Director Jake Kasdan has been the most recently active member of a very prominent showbiz family, going back to directing the early Ben Stiller movie Zero Effect, followed by stints directing Judd Apatow-produced shows “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared.” His last movie was Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, starring John C. Reilly, which may not have gotten much of an audience in theatres, but if you ask any music buff who’s seen it, it’s likely to be one of their favorite movies in their DVD collection.
Now he’s at the helm of Bad Teacher, the new R-rated Cameron Diaz comedy that has her playing Elizabeth Halsey, the title character who just wants to make enough money that she can get a boob job and marry a wealthy guy that can get her away from those annoying students and fellow teachers. She gets her chance when substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake) shows up at school and just happens to come from a rich family. The amazing ensemble cast that populates the school includes Jason Segel, Lucy Punch (Dinner for Schmucks), Phyllis Smith (“The Office”), Thomas Lennon (“Reno 9/11”), John Michael Higgins and Eric Stonestreet (“Modern Family”).
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Jake over the weekend to talk to him about the movie and a few of the other things he has going on including a couple upcoming TV pilots.
ComingSoon.net: How did you end up finding Lee and Gene’s script and end up directing this project?
Jake Kasdan: You know, it was a really funny script and when a script is that strong and that funny page for page, I feel good about it. It was sent to me basically just because a few different people thought it might be my speed and fit my sense of humor. I basically loved it and thought it was hilarious and asked to do it.
CS: Had Cameron or anyone been attached at that point so you had some idea who was going to be in it when you came on?
Kasdan: At that point, there was no cast. The first thing I did when I came on was try to get Cameron to do it.
CS: Was she the first and most obvious choice because you knew that she was one of the few actresses who could pull off the role?
Kasdan: Yeah, that’s exactly right. She was the clear first choice. It’s so clearly right in her wheelhouse. I’ve been a huge fan of hers for a long time and this was just very clearly a Cameron part, and happily, she agreed.
CS: There’s a lot of different types of humor in this so was that developed by working with Cameron and the cast on set or did a lot of those jokes come right from the original script?
Kasdan: Yeah, there was a lot of process, there was a lot of playing around with it on set. We had really funny people who could improvise, and there’s a lot of that, but the truth is that what ended up in the final movie is actually very, very close.
CS: You do a lot of hilarious people playing very specific characters in a specific story and so many moving parts.
Kasdan: As far as the jokes, it really is Lee and Gene’s voice still and very much what they imagined I think.
CS: Did you have anything from your own school days or teachers you knew that you were able to bring to this? I assume anyone who sees this movie will think, “Oh, I had a teacher like that.” Did you or any of the cast have any stories you wanted to throw in there?
Kasdan: I don’t think any of us had teachers quite like Elizabeth. (laughs) There was a lot of pitching on it and scoring the characters and figuring out different ideas and new jokes and that kind of thing.
CS: Which was the hardest character to figure out who would be right to play them?
Kasdan: I don’t know. The problem more than anything else was just there was a lot of funny people we were aware of, and we knew that there were a bunch of really funny parts that you could populate with really great people; there’s too many to pick from. When you’re in that situation, you’re getting something going where there’s really funny writing and funny roles and an abundance of people that can do it great. Amy, Lucy Punch’s part, was the one that was a little less clear how to do it in a way that would be interesting and hopefully not too repetitive. Lucy definitely came in and it was one of those, “Ah, I see how this can work.” She had a lot of different ways of being passive-aggressive and playing that exasperation. She really saw the multiple opportunities and the challenge of how to (play the character).
CS: Lucy’s really been everywhere lately, whether it’s “Dinner for Schmucks” or the Woody Allen movie. Had you had a chance to see any of those before casting her in this or did you know her stuff from before?
Kasdan: I had seen her scenes in “Dinner for Schmucks” and I had seen a little bit here and there, but really, it happened on the strength of her audition and reading with Cameron. She was just so funny, she owned it.
CS: It feels like all of those characters could have been played so differently by different actors, but someone like John Michael Higgins is so good at what he does, as is Thomas Lennon. Were the characters modified a little bit for each of them as they came on or was that just about how they played the characters?
Kasdan: It was an early decision. I’d worked with Higgins before, he had a little thing in “Walk Hard” and he’s just so funny and smart and one of the best improvisers in the world, and also a great guy to work with. We sort of knew we wanted a certain kind of person in that part and we knew that that role, Principal Snur, is quietly the part that sets the tone for the world that Elizabeth is living and working in, that the dryness of that character is sort of what sets the tone of the whole movie. And Mike was the perfect person to do that. He’s really dry but unbelievably funny in this very grounded way, and he raises everybody’s game around him.
CS: These days, people are getting used to Justin Timberlake being a funny guy because he’s on “SNL” every other week. He also seems fearless, which is funny since with musicians and singers in general, it’s always about image and he’s just going out there and doing crazy things.
Kasdan: That’s exactly right. He just has none of that. There’s no vanity to what he does. He’s just as fearless as anybody, and just really wants to be funny and has great creative instincts, which makes no sense, but for some reason, on top of everything else he can do, he’s just a really talented comedian.
CS: Was Cameron integral in getting him on board or was it just a coincidence that they both ended up on the movie having known each other before?
Kasdan: I mean, when she and I were talking about it… she was the first one on this movie and we were talking a lot about who should play the other parts, we were working really closely together, and when we talked about Justin, she agreed immediately he’d be fantastic, and then she and I both went out with him for dinner. She definitely got excited about it and she was totally part of trying to get him into it.
CS: I have to imagine the original script was fairly filthy, so was there ever any discussions about whether the movie could be done PG-13 or was it always decided, “This is going to be R” with no looking back or questioning it?
Kasdan: Yeah, there was never even a conversation about it. The only conversation was, “We all know this is R-rated, let’s go.” This is not the kind of movie you would do PG-13.
CS: R-rated comedy has these waves, but obviously with the success of “The Hangover,” there’s really no turning back now and no studio can say that an R-rated comedy can’t bring in the young people and make money. I’m sure the debate between PG-13 and R will go on forever and whether things can be cut back to get the lower rating. With “Year One,” I remember it was a conscious decision to do PG-13 even though the humor was very raunchy.
Kasdan: Yeah, I think with a movie like “Bad Teacher,” part of the reason you do it is the promise that (Cameron) can be as outrageous as she wants to be. The language restriction on the PG-13 just makes it certain that it wasn’t even a question. The script wasn’t even close to being a PG-13. Sometimes there is a question of a less-restrictive rating when it really is so close that there’s just no point, you’re just knocking people out because you say “f*ck” twice or something. The way she talks and certainly the joke style made it clear from the beginning that Elizabeth Halsey wasn’t going to thrive in a PG-13 world.
CS: When they’re improvising knowing that it’s going to be rated R, is there a temptation to just say the F-word as much as possible even if it’s not right for the characters? I assume most of the actors have done enough of this know that they can be funny and raunchy without just going off on the F-word.
Kasdan: Yeah, that’s true. Improvising, you want people to be loose so there’s plenty of profanity. The thing I’ve been (noticing) now is that if you let them improvise a lot, you’re hoping that 5 to 10% of it is useful, and with really great improvisers, that’s how you feel about it, that you’re getting a little bit, not that’s useful but that actually ends up in the movie. You’re allowing for quite a bit of messing around to get to the few moments that are kind of fantastic and you end up including, and you want it to be in character and attend to the scene and be funny in a way that is in line with what’s going on with the story, but in terms of what words they use, we try not to be too restrictive, for better or worse, because you use whatever you use.
CS: I was talking with a colleague after the movie and we were really impressed you used Nick Lowe’s “Teacher Teacher” and avoided the temptation to use Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher.” Did that song cost too much or has it just been overused and wanted to do something different?
Kasdan: (laughs) Yeah, I mean it just seemed like it was setting a table that… we never tried, maybe for all the reasons you were relieved it wasn’t there, we felt exactly the same way. (laughs)
CS: The movie is coming out at an interesting time because there’s all this attention on all the problems with the public school systems. Do you think that it makes this movie timely or ironic or is it just a coincidence that it’s coming out when there do seem to be a lot of bad teachers out there?
Kasdan: Well, I think the movie basically has zero commentary on anything, to be honest. I think that to some extent, there’s probably always been bad teachers, and there’s no question that people are talking a lot about the education system right now. I don’t know.
CS: It’s also funny that the week after this comes out, Julia Roberts is in a movie playing supposedly a good teacher, but I haven’t seen the movie, so I don’t know how good she is.
Kasdan: Well, there you go. There’s no need to get discouraged.
CS: I just happened to be catching up on my DVR watching some Fox shows and they’re really pushing this new show with Zooey Deschanel, which I didn’t realize you directed the pilot.
Kasdan: Yeah, yeah, “New Girl.”
CS: Was that a very conscious decision to return to TV or was it just something that came up to do in between different projects?
Kasdan: Well, I just loved the script, and I like doing pilots when it’s the right group and right writing and actors. It just seemed like a really fun thing to do, and it was a total blast.
CS: I don’t tend to watch a lot of Fox shows, I only really watch “Traffic Light” and some of the Gordon Ramsey shows, but it actually looks like something I’d watch so you may have gotten Fox a new viewer.
Kasdan: Oh good, I’m glad to hear that.
CS: Any idea what you may do next? Have you been developing any more scripts to direct?
Kasdan: To follow-up “Bad Teacher”? I’ve actually been really busy because I finished up “Bad Teacher,” then I was working on this little independent movie that I was a producer on called “Friends with Kids,” Jennifer Westfeldt’s movie, and then I went directly from that into “New Girl” and then right now, I’m finishing up this pilot for HBO called “Spring/Fall” and between those things, it’s been a really busy two months but I’ve got a few things I’m trying to pick up and we’ll see how they turn out.
CS: Can you tell me anything about “Spring/Fall”?
Kasdan: It’s about two competing fashion designers played by Tea Leoni and Hope Davis, loosely based on “The September Issue,” and it’s a really interesting script by this woman named Kate Robin and totally different vibe for me, but something I’m really into. I’m directing the pilot.
Bad Teacher opens on Friday, June 24.