BEHIND THE SCENES with Cameron Diaz & Justin Timberlake
"Elizabeth isn’t a teacher because it’s noble – it’s just a job, a necessity: she has to pay the rent," says Cameron Diaz, who plays a teacher redefining education in Bad Teacher. "In fact, her whole motivation is to find a way that she never has to teach again."
When the idea for the movie came to the screenwriting team of Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg, they knew they’d hit on something incredibly rare and special. "It seemed like there weren’t a lot of comedy roles for women," says Eisenberg. "We would see so many funny women on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and on talk shows, and they’d be hysterical and charming, and then we’d go to the movies and they’d be props to get two guys to become friends or whatever. We really wanted to write a project for a comedienne."
The opportunity to play a character that is so over-the-top outrageous but at the same time fully drawn is what appealed to Diaz. Diaz enjoys pushing the envelope – as evidenced in the worldwide hit There’s Something About Mary – but she says that this kind of role doesn’t come along all that often. "You just don’t come across parts like this. It just doesn’t happen. And particularly for women. The script is just so subversive and brilliant and so funny. By the time I finished reading it for the first time, there was no question – I had to play her."
And how misguided is Elizabeth? "She’s driven to get money so that she can get a new pair of boobs," Diaz explains. "She’s looking for a guy who is rich enough to take her away so she never has to work again, and she’s convinced that if she gets those D-cups they’ll be her ticket out."
"I thought it was one of the funniest scripts I had ever read," says director Jake Kasdan. "Lee and Gene have a completely original, hilarious voice – I think that they’ve written one of the great female comedy parts, and we found the perfect person to play her."
Eisenberg says that he and his partner were confident from the beginning that the project was in good hands. "Of course, we’ve always been fans of Jake’s work – ‘Freaks and Geeks’ is, to me, one of the greatest shows of all time, and the fact that he directed the pilot sealed the deal," says Eisenberg. But, the writer continues, Kasdan also seemed to share an innate understanding of what set the material apart. "Jake was very collaborative. Of course, he had ideas about the development of the script – small changes that were key to Elizabeth’s growth. When I see the movie now, I remember having those discussions in Jake’s kitchen – all of his instincts were so smart."
"It’s important to me, when I’m directing someone else’s script, to have the writers really involved with the production," says Kasdan. "Particularly with comedies. It’s a huge asset. You can have different jokes available to you as you do it – try to make the movie funnier as you shoot it."
Kasdan says it is Diaz’s willingness to completely give herself over to the role that sets her apart. "Cameron has got this great thing: she is completely fearless," says Kasdan. "She enjoys being dirty and edgy and she’s completely open-minded about what might work. She was the perfect person to be at the center of this and it was a real gift for the writers and me to be working with her."
Describing Diaz’s character, Kasdan says, "Elizabeth isn’t a bad person – she just has terrible, terrible values."
"She isn’t aggressively mean – she just thinks she’s above it all," Diaz explains. "She has no passion for teaching, no desire for the kids to learn anything. Even when she finds out she can get a big payday if the kids do well on the state test, it doesn’t make her want to be a better teacher; she just wants the scores. I love that she never changes."
Indeed, for Elizabeth, it’s all about Elizabeth. Everything she does is about moving toward her goal of no longer having to be a teacher – even if it means stealing money from the seventh grade car wash. "Elizabeth isn’t a hard worker, but she knows how to work it and she’s a piece of work," says Diaz. "She shows up for the car wash in a pair of short shorts and heels and a shirt tied up, washing cars for the parents. It all seems pretty simple to her – she worms her way into being in charge of the car wash and then takes her cut of the earnings."
Kasdan says, "Cameron is probably the only actress in the world who can pull that off, because she is the only person I can think of who can be that funny while looking that hot. She’s just completely hilarious in that scene."
After Elizabeth is dumped, she sets her sights on a rich, handsome substitute – the heir to a watch fortune – named Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake). But when Scott starts to fall for Elizabeth’s colleague, the self-described perfect teacher, Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), Elizabeth’s jealousy and vindictive nature go into overdrive.
Taking the role opposite Diaz is Justin Timberlake. "On paper, Scott is very, very nice," says Timberlake. "He seems like your average, rich, blue-blooded guy, and very non-confrontational. That’s actually fun to play, because as Lucy’s and Cameron’s characters get more and more petty, he gets more and more awkward."
Timberlake says that with the writers on set and a director who encourages collaboration, Bad Teacher was a fantastic experience. "The role, as it was written on the page, was really funny. Then, when we were in the middle of a scene, Jake would have great instincts, adding a layer each time we did it. The writers would have very funny alternate lines to build on. All of this helped make the character more and more specific, and, I think, funnier and funnier."
"I like it best when the comedy is based around character, not gags," he says. "In drama, if there’s an emotional moment in a movie, it’s because the viewer has followed the character through the journey and it means something to them. Comedy is the same way – if you’ve followed the characters, it makes it even funnier."
Surrounded by such a funny cast, he says, was a blast. "I’m just a fan, I really am," he says. "It’s great to play in the sandbox with these brilliant comedic minds."
Jason Segel, who plays gym teacher Russell Gettis, returns the compliment: "You’re only supposed to be super-talented at one thing. But Justin is a super-talented singer, musician, and dancer, and he’s also really funny. This guy ruins it for everybody. However, he’s way shorter than me, so I have that going for me."
Timberlake, of course, has achieved great heights as a recording artist and songwriter, and he gets to parody his persona in Bad Teacher. "Scott is asked to join the teachers’ band, Period 5," he explains. "Scott is everyone’s favorite – sort of the guy that the teachers wish the students were like – so of course they ask him to join. Lee and Gene came to me – they thought it would be really funny if there was an actual song Scott had written for Amy. We wanted to see how simple, and bad, we could make it," says Timberlake. ."
Inspired by his budding romance with Amy Squirrel, Scott pens a truly horrible love song: "Simpatico." "We sat in Justin’s trailer and he played guitar and we started writing lyrics – it was an amazing experience," says Eisenberg. "Of course, ‘Simpatico’ is the worst song ever. Justin sings the song in this weird falsetto and he’s looking down at his hands as he’s playing the chords – in the movie, Justin really looks like he just learned how to play the guitar."
"It really made me laugh to watch Justin Timberlake try to sing badly," says Kasdan.
Diaz’s foil in the movie is her across-the-hall neighbor, Amy Squirrel, played by Lucy Punch. "Amy is conscientious, well-meaning, and kind, but she’s also a pain in the neck and very annoying," says Punch. "When Elizabeth comes in and not only starts butting heads but making a play for her man, that’s when everything falls to pieces."
"We spent way too much time trying to think up the names for our characters," laughs Eisenberg. "For Amy Squirrel – she’s so annoying, we liked the idea of a silly noun. And when we came up with Squirrel, we liked the idea that she would do a little squirrel impression to explain her name."
Of her look, the blonde British actress says, "I really wanted the red hair. She’s Amy Squirrel – she should have red hair! Also, I thought she should look very different from Cameron’s character – they should be total opposites. Amy is not concerned with what she wears, as long as it’s comfortable and practical. I wore some really hideous clogs! She has a total lack of vanity and relies on her perky personality to get her through most situations."
"Lucy walked in the room and made that part her own," says Kasdan. "She saw what was on the page, and she did all of that, but she also made it a very complete and real person."
"Lucy is just zany – she commits to it," says Eisenberg. "Even the way she walked, she walked with purpose, in those unfortunate clogs."
Rounding out the love quadrangle is Jason Segel as the school’s gym teacher, Russell Gettis. "Russell is just a happy-go-lucky guy," says Segel. "He’s just enjoying life and looking for other people who can hang. I think that’s why he gets along with Elizabeth – if she’d just let her guard down."
How can he keep getting turned down by Elizabeth but keep coming back for more? "He’s just not fazed by rejection," says Segel. "In fact, there’s something safe about flirting with a girl who tells you right from the beginning that it is never going to happen: there’s no risk. Women can keep saying no – all he needs is one to say yes."
"Jason is hilarious, but he plays the only normal person in the entire movie," says Eisenberg. "He can call out Elizabeth on her stuff, he can react when Amy says something ridiculous. He grounds the movie."
Phyllis Smith, who plays her namesake on "The Office," plays a prominent supporting role as a teacher. To portray Lynn, Smith channeled one of her very first parts. "When I was in high school – a long time ago – I had a very small part in the drama club. All I did was say these meek lines – ‘I don’t know,’ ‘I guess so,’ ‘If you say so,’ ‘Kind of.’ That all came back to me when I opened the script and saw Lynn on the page. When I said the line, ‘Would you like to grab some lunch?’ my voice started shaking and the character just evolved out of that."
Smith also has some teacher cred – literally, a real-life teaching credential. "I have a degree in elementary education," she says. "I never used it for an extended period of time. But my parents told me I needed a real degree so I could get a real job as a backup, and for a time, I taught first grade. I also have a dance certification to teach young kids dance, but it’s been a long time since I used that, too."
"Even though we wrote for ‘The Office,’ we didn’t explicitly think of Phyllis for the part," says Eisenberg. "When she came in, she just killed it, and it was great to have her around. She has a way of delivering lines like she’s scared or nervous – almost apologizing for speaking – and to see her walking with Cameron, in her bright yellow miniskirt, and Phyllis a couple of steps behind, trying to keep up, is just hilarious to me."
Bad Teacher also represented a reunion of sorts for several members of the production. Director Jake Kasdan previously helmed several episodes of the television series "Freaks and Geeks," which starred Jason Segel – and on which Phyllis Smith served as a casting associate, helping to hire Segel on that show. (Dave (Gruber) Allen, who played the guidance counselor on "Freaks and Geeks," also has a role in Bad Teacher.) "Jason makes everyone feel comfortable. It was nice to walk into the room and sit down by him," says Smith. "I didn’t really know Jake back then, but we crossed paths. I was able to tease him about it when I auditioned – ‘We have a past,’ I told him. He couldn’t figure it out. Back then, I was totally behind-the-scenes. It was totally different."
"Phyllis is one of the most naturally funny people I’ve ever seen," says Kasdan. "Lee and Gene suggested her, of course, because they worked together on ‘The Office,’ and now the dynamic between Cameron and Phyllis is one of my favorite things in the movie. She’s the best and made Lynn her own in every way."
The cast is rounded out by John Michael Higgins, who plays the school’s principal Wally Snur; "Modern Family’s" Eric Stonestreet, who recently won an Emmy Award for his performance on "Modern Family" and takes on the role of Elizabeth’s hygiene-challenged roommate, Kirk; and Thomas Lennon as Carl Halabi, the state administrator with the key to Elizabeth’s future.
"Wally is the kind of guy who is very good at his job, curious, kind, and roundly despised," says Higgins. "He does everything right and is not rewarded for it in any way whatsoever. Not only that, can you imagine going through life with the name Wally Snur? It’s difficult to climb out of that hole. It’s just fingernails on the blackboard with a name like that."
Thomas Lennon plays Carl Halabi. "He’s the uptight administrator in charge of the standardized test – so in Elizabeth’s eyes, he’s all that stands in the way between her and her new-and-improved rack," says Lennon. "When she finds out there’s a bonus that goes to the teacher whose students have the best scores, there is very little she would not do to get a copy of the test and cheat her way to the money."
Director Jake Kasdan notes that the edgy material lent itself to a collaborative environment on the set. "It’s very unusual to find an edgy, R-rated comedy centered around a woman," he says. "The R rating gives you enormous freedom to be as completely insane as you want to be in any moment – and we were with a group of people who embraced that completely," says the director.
"Gene and I like the idea of adults being mean to kids as a warped source of comedy," laughs Eisenberg.
"Before we started filming, we made sure that all the kids – and all the parents – knew what the project was going to be like," says Cameron Diaz. "I said, ‘There’s going to be swearing here and completely irreverent and inappropriate behavior. If you have any issue with that, we respect that, but this isn’t the place for you.’ And then we got started…"
Early on, the filmmakers decided to film in real schools whenever feasible. That said, it was important to everyone involved not to interrupt classes, the students, and normal operation of the school day. This was all made possible by the way local school districts plan their spring breaks: Los Angeles Unified School District takes a certain week, Pasadena another, Burbank a third, and so on. In this way, by filming during the various breaks and on weekends, the production was able to find different schools that – through the magic of production design and set dressing – could all be made to seem as if they were part of the same school.
"The film is set in the Chicago area, so even though we were shooting in L.A., we didn’t want a typical L.A. look," says production designer Jefferson Sage. They found a school with the exterior they were looking for in the Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. "It was a beautiful campus; the building had an original, older feeling that we liked."
Elizabeth is not invested at all in being a teacher, and her bare classroom reflects that. However, the expression of nothingness that is Elizabeth’s classroom required a designer’s touch. "We had a big discussion of what Cameron’s room was – you can’t just throw an empty classroom in there," Sage continues. "We scouted for a long time to find the right room, and then we played around with the color a lot. Lucy’s character, on the other hand, is very much into everything, so we really wanted to dress up her room in an exuberant way," says Sage. "There would be color and projects and she just loved everything the kids brought her."
When it came to the costumes, Cameron Diaz had a few strong opinions about how Elizabeth should dress, which resulted in fruitful conversations with the director and costume designer. "Cameron has a way of making magic with anything that she puts on," says the film’s costume designer, Debra McGuire. "She has a great sense of style and of her body. At the first fitting – which lasted six hours, and Jake was there – she would just take something and make it extraordinary.’"
"On Elizabeth’s first day back in the fall, she’s wearing a T-shirt and jeans, but still has her five-inch heels. It’s not exactly how you’d think a teacher would dress," McGuire continues. "It really expresses how she’s not invested and gives her an attitude."
"I wanted her to be the sort of girl who cares about the way she looks more than anything. She used to have a rich boyfriend, and even now, she spends her money on all the wrong things. You don’t show up for school as a teacher wearing Christian Louboutin heels!" Diaz explains. "But for Elizabeth, it’s all about the heels. She wants to be seen – she believes she’s above her job and everyone there, and with the heels, she’s literally above everyone else."
ELIZABETH HALSEY’S TOP TEN TEACHING TIPS
1. There is no heel too high, no sweater too tight, no neckline too low. Besides, it’s nothing these kids haven’t seen on the internet.
2. Movies are the new books. You would be surprised how educational Stand By Me and Dangerous Minds really are.
3. Stay hydrated: keep a bottle of your favorite liquor in your desk drawer.
4. For those moments when the booze doesn’t cut it, keep an emergency J in your purse. It’s medicinal, and it’s OK as long as you do it in the gym.
5. Always be honest with your students. If they suck, they should know.
6. Get your rest. If you stayed out too late the night before, sleep in class.
7. Throwing things at your students prepares them for the real world.
8. If you are the school’s top fundraiser, they expect you to skim a little off the top.
9. Cut corners wherever you can. Like top ten lists… just do nine. No one will notice.
1. Alexander Pope once wrote, "A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring." Like, duh!
2. Whitney Houston once sang, "I believe the children are our future," and I truly, truly believe that. Truly.
3. Anything your students bring you is something they have obviously poured their heart and soul into and deserves your full attention. And probably a place on your wall.
4. Method teach. Get into character and engage your students by incorporating voices, costumes and charades to get their attention. Trust me, your students won’t think it’s lame.
5. You are a role model and the students take their behavioral cues from you. So take any opportunity to chaperone a school event.
6. Keeping a close eye on your lunch quadrant is next to Godliness.
7. Diverting from the lesson plan could affect a student’s future. Treat your curriculum like the bible.
8. Try giving your students an apple for once… After all, we learn as much from them as they do from us.
9. You will find that there are other teachers who are not committed to the profession as you are. If you need a secret satisfaction, just remind yourself that you are a better person than they are.
10. Never talk about that thing that happened in 2008.
11. Always give a little more than what they asked for.