Friday, April 16, 2010

Bad Teacher

Genre: Comedy
Premise: (from IMDB) A comedy centered around a foul-mouthed, junior high teacher who, after being dumped by her sugar daddy, begins to woo a colleague -- a move that pits her against a well-loved teacher.
About: “Bad Teacher” sold as a spec back in 2008, the same year it made the Black List. It was written by the same writers who penned “Year One,” and “Ghostbusters 3” (or at least some draft of Ghostbusters 3). Jake Kasdan (Zero Effect, Orange County) is set to direct, with “I am now an actor” Justin Timberlake playing the male lead alongside his former girlfriend, Cameron Diaz. The movie is filming right now. Eisenberg and Stupnitsky, the writers, also wrote for “The Office.”
Writers: Lee Eisenberg & Gene Stupnitsky
Details: June 6, 2008, spec sale draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

You've been very bad Cameron!

I’ll be honest with you, the thought of Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake pairing up for a movie together doesn’t exactly get my old N’Sync juices flowing, but I read Bad Teacher long before these two were attached, and remember it being a lot spicier than your average sweet-potato comedy spec. This new word I keep hearing myself bat around these days is “teeth.” So many scripts I read don’t have teeth. They don’t bite into you. They’re more likely to politely rub against you or nudge you lovingly. But every story needs a little teeth, a little edge to set it apart from the pack. And that’s what I remembered about Bad Teacher. It had teeth.

Elizabeth Halsey is not a good person. In fact, she makes Melvin Udall, from As Good As It Gets, look like the milkman. Elizabeth has one desire and one desire only – to marry a man with money - the American dream for hot lazy women with no skillset everywhere. And Elizabeth has finally achieved that dream, finding a short bald troll-like man with lots of moola and an astute inability to know when he's being taken advantage of. Or maybe not. Yes, Elizabeth’s dreams come crashing down when she walks in on her future Bilbo Baggins pulling a Jesse James with some gigantically breasted whore. It is such a devastating moment for Elizabeth that she's barely able to spit out: “You are buying me the biggest pair of yellow diamond earrings they make!” Yeah, Elizabeth is a teensy bit materialistic. And vain. And a bitch. And cruel. But all of those adjectives pale in comparison to what Elizabeth is now: Single. Cue hard rock music!

Back Elizabeth goes into her own personal hell, that goddamned middle school, and boy is she pissed about it. So pissed, in fact, that she takes it out directly on her kids. A class with Elizabeth is like a day when the substitute shows up. If that substitute were a drunk reckless asshole who hated you. But Elizabeth has a plan. In her universe of fucked-up logic, she postulates that the woman who stole her troll fiancĂ© had huge fake breasts. This means, in order to make sure this debacle doesn’t happen again, SHE must get huge fake breasts. The problem is, huge fake breasts cost $9300, and Elizabeth barely makes enough money to pay the rent (those damn teacher salaries). So, somehow, Elizabeth will have to cheat, lie, steal, scam, and deceive her way into getting that money. And nothing is off limits. Not school funds. Not other teachers. If there is money that can be gotten, she will find a way to get it.

Of course, you need to throw your protagonists some curveballs, and a big one arrives in the form of new teacher: Scott. Scott is as honest as Elizabeth is deceitful, and when she finds out that his father owns one of the biggest watch companies in the world…well, it’s game on. Unfortunately, Elizabeth’s rival, the sweet-as-caramel Amy Squirrel, is also vying for Scott’s attention. And since the two were practically chiseled out of the same loving stone, Elizabeth's chances aren't good. To make matters worse, Amy has huge natural breasts. The only way for Elizabeth to have a shot (in, once again, her warped little universe) is to transform into the exact opposite of who she is around Scott, and keep him interested just long enough to get those damn D-Cups!

Let’s not beat around the bush here. Bad Teacher is Bad Santa. I mean, it’s the exact same movie, but with a female lead and set in a middle school. I’m not saying that accusingly. I think it’s brilliant. It’s a perfect twist on a movie that worked. And if you thought Billy Bob’s character was funny, there’s something even more hilarious about a woman who will stoop lower than hell itself, who will take out the very kids she's supposed to be protecting and nurturing, to get what she wants. I mean, the way she despises these feel bad that you're laughing and yet you can't help yourself. Elizabeth doesn’t even know any of the kids names. NONE. And while this may seem like an obvious joke, Elizabeth is so authentic and believable that when she says “Hey you,” to a kid she’s known for 3 months, you laugh every time.

The cool thing about "Bad Teacher" is that there’s nothing spectacular about the way it’s constructed. It’s simply about a woman trying to save up enough money to get breast implants. But I realized there was a little more thought that went into this than it first seems. Here you have this appallingly selfish protagonist leaving a path of destruction in pursuit of her goal, and yet you're still engaged. Conventional wisdom says we shouldn't be rooting for Elizabeth because she's "unlikable." But what I realized was this: Because this character wanted something so badly – and I mean really really wanted it– it didn't matter that we didn't like her. What we're drawn to is whether she'll achieve this goal. So we’re not necessarily rooting for Elizabeth here, but we do want to find out if she gets what she wants because she cares so much. I know I've come across this before, but for whatever reason, it really stuck out in this instance. It was a good lesson to learn. But it's important to note that it wasn't the only reason we tolerated this character. This device is aided by Elizabeth being so funny. Had she not been funny, I don't know if this approach, all by itself, would've worked. So I think that's important to remember. If you are going to use an unlikable protagonist, try adding a couple of devices/traits to soften the blow. Because if someone is so repulsive that you can't even stand them, I'm not sure there's anything you can do to make us care about their journey.

So I obviously liked this script a lot. Why did it only get a “worth the read?” Simple. The ending is a complete mess. I don’t know if it’s a holdover from a previous draft or something they put together with the intent of expanding on later on. But it’s like they tried this big climactic ending, and in the process went away from everything they'd been doing up to that point. I’m sure they’ve fixed it by now, cause it's really glaring, but since I’m critiquing this draft and not the future one, I can't give this that "impressive" label.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: If you’re writing your first or second screenplay, I’m going to give you the best chance at success. Use Bad Teacher as a template for simple dramatic structure. Here’s how you do it: Give your main character a big goal, then give them a bunch of smaller goals they have to achieve in order to reach that big goal. So here the big goal is to get fake breasts. The smaller goals are all the little things Elizabeth has to do to get the money to buy those breasts. This may seem obvious to some of you, but I read so many scripts where the protagonists don’t want anything. They’re just hanging around and talking to different people in different locations with no pursuits or desires whatsoever. If you’re just starting out as a writer, and especially if you write comedies, this simple goal-oriented approach is going to give you the best chance at writing a screenplay that's good.