Black and White and Rick All Over
The ABCs of 'The School of Rock'
Actor Jack Black, screenwriter and actor Mike White, and director Richard (aka Rick) Linklater are the primary creative forces that shaped The School of Rock into the delightful comedy it is. The story -- that of a devoted but maybe not-so-good rock & roller who scams a job as a substitute teacher in a fifth-grade class at an exclusive private school and winds up teaching the kids to rock out while also learning a little something about maturity -- is the kind of material that Hollywood customarily commissions, ransacks, and then turns in to sentimental dreck. The School of Rock, however, not only gets the formula right, but survives with all its enthusiasm and charm intact. The movie's realism anchors the story's wild improbabilities, many of which are manifested in the unpredictable countenance of demilegend Jack Black.
Black, who is one-half of the comic music group Tenacious D, is also one of the hardest-working actors in Hollywood. Black has appeared in supporting roles in numerous movies during the past 10 years, and his star has been rising since his recent turns in Orange County and High Fidelity. His pudgy and often untidy bearing belie the actor's physical and mental alacrity and grace. His comedy flies fast and furious, and his face is capable of inexhaustible expressions. His eyebrows get the most vigorous workout this side of Jack Nicholson or John Belushi, a comedian to whom Black is often compared. Botox injections would be deadly to his comedy, and for a second, Black even had me believing he had his eyebrows insured.
Black's humor, especially the raunchy songs and scenarios presented by Tenacious D, have never been considered kid-friendly, so his starring turn in the PG-13 rated The School of Rock comes as a bit of a surprise. But as Black comments, "My humor is pretty immature already, so you just take away the bad words, and it's kind of a perfect fit." After several attempts to interview Black fell through in Toronto, where The School of Rock premiered during last month's film festival, we managed to catch up with the actor on the road during his whirlwind publicity tour for the movie.
Mike White, in addition to writing the screenplay and several of the movie's song lyrics, appears as one of the actors in The School of Rock. White wrote the movie expressly as a starring vehicle for his friend Jack Black. The past few years have seen White's ascension into the top ranks of Hollywood screenwriters, having gained attention in 2000 with his squirm-inducing movie Chuck & Buck, in which he also co-starred. Last year saw him hitting a doubleheader with scripts for the films Orange County (which also featured Jack Black) and Jennifer Aniston's breakthrough drama The Good Girl. He also served as a supervising producer on Dawson's Creek and created the TV drama Pasadena.
Taking the helm of The School of Rock was something of a departure for the Austin-based filmmaker Richard Linklater. Despite the fact that all of his films apart from Slacker, his first, have had studio financing, Linklater ironically remains something of a poster boy for independent filmmaking. Still, his films, even those he didn't write, are intimate character pieces in which the concerns and preoccupations of the filmmaker resonate. No one, least of all himself, might have predicted this segue into directing a kid-friendly studio comedy. Yet from the film's opening credits with its Scorpio Rising homage and references to Club Detour, it's clear that Linklater has left none of his personality behind. This week's opening of The School of Rock finds the filmmaker in great humor, confident of his skills, and embarking on a new middle phase of his career. After all, The School of Rock is Linklater's ninth feature, and he's no longer the new kid on the block. We talked with Linklater by phone last week, not long after our conversation with Black, about his participation in The School of Rock and the maturation of his career.
Jack Black: Mike White and I were neighbors a while ago before either of us really ... uh ... hit the big time. Mike called me before he wrote it and said, "Hey, I'm thinking about doing a thing where you'd be a substitute teacher and a stale musician, a frustrated rocker, who ends up teaching the kids how to rock." I thought that was a great idea. We're friends, and he knows my strengths and my voice, so he gave me plenty of opportunity to go totally nutballs.
Austin Chronicle: Why Linklater?
JB: The script was done, and we're like, who's gonna direct it? With kids, it can easily fall into a cheesy cornball fiasco, but we knew with Linklater it wouldn't. He wouldn't let it because he's got too much indie cred. He's got a lot of integrity and is sort of funny, but always stays within the realm of reality in his movies. So we all felt he would keep the movie kind of cool. And he's also good with kids. Dazed and Confused were older kids in high school, but they're still kids in school.
Richard Linklater: Mike White and Scott Rudin, the producer, had done Orange County with Jack, too, not so long ago. And I think Mike owed Scott another script, and Mike had been thinking about a Jack thing. So he pitched the basic idea of Jack in a school and the rock aspect. Scott said, "Yeah, sure. That sounds like a film we could make." And then they worked on the script a long time. When I came in, it was probably the third or fourth draft they had done.
The first time I read the script, I thought, "It's funny, but I can't see myself working on this. It's kind of corny." It was a different movie at that point. Then Rudin kind of wouldn't take no for an answer. I met with him, and I met with Jack and Mike, and what I was hearing was, "You know, I think you can do something with this." It wasn't like, "Hey, here's a script, we need someone to shoot it. It was like, we need something. And I thought, OK, well, here's what I can do.
Rudin had been sending me stuff over the years. The time was never right, but I could see that he knew The School of Rock could be a good movie. Apparently, all these other directors wanted to do it, but Rudin didn't want them. He wanted something else. It was kind of interesting that I was a color on his palette. I used to have an attitude against that kind of hire, but I felt, "Oh, you know, this could work." I was a big fan of Jack's. I like Mike as a writer, he's an interesting writer. I felt like he would be a good collaborator. I was still undecided until I met with them. We talked one whole afternoon about where it could go and what we wanted, about the vibe of the movie, and additional stuff it needed. And I could tell this could be a good marriage. I was still a little paranoid -- like what if we did cool things and they said, "No, back to the schlocky studio version."
Yes, anyone could have done it, but I kind of felt called in some strange way. It sounds goofy, but I felt this film could use me. I felt chosen to do it. Something about having a kid, and the music, and I felt I really knew Dewey Finn. Even his room, that round room. I lived in that room. [Ed. note: See Slacker.] His story on the surface is he's always this loser rock musician. Well, I never thought he was much of a loser. I thought, "He has a lot to offer. He loves what he does. He loves music." I think anyone who's passionate about something but who's not economically successful or viable is labeled a loser. But I've been saying that since Slacker.
JB: Whenever kids are involved, it seems now there's a stigma: The movie automatically must be bad or not funny because people are so careful with the kids nowadays that they sacrifice a lot of funny. We didn't want to do that on this one. Kids movies used to be really funny. Like Bad News Bears and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I don't even think of those as kids movies. I just think of those as good ones. That's the way we approached it.
RL: People always think kids movies nowadays suck, but as a father I go to a lot. There are a lot of good kids movies. When I was a kid, I don't remember that many kids movies that were even directed at me.
I never thought of The School of Rock as a kids movie, really. I was making a movie about this guy ... who's sort of a suspended adolescent, but he brings the kids to his world. The same way Dewey brings the kids into his world, kids today need to be brought up to this subculture of rock.
AC: These kids can really play.
JB: That was really important to Linklater. He wanted kids who could actually pull off the performances. And it's really hard to find 10-year-olds who can play their instruments as well as we needed them to. We saw literally thousands of kids from all over the country, and Linky picked the best ones. (Don't tell him I called him that.) They say that directing is 90% casting. If that's true, he's got a great head start on most directors because he pays superclose attention to that.
RL: The first thing I did was to tell the woman who was already starting to cast, "I need kids who can really play." And they responded, "Well, we can get actors, and we'll have these consultants, and ..." I said, "No, you're not hearing me. We're going to have a real band, because what I have in mind is realism. I know they're out there." They're around Austin. You hear every now and then there's an 11-year-old guitar prodigy. It was just finding them. I met a lot of really good kid musicians. But these were the ones I thought could really play and would fit in this ensemble, were the right age, et cetera. Casting was really crucial. To me, all kids are actors at that age. There's bad acting by kids sometimes, but to me that's just bad directing.
Cramming for the Exam
JB: Linklater brought a lot more to the table than just casting, to tell you the truth. He's got techniques. He loves to rehearse -- a lot. We rehearsed six weeks, which is unheard of. I had never rehearsed at all. All my rehearsals usually took place in my hotel room alone, thinking about what I was going to do. This was definitely new for me. It was rehearsed like a Broadway play where we worked on all the scenes and all the songs and really got it up and running. I was worried that we were going to lose all the spontaneity of the piece, but that was not the case. We were like a well-oiled machine. I think the rehearsals were especially good for all the kids. It was their first time being in a major motion picture, most of them. It can be kind of a scary thing when you're just thrown into it. That definitely acclimated us to each other, becoming pals before the movie started, which was important.
RL: Rehearsing was ultimately really satisfying because I was able to bring my whole methodology to it. That was kind of my rule. Initially I passed on the project, because I wasn't sure what the creative experience would be like. But it turned out great. Better than I could have possibly imagined. I found out what a director can bring to a project. I was able to say, "Three weeks' rehearsal." Jack Black had never rehearsed on a movie before. He was worried that we would leave it all in the rehearsal space. I told him, "No that's not going to happen. What we're going to do is hone the comedy and get used to each other and rehearse." So I think he came around. He was cool with that. He's a little cautious, always. You bring up something and he goes, "Hmmm."
My whole vibe of the whole movie was to make a classical comedy, say like a Preston Sturges comedy or something where the setup is just ridiculous, absolutely absurd. And yet if you play it in a realistic way, you don't have to be too big or farcical or play it for laughs. It is just inherently funny. That's more my natural vibe anyway -- play it from a real place. I just wanted the kids and Jack to seem real.
The Class Clown
RL: Jack goes around saying that "Rick helped rein me in when I was going too far," but I wasn't that conscious of that. I was just working. I just felt if Jack's big-heartedness could come out, we'd be fine. ... I think Mike mentioned Willy Wonka as this kind of leader. But I think Dewey's more like a pied piper of sorts, leading the kids. I wanted him to convey the passion behind the music, and the self-expression. He teaches them how to write a song. It's kind of crude: What pisses you off? He goes to the basest level of rebellion. I really wanted to tap into the rebellion, anti-authority aspects of rock & roll. I thought the more we could put that stuff in -- little messages to kids -- the better. We're all geared to be consumers. They want us to buy CDs and watch movies and stuff, but no one's ever going to tell you that you can write a song. Pick up a guitar. You can start a band. It's a lot of fun. You can express yourself and have a great time instead of being an observer. It's that old punk ethos of start your own band. It was fun to get in the workings behind the scenes: how you rehearse a song, how you build a song, how a band might operate. Usually what's depicted by the media is the final product. You never see any workings, the way they rehearse. I thought that would be cool to see the process a little bit.
Getting the Led Out (or, in This Case, In)
JB: I have a lot of stuff that I'm comfortable with referencing from my roots personally. Richard's stuff is more like the deep Seventies and Eighties punk rock. That's his specialty. But we share a lot of classic rock love.
RL: I wanted to tap into Dewey's taste. I think the conception of Dewey in the early drafts was as a total burnout Eighties metal guy who had no other interests. I thought, if you really know those guys, they love the history of rock. So I wanted to make Dewey a little more of a musicologist, rock-historian-type dude. I thought, let's really amplify that aspect, show the whole realm of passion. Since I'm older than them a little, I probably retroed it out a little bit more than they would have. In the early draft, there were a lot of more current references -- White Stripes, Strokes, and so on.
We had a lot of songs to originate for the band. Mike wrote lyrics for some of the songs. It was sort of band camp for the band. But fortunately we were working with Jim O'Rourke, who's the Sonic Youth producer. He was a major player in the musical aspect of this movie. He's in Sonic Youth now; he's a great musician and a really cool guy. He taught the kids how to be a band and acted as kind of a band wrangler. And we had another really interesting producer, this guy George Drakoulias. He did all the other music and produced the last song. It was weird. I'm ready to make a musical now.
Final Report Cards
JB: This was the hardest movie I've ever made. It was the biggest part. I never had to do so much with music and a movie at the same time. There's already automatic stress with being in front of a camera. But when you add on to that also putting your musical balls on the chopping block, so to speak, it creates a special kind of stress. I almost lost my mind a couple of times. But at the same time it was a crazy fun time, too.
The best thing about it is it will afford Rick 10 more low-budget things that he wants to do for just strictly art's sake. Also, I think it's cool that he just proves he can do whatever he wants. If he wants to, he can party with the big boys and show them how it's done.
RL: I've got to say, this film was the smoothest, easiest experience I've ever had. No one from the studio was ever around. I never got a studio note. And Rudin only came to the set, I want to say, four times. The inmates were totally running the asylum. I was lucky because Scott's really good at certain things like the script structure, and we'd have kind of intense meetings as we were honing the script -- Mike and Scott and I. But once it felt right and he liked the cast, everything was good and he was OK. He's not really a rock & roller; his approach was more structural. But then the details were up to me. So I loved that. It was just great. We had just enough time and budget to make it. I wasn't getting squeezed, you know? Other movies when I've gotten a bigger budget range, they were always very suspect of me. They always felt like I was trying to get away with something -- which I probably was. So they're just on you from the beginning. This one, I got everything I wanted. We even had the money for the music. ... My music budget on this movie is more than the entire budget of the movie I just shot in Paris [a low-budget sequel to Before Sunrise].
I could never have done this film five or 10 years ago. I probably would have been paranoid of the whole system, and probably intimidated to work with the kids. But having a 10-year-old of my own now, I feel like I know something about kids. Also in the quote-unquote career sense or whatever, I've settled in, and I feel that if I live long enough I'm going to make a lot of movies. The reason I didn't take certain things in the past was that I was kind of paranoid. I felt I should be doing my own this, that, and the other. Now I'm thinking this is more like the creative experience. The School of Rock looked like it would be a fun collaboration, I would get something out of it. And, say if it didn't work out, say it was a horrible time, I'm set enough in my ways that doing this movie wouldn't send me down some track that I could never recover from. ... Here I could always say this is my ninth film, I know what I'm doing, leave me alone. I'm more of a veteran. I had a lot more respect from them. Timing is everything, you know.
Extra Credit: Future Projects
JB: I'm definitely interested in the Roky Erickson project. [There has been serious talk of Black playing Austin music legend Erickson in a biopic of the musician's life and career with the innovative band the 13th Floor Elevators.] My friends are writing it, and I look forward to seeing how that turns out. I'm going to pay him a visit one of these days, but on this trip I'm going to be whipping in and out of town -- with my parents. I'm not going to be able to party with Roky this time. [Ed. note: Black and Erickson caught up briefly backstage at the Sept. 27 regional premiere of The School of Rock at the Paramount Theatre.]
RL: Julie [Delpy], Ethan [Hawke], and I had been thinking about a Before Sunrise sequel for years. We did that one scene in Waking Life together. Ethan and I had this idea for the structure of this one, which was very simple -- more simple, in a way, than the first one, but more rigorous. It's more of an art film than the first one, more intense.
It feels good to be able to shoot two films in a year. And now as The School of Rock opens, I'm editing the other. I'd love to always be doing that. I finished the sound mix on The School of Rock, flew over to Paris that day, and started work on the next. That's a pace I would like to keep. ... It's film by film. I'm not ever looking to be consistent. I feel like I'm a free agent to roam.
Head of the class
RL: On this one I think everyone at the studio, and Mike and Jack, I think everyone feels like we made the best version of this movie we could have. That's what I meant when I said I felt this movie could use me in some kind of way. This movie could have been so bad. There were several roads to go down. I like genres for that reason. You're in a formula, it's challenging. You feel like you're in a studio from the Forties or Fifties. Here's the formula, I'm making a Western, or I'm making this. How do you subvert it or make it work for you? Or what do you do within that formula?
It's so nice to have a studio behind it. Usually, at this phase, I'm saying, "Where are the ads? Aren't we opening Friday? Aren't you supposed to be running ads or letting the world know the film's out there?" Usually, they're so pissed at me at this point that they're dumping it, so it's fun, for once, the one and only time, to have someone pushing your movie a little bit.
The School of Rock opens in Austin on Friday, Oct. 3. See Film listings for review and showtimes.
Read Louis Black's history of the relationship between the Chronicle and Richard Linklater.