- Insider spoke with the director of “Bring It On,” Peyton Reed, in celebration of the movie’s 20th anniversary in August.
- The director talked about the challenges in casting the movie as another cheerleader movie, “Sugar & Spice,” was being made. That movie’s lead, Marley Shelton, was almost cast as Kirsten Dunst’s character, Torrance, in “Bring It On.”
- Reed said Jason Schwartzman and James Franco – then unknowns – auditioned for the role of Torrance’s love interest, Cliff, which went to Jesse Bradford.
- The director touched on how the movie’s themes of race, sexuality, and privilege are all still relevant today.
- He also teased that he’d been coming up with ideas for a “Bring It On” sequel that would star original cast members.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Can you believe it’s been 20 years since we were introduced to spirit fingers, cheerocracy, and “Hey Mickey” as the perfect end-credits song?
In 2000, the cheerleader comedy “Bring It On” hit theatres and made stars of Kirsten Dunst, Gabrielle Union, Eliza Dushku, and Jesse Bradford. It also launched a straight-to-DVD franchise. Since then, the movie has only grown in popularity as its comedy and progressive themes have become timeless.
No one’s more surprised than its director, Peyton Reed. “Bring It On,” which through filming was titled “Cheer Fever,” marked his feature-directing debut. At the time, Universal had no idea this PG-13 teen comedy would become a box-office sensation. It went on to have a second life on cable and streaming services, teaching generations of tweens the importance of hard work and standing up for what’s right.
Despite its cheeky premise – the five-time national cheerleading champions, the Rancho Carne Toros, discover that their previous captain stole all their best routines from the East Compton Clovers, and now the Toros’ current captain, Torrance (Kirsten Dunst), must figure out new routines for nationals – the story deals with topics like race, sexuality, and privilege in a way that hits home two decades later.
Even the iconic film critic Roger Ebert was a fan. After giving the movie a bad review, he declared it “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of cheerleader movies” in 2009.
Reed took a break from writing the script for a third “Ant-Man” movie he’ll be directing to chat with Insider about his fondest memories of making “Bring It On” – and he hinted at a sequel that could bring back original cast members.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
At first Reed thought the title ‘Bring It On’ was too generic
Jason Guerrasio: You were directing episodes of the “Upright Citizens Brigade” TV show when you got a script called “Cheer Fever,” right?
Peyton Reed: That’s right. I was directing the first three episodes of season two of the “Upright Citizen Brigade” show on Comedy Central, so that must have been 1999. I did my pitch for the movie in Los Angeles and left for New York to do “UCB.” And I think as I was finishing up the third episode they did all these follow-up calls and I ended up getting the movie.
Guerrasio: Outside of wanting the work, what grabbed you about the story, and what made you think you were right for it?
Reed: I was writing a movie at the time that was a high-school-based movie and had fully intended to getting financing and making that movie. But I wasn’t very far along on that. So when I read [screenwriter] Jessica Bendinger’s script it was so specific in this subculture that it was a really unique way into doing a high-school movie. But more than that, in the script there was a specificity to her writing and to her dialogue. It was clear that she had not only researched it well but spent time in that world.
Guerrasio: Is there a story behind the title change from “Cheer Fever” to “Bring It On”?
Reed: It was called “Cheer Fever” all the way through shooting, but I think in the back of everyone’s mind it felt like there would be talk of changing the title. Universal marketing felt that anything with the word “cheer” in it was going to really make it a narrow audience, marketing-wise.
I remember making up lists and lists of titles and having multiple meetings of what this could be called. Internal meetings. Universal and Universal marketing meetings. When “Bring It On” started to rise to the top, I wasn’t sure. I liked the confrontational aspect, but at the time it felt just like a generic title. But as we sat with it, it just felt right. It felt like the energy of a cheerleader and, in a weird way, also addressed those themes that were underlying in the movie.
Guerrasio: Any titles on the list you remember really liking?
Reed: Certain titles worked well for one aspect of the movie but not the whole thing. One was “Made You Look.” At one time it was just “Bring It.” And I was like, I mean, why don’t we just call the movie “Talk to the Hand”? But when we saw “Bring It On” in print on the one-sheet, it really made sense. It represented an attitude.
‘Bring It On’ was up against another cheerleader movie in production, ‘Sugar & Spice’
Guerrasio: At the same time you were casting the movie, a rival cheerleader movie was in the works, “Sugar & Spice.” Were you realising that actors you were going after were also auditioning for that?
Reed: The biggest thing with “Sugar & Spice” was when I came back from “UCB” I was rushed to this lunch meeting with this potential actress to play Torrance. Before I had even come on, the producers had gone out to Kirsten to play Torrance, and she wasn’t interested. She was booked for another movie.
So I was sitting down with an actress named Marley Shelton, who is a terrific actress. I felt at that lunch thinking she would be really good as Torrance.
Guerrasio: Oh wow.
Reed: But the casting director told me after that meeting, “You should know she’s up for another movie.” And I was like, “What’s the movie?” And then she was like, “You should know it’s another cheerleader movie.” And I was like, “Hold on a second, you buried the lead – there’s another cheerleader movie?”
I think at the time it was called “Sugar & Spice & Semi-Automatics” because they were bank robbers. And within the week, Marley Shelton decided to do that cheerleader movie. So now we were faced with a rapidly approaching start date and no lead.
I love Kirsten Dunst and asked if we can go out to her again. We reached Kirsten – she was in the Czech Republic at the time doing a movie – and I got on the phone with her, and I talked about what we were going to do with the movie, that we did some work on the script, and what things we were focusing on. Thankfully she said yes.
And then I know that Gabrielle also read for “Sugar & Spice” and ended up doing our movie.
Guerrasio: Fate was certainly on your side. But through this time, how are you feeling going up against “Sugar & Spice”? It had this cool title, a robbery angle – were you worried about your movie?
Reed: On the surface, you go, “Hey, that could be a badass movie.” But I liked where we were and what our movie was doing. Honestly, in my mind, I was like, we have to bury that other movie.
Cliff could’ve been Jason Schwartzman or James Franco
Guerrasio: Now, for the casting of Cliff, there were a lot of now famous actors who went out for the role, right?
Reed: We saw every male actor of that age who was in Hollywood. There was a Jason Schwartzman version of that character. He came in and auditioned and was fantastic.
Guerrasio: And James Franco came in and auditioned.
Reed: Franco came in, and I think he had just shot the “Freaks and Geeks” pilot. He was fantastic.
But I had remembered Jesse from [Steven] Soderbergh’s movie “King of the Hill,” and I thought he was such a great kid and smart and soulful and felt right for the tone of our movie. On top of being a great-looking kid, he was terrific, and he had great chemistry with Kirsten.
Guerrasio: Speaking of that, a scene that still works to this day and shows their chemistry is the brushing-teeth scene.
Reed: Right. That was a fun scene to do, because I don’t know if the teeth-brushing scene was in the early drafts of the script. It was something that we added later, and I liked that it’s a completely wordless scene.
The two of them got really into it, and the stuff that Kirsten did where she’s spitting in the sink and hiding it with her hand, that was really fun. To me, it felt like a Frank Capra movie, like “It Happened One Night,” where it’s fraught with sexual tension. I was really pleased.
The origin story of spirit fingers and what almost got the movie an R rating
Guerrasio: Spirit fingers. That has become one of the most memorable components of the movie. Is that something that on the page you knew it would work, or was it actor Ian Roberts as loony choreographer Sparky Polastri that made it what it has become?
Reed: There were a lot of potential versions of spirit fingers, and I had worked with Ian on both seasons of the “UCB” show –
Guerrasio: Did you call him in for the Sparky role?
Reed: I did. There was a version in an early draft of the script where Sparky Polastri leaned into certain clichés, and we all discussed it and felt there’s a different way of doing this.
I knew Ian could bring a really different energy to the role, and it excited me that he hadn’t been in a movie up to that point. The idea was that he was this kind of Bob Fosse wannabe and he was addicted to pills and this completely fraudulent character. I loved that. He took ownership of the character and also the spirit-fingers bit.
Guerrasio: The scene at the football game where Jan’s (Nathan West) finger “slips” while holding up Courtney (Clare Kramer) – is it true originally the sequence was to end with Jan smelling his finger and that part got taken out so the movie wouldn’t get an R rating?
Reed: I think that’s a story that has gotten blown out of proportion over the years. I think we just trimmed some frames.
This was definitely in the era, post-“American Pie,” where teen comedies were trying to push PG-13. But Jessica through her research solicited all these insane stories, and that was an actual story that she had heard from more than one male and female cheerleader. So we wanted to do it in a way that acknowledged all the inherent weirdness and specificity of the cheer world.
Guerrasio: I remember that part making it in the marketing of the movie.
So, to your point about “American Pie,” clearly Universal wanted to show that this had some edge to it.
Reed: Yeah, and I think the thing in the marketing was to represent the movie accurately in terms of the fact that it was not a Disney Channel cheerleading-competition movie.
Why the movie’s themes of race, sexuality, and privilege still work today
Guerrasio: The themes of race and privilege – for a 2000 movie, it was very progressive.
Reed: The whole theme was cultural appropriation, and Gabrielle’s character, Isis, says it up front when they go to East Compton: “You guys are always stealing something and putting a blonde wig on it and calling it something different.” It’s right there.
Jessica and I have talked about this: In our movie, we are dealing with all these privileged characters. The white cheerleading squad, they are bragging they are the five-time national champions. They are talking to the other cheerleading squad and saying, “That’s all right, that’s OK, you’re going to pump our gas someday.” It’s not a likable sentiment.
But then they find out it’s all a fraud. So it’s about Kristen’s character, Torrance, taking her first steps into awareness. The idea that she’s starting to confront her white privilege, that’s very much there in the movie, and I feel like that’s aged very well.
And I have to give major credit to Gabrielle. When she came in, we worked really hard on the character of Isis in terms of how she was portrayed and her dynamic in all the situations. She was very specific in what worked and what didn’t work, and I wanted to get it right and make sure we were making a movie that was aspirational in that way.
Also, Les (Huntley Ritter) and how there’s a moment in the competition where he waits for this kid from this other squad to talk to him – for me, it was important to have those little moments that, here, in this high-school movie and a gay relationship potentially happening, it just is, and the movie is accepting of it.
It may sound weird now, but 20 years ago I wanted this movie to feel like things are advancing.
Is it a perfect movie? Reed says he wouldn’t change the ending, but would approach the use of a gay slur differently.
Guerrasio: And another thing that’s needed for that advancement is that Torrance and the Toros need to lose at nationals at the end of the movie. That journey Torrance is beginning doesn’t work if she gets the trophy at the end.
Reed: Exactly. It was always intended to end that way. It was always the “Rocky” ending: He goes the distance with Apollo Creed, but he loses.
I remember the line “Second place – it feels like first” carrying a lot of meaning, because it was really about Kirsten’s character and the team coming into the competition on their own merits and did the best they could, but the Clovers were always the better squad.
I will say, over the years people will say to me, “Does it seem right that the Toros lost?” And I’m, like, “Absolutely it seems right!” It’s very interesting how different people perceive the ending, and also very telling.
Guerrasio: The use of the gay slur “f–” in the movie – it’s one of the few things in it that hasn’t aged well. How do you feel now about the use of the word?
Reed: It was intentional in terms of dealing with the sexuality and the gender politics in the movie.
The word is used twice: when the football players are talking to Les and Jan and they use that word and it’s definitely hate speech – it’s intended to be hate speech – then when Missy (Eliza Dushku) uses it in the car to talk as the new girl on the team, she’s kind of co-opting the language. The whole idea that Jessica had was kids co-opting language and using it in that way. That was the intent of it.
If we were to make the movie today, it probably would be approached in a different way. A lot of things would.
Reed hints at the possibility of a ‘Bring It On’ sequel with original cast members
Guerrasio: This is a movie that whenever it comes on you stop and watch it. Are you surprised by its shelf life?
Reed: It’s really gratifying, but it’s not something I would have been able to predict.
It means different things to different people, which I like. Every filmmaker wants that and hopes that will be the case for their movies, but you never know. At a certain point you have to let it go into the world.
I was obsessed at the time – and I guess I still am – of making movies that are repeat viewing experiences.
Guerrasio: “Bring It On” was a box-office success, but it turned into a huge moneymaker for Universal with the direct-to-DVD sequels it made. Were you ever asked to do a sequel?
Reed: At the time I would not have done a sequel, because I wanted to do something else. But I do often wonder what a theatrical sequel would have looked like.
Guerrasio: Would you do one now if Kirsten and Gabrielle were involved?
Reed: Absolutely. Jessica and I still throw around the idea of doing one. We have talked about doing a 20-years-later thing that becomes a generational cheerleader movie. Particularly with the thematics involved, I think that could be something that would be really timely. And hopefully something that would not shy away from the inherent issues of the movie.
I think there’s a great version to be done, and it’s something we’ve definitely been talking about recently.
Guerrasio: “Talking about” – do you mean, like, someone has a draft of a script in a drawer somewhere?
Reed:[Laughs.] There are definitely ideas there. Stay tuned.
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