With dark humor and one of Hugh Jackman’s finest onscreen performances, HBO’s Bad Education puts the lie to Horace Mann’s declaration that education is the great equalizer. The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, is based on the real-life embezzlement scandal that rocked the Roslyn, Long Island school district in 2002. Screenwriter Mike Makowsky, an alum of the Roslyn public school system, and Thoroughbreds director Cory Finley examine the almost symbiotic relationship between property values and school rankings—in which they rise in tandem—and the man, Frank Tassone (Jackman), who came to see himself as arbiter of both.
Jackman plays Frank as a striver who believes his time has come, alternately brimming with genuine pride over his students’ accomplishments and incandescent with rage when their parents try to put him in his place. Even as he funnels school funds into his own deceptively lavish lifestyle, Frank’s dedication and resentment make him sympathetic, even relatable. Finley’s direction presents Frank’s well-meaning and aggrieved sides, resting on Jackman’s profile as he confronts the inquisitive teen (Geraldine Viswanathan) who brings about his undoing. Ahead of Bad Education’s HBO debut, The A.V. Club spoke with Finley about strivers, both in real life and pop culture, Thoroughbreds, and guiding Hugh Jackman through his character’s downfall.
The A.V. Club: The movie mostly takes place in Roslyn, Long Island with occasional detours into Manhattan, where we find out Frank has been leading this double life. The distance between the two places isn’t really that great, geographically speaking, but in the movie, they’re worlds apart. At least, that’s how it looks from my vantage point in Chicago. Was there something in particular you trying to capture about the relationship between these two locations?
Cory Finley: I’m not a native New Yorker myself, but I’ve been living here for almost a decade. I grew up in St. Louis where there’s kind of a similar relationship, but it’s different. Mike Makowsky wrote the screenplay and he’s from Roslyn, so he’s very tuned into those particular dynamics. One of the things I loved about the script when I first read it was how regionally specific it was. There’s lots of little moments that I think have extra resonance for people from the tri-state area—lots of deep background of a rivalry between the suburbs or between the towns of Long Island. I was always operating under this sense, that the more specific we made the movie, the more universal it would feel, paradoxically. So we really leaned into the specific kind of Long Island-ness of it all. And we were lucky to have a highly qualified sort of Long Island consultant on the production in the form of our wonderful screenwriter.
AVC: The story is in part about upward mobility and what it demands, but it’s not just through the lens of the individual. We see that there is kind of a whole ecosystem that’s made up of the schools and town officials and realtors. Property values and school budgets have this directly proportional relationship—it’s as if one side relies on the other.
CF: It’s definitely part of the larger context of the story; it’s one of the themes that I really hope comes across in the movie. The public school system is a really interesting microcosm of American values in general, and it was interesting to kind of explain and talk through some of the peculiarities of American schools with our highly international cast and team. And it was also very funny, by the way, to have a number of days where we had two Australians playing Long Islanders—Geraldine Viswanathan and Hugh [Jackman].
Obviously, one of the ways that the very wealthy pass down wealth generationally is through private education. But even in public schools, because we have this system where funding for public schools comes in part from property taxes, you’ve got this strange cyclical relationship where nicer areas can afford better schools. Then the schools also become a selling point for these areas—particularly in some of the towns around New York City, there’s a real premium placed on the public school system and where you can get your kid into school. I think having all of that in the background of the movie was very important to make it not just a story about clear-cut villains, but about complicated individuals that are all motivated by a thorny tangle of different motivations, and in which, to some degree, the system—the much larger system, that of American capitalism—is the villain more than any one individual.
AVC: The wide angles lend themselves well to this idea of there always being more—another rung to climb up the ladder, another level to reach. I do want to talk about the confrontation between Frank and Rachel, which is shot wide and with the actors in profile for most of the scene. They both remain in the frame with very little cutting back and forth to allow us to see their full expressions. Why did you approach their big showdown that way?
CF: This is a very dialogue-driven script, so I think directing a story where you want to place an emphasis on the words spoken by the characters, it sort of puts the onus on the director to find intentional ways to frame each scene so that it’s not just sort of a long series of conversations that are shot in exactly the same way. And yeah, for that, I always find the profile—not even three quarters, this sort of dead-on or dead-side-on profile is a super confrontational feeling shot. It helped build tension in that scene.
We also did a fair amount of makeup on Hugh. I’ve been gratified in a way to see the response to the trailer, with people talking about how different Hugh looks and thinking it’s just aging. Unfortunately for the rest of us mere mortals, it is makeup. It is not aging. [Laughs.] There were certain angles that we could shoot his made-up face to make him look more “bad,” for lack of a better word; sort of more human as well, and less like a movie star. So even within the course of the film, we wanted the way that we were invited to look at Frank to reflect our changing perceptions of him.
AVC: Hugh is probably best known for playing someone who’s very emotionally closed off, which belies the side of him that’s this dazzling entertainer. What were your discussions like with Hugh, both about the role and how you planned to capture him basically at his worst?
CF: That was one of the things that made him such an appealing choice for this role. I’ve just been a fan of his in general, and I think he can play all kinds of different roles. Among actors working today, he is like a throwback movie star. There’s that kind of song-and-dance element that all the old stars of stage and film used to have. He’s just such a charming and beloved guy. For this story to work through the frame that we wanted, our attitude toward Frank has to change over time–it’s crucial that in the first third or first half of the film, we really genuinely believe that he actually cares about the school, that he actually cares about these kids. That it’s not all just kind of a slick mask that allows him to do his bad embezzlement deeds. I think in lesser hands, Frank could have just seemed really glib and smooth, sort of eerily smooth throughout. But I think Hugh really makes you feel this guy’s humanity and this guy’s warmth and the good goals of this man. So when you start to understand some of the bad things that he’s done and is doing, it makes it all the more tragic.
AVC: Frank really does come across as well-meaning early on—just a good guy who knows everyone’s name and even their parents’ names. I thought the shakes were a great little detail that tell us so much about who this man is. When we think about educators, we think “self-sacrifice.” Frank’s shakes are almost a symbol of what he feels deprived of, especially when we see him presented with fancy chocolates by the realtors. Was that a real-life detail?
CF: [Laughs.] Yeah, one of the things I loved about the script is early on, where he’s offered this golden box of chocolates by this group of grateful real estate agents that you were talking about earlier. I love this visual image of when he’s handed these chocolates. There’s something sort of condescending about it—you’ve made us millions of dollars, here’s a box of chocolates. But he’s also being given this gold-wrapped treat, which he can’t eat because he’s on a diet. He puts it down and gives it to other people. Then his shake is presented to him in this very ominous way. I believe that was a real-life detail; it’s been in the script so long, I would have to double check our sources to make sure we didn’t fabricate that. But choosing to make it this very dark, sinister-looking charcoal smoothie became kind of a fun way to visualize this poison that he has to put into his own body to maintain this perfect front of his glamorous appearance and all of that.
AVC: To your point about condescension and the chocolates, there’s a hilarious, cutting scene toward the end of the film, where Frank is speaking to one of the many mothers who feels entitled to his time. He’s railing about how these well-to-do parents treat the faculty and administration like customer service. He tells her, “You don’t want to see us as people because that’s not convenient for you.” It reminds me of a line from Thoroughbreds, where Mark says to Lily, “We’re all your maids.”
CF: Yeah, exactly. I always think it’s really interesting when you have a character who you’re really tempted to just see them as a garbage human being say something that is painfully truthful and make you reevaluate that. I’ve always felt that people are very complicated and it’s very easy to sort of hate people, whether they’re public figures or just frenemies or whatever. It’s very easy to hate people from a distance, but as soon as he gets to know them and understand sort of what makes them tick, it becomes very hard to just sort of hate people in the simple way that you might be able to from more distance. I think you can still condemn people. You can still disagree with people’s ideology, you could disagree with what they’re trying to do. But I think one of the things that film or literature or sort of any narrative entertainment can do really effectively is force you to hold those contradictory thoughts about a person in your head at the same time.
AVC: There’s another key scene towards the end of the movie: Frank walks into the school the day the article’s out in the school paper. It’s this great, unnerving long take. We saw a similar walk for Allison Janney’s character, Pam Gluckin, early in the film, but it’s nowhere near as long because her fall from grace really isn’t as steep as Frank’s.
CF: Yeah, it’s one of the things that makes the character tragic—you sense that in the act of pulling the wool over other people’s eyes, he was also pulling the wool over his own eyes. He genuinely did seem to believe that the embezzlement was acceptable or that he was sort of owed this money to some degree, that it was within his rights as an administrator. Reading about it, I do think there was an element of that that was sincere. It wasn’t just a cover. To some degree, it was understandable because I do think educators in general are wildly under-compensated and under-appreciated in this country—maybe less so for top superintendents, but nevertheless. So that image was really powerful for me, to imagine that even sort of the final moments before his real downfall, everyone else in the school would somehow be aware of what he’d done before he knew that the news was out. That he’d have all these eyes on him. That even after that downfall, when he’s on the bleachers talking to Ray [Romano]’s character, that he is continuing to just burrow deeper into the self-delusion that what he did was totally acceptable. That made the character very sympathetic to me.
AVC: Bad Education is one of a few recent productions that look at class structure and class transition— what it takes to move back and forth, and how the ruling class will try and keep other people down. In Parasite and the first season of The Deuce, there are literal ascensions—people are always climbing these stairs. Did you decide to set up more of a lateral movement because in some ways, Frank already sees himself as belonging to that upper-class group?
CF: Yeah, the way everyone moves from room to room, it is lateral. I found the fact that a lot of these characters are strivers and weren’t born into privilege really interesting, which made me think a lot about everything from design and aesthetics to casting—really the whole process. Thoroughbreds was all about the corrupting influence of generational wealth, and sort of embedded wealth; WASPs or people that have only known wealth. There’s some of that in Bad Education. That certainly exists in Long Island. But it’s shifting. It’s an upwardly mobile, as you said, place. It’s hardworking, middle-class people that are striving for an upper-class existence. I think in both of the movies, that need for wealth or that sort of ambient presence of wealth is a dangerous, bad thing, but it takes very different forms in those two separate subclasses within the upper class.