Brooklyn Castle, a new must-see documentary that brings you into the world of the I.S. 318 chess team, hits the big screen today. We saw the film last week and highly recommend checking it out—beyond the chess focus, it gives you a realistic inside look at what's happening in the public school system in New York, as budgets get cut and communities come together. It also introduces you to some of the amazing kids and educators that are a part of this school system—yesterday you met Rochelle, who is well on her way to becoming the first female African-American grandmaster (and as a teenager, no less). Today, meet Katie Dellamaggiore, the filmmaker. (And tomorrow, meet them all at their ChessFest, being held across from the Landmark Sunshine, one of the theaters the film is screening in.)
What got you interested in the kids at I.S. 318? I think I was mainly interested in telling an unlikely story and the incredible success of the I.S. 318 chess program fit the bill. I don’t think most people expect a Title I school (a school with more than 60% of students from low-income households) in Brooklyn to have the number one chess team in the country. I certainly didn’t, and I’m from Brooklyn! I was just really proud to find this little gem of a school right here in our backyard that was defying the odds and shattering the notion that our public schools are destined to fail.
How did you learn about them, and start making contact for the movie? I read an article in the New York Times about a book called The Kings of New York by Michael Weinreb. That book chronicled the best high school chess team in the country, Edward R. Murrow High School. I met Michael for coffee to discuss the book and the possibility of using it as my subject. He told me about I.S. 318, which was still a little under the radar. Luckily for me, I.S. 318 is very close to my apartment and, once I went there and met Elizabeth, John and the kids, I knew that I had discovered a very special story.
Watching it, you almost forget that you are watching a documentary and sort of feel like you are right there in the room, was it difficult to keep everyone focused on what they were doing and not on the cameras? Nelson, my editor and husband, would take that as a huge compliment! His entire mission was to make the audience forget that they were watching a documentary, and just feel like they were watching a movie. As far as the presence of the camera, I think the kids would say no, it wasn't distracting. Maybe the first few days were tough, but we quickly disappeared into the background. They are so concentrated on their chess games that if we became a problem Elizabeth or John would have certainly shut us down, which thankfully never happened.
Do you play chess? Did you learn it while filming? I wasn’t a chess player before we made the film and I still don’t consider myself a chess player after finishing the film, either. But I did learn the fundamentals of the game, which is much more than I had when I started. I think I was under the delusion that I was actually learning some strategy by spending so much time in the classroom, but my husband still enjoys kicking my butt every opportunity he gets. And I’m proud to say I finally got the nerve to play my first game against one of the kids last weekend. It was against Pobo, and he said I actually didn’t play so bad - so I’m pretty proud of that!
Have you kept in touch with the kids and parents? Absolutely. We see and talk to them all the time, and we're always trying to find opportunities for them to prosper from the movie. This summer, Pobo got to speak at an afterschool conference on Capitol Hill. He did a stellar job, of course. We were able to connect Rochelle with an awesome summer job at a top law firm this summer. And we've invited them to as many speaking engagements as their schedules will allow, and this is all just the beginning. We really feel like we are forever part of the I.S. 318 family now.
Do you know how the school's budget is doing? What can people do to help? Right now, the chess team has zero dollars allocated for travel. Their main source of funding these days comes from private donations. But this kind of piecemeal funding is, of course, unreliable and only a short-term solution. The big question is how the program will continue to sustain itself over the next five, 10 or 15 years? And I think that’s a solution that’s going to have to come from a change in the funding system for afterschool programs at a city, state or national level. But for right now we’re committed to leveraging the film as a fundraiser for the school and will continue to do so until I.S. 318 has enough money to travel to all their chess tournaments. On our website there's a link to donate directly to the chess team. We hope one day we'll be able to set up a fund large enough to ensure the continued survival of the program—and so they never have to worry about money again. That's the dream. It's a big one, but if we’ve learned anything from the I.S. 318 chess team, it’s to set really big goals.
How did Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt get interested, involved? Were you surprised by that? We were completely surprised! To have Jon and Jennifer get behind our little film is truly humbling, and it happened in a really simple way. We got the film to them through our distributor, PDA; they watched it, loved it and said they wanted to help. They generously offered to host a special screening for some of their friends and, of course, we took them up on that offer. It was such a great event, and that’s because Jon and Jennifer really got the message of the film and truly wanted to help us get the word out. They’re pretty awesome people and we couldn’t be more grateful for their support!