Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Bring It On (Universal Pictures)

From Deliverance to Ani DiFranco, Bring It On’s filmmakers reveal the influences behind its most memorable scenes

Bring It On (Universal Pictures)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

By design, teen comedies often burn bright and fast: The young stars, top 40 needle drops, and cool-kid slang all tap into the current zeitgeist, forever tethering them to the year they were made. No matter how outdated they look, there’s an appeal to revisiting them as time capsules. But few have the everlasting charm and re-watchability of Bring It On. Though made with a meager budget and dismissively written off as “just a cheerleader movie” (a label it flaunts with pride), Bring It On claimed No. 1 at the box office after its August 25, 2000 debut, eventually becoming a certified hit with more than a $90 million worldwide gross. Twenty years later, its fan base hasn’t dwindled, especially among those who came of age around the turn of the millennium. Ask any millennial, and they can probably recite the film’s opening cheer for you verbatim, or at least show you the proper technique for “spirit fingers.”

So, why does Bring It On endure, while other teen comedies feel like artifacts of a bygone era? During Y2k Week, The A.V. Club explored how the film changed the public perception of cheerleading, while simultaneously challenging the pervasive cultural appropriation within the sport. In its story of the Rancho Carne Toros and East Compton Clovers’ battle for the national title, Bring It On also crystallized a subgenre—competitive team performance movies—establishing a template used time and again, from the Pitch Perfect series to Netflix’s recent Work It. But, on top of that, it’s also just a fantastic comedy, anchored by three star turns from Kirsten Dunst, as cheer captain Torrance; Eliza Dushku, as new recruit Missy; and Gabrielle Union, as resilient Clover captain Isis. The film is grounded by the trio’s authentic, empathetic performances, while surrounding them with eccentric supporting players, hilarious set pieces, and dialogue that creates a language of its own.

That Bring It On’s world still feels fresh is a testament to the talents of screenwriter Jessica Bendinger and director Peyton Reed, both making their feature film debut with the comedy. Bendinger would go on to write, produce, and direct a number of beloved projects (including Stick It, which deserves as much reverence as Bring It On), while Reed would bring his deft touch to a number of TV series and films (Down With Love, also cult status-worthy) before becoming the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Ant-Man auteur. But Bring It On still holds a special place in their hearts, and the pair are more than happy to reflect on its production, or indulge a fan who wants to recite the movie’s cheers back at them. In celebration of Bring It On’s 20th anniversary, The A.V. Club chatted with Bendinger and Reed about their film’s most memorable scenes. In our conversation, we discussed some of the movie’s pivotal moments as a way to discover the surprising and eclectic entertainment that influenced the filmmakers. From Deliverance to drag queens to His Girl Friday to the music of Ani DiFranco, Bendinger and Reed’s wide-ranging cultural touchstones paint a picture of why their debut film was destined to become a classic. In other words: Bring It On’s the poo, so take a big whiff!

Theatrical trailer

The scene: An original theatrical trailer for Bring It On features scenes with the Clovers not used in the film.

The A.V. Club: I was hoping we could start with the trailer. Observant viewers made note of the scenes featuring the Clovers that aren’t in the final film, leading many to wonder about a supposed “Clover Cut” of Bring It On. Is there any truth to that?

Peyton Reed: There’s not really more that was shot, no. I know the initial trailer probably makes it seem like, “Oh, there’s this whole subplot,” or some other story with the Clovers, but not really. There were a handful of things that we shot with Gabrielle Union and the girls from Blaque [Shamari DeVoe, née Fears; Natina Reed; and Brandi Williams] where they were doing direct-address stuff for the [marketing materials]. I remember, I think, it was Brandi or Shamari looking straight at the camera and saying, “Do you think a white girl made that shit up?” And there were a couple of shots of them at the locker that were shot specifically for the trailer, but there was never a larger “Clover Cut” of the movie.

I think, certainly, if you made that movie now, 20 years later, you would have a whole different entry point, and a whole different structure to that movie. Jessica and I have talked about that a lot over the years. In the year 1999, when we shot the movie, the structure felt kind of—I don’t know, I don’t want to say it felt bold—but it felt different to us. So, yeah, there was no secret cut. There’s no “Snyder Cut” of Bring It On. [Laughs.]

Jessica Bendinger: Listen, if they let us at it again, we are ready. We are ready to explore the—what did you call it, Peyton?—the Bring It On Cinematic Universe.

PR: I like the idea if we just get all the actors back at their age now, and just shot additional scenes and plugged them in. It could be like Boyhood, but weirder.

AVC: Oh, I’d watch all of the Bring It On Cinematic Universe movies. I mean, we meet Whitney’s younger sister Jamie in the audition scenes—what’s her story? What does she go on to do?

JB: You’re like the second person to key in on Jamie—I like that! I think Sparky [Polastri] deserves a moment. I would love to see a Sparky prequel, a Sparky sequel. Peyton and I were goofing on the phone, and he was like, “Have you seen Better Call Saul?”

AVC: Yes, an anti-hero origin story for Sparky Polastri!

PR: Yes, since that movie, he’s gone off the rails. I think it’s like post-Bring It On, and he is getting darker and darker.

AVC: You did pretty much answer my follow-up question, which was, could you conceive this looking differently if it were made today?

PR: I think, any movie that you make, the moment it’s done—you give it to the studio, and it goes out in the world—you know, as a writer, as a director, there are already things that you would do differently. I mean, just from that process alone. And you know, there are certain directors, historically, who go back and tinker with their movies, but it’s just the thing you make peace with. Like, that’s the movie we made at that moment, and we move on.

AVC: That’s the double-edged sword of making a movie that has such a following all these years later: People are going to continue revisiting it, and of course not every single detail is going to hold up.

JB: Yeah, we’ve been asked about the slurs—the homophobic slurs—in the movie. For me, it was clearly like, “Yeah, teenagers use homophobic slurs, and it’s dumb! So, let’s show how dumb it is!”

PR: What I like about what Jessica did in the script is, the dialogue of the movie is stylized in a great way, but it was important to ground this within the context of the high school. And that kind of hate speech was just such a part of high school for anybody who was on the receiving end of it. But I like the scene in the car when, suddenly, Missy uses it and is trying to reclaim it in a different context. And you see with Les [Huntley Ritter], it’s just accepted and there’s an understanding there that she’s using it that way. I thought that was a very subtle thing that Jessica did. But, yeah, if you made that movie today, you would approach it differently.

JB: It’s a very sophisticated line in a teen movie, and Peyton did a great job. To say, “Do you speak fag fluently?” Like, [the characters] are very in on it. I look back and I’m like, “Wow, I’m so stoked we got away with that.” The way Peyton directed that scene, too, it’s covered elegantly. It’s covered to let it hang back. It’s not like we are making an after-school special.

PR: It’s so crazy to look back on something 20 years later. I love the idea of just the general positivity of the movie. You know, when I first read it, it was sort of pitched to me by my agent as, “You know, it’s a cheerleader comedy!” And I didn’t know anything of the world of competitive cheerleading, but reading [the script], it was funny, and it was visual, and Jessica’s writing was dealing with issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, cultural appropriation, and all these things. Things that were beneath the surface of that movie, and really are the themes of the movie. That was an impressive feat. Because you didn’t want to do this movie that was frothy, and it took this hard left turn into being preachy and serious. But it was all seeded in there in a great way.

Opening nightmare cheer

The scene: Bring It On opens with a rousing cheer and roll call from the Rancho Carne Toros, which eventually reveals itself to be a nightmare of future cheer captain, Torrance Shipman.

AVC: The word “iconic” gets tossed around all the time, but I really think it applies to this opening scene. Jessica, is this how the movie begins in your initial script, too?

JB: Yeah, it was. This has all been such a wonderful flashback. I was reminded, I was [speaking to] a friend of mine in New York—a writer named David Colman, who famously had a column called “Possessed” in The New York Times for years. He is one of the funniest, most whip-smart people, just deadpan lines for days. And I was working on a project and said, “How am I ever going to get people to like these characters? They’re so unlikable.” And he goes, “Hate us ’cause we’re beautiful. Well, we don’t like you either!” And I was like, “What!? That’s so genius!” I wrote it down, and I hung onto it, like, “I’m going to use this somewhere.” So I thought of it again when I was doing the opening. It’s what it needed. We had to address everybody’s preconceived notions about cheerleading, everybody’s tongue has to be in their cheek, and so I kind of built the cheer around that cadence. Peyton’s a drummer, so he did a great job of keeping that intact. But it was built around that line. That’s the core line! Maybe the audience hates—a lot of people hate—cheerleaders, so let’s call it out and work from there.

AVC: Lyrically, this number does address every single nasty thing you might’ve heard about cheerleaders prior to seeing the movie. So, really, it’s reclaiming these stereotypes.

JB: Yes! There’s an Ani DiFranco song that I was really obsessed with called “32 Flavors” back in the day. And there’s a line in it that says, “Everyone harbors a secret hatred for the prettiest girl in the room.” And I knew going in that that would be something to overcome. I really love the cheer, and Peyton did an amazing job just blowing it out into the That’s Entertainment!-worthy musical number that it is.

PR: We were looking back at those original drafts, and that cheer remained, almost verbatim, from the beginning. And it was the thing that really won me over in the first two or three pages of that script. It announces itself in this bold way. It introduces all these characters. It introduces and confronts your preconceived notions of cheerleaders, and it had this energy, this Busby Berkeley energy, that was fantastic. But the thing that I don’t think I could have anticipated—because I’m old enough that I grew up going to midnight showings of Rocky Horror Picture Show where everyone’s interacting with the screen—is hearing that people are remembering this sequence and doing the cheers along with the scene. That’s music to my ears—I love it.

AVC: From a directorial standpoint, how did you wrap your head around shooting this? You mentioned Busby Berkeley, but were there other reference points?

PR: Well, I felt the pressure, and I’ll say, it’s low-budget Busby Berkeley. But, from the beginning, the visual conceit for me was just taking what was on the page and trying to visually give it the energy and enthusiasm of a cheerleader. That was the voice of the movie. It’s one of those things when you read certain scripts, like, “This is good, but this can get better.” This, on the other hand, was something that was like, “This is great, and I don’t want to fuck it up.” Jessica, correct me if I’m wrong: It had to have been in the script phase, but didn’t someone suggest like, “Tod, should we just cut out that musical thing and get right to the story?” Like, “Are you kidding me?”

JB: Yes, it was [production executive] Jon Shestack—sorry Jon, I love you—but he had said we should cut it for time. And there were a lot of notes I have, that I would have to anonymize to publish, but people were like, “The lingo! The inside lingo, it’s too much—too much teen lingo!” And I was like, “Yeah, that’s why it’s going to work!”

PR: The language that Jessica wrote with was so specific, and I think is one of the things that hopefully... because if it were written with just phraseology specific to 2000, it would be more dated than it is now. I think there’s a weird timelessness that came with that specific dialogue.

JB: Yeah, Dan Waters who wrote Heathers had warned me, “Do not use today’s language or you will be so mortified when it comes out. Just make it up!” And so I relied on drag queens and gay culture, I think, to kind of inform what they sound like, which is just more creative, funny, sarcastic, witty, bitchy vibes.

The cheer-off

The scene: It’s Missy’s first night cheering with the squad at the Friday night football game, but the Toros are interrupted by the arrival of Isis and a few of the Clovers, determined to make a point.

AVC: This scene’s such an important one to the narrative of the movie, and it’s staged perfectly along the bleachers and sidelines of this high school football game. Jessica, is this how the scene played out in your head?

JB: I was shocked to rediscover in this scene is the line, “Do your shit, you’ll look like shit, ’cause we’re the ones that are down with it.” It was in the pitch! So the scene was really intact, and that line was very much intact.

My mom is a jazz trombone player, and she plays traditional jazz, so there’s a lot of banjo, a lot of New Orleans jazz banjo. And so I grew up hearing banjo players do Deliverance and showing off with each other—that was just a thing in my childhood. And so I thought, “Oh, this would be so cool if it’s like a Deliverance-style cheer off!” Like, they’re just trying to top each other. And we didn’t have the movies you have now with dance crews and battles—all that stuff that didn’t exist yet.

AVC: Again, it kind of comes down to cadence. Even though the cheer’s over, the Clovers are telling off the Toros in a very rhythmic patter.

JB: Yeah, so it was fun! I was thinking of it very musically. And I thought the way Peyton built up the crowd and the band... There’s so many elements going on. It’s slowly building, you don’t know what’s going to happen, and it’s so effective when it finally happens, you know?

PR: I definitely drew from my own experience in high school being a marching band nerd. When I was a snare drummer in marching band, I spent a lot of time in those bleachers. It felt like something maybe from an Archie comic, but I love investing in it in a real way, and trying to make it as cinematic as possible. And, remember, at that school, the Toros are the five-time national champions, and the football team sucks. So that’s where the attention is, right? I like the idea of just kind of keeping it really light, but, again, on that schedule, there was so much coverage that we needed to do that.

AVC: When the Clovers show up, it’s Gabrielle Union, two of the members of Blaque—Shamari and Natina—and then another actress [Anna Lisa Mendiola], whose character I believe goes unnamed. Where was Brandi [from Blaque] in that scene?

PR: Well, looking back, it was a night shoot and those girls were so young. Brandi, I don’t know if she was 16 at the time? She was too young to do night shooting, so she’s not in that scene. [Laughs.] No one’s ever really said anything about it. So it was basically child labor laws, right? You can’t have someone after a certain hour, and we knew that we couldn’t have her for part of it just to suddenly change into someone else in the scene. So we made the call.

Toothbrush flirting

The scene: After the football game, Torrance sleeps over at Missy’s. Before bed, Torrance brushes her teeth alongside Missy’s brother, Cliff (Jesse Bradford), in a scene of silent—but intense—flirting.

AVC: I think I learned a lot from this moment, both in terms of flirting and proper toothbrushing techniques. It’s brilliant in its simplicity. Where’d the idea come from to make this a wordless scene?

JB: Well, I’ve got to give all credit to Peyton because he said, “You know, this is a very breathless movie. We should have a moment to let things ventilate.” And like, “Is there a moment that’s a quieter scene that can build chemistry and do these things?” And I’d been watching His Girl Friday at the time, because it had, like, a 142-page script. That script they were just like, “Rat-a-tat-tat!” I was watching it to see how fast they were talking, which is fast! And so when he said that, I was like, “Oh, what if it’s like [no talking at all]?” So, we worked on it and, yeah, it’s masterful. I mean, their performances. They’re bringing it. The actors make that scene. It’s very small on the page—it’s a paragraph—but they hit all the beats, and it’s killer.

PR: There’s so much dialogue in the movie in a great way, so let’s commit to doing something nonverbal for this thing. And then, just the idea that she’s sleeping over at the house. How do you get that sort of scene that’s fraught with sexual tension? I remember us talking about His Girl Friday, and also It Happened One Night where Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert are in that motel with the blanket between them. They’re talking, and there’s just the sexual tension of being in this enclosed space that was really great. It was something that I knew, when we set it up, that I wanted to try and get Kirsten and Jesse’s out-of-the-gate performances as much as possible, to keep it as spontaneous.

They were young! Part of that thing you see with Kirsten I think is real. She had just turned 17 when we shot the movie, and I think it really captures that for her. But she added all that stuff with cupping her hand, which was just her natural instinct. And I think that makes the scene, because it’s such a smart, intuitive actor moment for that character. They knocked it out of the park. In editorial, just looking at, I never really thought about everyone having their own toothbrushing technique, but Jesse is really going at it.

Sparky Polastri

The scene: In need of a new routine, the Toros bring in supposed star choreographer Sparky Polastri (Ian Roberts), who has some very specific ideas for the cheerleaders.

AVC: Peyton, prior to Bring It On, you had directed a lot of TV projects, specifically sketch comedy, like Upright Citizens Brigade and Mr. Show With Bob And David. And there is a little bit of the sketch comedy sensibility in some of these scenes—how did that work prepare you for your feature film debut?

PR: I think it prepared me a lot. Because I’d done low-budget music videos and I’m a drummer, so the music part I was thrilled about from the beginning. But the comedy—listen, there’s a bad version of anything, and I just felt I had to honor the writing and get that right. Part of that was taking this very stylized language, but grounding it emotionally. Looking back on it, a huge part of that is the casting of Kirsten and Gabrielle and Eliza, who are all incredibly great actors, comedically and dramatically. They made these characters real people. We encouraged them to bring a lot of themselves to the role from the beginning.

But, in terms of the comedy, I wanted it to hopefully be smart—I didn’t want to make a dumb teen comedy. I wanted it to be insightful about that time in people’s lives. And I was just so fascinated, because Jessica had spent time in the trenches going to these cheer competitions, but it was new to me. And I think it helped me because I had this [outsider’s] perspective on it. For example, Eliza’s character, Missy, she was the eyes and ears of the audience. She was so cynical about [cheerleading], and she’s the one who drops the truth bomb on them about the Clovers. That point of view was important to keep alive. You always had to sort of make reference to, or honor, the audience’s potential cynicism or point of view about [cheerleading].

Ultimately, doing those low-budget sketch shows as a director, there’s no time, there’s no money, and you think on your feet, and it is like improv. That was something that definitely helped, particularly on a movie like this, where we were shooting so quickly. You couldn’t second guess much of anything.

AVC: So then, to talk more specifically about Sparky, Peyton, I assume it was your UCB connection that brought Ian Roberts into the role?

PR: It was, yeah.

AVC: Jessica, is Ian’s interpretation of Sparky close to how you imagined him?

JB: Well, I am obsessed with Michael Ritchie’s films of the ’70s. He’s my favorite. He did a movie called Smile about beauty pageants, and Michael Kidd—who was a famous Hollywood choreographer from back in the day—plays the choreographer. And he is so mean [Laughs.]. He is the most mean-spirited, jaded ass in it. And it’s brilliant! So I was definitely channeling Michael Kidd from Smile as I was writing Sparky, and then Peyton and Ian just launched it to a whole other stratosphere. I was just looking, the original “spirit fingers” line is there, but it doesn’t quite land the way it does in the movie. It’s fantastic.

PR: Ian always had, like—working with him on the [UCB] show, and then seeing him do improv at ASSSSCAT in New York—he always had this rage that fueled his comedy purpose, just beneath the surface. And sometimes ways above the surface. And I knew that he could bring that sort of anger, and the idea that we basically just stole Bob Fosse’s look, you know? He was at one point this Bob Fosse wannabe, and now he’s peddling these shitty cheer routines up and down the coast. That just inherently seemed funny. And also being able to do scenes with these young high school kids, and then angry Ian on the other end—that just felt like, “Okay, there’s something funny that’s going to come out of that.”