Movies

Director Cory Finley On This Weekend’s Big New Movie, HBO’s ‘Bad Education’

Seven months ago, Bad Education premiered back at the Toronto Film Festival to great reviews. Now, the thing about a festival like that is its filled to the brim with films jockeying for their Academy Awards position, so it’s tough for a smaller film without distribution to make a splash. But this is a true-life story about a Long Island high school superintendent, Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), who embezzles over $2 million from his school district. What makes this compelling is that we kind of like Frank. He seems to care about the school and the kids, but what starts as a free breakfast on the school’s dime becomes more and more until the whole thing comes crashing down.

At the time, director Cory Finley had to reconcile that his film (written by Mike Makowsky, who went to the high school depicted) wouldn’t be shown in theaters. Well, smash cut to now and no one has their films in theaters as everyone is scrambling to figure out what to do. Meanwhile, here’s Bad Education with a plum spot this Saturday night for everyone to see it.

Finley is still in New York City and has been busy supporting his girlfriend, who is a medical worker on the front lines of the pandemic — they are only occasionally seeing each other in person in Central Park at a distance of six feet. So, as Finley says, taking a break to talk about movies is a welcome respite.

How are you doing?

I’ve been saying, it’s a rather dull and lonely existence for all of us, so it’s very nice to have a break and talk movies. Where are you? What city or non-city are you in?

I’m speaking to you from Manhattan.

Oh, excellent, so we’re very close. We’re on the Upper West Side.

I’m in the Upper East Side. We’re right across the park from each other.

No way. That’s wild.

We could have met halfway in Central Park and social distanced ourselves and done this.

Exactly. That’s literally what I’m doing with my girlfriend. She’s a psychiatry resident, but like every resident that’s not in medicine, she’s been pushed into medicine for these next two months as overflow. And the whole point of separating is to try to not spread and keep me healthy in case I need to swoop in and take care of her if she falls ill. But we’ve been meeting in the park. And, yeah, taking it very seriously, wearing masks, walking six feet apart, like sort of virtual hugging…

So she’s on the front lines?

She is. Yeah, she’s much braver than me. And I’m just trying to order her groceries and keep her happy and well-stocked as she deals with this.

How is Central Park these days? Is it crowded? Is it not? I haven’t been over there.

It’s dismayingly crowded if you believe in social distancing.

Oh, that’s no good.

Especially yesterday. It was a nice day and we had to get out of there, because it was just so full people. And, yeah, I don’t know, maybe we were being paranoid idiots…

I don’t think you are.

Yeah, it’s tough to find a place to safely social distance outside. I think it’s probably safest just to stay indoors.

Here’s the best compliment I can give your movie…

[Laughs] Oh, great.

I saw it back at the Toronto Film Festival in September. I wasn’t assigned to see it, but it fit in-between two other movies. Anyway, I had this insane toothache…

Ooh.

But I liked the movie so much, that instead of leaving to buy a painkiller, I got a cup of ice at concessions and finished the movie.

Oh, God. That’s horrible! Well, I’m really glad you suffered through it and didn’t leave. I guess, in a sense, the movie is trying to give the audience sort of an emotional toothache and worm under your skin in that way.

But if I didn’t like it, I would have been out of there.

Oh, that’s great. I’m a wuss, so I probably would’ve been out of there even if I loved the movie.

The thing I really enjoyed about this movie so much, it’s this low-stakes story about a Long Island school district, but is presented in high stakes…

Exactly.

Because in their world, these are the highest stakes possible.

Yes, exactly. And yeah, our screenwriter, Mike Makowsky, he grew up there, and he grew up in Roslyn. And he was very into really capturing that kind of granular, provincial inter-neighborhood rivalry that happened that he insists is sort of specific to Long Island. It’s kind of like the fall of the king. like a great Greek tragedy. But it also happens to take place in these little boardrooms.

Maybe it’s not hard when you have someone like Hugh Jackman, but as a viewer we like Frank, but dislike what he’s doing. I think that dynamic is important here.

I think it’s so easy to dismiss any kind of caricature. And it’s easy to just dismiss someone that’s just a villain and shitty and does terrible things for totally self-serving reasons. And yeah, I think in lesser hands, he could’ve seemed like sort of just this slick manipulator from frame one. And what I love about Hugh’s performance is how deeply you sense that this guy really is invested in this community and how much he is an educator at heart. It struck me as so interesting that if you have The Wolf of Wall Street, or something, and I love that movie, but the DiCaprio character is this kind of embodiment of greed and obviously went into the Wall Street business and banking because it was a place to make a quick buck above all else. And what was so strange is that Frank took so much money, but got into education. He clearly wasn’t a young, greedy man from the beginning who just wanted to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes and make a ton of money.

Well, that’s an interesting comparison you made, because if someone tells me they watch The Wolf of Wall Street and they’re like, “Yeah, I think that Jordan Belfort guy is a good guy. I really like him,” I’d question their character. But I won’t if someone says Frank is sympathetic. And he has this secret private life that also makes him sympathetic.

I think it’s an important part of his story. And we didn’t want to make anything simple or causal about his private life and his embezzlement, because I don’t think it is, but I think it was important in just understanding the multidimensional man that this guy was and appreciating his character.

Now, take me through your mindset on this, because I’ve been trying to put myself in your situation. This got good reviews out of Toronto. Then HBO buys it, which is great. But as a filmmaker, I’m guessing there’s a part of you disappointed it won’t be in theaters. Now, fast forward to now, you are the only game in town this Saturday night.

Well, yeah, we definitely feel lucky now. It feels sort of gross to celebrate too much, obviously, particularly with my girlfriend heading off and telling me these war stories every day. It feels lurid to be like, “Thank God for the quarantine.” Because there’s nothing positive about it.

Absolutely. But I will add, this movie helps people do their part in staying home and not going out.

Yeah, I hope so. And I think I am a total social media Luddite. I don’t have an Instagram, but I have heard from people that do follow Hugh, for example, that he’s been doing a great job of kind of using this as a further reminder that everyone should be enjoying films at home. But yeah, I mean, the larger thing is I definitely love the theatrical experience. I come from live theater. I was a playwright before movies, and so I will always have a soft spot for theatrical distribution. But I do think this is a movie that hopefully will play particularly well for people at home. Obviously, movies are only playing for people at home right now, and I think just even generally, we’re shifting that way so quickly, and all of the traditional boundaries are falling away. And it’s going to be interesting to watch how this sort of gets into the conversations in the next couple weeks, because I think there’s a lot of exciting stuff that kind of small-screen entertainment can do. And yeah, obviously, HBO has been a leader in that world for a long time and has such a great trusted brand. So, it’s a complicated situation. But definitely right now, I’m glad we’re coming out at home.

‘Bad Education’ premieres this weekend on HBO. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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