BOARDING SCHOOL: Writer/Director Boaz Yakin on Identity, Genre, and Pigeonholing

by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)

You may not know Boaz Yakin by name, but you definitely know his films. He’s the writer behind an eclectic group of titles ranging from Now You See Me to Prince of Persia to Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. He was also the director of the beloved Remember the Titans.

Boaz’s latest film, Boarding School, is one of his passion projects. It centers around a troubled young boy sent to a small, remote boarding school by his worried and exhausted parents. As you can imagine, things get creepy very quickly.

I recently had the opportunity to speak to Boaz about bending genres in Boarding School and what it’s really like to be a working writer/director.

Angela Bourassa: How did the idea for Boarding School first come to you?

Boaz Yakin: It’s long enough ago that I don’t really remember, but I think it was the character of Jacob and this idea of a young Jewish kid who’s struggling with his feelings of disconnection from his ethnicity, disconnection from his feminine side, his dislike and distrust of it – that affected me at the beginning, and then finding a context for it, I think that’s how it evolved and developed.

I had an idea that it was going to be a horror film of some kind, but I do think it falls between genres. The kind of films that deal with horrific ideas and dream-like imagery that influenced me were The Night of the Hunter – an amazing film from the 50s, one the most poetic and beautiful films I’ve ever seen – Blue Velvet, Bad Education, The Tenant… Movies that have horrific elements in them that deal with these sorts of themes and ideas but aren’t necessarily what you’d call a straight up horror movie – those are the sorts of films that I wanted to emulate and capture the mood of.

Angela Bourassa: I feel like a lot of people who hear the title of this film or even see the trailer will sort of assume what they’re in for with a movie like this, and then I think they’d be completely surprised by what they saw. How cognizant of that were you as you were writing and directing this? Were you purposefully trying to upset people’s expectations? “Upset” isn’t the right word…

Boaz Yakin: I know what you mean and, no, I wasn’t trying to upset people’s expectations, but I think that unfortunately – especially here in the States – people have such a rigid set of expectations about what movies are and what they’re supposed to be. So when you talk about what’s a horror movie or what’s a thriller or what’s a comedy, people have a certain set of expectations that they bring with them, and from the marketing standpoint, people are always trying to figure out how to get a certain audience to the movies, and I think Boarding School is a challenge to the marketing department in that, yes, ultimately it falls within the horror genre, but it’s a very atypical horror film in that, at a moment in the movie where normally something scary would happen, it takes a left turn.

So for traditional horror audiences, there’s a lot of stuff in this movie that they won’t expect and will either like for that reason or they’ll go, “What the f*ck is this? This isn’t what I paid my money for.” I think we’re going to get both of those reactions to this movie.

Angela Bourassa: Your writing and directing credits cover a rather wide range of genres, from horror to action to drama to even romance with Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. Have you felt any sort of through-line that connects all of your work or is it more that you do what you want to do when you want to do it?

Boaz Yakin: [Laughs] Well, there is a little bit of that, although it makes it sound like I have so much power over my identity, whereas, you know, most of the things that I do don’t get made – it’s always a very big struggle to get a film produced. A lot of the writing work that you mentioned is stuff that I would call “jobs” – things you have to do in order to pay the bills and in order to make movies like this.

When I make independent films, I end up putting a lot of my own money into the films. I put a lot of my own money into Boarding School. The movie that I just finished shooting that I’m going to start editing soon is a fully self-financed movie with contemporary dance and it deals with gender issues and all that, as well. In order to make movies like that, you have to do the Dirty Dancings of the world to make a little money – or I’ve had to, at any rate – so those movies don’t tend to reflect my interests in any kind of meaningful way.

I would say that when doing work that’s more personal, the idea of being in conflict with oneself, with one’s sense of identity and also with how that identity fits within the larger social structure – feeling like an outsider both within yourself and within the context of the social environment – I think that tends to be something that interests me.

Angela Bourassa: New writers in particular are given the advice that they should pick a genre and stick to it, almost pigeonhole themselves in a way. Has working across different genres made it harder for you to establish yourself, or do you think that advice is misguided?

Boaz Yakin: Well, honestly, I think if your concern is to get work –to be able to make money in this business – I think it’s actually very good advice. Shifting between genres and not being easy to pigeonhole actually makes it much, much harder for people to hire you, unfortunately.

Each person has to pursue their own fate, whatever that means, but it made it very difficult for me in many ways even to get a movie like Boarding School made. The only reason that I got it made was that the level of the budget ended up being so low that I was able to get the financers to agree that it was worth the risk. If I had made a couple of horror films that had succeeded, I would have been in a much stronger position to get this movie made. I actually had written it years ago and didn’t manage to get the financing for it and then came back to it and brought the budget down to a place where it was manageable.

Making movies when you haven’t proven yourself recently in that genre, not having a “brand” makes it much harder to get hired. The people who spend money on writers and directors have very little imagination and have a strong sense of wanting to be safe and know what they’re getting, so if you can give people something consistent, you’re always in a better position to get hired.

Angela Bourassa: If you were starting out as a writer/director today, what would be your approach to breaking in?

Boaz Yakin: Oh Jesus… I will say this. Given the difference in technology and cost to make a feature these days versus when I was starting out in the nineties, you can actually make a feature film now for so much less, so if you have any means and any desire…

I’ve spoken to some young people who tell me, “Yeah, I’ve gotten together this amount of money to make a short,” and I’m always like, “Why make a short? Just make a feature – it’s almost the same amount of money, it’s almost as difficult, and you’ll have a feature!” So I think if someone can pull together a feature, that’s almost always the way to go.

Angela Bourassa: What do you wish you knew when you were first starting out as a writer/director?

Boaz Yakin: You know, I don’t know that I think that way, because the process itself is always going to reveal new things and you’re always going to learn new things when you’re working. To me, it’s always a process of discovery. Every movie that I’ve done is always filled with challenges and opportunities that I didn’t know existed before I made it.

It’s amazing, because I have been doing this for a long time, and every time I do it, I feel like I’ve never done it before. I never have that feeling when I start a movie of, “Yeah, I’ve done this before, this is what I do, this is how I do it!” Sometimes I long for that feeling, but every time I start a movie I feel like, “Holy shit, I can’t believe I’m making a movie. Oh my god, how do you do this?”

I don’t think I’m any more confident now than I was when I made my first movie. I think my experience filters in and allows me to be more flexible in a way that I didn’t used to be, but I still start out every time feeling like I’ve never done it before.

Boarding School will be in theaters and On Demand / Digital HD on August 31.

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Angela Bourassa is the founder of LA Screenwriter and the co-founder of Write/LA, a screenwriting competition created by writers, for writers. A mom, UCLA grad, and alternating repeat binger of The Office and Parks and Recreation, Angela posts articles through @LA_Screenwriter and unique daily writing prompts through @Write_LA.

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