yeah, and finally has the words to say that. That scene in particular was actually quite easy to write. Mainly just because I’ve had my own experience with sexual assault. My experience wasn’t with my teacher, it was with a friend that I trusted. We write from places that we know, and for me, I never got to say these things to him. So it was cathartic in a way to end up there. At the same time, we wrote everything before we shot. We had the whole season arced out within a few weeks of starting the room.

Claire, meanwhile, is remarried with a rich husband and kids, but she remains strangely affectless. She acknowledges that the scandal of it follows her, but you don’t sense she really realizes what’s she done.

I don’t think she ever could. She wouldn’t be able to live with what she’s done if she fully admitted her culpability. The way that I saw it was, having her seemingly have her life together at the end was even more of a nightmare for Eric. We really wanted to drive that home. But at the same time, I imagine if the cameras kept rolling and there was more, it would only be a matter of time before she blew up this new life. She is someone who is so self-sabotaging. Right at that moment she seemingly has things together but she doesn’t. She’ll ruin it in some way. It’s not that she’s affectless, it’s just that it’s impossible for her to be in reality, which is a totally normal human reaction if you’re doing something that’s wrong, and you know it’s wrong, and yet you don’t think of yourself as a bad person. That’s the crux of her character in a lot of ways.

In terms of consultants, what was RAINN’s involvement like?

We didn’t get officially involved with RAINN until, really, August of 2020. What we did do, early on, which was important for me and FX obviously had no qualms about it and in fact embraced it, we brought on two psychologists who specialized in male victims of childhood sexual abuse, so they were active consultants when we were in the writers’ room. We spoke with them quite a bit. They really helped us figure out the trajectory of where we wanted to land the show. Just based on the experiences that they made us aware of. It was incredibly valuable, not only having their input but really being able to know that we were getting it right from the victim’s perspective.

Is there an example of where the psychologists guided you on a story point or scene?

It was news to me and to the rest of the writers that it takes a long time, often 10 years or so, before male victims—especially of this sort of trauma, where it can be iffy—come to realize that what they experienced wasn’t right, that they were victims. A lot of that time, it happens when the guys are reaching their late 20s or they’re having kids of their own or they’re getting married. That really informed the trajectory of the season and how we ended it. But the way that Eric was acting out, especially episode 7 when he’s in college, and also episode 9 when he hits rock bottom in a way—that was very much pulled from our conversations with the psychologists but also with people who I actually knew who had been through this specific form of abuse themselves.

What happened with the original development of A Teacher? Coming out of the response to the film at Sundance in 2013. At one point, Daniel Brocklehurst [Shameless] was attached as your fellow executive producer.

A Teacher was my first movie. HBO said, “We want to do this but you need a seasoned showrunner. And also we don’t want you to direct the pilot.” The Duplass brothers—I was working with them on 6 Years—they came on after we were already set up at HBO, sort of as a way to appease HBO that there would be someone on-set who they trusted so that I could direct the pilot. Danny came on as a co-showrunner for that reason. But because of the deal that the Duplasses had with HBO when we took it back out after the option had expired and I wanted to develop it elsewhere, they couldn’t continue on if we took it outside of HBO.

How much did the pilot script change by 2017, when you pitched to FX?

We did a few passes at HBO, but I don’t think that FX ever read the HBO pilot. We started over entirely once we took it to FX. Obviously, it’s about a teacher who has an affair with her student, but it was a page-one rewrite. #MeToo had happened in the interim, and we were focusing a lot more on the character of Eric, and sort of what his experience was. That was really exciting to me. Because it opened up a whole new avenue of where we could take the story. For me, without #MeToo, it wouldn’t have been so fresh for where the story inevitably needed to go. I’m just so glad it did, I find that to be the most compelling part of the series.

How long did you have for the scripts?

The room was two months long. We essentially got shooting drafts for all the episodes done by the time the room finished. I do not know how we managed to do that. It was one of those experiences—and I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t come up through the writing room ranks—that we didn’t get stuck in the vortex of the room. By the time they had ordered the room, I’d already written the first two episodes, and I’d done a bible which outlined the rest of the season. Which ended up changing a bit once we brought in the psychologists, but still by the end of the first week we knew for the part where the show was heading.

Given the subject matter, what were the initial discussions about this situation of the show?

It was really interesting to have a bunch of women in the room who were just excited about writing a female character who was doing bad things. But still the mandate was, even if a character is doing bad things, they still need to be written with empathy and some sort of sympathy. I hate when characters are just black and white. So much of a director’s job is making sure that the vibe is right and conducive to people working at their highest potential. Because I don’t know anything else, I brought that to the room. Also, I look like I’m 25. I’m not a taskmaster. I valued everyone’s voice, and there wasn’t a hierarchy that I think traditionally a lot of these people who were in the room who were seasoned veterans of rooms came from.

In your work, you leave a lot of exposition and character details out. In A Teacher, for instance, we don’t know much about what Eric’s life looks like, 10 years later.

I like to sort of be along for the ride. Honestly, part of the reason we didn’t include all those details is because we just didn’t have the time at the end of the day. So it was like, “Okay, what’s the most necessary information that we need to put on the screen?” Which isn’t very different than what you end up doing on an indie film. There was a version of the final episode, on the page, that was a 25-page script, and it was entirely in the restaurant, 10 years later. But I feel like it’s just, what do we really need to know? If we know where we’re going to land, and what’s important to land, is the day-to-day minutiae of both of their lives, is that necessary if we’re going to find it out anyway during their conversation.

It’s interesting that reviews of A Teacher seem to have been all over the map.

When they started coming in, I got a call from [FX president] Jon Landgraf, and he said that in all of his years of television, he’s never seen reviews that have been so split down the middle by gender.

Meaning female critics were on the positive side?

The majority of them were very positive about it. It’s been a really interesting touchstone of what we’re allowed to see on television in terms of what a woman can and can’t be, and what a show can and can’t be, and how it should or shouldn’t be structured. I just find it fascinating. I don’t take it personally.

© 2021 Writers Guild of America West

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