Oct 31, 2018

By Nicole Bitette
How a script for a friend turned into a cross-platform classic.

Do you picture kids in school uniforms behind giant instruments and Jack Black’s mischievous grin every time you hear the first few seconds of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”? If you do, you know the association is thanks to Mike White’s seminal classic School of Rock, which hit theaters 15 years ago this month.

White wrote the film to showcase Black’s comedic chops, in opposition to the predictable scripts that Hollywood was handing him—or the “boring frat-guy garbage” as Black described to The New York Times. At the time, the actor was best known for his role as the record store know-it-all from High Fidelity, while director Richard Linklater had earned indie fame for Dazed and Confused, Waking Life, and Before Sunset. (School of Rock remains Linklater’s top-grossing film ever, with an inflation-adjusted global box office of $180 million.)

The movie’s enduring appeal has a bit to do with this unorthodox collusion of talent, including an endearing cast of kid musicians. It’s also due to a storyline centered on the heartwarming trope of an adult goofball who finds meaning in teaching children. The film exceeded initial box office projections—and went on to become a Broadway show and a Nickelodeon television series—because of its sophisticated performances and unfettered humor. It revived the idea that a movie made for families should be just as emotionally layered, well-acted, and hilarious as a film for adults.

 In honor of its anniversary, Viacom spoke to some of the stars, creators, and production executives who were part of the process.

Mike White came up with the idea for School of Rock after living next to Jack Black in Los Angeles.

Mike White, writer and actor:  Jack was my next-door neighbor for a few years. He was starting to get a lot of heat as an actor and he would occasionally give me scripts that had been submitted to him to star in. They were invariably these flat comedies or he was like the John Belushi guy who gets drunk and falls through a sliding glass door or something.

I'm reading these scripts and I was like, ‘I could do better than this.’ Obviously, music is a big passion of his; he has his band Tenacious D. I had the idea of him leading a band of little kids—somehow it just seemed like a funny visual. Then I got the idea that it would be fun to have him be more of a W.C. Fields a little bit, like a guy who isn't really somebody you'd want around kids, but that's part of the fun of it.

It was Scott's idea to send it to Rick [Linklater]. Which I thought was a genius idea.

Richard Linklater, director (from an interview for Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny): Here’s a script, Jack Black's attached, what do you think? I’m like ‘ehh, I don’t know how to do this. I pass.’ I got a call that was like ‘Scott Rudin, the producer, isn’t accepting your pass’ and I’m like ‘what does that mean?’ … He was just sure I was the right guy to pull this off … It was a huge, different thing for me to come aboard. I was a color on his palette, someone had cast me as the right person to perhaps realize this thing that he thought had potential.

"I'm reading these scripts and was I like, ‘I could do better than this.’"

John Goldwyn, former vice chairman of Paramount Pictures: It was a wonderful, wonderful script. It was funny and it had an interesting concept and at the center of it, it had this wildly funny guy, who at the beginning of it is a big hot mess and finds himself by the end—albeit faking his way—as a teacher. It was just as good an idea for a movie … Those three guys made this movie, I was just lucky to be around.

RL (from Dream is Destiny): I was always a little frustrated with a lot of studio comedies, I just think they’re not working hard enough or they could be better. So, I was like ‘ok, big mouth this is your chance to actually make a studio comedy that maybe works at that level.’

Craig Wedren, composer: Randy Poster was the music supervisor on it, he and Shudder to Think, my old band, had worked on Velvet Goldmine together. He gave me a call and was just like, 'Hey, we're going to need at least one original song and probably a minimal amount of score for this movie, which is for Mike White and Jack Black.' He didn't need to say much more for me to be extremely psyched.

Linklater was adamant about casting kids who were musicians, not actors. Thousands of kids aged nine to 14 auditioned.

Ilene Starger, casting director: I began casting in New York in 2002. We had an unusually long casting process of seven months. Everyone involved knew that finding the right young people, even if not professional actors, who also had musical gifts would require time, patience, and an intensive search.

It didn’t matter if they had had prior acting experience; in fact, we wanted the film to have a freshness, re: unknown talent where possible.

Becca Brown, actress (Katie): I think I played 'Here Comes the Sun' by The Beatles and showed them I could play guitar. A couple weeks later, they called me in again and said, ‘Just come in and show us that you can rock out.’ I came in with these fake Limited Too hair extensions. My mom punked me out, had me in all black and I bought an electric guitar. I played a Lenny Kravitz song, rocked out, and I booked it.

Brian Falduto, actor (Billy): I went in and did a boys' soprano rendition of 'Send in the Clowns' from A Little Night Music. And I'm pretty sure the casting director was like, we cannot pass up this 10-year-old child who is boy soprano-ing 'Send in the Clowns' right now.

MW: It was so fun to see those kids as real performers … I think that obviously made the movie feel more authentic as far as the musical performances, but I think it also made it more authentic as far as the acting performances, too.

IS: Tina Fey auditioned for the role in which we ultimately cast Sarah Silverman. Sarah also auditioned and was hilarious. Tina of course was/is wonderful, but her schedule on Saturday Night Live was complex and conflicted in part with our filming schedule.

Various actresses auditioned for that role, and we held auditions for all of the other roles, except for Joan Cusack as Ms. Mullins. We all agreed she would be brilliant and she was.

MW: I just remember how funny it was living with Jack at the time in New York. It felt like he was bringing the comedy home. I remember fire alarms going off and him in his underwear trying to turn off fire alarms and bringing home Christmas trees and pine needles exploding all over the house. I felt like I was living in a Jack Black movie, literally, both at work and at home. It was a lot of fun.

The movie made $131.3 million internationally at the box office and a combined $97 million domestically in DVD sales and rentals, according to Bruce Nash of the movie data site, The Numbers.

JG: It was made responsibly and budgeted responsibly [at $35 million] and scaled for what it was, so to get nearly $100 million dollars domestically off that movie was I'm sure a phenomenal success. Remember it's 2003, not 2018 where $100 million is what you expect to do on a Saturday night with a Marvel movie. Those weren't the times we were living in.

MW: It's just one of those movies that seemed to have a life beyond its theatrical release. It wasn’t until the ancillary markets of TV and DVD where we realized that people kept coming back to the movie and seeing it multiple times. Parents liked it and the kids liked it. Even still to this day, you get younger kids that are still seeing it and it's one of those movies that seems to stay alive.

CW: I was at a break-the-fast Yom Kippur dinner recently at a friend's house and there were maybe ten or twelve kids of all different ages. It's always tough to find a movie that all of them can watch and all of them will enjoy, and we decided on School of Rock.

We were standing there watching the kids watch School of Rock and we're like, ‘How? How do you do this? What's the formula?’ Because I suppose if there was a formula everybody would use it and all movies would be great.

MW: I've gotten so many free tickets to Rush concerts. I think it's one of those movies, maybe at the beginning there was some trepidation [from musicians] about wanting to be associated with a little kiddie movie. But over the years that's definitely changed in view. I guess it’s a source of pride that they're part of the lexicon of teaching Rock 101.

The 2015 Broadway adaptation by Andrew Lloyd Webber was nominated for four Tony Awards. A few months later, a School of Rock TV series premiered on Nickelodeon.

BB: All of the original School of Rock kids were sitting in the front row opening night of the Broadway musical. At intermission, Stevie Nicks turns to me and she's like, ‘Oh my God, you're the little bassist.’ I was instantly crying. We talked for like five seconds and I blacked out. I don't remember any of it, but she held my hands. I like to think that she gave me some of her witchy powers.

Kevin Suh, executive vice president of themed entertainment, Paramount Pictures: It is a wonderfully aspirational story that blends fantastic music with comedy and heart that all lends itself well to musical theater.

JG: It went to Broadway. What does that tell you? If it goes to Broadway, they think that that's a show that will appeal to all ages and I think that's true. It has an incredibly positive good message about the value of teachers, musicianship and the value of being true to who you are. It embraces individuality in a way that is timeless.

Brian Banks, vice president of production for Nickelodeon: We were able to adapt [the movie] into a show that was more geared toward kids. We took the same property and targeted it toward a specific demographic. I think it says a lot about the versatility of the property.

Many of the child stars of the film, now in their mid-20s, say that being a part of School of Rock changed their lives.

BF: I never entered a social circumstance where I'm not been known as the gay kid from School of Rock, so that's kind of been a cross to bear … I was kind of labeled a gay figurehead at a young age because there weren't that many representations of LGBT personas in the media at the time. That was a lot to process for a 10-year-old. I'm actually an LGBT life-coach now. I work with clients who are struggling with their sexuality or a lot of the issues associated with coming out of the closet.

“I think it’s one of like the Top 20 GIFs of all time, which is insane. If you had told me before I said that line that it was gonna be such a big deal, I probably would’ve f–ked it up somehow. I’m glad that no one told me that it would be haunting me 15 years later.” – Brian Falduto.

 

BB: I'm a full-time actor. I'll say this 1,000 times until the day I die, ‘I would not be the artist that I am today if it wasn't for getting to be in that movie.’

I was at a concert this weekend and a young, female bassist, probably in her early 20's came up to me, recognized me from the film and was like, ‘Oh my God, you're the person who inspired me to pick this up.’ I get messages on social media too that are like, ‘You inspired my daughter, my sister, my mother to pick up an instrument and learn how to play guitar or bass’ and that’s the best thing that I received from being a part of this.

 

Zach Infante, actor (Gordon): My friends from the film were huge influences in addressing mental health issues that came up as a result of working at a young age, surviving cancer during adolescence, and they continue to inspire me. I keep learning about resilience and bouncing back from bullying, learning how to stick it to the man, and to stand up for what I believe in.

Veronica Afflerbach, actress (Eleni): We always call it the movie that never ends because we never expected it to become what it did.