One of the highlights of last year's Los Angeles Film Festival was the feature-length documentary Pressure Cooker, co-directed by Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker. The movie is about a veteran Culinary Arts teacher, Wilma Stephenson, who has built a reputation over the past 38 years for turning out scholarship-winning students at Northeast Philadelphia's Frankford High School.
On June 5, the film begins its theatrical run in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Sunset 5 and at Pasadena's Laemmle Playhouse 7, which means you get a second chance to witness Stephenson's super-crazy tough-love teaching style and track the progress of Erica, Dudley and Fatoumata, three of her sweetly earnest inner-city charges. Here, Grausman submits to a Squid Ink IM session.
When did you first hear of the Category Five hurricane known as Wilma Stephenson?
I heard about Wilma Stephenson from my father, Richard Grausman, who founded the nonprofit, Careers through Culinary Arts Program. The organization works with culinary arts classes in public high schools across the country. Mrs. Stephenson's students always did extremely well at the competition — he knew that she really trained them…and her students always wrote these amazing personal essays as part of their application for the scholarship competitions. So I went to meet her and we spoke for 3 hours. She clearly loved her students. She was charismatic, funny, emotional and passionate about education, so I thought there might be a story in her kitchen classroom.
Did she agree immediately to let you bring cameras into her class room? Or did it take some convincing?
She agreed immediately. But later she had second thoughts when I asked to film on the first day of school. I convinced her to let us come.
What was your argument?
I told her that we wanted to capture the entire year and catch the progress of her students. We didn't just want to film them at the end, but to tell the story of their growth.
How long was your shoot?
The entire school year and a bit into the summer. So approximately 10 months.
One of the drills Stephenson makes the kids practice over and over again involves something called a tourne — carving a potato into seven perfect sides. Did you ever give it a try?
I still can't do a potato tourne. The day we filmed Fatoumata practicing, she asked me to try and I couldn't do it at all. I was terrible. Didn't even get close to symmetrical.
Like a cubist potato tourne?
Yes. Fatoumata told me when she got to Monroe, hers was the best in the class.
What's the best thing you learned while making Pressure Cooker?
In terms of cooking or filmmaking or life?
I learned that you have to be ready to be completely spontaneous in documentary filmmaking — to be ready for whatever happens. Some of our the best moments we caught happened on days we thought we were shooting something else. Also to not worry about missing moments. In the beginning I would beat myself up if we had missed a great moment, but in the end, we had so many great moments that I didn't miss the ones I thought I would.
Can you give an example?
The scene in the classroom with Wilma, Erica and the other girls when she calls Fatoumata to ask about the prom. That day we had gone down just to get insert shots of the kitchen — we didn't even know they would be there.
Okay, so what did you learn about cooking?
That's harder. Mostly that if you practice, you can do it. Wilma teaches the kids that with practice and ambition, they can do anything. They set goals and reached them. That was very inspiring for me. And that practice does make perfect — especially with potato tournees and omelets
Are you still scared of Mrs. Stephenson?
Mrs. Stephenson and I are on great terms now.
Um, what do you mean…”now“?
Her students are her focus, so there were days where having a documentary crew around was not her favorite thing.
I'm not trying to weasel an answer out of you, I just know that it had to be intimidating sometimes.
Wilma fully admits that she gave us a hard time when she does Q&As. We got kicked out of the classroom many times, yelled at, like the kids do, and even told not to come back for a few weeks.
Hahahaahaha! awesome! What would you and Mark Becker do?
So Wilma put you through documentary filmmaking boot camp too!
Yes, completely! One day we wanted to film Erica and friends going to get lunch.
We didn't realize they were sneaking out, and Wilma caught us. We were in more trouble than the kids.
What did you do?
Mark tried to explain that we were just documenting what happened — we weren't in charge of their actions. But arguing doesn't work. So he learned from me, that what you have to do is apologize. So we did. And we were allowed back. The kids called to apologize for getting us in trouble. And we all laughed about it later — including Wilma.