Walden Media president Micheal Flaherty, a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board, recently answered questions about “Won’t Back Down” — the new Walden Media production about education opportunities in the U.S. that hits theaters Sept. 28.
Deseret News: Can you please tell me what you remember about the first time you caught wind of the “Won’t Back Down” project?
Micheal Flaherty: Education is in our company's DNA since the day that we began. For over 13 years, we have met thousands of teachers and we have always longed for a way to make a film that honored them. We also have met more than a few parents — particularly poor and minority single mothers — who have been rendered helpless and heartbroken as they fight to achieve equal educational opportunity for their children. So we decided to make an inspirational movie that would show dedicated parents and teachers working together — heroically and with great personal sacrifice —to transform their local public school.
DN: What is your favorite scene in “Won't Back Down?”
MF: My favorite scene is when Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) decides to reject a scholarship offer to an elite private school for her daughter in exchange for abandoning her fight to transform the school. For Jamie, it is no longer only about her daughter, but other people's children as well.
DN: With “Won't Back Down” as a backdrop, what’s your assessment of public education in the U.S.?
MF: Chance and luck play too much of a role in our kids' education. Zip codes should not determine the kind of education a child receives, but the problem goes even much deeper than that. There are wildly different outcomes for students simply based on what classroom that they land in. I read an article in the Los Angeles Times that dramatized this painfully well, where one of the best teachers in California was directly across the hall from one of the worst teachers in the state of California. Students from the same background and the same starting point were ending up grade levels ahead or behind depending on the classroom where they were randomly assigned. This is one of the things that we dramatize in the film.
DN: How/why is this movie societally relevant right now?
MF: I think the film is relevant because it shows two of the greatest things that can have an immediate impact — giving good teachers more freedom in the classroom, and giving parents more power to impact their kids' education.
DN: For you personally, what’s the most powerful and/or satisfying aspect of the storytelling in “Won't Back Down?”
MF: I love the similarities that this film shares with “Amazing Grace.” In that story Wilberforce teamed up with a wide range of folks from different backgrounds that were all committed to a singular purpose — the abolition of slavery. “Won't Back Down” is similar in that it shows what happens when an unlikely group of co-belligerents team up with a singular purpose — to improve their local school. We have an Irish working-class divorced mom working in a bar that teams up with an African American middle-class teacher and a young single Latino teacher to make the school a better place for all children. I also love the similarities between this film and some of my favorites like “Norma Rae” and “Erin Brockovich.” All of these films also show the personal, professional and psychological costs that brave women must pay when they challenge a powerful status quo.
DN: The first time you screened “Won't Back Down,” what was going through your mind when the end credits started rolling?
MF: Just a great sense of gratitude that I got to work with so many committed people to make a film that honors parents and teachers.