When Samuel L. Jackson first read the script of "187," the
character of Trevor was white, yet Jackson immediately connected with the
story. He discussed his feelings that the movie would be more interesting
if the main character's race changed. "I thought if the teacher were
ethnic, dealing with ethnic students, and being attacked the same way that
we commonly see white teachers attacked, it would say this has nothing to
do with race, but more with authority figures," recalls Jackson of
the preliminary meetings.
Jackson related that he had come from a family where teaching was a respected profession, as his aunt was a teacher when he was growing up. "I looked at the character of Trevor as being an old-time teacher, someone who's always wanted to be a teacher because he wants to make a difference. My aunt was the same way," says Jackson.
Reynolds relates, "Sam's got such charisma and dignity. He's the kind of person you just look at and respect, and that's what the character of Trevor is. Because of his upbringing, he understood the world of the teacher and their dilemmas."
To round out the cast, the filmmakers brought in respected actor John Heard and lauded Canadian actress Kelly Rowan to play fellow teachers Dave Childress and Ellen Henry. Young actors Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez, Karina Arroyave, Jonah Rooney and Lobo Sebastian were hired to play some of the troubled students in Trevor's classroom.
Even before cameras began rolling on "187," the director was
at work with his crew to construct Trevor's world. Recalls Reynolds, "I
didn't want to simply put a camera down in the classroom and just record.
I walked through some high schools and noticed that, visually, they're
sterile and boring. So I wanted to give each scene a different visual style
that accentuates what we're trying to say."
Reynolds worked with director of photography Ericson Core to create a style that would force the viewer to look at the movie from a non-traditional point of view. Core brought his visual sense from the dozens of music videos on which he had worked. They decided to incorporate different color palettes between the scenes in New York and Los Angeles as well as mixing media. To represent the urban feel of the story, the 35mm film is accented with interspersed scenes shot on video; also, the film or video has been visually altered by pixilation in some scenes, which gives a purposefully grainy or pointillistic look.
Additionally, Reynolds wanted to establish the setting and mood with music. He had met Chris Douridas, music director of the National Public Radio affiliate KCRW-FM in Santa Monica, California, and host of the weekday music program "Morning Becomes Eclectic," on the set of "Waterworld." The two had discussed collaborating on Reynolds' next project and, for "187," they decided to build a soundtrack using cutting-edge music, urban-oriented songs by artists that would serve the film as a score.
Douridas says, "A large portion of the music was chosen even before filming began. We set out to try and essentially 'score' the film with found pieces of music, knowing that we may have to hire a composer in the end to link things together. But ultimately that never happened. We ended up using no composer."
Reynolds needed a base sound from which to build, and he found that in the song "Spying Glass" by the Bristol-based band Massive Attack. The sound can best be described as 'trip-hop,' the urban sound of hip-hop played by bands out of England; 'trip-hop' features elements of rap and drum-and-bass sampling, combined with influences from soul and reggae music. With the 'trip-hop' sound as their cornerstone, Douridas and Reynolds branched out into other styles with subsequent song choices, painting a varied urban portrait. The director played the soundtrack selections on the set during filming to convey the emotional thrust of the scene to his actors and to motivate the crew while setting lights and camera angles.
The emotional world of "187" deepened with the addition of the music, according to Douridas. "The songs transport the film to a more universal place. In a way, they lift it out of being Los Angeles-specific and make it a more universal message. There's an integral marriage of the music and image that comes forward as one distinctive voice. Essentially, we've created a progressive urban landscape with a global perspective."
In addition to Massive Attack, other recording artists that appear on the soundtrack of "187" include Galliano, Method Man remixed by Prodigy, DJ Shadow, Everything But The Girl, Undercover Agent, Miles Davis, Bang Bang, David Darling, Madredeus and V-Love.
"187" was shot on location in Los Angeles over the summer of
1996. The company filmed for two days in New York in October for the prologue
scenes preceding Trevor's move to the West Coast.
Verdugo Hills High School was utilized for the high school where Trevor teaches after recovering from his stabbing. Marshall High in Pasadena posed for the Brooklyn school where the attack takes place. Other locations included Pacoima, Boyle Heights, under the Pomona freeway and at the Los Angeles river bed, all reflecting the parts of Los Angeles not proudly displayed to visitors but very real to the thousands of residents whose day-to-day existence is a tooth-and-nail struggle.
The gritty surroundings contrasted with many of the filmmakers' and actors' own experiences while in school, and brought the harsh reality of "187" into perspective.
Recalls Kelly Rowan, "I felt very fortunate that I went to school in Canada. It made me realize what a profound effect teachers have on people's lives. Most instructors start out with a passion for education, but in places like this, that passion deteriorates. They start out loving what they do, but they end up doing it in anarchy. So it's like a fall from grace."
Scott Yagemann comments, "There's a euphoria that comes from teaching, when you're connecting with the kids. You actually get a high. But in some cases, the system doesn't support that connection, and the teacher is burnt out and destroyed by the environment. Trevor's classroom is his sanctuary and once it's destroyed, everyone has to deal with the consequences."
What the filmmakers ultimately discovered was that teachers today are like soldiers in the trenches who are suffering from battle fatigue. "You see it in their eyes," says Reynolds. "They're worn down, and the tragedy of all this is that these were people who were enthusiastic about teaching but are put into a system that doesn't work. They get ground down and just hang in to collect a paycheck. They just want to survive."
As Yagemann points out, the problems in schools today are inevitable due to an unofficial dictate he heard from more than one school principal: "I was told more than once, 'You have to first earn their respect.' And I said, 'Wait, shouldn't I have to earn their disrespect? I should be respected the minute I walk in the classroom.' It's a whole different set of rules from when today's adults went to school."
"When I went to school," says Samuel L. Jackson, "teachers had reputations, not students."
"This movie is going to challenge and unsettle some people, but some people need to be challenged and unsettled," the director concludes. "Kids understand how dangerous the world of public schools is -- parents just don't get it."
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