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FALL SNEAKS | School for Scoundrels

When teacher is after your girl

September 10, 2006|Susan King

WRITER-director Todd Phillips specifically had Billy Bob Thornton in mind when he wrote the part of Dr. P, the manipulative, competitive Learning Annex instructor in "School for Scoundrels," which opens Sept. 29.

He and writing partner Scot Armstrong then needed to find the perfect foil for Thornton. A process that was easy enough when approached from the right perspective: "You look at Billy and say, 'Billy is the anti-Christ -- who is the opposite? Who is 180 degrees from that? Hey, Jon Heder. He seems sweet and naive,' " Phillips says.

"It's certainly easier to write a film with an actor in mind for one of the characters," he says. "When we wrote 'Old School,' we wrote it with Vince Vaughn in mind."

Just as with "Old School," Phillips mixes broad comedic sequences with a lot of heart.

"Comedies in general, they have to be funny," he says. "But when they work in a bigger way, there is a heart to it and a real emotional arc."

He also allows his actors to improvise on the set. "You kind of treat the script more like a blueprint," Phillips says. "And let people be funny. That sort of loose approach on the set finds its way into the film and it feels a little bit more organic."

The movie is Phillips' version of the 1960s British comedy of the same name, which producer Harvey Weinstein had screened for him a few years back. The classic farce about one of life's losers who enrolls in a university that teaches "one-upmanship" so stuck in Phillips' head that he decided to do a remake.

Heder, of "Napoleon Dynamite," plays a hapless meter cop named Roger who is constantly berated by his co-workers and is unlucky in love. He hears about a secret class conducted by the suave but untrustworthy Dr. P, who promises he can turn mousy men into lions. Roger's confidence grows in class and he begins to woo his beautiful neighbor (Jacinda Barrett), but when Dr. P learns of Roger's romantic conquest, his ruthless competitive side kicks in.

"For me, comedy is 70% casting," Phillips says of his switch from his roots as documentarian. "Documentaries, 80% is the subject matter. So many people are convinced their grandmothers would make a subject for a documentary .... That's when I bowed out."

-- Susan King

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