Q&A with Tony Perri, director of the transcendental-meditation documentary School of Thought

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An image from the Tony Perri film "School of Thought."

School of Thought, a documentary by local filmmaker Tony Perri, makes its Colorado debut tomorrow, February 14, as part of the Boulder International Film Festival. (The screening takes place at 4:45 p.m. at the Boulder Public Library; also on the bill is another short documentary, Come Back to Sudan. Click here for details.) Thought focuses on the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment, a K-12 facility, and the affiliated Maharishi University of Management, located in the unlikely locale of Fairfield, Iowa. Both institutions couple their basic curricula with transcendental meditation -- and among those who boost the concept on camera is director David Lynch, whose cinematic oeuvre includes Blue Velvet, Mulholland Dr. and other films that don't usually leave viewers in a state of peace and bliss.

Perri, who'll attend tomorrow's showing, provides background and talks about his motivation for enrolling in this particular School of Thought in the following Q&A.

Westword (Michael Roberts): How long as the university been in Fairfield?

Tony Perri: I don't remember the exact date, but there was an old college there, called Parsons College, that went bankrupt. The school bought up that land in the early '80s and they started the university shortly after that.

WW: At what point did David Lynch get involved?

TP: He got involved about three years ago. He had gone out there just to visit the school and meet the students, and he tells a great story about it. He went to a high school play at the Maharishi School and being blown away by the students. He felt that what these students have, every student should have. It was the visit there that really prompted him to start his foundation. And in fact, on April 4 at Radio City Music Hall, Paul McCartney, Sheryl Crow, Eddie Vedder, they're all doing a benefit concert for the David Lynch Foundation and the school. So he's really taken the reins with his foundation, and he travels the world promoting meditation in schools.

WW: Are the high school and university separate? Or are they considered to be all part of the same institution?

TP: There's two schools. The university is called the Maharishi University of Management -- MUM. And the K-12 school is the Maharishi School of the Age of Englightenment...

WW: How much does David Lynch contribute to the schools through the foundation? And does he wholly support them? Or is there other funding coming in from other sources?

TP: I know there's quite a bit of other funding coming in. And the David Lynch Foundation was established to promote meditation to schools all over the world.

WW: The reason I ask that question is because the class sizes in the high school, in particular, seem very small, and the facility looks very impressive. I would think it would be hugely expensive to keep the school going with this seemingly modest number of students...

TP: Well, I think the K-12 school has about 300 students, and I don't really know the details about their finances and how they make it all work. But I think the school probably looks better on film. It's quite modest. They actually need money. They're not overflowing with cash, I don't think.

WW: As a fan of David Lynch's films, I came to your movie with certain expectations. Think of Blue Velvet, for example, where the community looks hyper-normal on the surface, but if you look deeper, everything is really weird. In School of Thought, everything looks really normal on the surface, too, and I kept waiting for the weirdness -- and it doesn't come. And that was weird in itself. [Perri laughs.] Have you had other people who've seen your film have a reaction like that?

TP: A little bit, yes, I have. But David Lynch explains it the best. He says he doesn't get any of his ideas for films while he's meditating -- that the meditation part of it is all very separate, and that you're not really thinking of anything while you're meditating. People ask him at these giant Q&As that he has out there, "Where do your ideas come from? Are they all from meditation?" And he says no -- that you can be weird and bizarre and think about crazy stuff and still be kind of normal. That's his answer, and I kind of go along with that. When you meet David Lynch, he's very different than you'd expect. He's got a huge heart, he cares deeply about children and about the world, and so it's a very different persona than I think people might have of him.

WW: You note in the film that some of the townspeople in Fairfield aren't completely sold on this whole transcendental meditation thing -- they kind of wonder what's going on over at this school. Were you trying to break down those kinds of preconceptions by showing the students to be normal kids, as opposed to being hypnotized members of some strange cult?

TP: I didn't really have any kind of intent like that. I was absolutely blown away when I met the students, and how great they were. I was like, I really want to show this to the world. And as I was doing this, I found some townsfolk who thought this is a little strange. Now, the mayor is a meditator. But the commissioners you see, who pooh-pooh the idea, they're not, obviously. Nothing really broke open to me, though -- like this is some bizarre land and there's evil going on [laughs]. I was waiting for something, because I was just there to document, show these kids how they are, and do a little digging, talk to the townsfolks. But really, it's just a school of kids who meditate, and they get along well with the kids who don't go to the school.

WW: So you didn't have an agenda with the film? You don't see it as any kind of promotional vehicle?

TP: No, I specifically didn't want it to be promotional. I know it feels that way at times, and I was actually really close to putting a disclaimer on the begining saying, "The producer/director isn't a member of this organization." I only learned transcendental meditation as research a couple of years ago. So I didn't have any kind of agenda. I know it comes across a little bit as promotional, but that's the way it came out. It was all real.

WW: Do you currently practice TM?

TP: I practice meditation. I don't really do the TM brand of meditation. But it did turn me onto meditation. And it's all very similar. Meditation is meditation, whether you call it transcendental meditation or yogic meditation or whatever. It's all about quieting the mind and just kind of, as David says, going deep within.

WW: How did you initially get involved with the project?

TP: I had originally gone to interview David for another film that I'm still working on, called Serotonin Rising, which is about a study done at the National Institutes of Health, where they did brain scans and found that if you do good deeds and charitable work for others, your serotonin levels rise and your immune system gets strengthened. And David happened to be in Iowa when he agreed to be interviewed for this. He was visiting the school. So I actually flew out to Fairfield just to interview David for Serotonin Rising. And while I was there, I was given a tour of the school and met the students, and I was blown away by the students. They look you in the eye. They're smart. They're focused. And I said right then and there, "I'm going to do a documentary on this school. I'm going to call it School of Thought." And a year later, I had it done.

WW: When was your original meeting with David Lynch?

TP: 2007. And the film was made in 2008.

WW: A school in Washington, D.C., which you show in the film, is having success with TM even though it has a student body with a completely different socio-economic makeup, as well as a very different ethnic mix: The students there are mostly black, whereas the ones in Iowa are mostly white. Do you hope administrators at schools with all kinds of student populations will look at your film and think, it might work at my school, too, even though this isn't at all like Fairfield, Iowa?

TP: Yes. As soon as I met these students, even before I made the film, I was like, people have got to meet these students. People have got to see what's going on here. They have to see that just being quiet for twenty minutes in the morning and the afternoon can make a world of difference in a very positive way. So yes, thats the reason I made the movie, that's the reason I want people to see it. I want them to see how simple and easy it is to sort of de-stress a school. And the ramifications of less stress runs the gamut -- all the way from less violence and less drug use. So, yes -- a big "yes" to that question.

WW: I'm sure you've seen the film with audiences at this point. Do the people who see it come out of the film more calm than they went in?

TP: I've done several Q&As. The film premiered at the Santa Fe Film Festival, and it's been shown in Beverly Hills -- in different areas. And the Q&As always leant themselves to more than a few comments of people saying, "I want to learn that. I want to do that. I want to show that to my kid's principal." And my friends who I show it to, and even my cynical brothers, they look at it and say, "Can you teach me meditation?" [Laughs.] I remember I was visiting my brother in Delray Beach in Florida. He's a real go-getter, a business owner, kind of a stressed guy. And he watched the film in his living room, and then we walked on the beach, and as we're walking, he looked over at me and said, "Can you teach me meditation?" I couldn't believe it!


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