'Miss Stevens' Director Julia Hart and Star Lily Rabe on the Making of the Film

Julia Hart and Lily Rabe talk about the filming of "Miss Stevens"
KCET Cinema Series host Pete Hammond, Julia Hart and Lily Rabe talk about the making of "Miss Stevens." | Photo: Liz Ohanesian.

The KCET Cinema Series continued its fall season at the historic Aero Theatre in Santa Monica on Tuesday, August, 29 with a screening of "Miss Stevens." The feature directorial debut for Julia Hart, "Miss Stevens" is the story of a teacher whose life intertwines with those of her students on a trip to a drama competition. Lily Rabe ("American Horror Story," "The Good Wife") stars as Miss Stevens.

Both Hart and Rabe participated in a Q&A session led by Cinema Series host Pete Hammond following the film. Below is a portion of their conversation, edited for length and clarity. 

The fall season of the KCET Cinema series is sponsored by the James and Paula Coburn Foundation and runs weekly at the Aero Theatre through October 10. For information on the series go to kcet.org/cinemaseries.

Julia Hart on how her former career as a teacher inspired "Miss Stevens."

In spite of the fact that I was an English teacher for many years after college, I had always wanted to write and kind of had that bug in the back of my brain and once I actually became a teacher and I saw how different it was... You think you might know, because we were all students. You really don't know until you're actually in front of a classroom. I was 25 years old teaching 18 and 17-year-olds and you're not, I'm 34 now and I only recently felt like I may be an adult now. And so, at 25, I didn't have anything figured out and all these kids are looking to you as the responsible adult in the room and it was really quite upending to discover that the myths that we've been fed by film and television presentations of teachers aren't exactly what -- like this saint teacher who saves everyone or there's the disaster teacher who's showing up blackout drunk. 

There's some of me in Miss Stevens, but there was a lot more in between. There are moments where she's incredibly capable and gifted as an advisor to young people and moments when she completely doesn't know what to do. That's a lot more to what it's really like. 

I think the inspiration, it was inspired by my days as a teacher. None of this actually happened. This is sort of me if I didn't have boundaries and good judgment, but we love Rachel Stevens very much and she has a big place in our hearts, but she is definitely that kind of imaginary creature, when I was a teacher. What if I was really struggling? How would I get through that with these kids?

Lily Rabe on why she took on the role of Miss Stevens.

At first, it was the writing because I think Julia has, her sensibility is, it just is for me, as an actress, as a viewer, it's something that I was very attracted to and then this woman, just like you said, whether it's that she's messy or she's blocked in some way. 

There's just such a humanity to her and to the story and to that relationship and the fact that I think when you, when I started flipping pages, or maybe when you start watching the movie, you think, I kind of know where this relationship might be going and I really hope it doesn't go there, but it probably will and it doesn't and it goes somewhere. To me, so much more profound, so much more important and really it is that humanity in that relationship and in this woman that made me want to help tell her story. 

Julia Hart on how the cast influenced the script. 

For me, what I'm most interested in as a writer is people and so, for me, I often say that the movie wasn't really about anything until we cast it. 

Jordan [Horowitz, her co-writer and husband] and I completely rewrite once we have actual actors in the roles. I feel like characters prior to casting, a lot of writers feel differently, but I feel that characters prior to casting are blueprints and then you explore and discover and write and rewrite and rehearse and rewrite some more and find the people instead of the characters. Authenticity was kind of our primary target with casting so it's very important for me to cast actual teenagers. Timmy [Timothèe Chalamet] was 19 when we shot. Lili [Reinhart] was 18 and Anthony [Quintal] turned 16 while we were shooting. We all spent a lot of time together. We rehearsed. Shooting in L.A. is great because a lot of people are based here. When you're on location, you get maybe a day to rehearse. We all really sat with these characters for a long time and I think, we rehearsed a lot of it like a play. 

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On using Julia Hart's clothes in Miss Stevens' wardrobe.

LR: When we started we had a wonderful costume designer. She was working with not an enormous budget, so we were sitting around in Julia's living room and talking about what we wanted her to wear and I was like, what about that sweatshirt, Julia will you get that sweatshirt? She would come in with 20 great sweatshirts and we would try them and were like, "We should just wear Julia's sweatshirts."

There was a lecture I had watched, a videotape of Julia giving to her students and there was a vest that she was wearing. As soon as I finished watching it, I called her to talk about how wonderful her teaching was, but, also I was wondering if she had that vest so I could wear it in the movie. 

JH: You said that you could feel the heart of the movie, which, obviously, makes us so happy because so many people work the amount of hours that the crew works for no money and you just really have to, I feel like these little movies have a lot of heart because they have to, otherwise they can't happen. 

Lily Rabe on how she entered acting

I loved English, actually, in school. I was focused on writing English and I was a ballet dancer and I think those things were my indirect root. My parents were both in the business and I think I was so desperate to feel like I was going to go on my own path and that was my indirect route to go exactly where they had always been. I think that the reason I loved dancing was because I loved performing. I loved being on stage. Just at the end of high school, I had stopped with the company that I was dancing with, so I auditioned for a play, then I went to school. 

I was hooked, but I did try really hard to find something else. I'm so glad that didn't work out. I really did start out of school in the theater and it's still one of the joys of my life is getting to do plays, so that part of this and her connection to the theater and her discovery of what theater meant to her and how personal it was and then discovering it through these children and their individual relationships with the theater meant so much to me. 

"Miss Stevens" movie
Timothée Chalamet, Lily Rabe, Anthony Quintal and Lili Reinhart in "Miss Stevens."

On the relationship between Miss Stevens and her student Billy.

JH: I feel like we've gone so far in terms of shock value that sometimes the most shocking thing you can do is the least shocking thing, to do the unexpected thing. I felt like that was one of our laws in this movie. What would really happen? What's the authentic experience of this type of interaction as opposed to the movie, what the audience is expecting to see?

LR: And I think another beautiful thing about that relationship is that often a thing you think you need in a moment isn't the thing you need at all. I really believe that the two of them, through their relationship, get exactly what they need but it might have been more comforting to whatever in that hotel room. Ultimately, it would have been nothing compared to where they land and, to me, what they are able to do is help one another to evolve, it's just taking one step in the right direction, not taking 50 steps in the right direction. They're sort of zigzagging and they straighten out their paths in that relationship and it's just a step, but that step means so much when it's in the right direction. 

On filming inside a Volvo station wagon.

JH: She was a beloved, dear old broken down friend. You can't put air conditioning on in a car when you're filming because of the sound. And you can't roll the windows down because of the sound. 

LR: It also didn't have air conditioning. 

JH: In between takes, we were like, OK, roll down the windows, but one time the car died. We couldn't get the windows up. So we had a police escort. We were shooting on a highway, you have a whole parade of cars and police. The entire thing had to get off the highway because poor old girl broke down. 

You go through so many drafts of the script and that was one of the things that was always there and you live with a story and the people in it for so long that you kind of forget where things come from but I look at it now and it couldn't be any other car, but I couldn't tell you [why she chose a Volvo]. It's like, why is her name Rachel? I can't remember where that came from. 

LR: My first car was a Volvo station wagon, but she didn't know. 

Lily Rabe in "Miss Stevens."
Lily Rabe in "Miss Stevens."

On the filming locations.

JH: We shot it in Simi Valley, which is so beautiful and so close and I had never been there. We shot the entire thing there. It was very important that we trundle all of our characters and put them in the car and take them somewhere else; somewhere different from where they live for that exact reason. 

We looked at a bunch of hotels and other places just outside of the L.A. and that hotel just spoke to me. It was so perfectly odd. It wasn't a chain hotel, which I loved. I loved that it had that old mom and pop feel to it. 

They didn't shut down the hotel. We had a scene, it ended up not being in the movie, with a woman behind the front desk and people actually tried to check in with her, who didn't realize that we were in the middle of filming. I felt so bad for these people because they were like families on vacation and we're jumping on beds at three in the morning. 

Pete Hammond on the note he received from co-star Timothèe Chalamet.

PH: My name is Timothèe Chalamet. You're screening a film that I'm in tonight as part of your film series, "Miss Stevens." I hope this isn't too unusual or off-putting in any way. No one has prompted me to write this; certainly, I don't expect a response, but I wanted to thank you for what you said about the film and my performance in it. Your words say to me look on your path, to just focus on doing a good job, forgetting distractions, that's what I try to tell myself and when someone of your experience and knowledge says something so positive, I'm driven to continue on this path just focusing on the work. I would do anything to be there tonight. I'll keep an eye on the time to know when it's screening. Timmy. 

I thought this was a very touching note. 

JH: He's that sincere. I'm so excited for him. He's so young and what he's still capable of. He and Lily wrapped on "Miss Stevens" and both went to New York to do theater. I was so jealous. Lily went to New York to do Shakespeare in the Park and he went to do a John Patrick Shanley play. I got to see Lily, which was pretty amazing. I didn't get to see Timmy, but he's making really interesting choices for a young person and that's because he has such an open heart and I hope he never loses that. 

He's in school. He's in orientation today. 

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