On The Eve Of The New Beverly's 10th Anniversary Screening, Mr. Beaks And Jessica Bendinger Talk BRING IT ON!
Published at: July 16, 2010, 6:53 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
Are you prepared for total domination?
As I announced earlier this week, The New Beverly and Ain't It Cool News are presenting a 10th Anniversary screening of BRING IT ON this Saturday (7/17) at midnight. And we've got guests! Currently, we can confirm the attendance of Nicole Bilderback, Clare Kramer, Cody McMains and the person without whom there would be no Rancho Carne Toros, screenwriter Jessica Bendinger.
"BRING IT ON was born of the magma of my failed gymnastics career," confesses Bendinger. As you'll learn in the very entertaining interview posted below, Bendinger faced a great deal of skepticism in attempting to bring her affectionately satiric take on the world of competitive cheerleading to the big screen. Even those who got it had, for a variety of reasons, a difficult time selling their respective studios on the concept. But Bendinger eventually broke through, and the quality of her writing on BRING IT ON kicked off a successful career that that has grown beyond screenwriting. In 2006, Bendinger made her directorial debut with the very entertaining STICK IT (which allowed her to sift once more through the emotional wreckage of that failed gymnastics career), while, last year, she saw the publication of her first novel, THE SEVEN RAYS (the film of which she'll begin directing shortly).
Much as I adore BRING IT ON, after spending a half-hour with Bendinger on the phone yesterday, I'm convinced we haven't seen her best. What I love about her as a writer is that she isn't precious; she's terribly practical about the business, and knows that the only way you get better is to keep working. Bendinger is making her luck. I respect that immensely.
For those of you who can't make it to The New Beverly tomorrow night, here's the talented Ms. Bendinger on BRING IT ON...
Mr. Beaks: This was a long process. And it was your first script to be made into a feature.
Jessica Bendinger: Yeah! It's incredibly gratifying. I pitched it twenty-eight times. I had twenty-seven "No's". I had a lot of successful pitches at studios, so I knew I was on to something - because people didn't want to pass without their boss hearing it. A few people passed in the room, including Universal, who ended up distributing it. There were a lot of these funny, quirky things that happened along the road of that process. That was like my maiden voyage in Hollywood, of really going around town and meeting people and learning the game a little bit. I finally sold it at Beacon. I'd met John Shestack a few years earlier when he was at a company called Limelight, which was a video and film company that had been trying to happen. I was a video director at the time, and we met there. So I went into his office and said, "Look, you're not going to want to buy this, nobody wants to buy this, but it's CLUELESS meets STRICTLY BALLROOM set in the world of the National High School Cheerleading Championships." And they were immediately like, "No, this is exactly what we're looking for!"
I think I had pitched it so many times that they were meeting me at the moment of mastery in my pitching process. I knew the pitch backwards and forwards; I had it down to a really good place. And I was very irreverent about it because we'd had so many passes. I just figured, "What the hell, I'll just put on a good show." And, in fact, sold it! And when I found out Universal was going to be their distribution arm, I just thought it was so ironic. It was an interesting journey.
Beaks: It's interesting that you used STRICTLY BALLROOM as a reference. When did you start pitching it?
Bendinger: I pitched it and sold it and 1996.
Beaks: So this was before SHE'S ALL THAT, and the whole high school movie resurgence.
Bendinger: Yeah, I pitched it in '96. I think Licht-Mueller, who produced WATERWORLD... one of those guys said to me, "Girls don't go to movies." And I said, "Well, I'm a girl, and I've gone a lot of movies, so I beg to differ." CLUELESS had had a little heat a little earlier; it was a game-changer for that genre, but not for that era necessarily. So [BRING IT ON] wasn't a sure thing when I was going around. People loved John Hughes, they loved the CLUELESS references and the irreverent tone that I was trying to nail. But, you're right, it was [before] the renaissance.
Beaks: With a script this strong, did you find that people were passing on the script, but interested in you as a writer and trying to get you on to other things?
Bendinger: Well, it was a pitch. It wasn't a script yet. I sold it as a pitch, which is very unusual for a first-time screenwriter. It's almost impossible to do these days; I don't know if I could sell it in this climate. I basically got Writers Guild minimum to write that, and have been working steadily ever since. But what happened was that Universal was kind of sitting on it, and Eric Hughes, who was the executive at the time, was like, "This is so great. I love it. I don't know why we're not going for it." And then two things happened synchronistically: I was on the short list to adapt a NEW YORKER article called "The Cool Hunt", which was to become THE TIPPING POINT from Malcolm Gladwell. "The Cool Hunt" was set in the world of trend forecasters - specifically trend forecasting in the teen marketplace. And Dee Dee Gordon, who was one of the trend forecasters at the time, had writer approval. She read the script, and kind of went bananas for it. And people started going, "Huh! Why is this person getting paid a lot of money to predict trends." It helped me get a little bit of heat.
Then, oddly enough, somebody at Tom Hanks's company Playtone read the script and freaked out, and thought Tom might like it. And Tom did, in fact, love it. So he went to Stacey Snider [at Universal] and said, "What are you doing with this? We want to be involved with it. Can we be involved?" And then, simultaneously... somebody internally at Playtone had said something to Clinica Estetico, which was [Jonathan] Demme's company. They got [the script], and Demme loved it. So suddenly I was being courted by Tom Hanks and Jonathan Demme to write projects for Playtone and Clinica. They were proposing different people to direct [BRING IT ON] to Stacey, and I think that level of awareness, and that caliber of director and acting talent, certainly did not go unnoticed by her. I think that's how we got on the radar. That was our tipping point for getting the greenlight.
We were casting in preproduction before we even had a director. I was going with Joseph Middleton, the casting director, to Nationals in January on '99, and we didn't have a director. We did a reading with Gabrielle, who played Isis, and Eliza, who played Missy. Amy Smart played Torrance. (Laughs) And Ethan Embry read Jesse Bradford's part. It went really well. It wasn't perfect, but it went really well, so we had a lot of interesting cumulative energy from all of those things happening. It was an interesting time.
Beaks: Were there other people interested in the Torrance role?
Bendinger: Yes! Initially, I believe Kirsten had a conflict. There was some kind of scheduling conflict. Believe it or not, we offered the role to Marley Shelton, who ended up taking SUGAR & SPICE instead of BRING IT ON - which she says, to this day, was one of the great errors of [her career]. In the interim, William Morris called me and said, "Kirsten really wants to talk to you." So I talked to Kirsten. And at that point, we got Peyton, so Peyton talked to her, too. Then the window opened, and she flew right through it. And we were all ecstatic about having her on board.
Beaks: I do want to talk about how the script evolved, and how much it evolved. Peyton mentioned that there was this thing with the caste system in the high school. It seems like this script was a really big world that had to maybe be shrunken down a bit?
Bendinger: A little bit. It always opened with that cheer at the opening, with that Busby Berkeley thing. I remember as a kid... seeing a NATIONAL LAMPOON cover of a cheerleader jumping in the air, and her butt was exposed; she was wearing no panties. Somebody had a poster of that in their room, one of my cousins. I just remember seeing that image as a kid, and it left such a comedic imprint on my young brain, so I wanted to do that scene at the opening. And then there was a bigger voiceover piece where Torrance was so committed to cheerleading, the movie ended with "Dear Olympic Committee, I'd like to submit for your consideration a new sport for demonstration at the Olympics." That was the frame. There might've been two winks at the end. There was Torrance and Isis cheering together, and there was the "Dear Olympic Committee..." thing. And there was even, after the credits had ended, another coda. I was going hog wild with the codas at this point of my young career.
There was a little thing with the hierarchy. I was trying to build in an internal villain at the high school in addition to Isis and the Clovers - who aren't really villains. I was under pressure to make a real villain at the high school, and that's how the dance squad [figured in]. But it was always a C or D storyline; it was never an A or B storyline. It was just to give a little push-back.
Beaks: You mentioned the Clovers as villains. One of the things I've always loved about this movie is that... we want to see the Toros get their shit together, but we're rooting for them to finish second. It's enough for them to do it the right way, but they're not supposed to win.
Bendinger: Yes. It was always ROCKY. That was always how it ended. I'm sure there was some discussion at the eleventh hour about whether we did the right thing, but, no, it was always ROCKY in my mind.
Beaks: The film was always leading there. I had no doubt.
Bendinger: I covered hip-hop for SPIN; it was one of my first jobs. And there was a lot of talk back in the day of "appropriation". People were constantly talking about it - especially in the era of sampling. "Appopriation" not just of white artists using black soul styles, but also black artists sampling from [white] music. That was a very heavy idea for me, this idea of appropriation, so I thought that the routine-stealing thing was an interesting way to look at that.
Beaks: So it wasn't just Vanilla Ice, but also, like, Biz Markie sampling Glibert O'Sullivan.
Bendinger: Yeah. It works both ways. I think a lot of the script was very intact, the way certain things got resolved. How the Clovers got the money had a little more unnecessary machinery to it that needed to go; there was an elegant solution where things got [cut out]. But the story is, remarkably, the same.
Beaks: Was there anything in the movie that exceeded your expectations?
Bendinger: I love the way Peyton shot the opening. I was so worried. Transitions out of dream sequences can be kind of cheesy, and there were just... some cool little things that were really nice.
And the best scene for me... we really needed more of a loving scene between Torrance and Cliff. Peyton was sitting in my living room, and he was like, "Well, what about something during the sleepover." And I said, "Well, they can't make out, but I have an idea." And I just wrote the toothbrush scene right there, and then showed it to him. And he said, "This is perfect." That scene, I thought, came out really better. The performances just made that.
Beaks: It crackles. They have such great chemistry. Watching those two actors at that time, I was thinking, "God, they've got to get them back together again. There's something really good here." You're always a little disappointed when that doesn't happen. But they are two very gifted comedic actors.
Bendinger: Yeah. And Jesse's taken such a more serious turn in the stuff he's done, by accident or by choice. But I agree: he is very gifted. He has a nice little wiseass thing that I loved even in KING OF THE HILL, which is such a tragic movie. It broke my heart when I saw it. But he has that playfulness.
Beaks: What did you think about Sparky?
Bendinger: When I first saw the first cut, I was working on THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE in Nyack with Demme, and I was in a bit of a K-hole. I got that, and watched it on VHS, and it was really broad. It almost took me out of the movie. But then it got much more pulled back. (Laughs) Look... no kids at that time got the Bob Fosse reference. Adults did, the pills and the ALL THAT JAZZ thing, but... it pulled me out of the movie a little bit. But it's very funny. The whole "spirit fingers" thing was in there. That character was over the top to begin with, but [Ian Roberts] took it to a whole other level, and it's very funny.
Beaks: "Prepare for total domination."
Bendinger: I think I heard that in one of the mixes at Nationals, and I took that wholesale. I was like, "What!?!? Did that really just come out of the speaker?" I'm pretty sure that was in [the script], or something pretty close to that.
Beaks: Were there times when you had to pull yourself back? Was there ever a time when you felt you were veering into parody?
Bendinger: I always thought of it as satire more than parody - social satire a little bit. I was a gymnast as a kid, and cheerleaders at my high school were iconic. They wielded their power with authority, so I was very enamored; I couldn't believe that guys would do anything for them. They controlled men, and that was always such an enigma to me. So I was fascinated with their power. Then when I saw the ESPN championships... I would watch them when I was zoning out on spring break; I would watch them religiously, and tape them. [The Toros were] based on Mater Dei High School; they dominated the cheerleader championships for many years. Rancho Carne was originally called Filias Deus. Peyton liked Rancho Carne, which I thought was a little broad. (Laughs) But it's fun.
We "Big Gulp" everything in America. We take everything and put it on steroids. And I thought it was so distinctly American and sweet and silly that people who cheer for other sports have finally taken that to a sport all its own. I just thought that felt so ripe for fun. It's kind of really innocent to have people cheering for its own sake. You look at the jaded culture of teenagers, and how it's so uncool to be enthusiastic when you're a kid. And here are these kids who live and breathe enthusiasm - and then they compete, basically, in the sport of enthusiasm. I just thought that was so pure. As weird and freaky as it is, there's something really innocent about it. I loved all of the different angles of the world. There is a sincerity that I do have for them as athletes, and as innocent in a weird way.
Beaks: Contrast that to something like STICK IT, which was more personal for you given your background as a gymnast. Everything you've written has not been satire. How has it been finding your voice as a writer, and then finding your way as a writer in Hollywood?
Bendinger: Point-of-view is the hardest thing for a writer to find, and it was my good fortune that I had that. I had point-of-view over other skill sets at times. I had a really strong sense of tone early in my career, and I think that made me pretty marketable. Tone is this really hard thing, when executive producers and stuff are trying to describe [your script]; tone is tough. Hopefully combining a little irreverence with sincerity... is me as a human being, and hopefully comes through for me as a writer.
I love HOT TUB TIME MACHINE. And ROMY AND MICHELE'S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION was a huge movie in terms of tone. I love things that have heart that are also absolutely absurd. Daniel Waters, who's a good friend... HEATHERS had a huge impact on me. Mark Waters is his brother, and I've worked on the roundtables of most of his movies. But Danny definitely had an influence on me as a mentor and a friend, and was a big encourager of mine early on.
Beaks: And what about developing your voice as a director? You've made STICK IT, and you're now going to adapt your novel THE SEVEN RAYS.
Bendinger: It's evolving. Definitely, BRING IT ON was born of the magma of my failed gymnastics career. I did that first, and then went back to the source for STICK IT. THE SEVEN RAYS is a complete departure. It's a paranormal, romantic adventure, but still with my stupid, saucy, wiseass stuff peppered in - love it or hate it. It'll be interesting to do an f/x-heavy movie for me. I'm so used to living in performance - thinking about it on a human scale. And now we're going into a paranormal, metaphysical world... that's going to be really interesting for me. You just have to do your best. Do your best, and hope for the best.
Beaks: Working within that YA world, you say you can't help but tap into that wiseass voice. Are you almost parodying that huge genre of YA?
Bendinger: High school was an absolute horror show for me personally. Writers are always trying to go back and heal the wound that broke them, to put the bow on it and make it okay. That's certainly what I've been doing. It's no secret. (Laughs) Everything looked good on the surface, but my life at home was just a train wreck. So it's cathartic. It's my own personal healing journey going back. And I have an enormous amount of compassion for that audience. I mean, what a shitstorm to live through, that age for most kids. All the social pressures, all of the hormonal pressures, none of the experience, none of the knowledge, none of the insight... it's so ripe to write about. I think it's my compassion and frustration that keeps me going back.
Beaks: It never goes away, does it?
Bendinger: I just have so much empathy. It's just such an extraordinary time in one's life, so I get a little sentimental about it. And all you have to do is meet a wiseass teenager, who thinks they know it all, to want to go and skewer it. "You know nothing!"
Midnight. July 17th. The New Beverly. See you there.