A Raleigh native and graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, Peyton Reed has brought his playful and literate style of filmmaking to movies like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and The Love Bug for the “Wonderful World of Disney” series on ABC. Also the director of music videos for such Triangle mainstays as The Connells and Superchunk, Reed’s work has appeared in five episodes of Comedy Central’s breakthrough conceptual sketch series Upright Citizens Brigade, and five episodes of HBO’s alt-comedy masterwork Mr. Show with Bob & David.
Ironically, the former WXYC deejay may have gotten his first big break not in Hollywood, but here in the Triangle, after he was hired to be a van driver for the production of Bull Durham in 1987. Reed used the cash he earned from that job to pay for his short film, Almost Beat, which included in its cast Flicker-founder Norwood Cheek. The award-winning short demonstrated Reed’s initiative and helped to launch his career in Los Angeles.
Thirteen years later, Reed has a box office smash under his belt: this summer’s hit teen movie Bring It On, starring Kirsten Dunst. To date, the film about competitive cheerleading squads has grossed close to $70 million in the United States. Reed has also signed on to helm Universal’s upcoming feature East Bound and Down, a retelling of sorts of the Smokey and the Bandit classic slated for release sometime in 2001.
The Independent: How has the success of Bring It On changed your life?
Peyton Reed: It’s been a strange couple of months [post Bring It On‘s release] because you spend a year and a half of your life making a movie–and then its fate is determined in a three-day weekend. Which is a scary thought, but that’s how the movie business works these days. I had been preparing myself for weeks for the biggest anticlimax of my life. I had to assume that the movie was going to tank. So then when the movie came out and did really well, I wasn’t prepared for it. I was obviously really happy and amazed.
Did you go see the movie in a theater after its release?
The night it came out, we got a van full of people who worked on the movie and a cooler full of beer, and we drove around to a bunch of different theaters all over Los Angeles. There were actually people in the theaters–so we knew that Friday night it had done well. My head was spinning and it’s still spinning a couple of months later, because none of us were prepared for what the movie was going to do.
The way the movie business is, if Bring It On had opened up and just tanked opening weekend, it would have had a real adverse effect. It’s very competitive for directors, and there’s always going to be another person who comes along who can direct. So I was overjoyed that my movie had done well, but my overriding feeling was that I had just dodged a gigantic bullet.
How important was it to have a movie star like Kirsten Dunst [Interview with a Vampire and The Virgin Suicides] attached to the project?
Before I was even involved in the movie the producer sent a draft of the script which at that time was called “Cheer Fever” to Kirsten, and she passed on it. The casting director Joseph Middleton had an actress named Marley Shelton in mind for the part. I met with her and she was enthusiastic about the movie and I felt like we were ready to proceed. But there was a catch. She was up for another role [and eventually took it] in a cheerleading movie. I couldn’t believe there was a rival cheerleading movie.
So I decided to talk to Kirsten personally and tell her about the changes I was doing to the script. I expressed my enthusiasm for the project and assured her that I wanted to make a film that liked its characters and not one that existed to make fun of a group of people. When she decided to do it, it was a personal coup and definitely raised the level of our production.
What was it like test screening the movie the first time?
With a comedy, it’s crucial and also terrifying to put your movie up in front of a crowd of people who have no relationship with your movie at that point. They’re not obligated to laugh, and they have an honest reaction to your movie. After the movie the audience fills out cards rating different characters and plot issues. But you can’t always trust these because kids come into the screening and say their favorite thing about the movie was “Kirsten Dunst’s ass.” We also tape-recorded the screening so we could hear where people were and weren’t laughing, so that gave us a good indication of what was working or not.
Was there anything you cut out or put in because of audience reactions? Like the car-washing scene?
[Laughs.] No, that was probably the single most gratuitous scene in the movie, but it was an homage to a bad ’80s movie bikini car wash scene. And our spin was to make it all through the eyes of the gay character–but I don’t think anyone noticed.
Have you set up a production company as a result of Bring It On?
It depends on how you define a production company. I’m not at the point that I want to have a production company, because I think it may limit my options. One of the things I like about working as a freelance director is that I don’t have an obligation to do a certain movie for a certain studio, and I can go wherever I want to. And I don’t think I’m quite ready to be saddled with the responsibility of running a company.
How did your experiences at UNC-Chapel Hill influence you?
I went to Carolina and started out as an RTVMP [radio, television and motion picture] major and at the time the department was in great disrepair, so I decided to switch and become an English major. I’m glad I switched because I’ve found that to be the most valuable thing in my work out here. English has helped in terms of my story structure and characters and things, because I’m always going to meetings and pitching my stories. Pitching yourself as a director is really like pitching yourself as a storyteller.
A lot of aspiring directors graduate from high school and jump straight into film school. I’m really glad I didn’t do that because I have witnessed a fair share of people like that out here who have all these great technical skills, but they have absolutely no perspective on anything and nothing to say.
Do you believe in that unwritten rule that, as a director, you have to have your first feature in the theater by the age of 30 or you’re sunk?
I used to get so stressed out about that stuff, because 26 used to be the magic number. Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 26, and Steven Soderbergh made Sex, Lies and Videotape at 26, and Chaplan made his first big feature at 26–and of course, I grew up in the era of Spielberg. Every summer there was a giant Spielberg movie and he started when he was 21. People, myself included, would get so bunged up about another year going by without accomplishing that. Now I look back and think “What was the rush?”
Many of your previous projects do not have Southern themes or tell North Carolina stories. Is that something you are interested in pursuing?
I am. I actually wrote a draft of a script for a movie that I would want to shoot entirely in Raleigh. It’s a low-budget movie and it was what I wanted to do next. In fact, I was trying to get financing for it before I read Bring It On and decided to go with that first.
But it has always been a great passion of mine to do Southern material, because I remember growing up and seeing Southern stories done poorly, or movies set in Los Angeles and New York just because the filmmakers were too lazy to go somewhere else. I see movies like that god-awful Joel Schumacher movie A Time to Kill–that vision of the South where it’s all golden and everyone is sweating all the time and talking in these bad accents. That movie takes place on Mars, as far as I’m concerned.
Do you think there’s a derogatory attitude towards Southerners and Southern stories in Hollywood?
Although I do have a lot of friends, writers and directors, from the South, I think a lot of people here don’t understand the South. Take for example, Kevin Williamson’s show Dawson’s Creek. He wrote the show based on his growing up in Southport, N.C., and it was an inherently Southern, coming-of-age show. And now it’s still called Dawson’s Creek but the show is supposed to take place somewhere in New England. And there were specific conversations about setting it in the South–people were asking things like “Will that turn viewers off?” and “Do they have to have Southern accents?” Because I think there’s still this perception that if people have Southern accents, they’re dumb. This is even the case with the big cities: Atlanta is like New York or Los Angeles, but in people’s minds out here, Atlanta is still folks sittin’ around on their porches. They have no concept of those “middle states.”
Occasionally something really smart will come along and change that. I remember when Sling Blade came out and was really well received–for about a window of a month, the South was hot. But it’s almost a question of rural, rather than Southern. If something is perceived of as rural, it really cuts your audience. Even though middle America likes that, the perception is that if they live in a rural area–that’s their “reality,” and they really want to see what people in the big city are doing. And that’s just erroneous.
While you’re waiting to shore up East Bound and Down, are you looking for projects to do before the WGA strike?
You know, there’s all this strike panic going on out here, and I’m in a position where I’ve just done the first movie and it’s done well. I want to be really careful about what the second movie is. And I don’t want to do a movie before the strike just to do a movie before the strike, because that would be shortsighted. But if there’s a script that I’m just blown away by and it’s ready to go, then I’d love to.