POV: Did the camera make any of the children uncomfortable? Did you have any issues with trust?
Left: Actor Ian McKellen with the Shakespeareans.
Mel Stuart: Rafe’s class is very special because of the way he handles them. And if Rafe says, there’s going to be a camera here and don’t let it bother you, then they don’t let it bother them. I for my part, always in my whole life have treated children as adults. I expect them to act like adults and I expect them to respond in an adult way. And I think the children felt that. I’m making a movie about them and anything less than ignoring me was not appreciated. I mean I brought my own children up that way and they turned out very well. I think part of the problem [today] and I think Rafe [thinks this] too, is coddling children to an extent that they’re babies. Treat them like adults, you’ll do fine. As you’ll see in the film, I mean the proof is in the pudding.
POV: Do you think the camera had any effect on the children’s behavior in the classroom?
Stuart: People ask if the camera was an influence on the behavior of the children. Absolutely not. First of all I was there over and over again, so after a while I became a part of the scenery. And I was surprised myself, they just began to ignore me from the very first day and they kept ignoring the camera during the whole shooting. I, I found it quite remarkable, but I think it was Rafe, because they saw Rafe not reacting to the camera, so they didn’t react to the camera. And I was able to get some very touching scenes of children crying at certain speeches that were made and performing oblivious to what we were doing. And again, if you tell them to do something, expect them to do it, and treat them as adults, they’ll react as adults.
POV: You also filmed some of the kids outside of the classroom, right?
Stuart: Not only did I want to see how Rafe worked, I wanted to get a better understanding of how the kids responded to his teaching. So we picked out a few of the more prominent children in the class and did interviews in their homes. And I discovered to my surprise that none of them knew who Shakespeare was when this class began, but at the end of it they understood what Hamlet was all about. And it was just remarkable to me how you can work with children, treat them as adults, and get wonderful results.
POV: What about the language barrier with the parents? These kids didn’t come from English-speaking homes.
Stuart: Some of the kids were particularly gifted. The young man that played Hamlet was extraordinary. He learned the whole part. I mean you’re talking about two hours of Shakespeare that this little Mexican boy could learn and really understand. I particularly loved when I interviewed him and I asked him, “What is it about Huck Finn? Why do you like Huck Finn?” He says, “Well, it’s a very interesting [book] and it’s about very interesting characters and it holds a mirror up to nature.” And this little kid is using the Shakespeare phrase as part of his natural dialogue. That to me was an extraordinary moment.