When “Bad Education” premiered to a packed theater at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival in September, it drew enthusiastic reviews, and raves for star Hugh Jackman — Variety chief film critic Peter Debruge wrote of Jackman’s performance, “‘Bad Education’ is the best work he’s ever done.” Awards talk began immediately.
Directed by Cory Finley (“Thoroughbreds”) and written by Mike Makowsky (“I Think We’re Alone Now”), “Bad Education” — based on the real-life downfall of Frank Tassone, a Roslyn, Long Island, school district superintendent played by Jackman — was seen as the most commercial film for sale at Toronto. And indeed, the movie commanded a blockbuster price tag, selling to HBO for close to $20 million shortly after the festival’s close in mid-September.
That the film sold to HBO instead of to a theatrical distributor was seen as a surprise, but also as a sign of the times: Mid-budget films aimed at adults have all but disappeared from movie theaters, and big festival sales of indies have rarely paid off in recent years.
For “Bad Education,” the HBO deal also meant that Jackman — as well as supporting cast standout Allison Janney — would be vying for an Emmy nomination rather than an Oscar. “I have only done theatrical releases, thank goodness, since ‘X-Men,’” Jackman says. “So I was a little taken aback at first. But then I was like, ‘Oh, I actually think a lot more people will see this in this format.’”
Jackman is not alone in that realization. According to Casey Bloys, HBO’s president of programming, the stark realities of the box office, along with the rise of streaming services, have in recent years made “filmmakers much more willing to forgo a theatrical release, and give up an Oscar run to go for Emmys.”
HBO makes fewer films than it once did, but for decades the company produced movies based on true stories, including 1993’s “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom” (starring Holly Hunter, who won an Emmy for it) and Jay Roach’s electoral double feature, 2008’s “Recount” and 2012’s “Game Change” — among many others. To Bloys, the story and execution of “Bad Education” is “in the tradition of what we have done.”
“We’re not giving up making our own films, and we still are developing them,” he continues. “But this is an interesting avenue, because for about what we would spend to make a film, you can pick one up and know how it’s been received.”
What no one could have foreseen is that “Bad Education,” which will make its debut on April 25, would premiere during a time when COVID-19 has shuttered theaters and forced people into self-quarantine. That televised entertainment provides much-needed comfort has gratified the “Bad Education” filmmakers and cast.
“It’s hard to think about anything other than the virus right now, of course,” says director Finley. “I’m just glad that we are coming out on small screens, and that people will be able to watch this at home and stay safe. And that we can hopefully be something new for people to enjoy in a time where there’s not a lot to get excited about.”
Jackman expresses a similar sentiment. “I’m at home with my family, and we’re trying to watch really good material,” he says. “I’m trying to read really good books, and listen to good music, and in that way, it’s something I think as actors and artists, we can contribute.”
When screenwriter Mike Makowsky moved to the Roslyn School District as a first grader in 1997, Frank Tassone was the first person he met. Tassone would personally evaluate the reading level of every incoming student. “Pretty atypical for a public school superintendent to make that kind of investment in the students,” Makowsky says.
Tassone’s eventual arrest took place in 2004, when Makowsky was in seventh grade. To detail what exactly he was arrested for would be to spoil the surprises of “Bad Education.” Suffice it to say, his fall had a little bit of everything, including financial malfeasance, the exposure of Tassone’s secret gay life and a supporting cast that included an accomplice (Pam Gluckin, the school administrator later played by Janney) and enablers on the Roslyn school board — who looked the other way because it suited the school’s top ranking and the town’s high property values.
After college, Makowsky moved to Los Angeles and became a screenwriter. He’d written and produced a few indie films, but in 2016 he wanted to try his hand at writing a movie based on a true story — and also wanted to set something on Long Island (a “very specific kind of upbringing,” Makowsky says). Soon enough, he thought of the story of Tassone, and optioned Robert Kolker’s 2004 New York magazine article about the scandal. To write the spec script, Makowsky went home to Roslyn to do research, interviewing everyone who remembered what had happened — from teachers to custodians, as well as parents who’d been involved in the PTA. “I essentially outlined the entire script in my high school cafeteria,” Makowsky says.
Later that year, with the production company Automatik attached to it, “Bad Education” appeared on The Black List as one of 2016’s most promising screenplays. Makowsky and Automatik’s Fred Berger knew the film needed a director who understood its mix of genres: It was a satiric tragedy with true-crime elements. They sent the script to Finley, whose film debut, “Thoroughbreds,” a darkly stylish teen thriller with a comedic edge, had premiered at Sundance in 2017 and sold to Focus Features. He signed on in late 2017. “I liked that Mike’s script had a really unique tone, sort of tiptoeing between comedy and something much more dramatic,” Finley says. With Finley on board, Automatik was able to get Sight Unseen to finance the film.
The “Bad Education” team next had to find its Frank, a character who is a devoted educator and charismatic leader — and also a larcenous man with a double life. Jackman, who has so often played heroes, read it, and remembers wondering about its inflections: “This is gonna be tricky. Because I couldn’t quite work out the tone from reading the script — it felt like three genres in one.” He decided to watch “Thoroughbreds,” and after 20 minutes, Jackman says, “I was like, ‘I’m doing this film.’”
With Jackman committed, Finley worked with casting director Ellen Lewis, who casts Martin Scorsese’s movies. “She has such a skill at building out ensembles that all feel like they’re in the same film together, and really give you a sense of place,” Finley says.
Janney, fresh off her supporting actress Oscar for “I, Tonya,” read the script, met with Finley and then heard Jackman was doing it. “I’ve been a huge fan of his forever, and he’s exactly the kind of actor I want to be working with,” Janney says. Ray Romano joined the cast as president of the school board, who’s willfully blinded by Frank’s accomplishments. Geraldine Viswanathan signed on to play the key role of Rachel, a reporter for the school paper who gets so fired up by a pep talk Frank gives her about journalism that she begins the investigation that ends up bringing him down. (That the school paper did break part of the Tassone story is, Makowsky says, an “absurd, crazy truth” — but it’s exaggerated for effect in “Bad Education,” and the character of Rachel is a composite. “It was very helpful to have an audience surrogate through whose eyes we could see the breadth of the scandal in real time,” Makowsky says.)
Janney set about creating Pam’s accent by working with a dialect coach, and also by remembering childhood summers spent with her grandparents in Cedarhurst on Long Island. “I just remember as a little girl falling in love with the accent, thinking it was so classy,” Janney says, affecting it for emphasis.
According to Jackman, the role of Frank is “different from what I’ve done,” and he researched the real story to create a character who was mendacious yet sympathetic. “Somehow, the lie built on itself — that’s fascinating to me. I don’t think people go around going, ‘I’m the villain of this life!’” Jackman says. That Frank was also in the closet, he says, added “another layer to his deception.”
Jackman was also aware that he was playing against his own self-image. “If I have any kind of objectivity about how people see me as a human being, I think they probably think I’m a nice guy,” he says. “I thought that would be powerful for the story as well.”
Under normal circumstances, HBO would conduct an Emmy campaign around Jackman, Janney and “Bad Education” as a whole. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, nothing is normal these days — which HBO’s Bloys certainly takes into account. “I don’t know that I have the right answer, nor do I think anybody does,” he says. “But obviously, you want work to be recognized. The industry has to figure out what’s the right way forward.”
Janney wishes the cast and filmmakers could have celebrated the U.S. premiere of the movie at the Tribeca Film Festival, which was, of course, canceled. “It’s a really great movie, and I’m proud of it,” she says. But she adds her voice to the chorus of those hoping audiences can find solace and distraction in seeing the film.
“They watched ‘Tiger King’!” Janney says with a laugh. “Now they can watch ‘Bad Education.’”