The following is a transcript of the Q&A with director Cory Finley and writer Mike Makowsky following the screening of Bad Education, starring Hugh Jackman and Alison Janney at the BFI London Film Festival 2019. Please note that sections of this Q&A have been edited for brevity.
BFI: Cory, can you talk about writing the script and what responsibility you had?
Cory Finley [CF]: Absolutely, I had at least a passing familiarity. I sort of knew most of the subjects in some sort of way and to go back 13 years after the fact, you had to do the research again and speak to former teachers and parents of the community, spend the morning talking about everything that had happened. It was tremendously exciting for me.
Mike Makowsky [MM]: I was working on the script, I wrote it in the summer of 2016 and I always hoped that we would find the right sort of director to steer the ship. It was actually this really interesting thing because I think people really liked the script when they first read it but weren’t necessarily sure if it was gonna be relevant to everyone, the administrative school work drama out in New York. I think that a lot has happened certainly in the landscape in the last three years that has made it feel a lot more universal and needed.
BFI: And Cory, when you got the script, what was it that made you want to take on the project?
CF: The biggest thing was the tone that I mentioned, and the way it navigated comedy, tragedy, and often how the two are operating at the same moment — it’s a challenge I’ve always been drawn to as a director. It was personal to me in a lot of ways, it was really about education, which is something we don’t see a lot of movies about, or a lot of sort of movies that aren’t directly that inspiring.
BFI: Were you thinking immediately of Hugh [Jackman], when you first read the script?
CF: Not immediately, but when I sat with it, he felt like someone to be perfect for the role. You just have an immediate trust with him, and you can see that with the cast: he remembers names, consoling angry mothers, acts into it. Tassone genuinely, or at least a part of him genuinely wants to provide the education in the school district, and then that let us peel away the layers. I wanted to have invested in this guy and not just have him stay closed.
I’m always drawn to characters that have something I can connect to. Humans are 3-dimensional, they’re not mustache-wearing villains, they’re not always heroes. But there remains something beyond understanding about what they ultimately do. I think my favourite movies post some kind of psychological insight, they pose as many questions as to characters, why they do it, they try to get answers.
MM: I was just a kid when all this happened. Tassone was the Boogieman of my childhood and it was essentially the biggest thing that happened in my hometown. I had to go back to research and read things he’d written: for 15 years he’d written a column on the school in the local newspaper every single week, just talking to parents, addressing their concerns and everything.
There’s so much to like about this man, that I think I was surprised going into it because I thought I was just going to approach it with him being the villain of the story, but very quickly I realised there’s just so much about him that is worthwhile. He single-handedly shaped my education, he hired every single one of the teachers that shaped your hand as a writer. It’s impossible to separate the two so it’s a weird paradox, I think.
Audience question: It was really interesting seeing investigative journalism on a smaller scale, which you don’t always see in a feature like this. How vital was this to the story?
CF: Very vital, really important. When I first read the script it really stuck with me, and it felt like a way to make a movie that was engaged with the political world that surrounds us in a very distant way. I didn’t want to make it into a preachy, political movie; I wanted it more of an allegory and a cautionary tale; particularly about why we’re following leaders when things are going well.
And then I thought it had a lot of interesting things to say about the capitalist system, that everything, including our public school in America, is a part of this system which we are toying with. But I like that it took on all these issues legally and did it in a very human way through a character study, that’s what we were trying to do in the movie.
Audience question: The film is a period piece in a way because it’s all from years ago. I’m curious as to how you approached this from a production point of view?
CF: Early on we realised that this was fully a period piece, even though we didn’t need to make Edwardian costumes. But in all sorts of tiny places that you’d not expect, you can’t just use what’s there. We had to bring in monitors, cars, we had to bring in obviously costumes.
Huge credit to our production designer Meredith Lippincott, who did extremely intensive research, looking at books at photography from the period, some online research — some of that has disappeared. Costume designer Alex Bovaird looked extensively through magazines of the period, she dove into some of the archives. And it was important for us to shoot off 35mm film, even if only subconsciously to create this sort of nostalgia as if it’s the sort of movie that could have been made circa 2002. It was a huge part of the process.
Audience question: Was [student journalist] Rachel a real person or was she a composite character, and what happened to those kids who investigated and broke that story, where are they now?
MM: Rachel herself is a composite, it’s true, of the student newspaper. The actual students that broke the story wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, and I was fortunate enough to be able to see that. But I think that Rachel — that was also in part an audience surrogate so that we can see through a relatable lens just the sheer sense of the corruption, and we can investigate along with her. One of the joys of writing the script was following along her journey.
Audience question: When it comes to directing, how do you balance getting the shot that’s in your head that you want with both making sure you have enough coverage and making sure that you’re letting the actors do their thing and actually get the performance at the other end?
CF: It’s a great question. The biggest shift in the process for me, between the first film and directing for the second time, was having been through the editorial process and work with an amazing editor named Alex Wolff, and it was remarkable.
Going into my first movie [Thoroughbreds] as a sort of a playwright, I had a real sense that you needed to capture each scene in the way that you needed in a play, so there were a lot of borders — that’s a choice in that movie. But also generally it felt like I wasn’t seeing exactly what I needed on camera and had gotten the scene.
This time I was still trying to be very precise about the way that I’d get scenes, but I was able to be a little bit more loose, and a little bit more free about certain openness, and about being open to improvisation with the actors and getting possibilities. I was giving myself the pieces in the edit that I needed to make the movie, so that it would sort of naturally reveal itself in the last part of the process, that you can never fully see from the writing stage.
BFI: Well, congratulations to you both and to the whole team, great to have you with us.