Katie Dellamaggiore came upon the idea for her film “Brooklyn Castle,” about I.S. 318’s championship chess team, while researching another very successful Brooklyn chess program, Midwood’s Edward R. Murrow High School. The filmmaker/Greenpoint resident read about Murrow, which was featured in sportswriter Michael Weinreb’s The Kings of New York, in a New York Times article and thought she had found her subject. A meeting with Weinreb, however, led her to 318, the junior high school source for many of Murrow’s top players.
GG: How different were your expectations of I.S. 318 from what was actually there?
KD: When I first got to the school, I didn’t know what to expect. The thing that surprised me most was how compelling it was to watch Elizabeth (Vicary) Spiegel teach the kids chess. Although I’m not a chess player, I was completely enthralled with watching her teach, even though I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. I thought ‘you must be a pretty damn good teacher,’ because even without following her, the level of enthusiasm that she had and the connection she was making with the kids was palpable. You could see it in her face and in the kids’ faces. There was just a great energy in the room. That chess could be so interesting to a non-chess person really surprised me and I thought ‘well, if it could be interesting to me, maybe we could find a way to make it interesting to other people.’
The second very surprising thing was the idea that runs throughout the film that the chess geeks are kind of the athletes of the school. The new generation of chess players is not what people think it is. People who don’t play chess may think of Bobby Fischer or an older generation of chess players and not of this young, vibrant sport with kids of all ages and backgrounds that can be really social, which is what they have at IS 318. It was intriguing to me because I thought there were these chess and life connections to get into, that would result in good storytelling.
GG: What drew you to the story?
KD: I was intrigued by the idea that the story defied expectations. People don’t expect a Title I school (ed. note: more than 60% of the students are from low income households) in Brooklyn to have the number one chess team in the nation. I certainly didn’t, and I’m from Brooklyn! I was really proud to find out that we had this little gem of a school, right here in our backyard.
GG: What surprised you most about the school, program and students, as filming moved forward?
KD: Once I got to the school and saw all the amazing things happening there and all their amazing after-school programs and the dedicated staff with John Galvin, Elizabeth (Vicary) Spiegel and Fred Rubino, I was intrigued. I wasn’t looking for a film about public education at all, but at the same time I thought, ‘Here’s this story portraying public education in a way we don’t often hear about and about how a school like this can do great things when given the resources they need; when the community is backing it and the administration is backing it.’
GG: How did former Principal Fred Rubino’s death affect your approach to the film? Did you consider working it into the story?
KD: When we heard that he passed away, in April of 2012, the film had premiered at South by Southwest and had won the wonderful audience award and we were headed to a couple more film festivals. I had just gotten back from Dallas and I got the call from John Galvin and my heart just broke. I was like ‘what are you talking about?’ It just made no sense to me. We were looking forward to having a screening at the school for him and for the entire school. We hadn’t done that yet (ed. note: Rubino never got to see the completed film).
Without Fred, we would not have been able to make the movie. First of all, he built that school. Everything you see in the film is a tribute to the value he added to the school to make it what he wanted it to be. I’m happy with the way he’s represented in the film. I think his role is really clear and that people get from the movie that there’s very strong backing from the Principal. I’m glad we were able to share it with his family and that they loved it. He has a living tribute to him now. It was the least we could do. We wanted people to know what a wonderful Principal and teacher he was.
He had been so welcoming and trusting to us, [which was] surprising because most people would expect a New York City Principal not to be very welcoming to a film crew. He was proud of the school and so proud of his chess team. He knew he had something special and had nothing to hide. I would walk into the school and he would just slap me on the back and say ‘Hey kiddo! How’s the movie going?’ He always made you feel like the most important person.
GG: What is the message you most want people to take from the film?
KD: The overall feeling that I want people to get from the film is that they feel inspired – as a kid, to realize their full potential, – as an educator, to continue the hard work they’re doing, and to realize that it’s truly appreciated, – as a parent, to get involved with their school, their PTA and their community, so if anything happens, they can have a voice to fight back, – and as the general public, to just see a story that makes them feel good and to realize that there are good things happening at our schools, and our young people, like the kids in the film, if given the opportunity, can exceed expectations. I think people need to be reminded that it happens all the time.
GG: How surprised are you by the response to the film, especially outside Brooklyn?
KD: The response has been great in places we least expected. In Texas, for example, a world away from Brooklyn, we had an amazing response to our screening. It’s interesting to see that the audience response has been pretty much the same all over the country. Even though it’s set in Brooklyn, the hopes and dreams of the kids are completely universal.
We wanted it to be a New York story. I think people are generally intrigued by New York stories and there’s something about Brooklyn, especially now, which has captured the attention of the nation. Brooklyn is the coolest place on the planet at the moment.
GG: You have really taken up the fundraising mantle for the school. Why have you remained so closely involved with the school?
KD: As a documentary filmmaker, your role is so much bigger than just telling a story. You have a relationship with these people and you feel a sense of responsibility to them because they’ve given you access to their lives. You develop such empathy for their situations. So the fact that [IS 318] got hit with these huge budget cuts and that we were witnessing that, there was no way that we could not use the film to help them.
GG: In addition to the local success story at 318, there’s the local success story of Rescued Media, your production company. What does the success of the film mean for your future filmmaking?
KD: [Brooklyn Castle] started as a small family project for me, my husband [Nelson] and brother [Brian Schulz]. It grew, and now we have a whole team of people working with us.
We all live in Brooklyn. My brother and I were born and raised here and my husband’s been here for ten years. We love being part of the group of artists that are doing really cool things in Brooklyn.
Being our first film, we just wanted to achieve small goals along the way, first to raise enough money to do the shoot, then enough to edit it. Once we accomplished that, it was ‘hey let’s put together a trailer and see if people respond to it,’ which they did. We started getting people’s attention and it kept happening, so, when we got into South by Southwest and won the audience award, we might have thought ‘this is enough,’ but it didn’t stop there. The film has really good karma thanks to our amazing crew and characters. I hope as first time filmmakers its success will help us continue to make movies.
Brooklyn Castle will open in theaters starting October 19th at Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center – Film Society of Lincoln Center (144 West 65th Street) and Sunshine Cinemas – Landmark Theaters (143 East Houston Street). It will open in theaters all around the NY area, including Brooklyn and Long Island, over the following two weeks.