‘Won't Back Down’ Director: Film's Debut Like Pulling Off a Band-Aid

"Won't Back Down" director Daniel Barnz said his film on education reform was released amid the massive teacher strike in Chicago

In the days before director Daniel Barnz's education reform movie "Won't Back Down" was released in late September, the lines between art and life seemed to blur.

Angela Weiss/Getty ImagesThousands of disgruntled teachers marched through the streets of Chicago during a strike over contracts, and Barnz was screening a film about two mothers taking over a failing school, which some have criticized as anti-union.

"It's hard, when you're releasing a film like this in the weeks before the election, after an extremely divisive teachers strike," Barnz told TheWrap's Steve Pond at its annual Awards Screening Series Tuesday night. "It was like ripping a Band-Aid off."

The film stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as two mothers, one also a teacher, who are so frustrated with the deterioration of their children's public school that they fight through jungles of red tape to take it over and reform it.

Though the Teachers Association of Pennsylvania is depicted as the antagonist, Barnz said the movie is intended to both "criticize and support unions."

He funnels that message through Gyllenhaal's boyfriend, a ukulele-plunking teacher played by Oscar Isaac, who refuses to outright oppose his union. He cites the example of his elementary school teacher, who would have been fired for teaching censored books to his pupils.

But Barnz said many people who say "Won't Back Down" is anti-union "haven't even seen the movie."

"I've marched with my union two years ago," Barnz said at the Landmark Theater in West Los Angeles. "I'm a liberal, I'm a lefty Democrat, but I have some concerns about the ways unions are affecting our failing public schools."

"I think you ought to be able to tell that story without getting that kind of flak," he added.

He said he also consulted with relatives who are public school teachers in New York.

The film highlights real-life "parent trigger laws" enacted in a handful of states, in which would-be reformers can try to take over a school with the consent of half the parents. To make the story more dramatic, he had the law in the film require half the teachers to sign off, too.

"Since I come from a family of educators, I have questions about that law. I wanted to tell a different story," he said. "I created a fictional law because educators have to be part of fixing the schools."

Barnz and producer Mark Johnson said they weren't concerned with the film's weak performance at the box office. It has only yielded about $5.2 million so far on a $19 million budget.

"You don't have to feel too bad for me," Barnz said. "I've never looked at any of my box office numbers for any of my movies and never read any critics."

He said he cares more about the appeal of his films to grassroots audiences, and said the number of raised hands in the audience during the Q&A session was proof of success.

"What you say," he told the audience, "is 10 times as important to me as what the box office says."

Johnson said he enjoyed working with Barnz and that the two are working together on a new drama, this time focused on immigration reform.

But Johnson, an executive producer on AMC's "Breaking Bad," agreed with an audience member who said "Won't Back Down" could be good television fodder.

"There probably is a very good series based schools and someone doing the right thing," he said. "We'll have to think about that."