Teacher's pet: Jake Kasdan offers lessons in how to make a bawdy Cameron Diaz comedy
Jake Kasdan boasts one of the most interesting resumes of any contemporary comic filmmaker. Since making his debut with the 1998 shaggy-dog detective comedy Zero Effect, the 37-year-old writer/director/producer has worked on the brilliant-but-canceled TV shows “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared” and helmed a trio of features, including the collegiate comedy Orange County, the scabrous Hollywood satire The TV Set, and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, an elaborate spoof of self-serious musical biopics like Ray and Walk the Line. He also has a list of friends and frequent collaborators that includes such big names as Judd Apatow, Paul Feig, Jason Segel, David Duchovny and John C. Reilly.
Despite Kasdan’s professional success, one thing still eludes him: a big, fat commercial hit. Going back to Zero Effect, his projects tend to fall just outside of the mainstream, although many of them do eventually attract a passionate group of devoted fans. It’s a track record he freely cops to himself. “I’m not good at gauging what’s mainstream,” Kasdan says, on the phone from Los Angeles. “I’ve been wrong pretty much all the time. I thought Walk Hard was mainstream and it wasn’t! We were able to trick them into making it anyway.”
This month, Kasdan—the eldest son of industry veteran Lawrence Kasdan—has a strong shot at topping the box-office charts with his latest comedy, Bad Teacher, due in theaters June 24 from Columbia Pictures. The film stars Cameron Diaz as Elizabeth Halsey, a trash-talking junior-high teacher who hates her job, her students and her romantic prospects, which seem limited to her school’s dorky gym instructor (played by Segel). But then she spots a handsome, wealthy substitute (Justin Timberlake) walking the halls and vows to win his heart by outfitting herself with a pair of new boobs, paid for with the bonus earned by being the teacher whose class scores the highest on a statewide exam. Now instead of sleeping through the school day, she actually tries to improve her kids’ minds and may even learn a few life lessons in the process…but not too many, of course.
The film’s trailer—particularly its red-band iteration—indicate that Bad Teacher will be taking its title and R rating seriously, with Diaz displaying all kinds of hilariously bad behavior. “Just think of the number of really hard, dirty comedies starring a woman who behaves terribly the whole time,” Kasdan says, laughing. “There are almost none! In that way, Elizabeth is probably the most challenging protagonist I’ve ever had in a movie and that was the fun of doing it. The things that make a movie unconventional are what attract me to it. Then in the midst of working on it, I become convinced that if I just tell the story clearly, it’ll be [commercially] successful. I tried really hard not to think about that here. When we were making Bad Teacher, I just thought it was hilarious and I hope the audience does as well.”
Film Journal International: The red-band trailer for Bad Teacher debuted in late February and went viral right away. Is that the best way to get audiences excited for an edgy comedy like this?
Jake Kasdan: Well, there are certain limitations that come with doing an R-rated comedy. Kids can’t go, for example—legally anyway. They do figure out ways to go! So you want to make sure that people who are going to be excited about movies like this know what it is and the red-band trailer helps you do that. You’re able to be more direct about what the movie is actually like.
FJI: It seems that there have been enough successful R-rated comedies recently—Knocked Up, The Hangover, etc.—that the major studios no longer blanch at the idea. But have you still had meetings where the executives asked, “Are you sure this can’t be PG-13?”
JK: I think that, generally, the studios understand. It does figure into the conversation, though, because R-rated comedies are a slightly different beast in terms of the business model for releasing them. There was a whole period where the studios would barely make an R-rated comedy because the conventional wisdom was that no one would go see them. That’s no longer the case, but the rating and its impact on the film’s business are certainly among their concerns and it’s better if you’re conscious of that rather than pretending you’re not. If you can have an open conversation with them in the beginning, you’re in a better position, because then you can go make the movie exactly the way you want within the confines of the initial conversation.
I’ve been lucky to make a couple of movies at Columbia and they’re great people to work with in that way. They were one hundred percent supportive of every aspect of Bad Teacher and it’s a movie that has some crazy, edgy stuff in it. But there were never any notes from them to soften it at all. And that’s because in the beginning I met with them and said, “Here’s the script, here are the people who are going to be in it, here’s the kind of movie it is—let me go try and make this for you.”
FJI: How did the script come your way?
JK: It was a spec script written by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg. They had been working on “The Office” for years and also wrote Year One for Harold Ramis. They had this idea, wrote it quickly on their own and then brought it to the world. I read it not long after and made the case to Columbia to make the movie. All three of us worked on the script after that, but only very minimally—it was conceived pretty much of a piece by those guys. They were on set the whole time and we continued to refine and work on jokes as we went. But all the basic elements were there in the original spec script.
FJI: Did they mention to you that they had written the movie with Cameron Diaz in mind for the title role or did her name enter into the conversation later?
JK: I think they are kind of like me in that their first instinct is to just write the story. They weren’t really writing for specific actors. As soon as we got into that next phase of production, we all immediately thought of Cameron. She was the natural first choice for Elizabeth. Not only is she one of the only actors that specializes in this particular vein of comedy, but she’s also the only woman who the audience gets excited about seeing in a movie like this. They have a relationship with her that includes her behaving badly and doing outrageous stuff.
FJI: Since the movie was written by two guys and directed by another, did she have any concerns about the character from a female perspective? For example, were there moments where she said, “A woman wouldn’t do this”?
JK: Cameron’s sensibility infused what we did in a lot of ways. It wasn’t generally in the form of “She wouldn’t do this,” because she doesn’t have that kind of approach. But she was very concerned, as I was, that we take a grounded and truthful approach to this outrageous character. Elizabeth is in every scene of the movie, so the tone of her character winds up defining the tone of the entire film. We both felt that the tone needed to be a little more grounded than what you might expect. What’s funny about the film is that you believe this woman is really doing this. We often shot a lot of different variations of a scene and that’s always what I’m hoping for during shooting. I like to get as many variations as possible and see what it’s like when we put them next to each other in the editing room.
FJI: As is usually the case with your films, Bad Teacher’s supporting cast is packed with comic ringers and scene-stealers. What’s your secret to putting together the right ensemble?
JK: One of the reasons I made Bad Teacher was as a reaction to Walk Hard. That was a really complicated movie to make—I always describe it as the world’s most complicated stupid joke—so I was looking for a straightforward character comedy about people talking to each other. The script had eight to ten really funny parts, so you’ve got these great roles to hand out and thousands of people dying to do them. There are lots of great options and you just get into a process where you’re thinking about each character and imagining what an actor would do. Then they come in and read for you and you see what they’ll actually do and then you can re-imagine the character in subtle ways. The unifying thing about the cast of this movie is that they are all really funny actors who are also great actors. It never feels like any of them are doing a sketch version of their character. I couldn’t be more excited about what Jason Segel does in this movie in particular. He’s kind of the romantic lead and to have him and Cameron playing these kinds of scenes was thrilling on a professional and personal level. I mean, I started working with him on “Freaks and Geeks” when he was only 19!
FJI: Between this film and the current Bridesmaids, do you hope we’ll soon see a new wave of comedies starring women?
JK: Absolutely. It’s not why we made the movie, really, but it’s something any audience member should want and any comedy director would want. From a filmmaking standpoint, you always hope there’s an occasion to feature hilarious women in major roles. Half of the moviegoing audience is women, so it just makes sense. I hope these movies get the kind of reception that makes people want more of them.
FJI: It seems like television is ahead of the curve right now both in terms of the number of female-centered comedies and inventive comedies in general. You go back and forth between the two mediums: Is there a reason why TV comedies seem to be funnier than big-screen comedies right now?
JK: I wouldn’t say that there are a lot of great movie comedies being made right now, but there are always a few that are really funny. And I’m not sure there’s ever been that much more than in any given year from the studios. Growing up in the ’80s, it felt like there were a bunch of great ones, but the truth is there were never a bunch of great ones in theatres all at the same time. There are certain limitations to making comedies for a movie studio that you don’t necessarily get if you’re making a TV show. But at the same time, there’s nothing more restrictive than the television system if the show isn’t going well. When you’ve got a show like “Modern Family”—the right idea, the perfect cast and immediate success—incredible freedom is given. But that’s a lot of ifs that have to line up at one time. I guess the way I’d characterize it is the audience is receptive to comedy at this moment in the culture and some talented people have risen to deliver it in various places. I don’t know that it’s really any easier in one medium than the other.
FJI: Your previous movies have enjoyed long shelf lives after disappointing initial runs. Is it gratifying when you hear someone rave about Walk Hard or Zero Effect?
JK: Oh god, yeah! It’s the best. You always want your films to do well enough for people to keep working with you, and so far I’ve been able to trick people into letting me continue to do this. But the thing that really breaks your heart is when you don’t feel that anyone has seen the hard work you and everyone else put into a movie that you tried to make as great as possible. So when people do catch up to it, it’s fantastic. When people come up to me and know the work of Dewey Cox, it’s hugely gratifying. The only thing you really care about is that people see the movies you make.