The current issue of WORLD includes an interview with Micheal Flaherty, who heads Walden Media, maker of the Narnia movies and two excellent, new films on educational problems and ways to solve them. Here are comments on Walden and those recent movies that we didn’t have room for in the magazine:
Why did you name your company Walden? We paid a company an obnoxious amount of money to help us come up with a name. The person in charge of it said, “Nobody, and I mean nobody, has named more fragrances than me. I know what I’m doing.” So we’re there in the hands of the guy who named Justin Beiber’s new perfume and he said, “This is the name for your company”—and he held up a sign that said, “Tangerine.” I said, “Tangerine? I don’t get it.” He said, “You guys want to make movies for underdogs, right? Tangerine’s the underdog fruit. Everyone’s saying go watermelon, go banana, and tangerine’s like, ‘Hello, I’m here, I’m a fruit!’”
That logic didn’t overwhelm you? I said, “We’ll have to name this company ourselves.” I was driving home to Lexington [Mass.] and the next town over is Concord. Thoreau wrote a great book, Walden Pond, about his experience living there. One of its more famous lines is about marching to the beat of a different drummer, and that’s exactly what we were trying to do in Hollywood is, so that’s where the name came from.
Regarding that different drummer: You’ve recently done two films related to kids trapped in bad schools. The first, Waiting for Superman,is a documentary about how in many cities kids need to win a lottery to go to a decent charter school. In some of the schools that the kids tried to escape, the majority of kids get out of grade school and they can’t read. At some of these charter schools, 100 percent of the kids go on to college. The situation has gotten so bad that last year 160,000 students in New York City were denied a slot in the charter schools: 160,000 kids looking for other alternatives and they’re shut out.
Folks on the left talk about the structural injustices in American capitalist society, but to me the big structural injustice is our rotten public school system and the lack of freedom that parents and kids have. Our latest movie, Won’t Back Down, is about a mom with a daughter who is trapped in a classroom with the worst teacher in the entire state, and the teacher can’t get fired because she has tenure. The teacher has no motivation or incentive to do a better job as a teacher because she gets paid regardless. The mom wants her kid out of that classroom. She faces great obstacles.
You’re accused of disrespecting teachers … It’s nonsense to say, as the teachers’ union does, that everyone’s performance is the same. Many great teachers out there are delivering great results. We’re not treating them fairly by saying they’re just like every other teacher.
The National Education Association tried to kill the film … The premier was in New York City the same night Iran’s Ahmadinejad was in the city. He was staying at the Warwick Hotel on 54th Street, and our premier was at the Ziegfeld Theater on 54th Street. My wife said, “We’d better get there early because there will probably be protestors, and a lot of traffic.” Sure enough, there are all these protestors in the shadow of the Warwick Hotel, but they weren’t there protesting someone who denies the Holocaust, wants to wipe Israel off the face of the planet, and supports state-sponsored execution of Christians. They were protesting Won’t Back Down, which they hadn’t even seen.