The Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP) is a non-profit organization that helps high school seniors gain scholarships to culinary school. The program was set up in New York City by Richard Grausman in 1990 and has subsequently spread across the country. Pressure Cooker was shot by Grausman’s daughter, Jennifer, and her filmmaking partner, Mark Becker. It follows three students, Erica, Dudley and Fatoumata, who attend Philadelphia's Frankford High School under the watchful eye of their Culinary Arts teacher, Wilma Stephenson. Wilma’s blunt teaching methods have made her a formidable figure in the education system, her forceful drive positively compelling her students to exceed expectations. Pressure Cooker is a deeply affecting movie that played to sold out crowds at the IFC in New York City, leaving barely a dry eye in the house as Wilma’s students attempt to gain admittance to the finest culinary schools in the country.
Pressure Cooker (2008) Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker
Can you describe your initial interactions with Wilma?
Jennifer Grausman: The first one was great, she was totally on board. She was amazing to talk to, she was amazing on camera. Then she had some second thoughts about the project. So there was a lot of me trying to explain the project and trying to convince her to let us come on the first day of school. And then we did. It was definitely up and down. She treated us like we were kids—we got yelled at just as much, if not more than the kids, and we got as much love at other times. It was definitely a challenging experience.
Mark Becker: She claims that she expected us to show up at the beginning of the year and then maybe come back at the end of the year for a summary. And that would be it. I think it continually amazed and annoyed her that we kept arriving in the morning to film some more. So we tried as best we could to impart what the film was about and how it would work. She didn’t really understand it until she saw it, however much we tried. We spent a lot of time on the New Jersey Turnpike heading back to New York, feeling like: Are we going to get back in? Do we still have the access that we need to make a compelling movie?
We don’t learn much about Wilma’s personal life in the film. Was that a conscious decision or a matter of access?
JG: I originally thought we would go home with her and do a couple of different things with her outside of school. But it became pretty clear early on that was not how she envisioned it. I think it worked out to our advantage in a way. She created this family in the classroom, which was all the more rich because we don’t know so much about her personal life.
MB: I think the documentary process is about improvisation. You’re given what you’re given and you try to get other things. Then you find we have access to these kids and we have limited access to Wilma, so you start to think: What is the movie about? What are we able to get? What story are we able to tell with that vocabulary? You refine your vision. We thought at one point that there’s obviously some family strife at home among these kids. There’s a surrogate family in the classroom. How is that story playing out? It would inform the way we would shoot successive scenes. So this process of refining your notion of what the narrative is over time, trying to stay honest to what you’re given, and also working within your issues of access and trying not to violate the trust of the film’s subjects by not pushing too many boundaries when it’s not working—all that stuff plays into what you end up with on the screen. We tried as best we can to achieve some sort of compelling reproduction of the honest feeling we had during production in terms of what we had access to.
Were there access issues with the kids?
MB: We were dealing with a bunch of the kids over time. Jen and I both thought we would only be working with a few of them in terms of the pieces of the narrative. But part of that is determined by access.
JG: We had pretty easy access to the three of them at home. Fatoumata took a little longer. But once we had access, they were open to the process. We did some [shooting] with a couple of other kids. A little bit at home and a little bit at their jobs. But there wasn’t going to be as much access in terms of their personal and their familial lives, so that helped us narrow our character search. At the same time, we were very lucky, because the three kids who we were naturally drawn to and compelled by also gave us the best access.
Instructor Wilma Stephenson with Erica Gaither in Pressure Cooker
What was it about those three that drew you in?
JG: Erica and Dudley were both incredibly charismatic and funny and outgoing. They were ready to be in a movie, they were excited about it. Dudley, less so. Erica was a pro and so natural and ignoring the cameras. Dudley was just a little more guarded in the beginning. But he let us in after we got to know them a little bit and went home with Erica. He’s a leader in the school and is used to people looking up to him. Fatoumata we had met during the first time I met Wilma. She was very quiet, but I knew a little bit about her history. So we were worried in the beginning. We weren’t sure if we were able to get enough access to her and whether she would be comfortable enough on camera. We spent a lot of time with her off camera in the first semester, just getting to know her. And that, I think, helped a lot. Then she was our dependable girl who would call us back and show up for appointments and tell us what was going on in the classroom when we weren’t allowed in. When we met her, there was something about her drive and her spirit. We instinctively knew that she would be a great character if it worked out. And it did.
MB: With all of them, it’s this lack of self-consciousness that you’re hoping to get to. You’re hoping that you are able to film them in intimate situations where you feel like they’re not performing. They’re fully involved in their own lives and are giving you something that approximates what you might see if you weren’t there.
Are you still in touch with Wilma?
JG: Oh, all the time [laughs]
What was her reaction to the film?
JG: She really loved it. I think she was nervous. We were nervous. I was shaking. But she was also nervous, because she wasn’t sure what to expect. She expected worse, somehow. I think she was really moved.
MB: She was shocked. She got tons of love at the first screening. It was a standing ovation and she was treated as a hero. So that certainly softened her. Also, she genuinely didn’t understand how the process could lead to something. She says that she doesn’t understand what it is that we did to give life to what it feels like during the school year. That’s not a pat on the back, she was simply confused by the process and how we took all these pieces during the production. She didn’t understand the process, whereby you can take these different scenes as they play out and put them together in such a way that it feels like some form of reality. And hopefully a little bit of poetry. She felt it and she feels it from the audience. So that made her feel really good about the movie.
Fatoumata Dembele with Chef Thomas Krichel in Pressure Cooker
How did the kids react when they saw the film?
JG: They really loved it. We were nervous, for sure. But the first time they saw it was at the LA Film Festival and the screening was for 1,200 public high school kids. No one had seen the movie. Wilma hadn’t seen it, the kids hadn’t seen it. But the audience just flipped out over the movie and really related to it and said things like: ‘No one ever makes movies about me.’ They completely related to Erica and Fatoumata. They came over hugging them and crying and asking for advice, asking for Dudley’s autograph, wanting Wilma to move to LA and teach them. It was this outpouring of love for them. I think they were surprised at what we had managed to capture, because they weren’t quite sure what we were doing. They certainly didn’t know how we were putting it together. The greatest compliment we could hope for was: that’s how they remember their senior year. We somehow managed to get it on film. That was really gratifying.
MB: When we started out, it was obviously, for a documentary, a very plot-centric movie. There are these kids that want something at the very beginning, and will they get it? And how are they going to be able to achieve that? That is, get scholarships and transcend the opportunities that are before them in flipping burgers or working at K-Mart. In a way, it can seem very straightforward in terms of getting an audience’s attention. Our goal was to betray the expectations of this super plot-centric movie and give you something that you didn’t expect. Which is a fully intimate experience into this turning point in people’s lives in their senior year, when everything matters to them. This is the pivotal moment in their lives because in this classroom they potentially have access to scholarships that can help them transcend. But our goal was to create an intimacy that people would not expect. So by the time you get to the end, and Wilma shuts the door at the end of the school year, you feel like you haven’t just seen this. You’ve been inside it.
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