A lot has happened in the 11 months since Bad Education premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Hugh Jackman’s bravura performance first bowled over critics. But screenwriter Mike Makowsky’s dark comedy has lost none of its edge in that time; his incisive commentary on the private interests that regularly interfere with the public school system remains just as pertinent now, as we watch educators and families grapple with determining the best (and safest) way to keep classes going in the midst of a pandemic.
Bad Education retells the story of embezzlement that rocked Roslyn, Long Island (Makowsky’s hometown) in 2004 and captured the nation’s attention. For a young Makowsky, this story was a cautionary tale or urban legend, which would make Frank Tassone, the former superintendent who stole millions from the school district, a kind of boogeyman. But in adapting the events for his film, Makowsky never lost sight of the humanity of the victims—or the perpetrators. Along with Cory Finley’s conscientious direction, Makowsky added layers to all his characters, even the man he recognizes is the villain of the piece. With Bad Education in the running for Outstanding TV Movie (and Jackman nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor In A Limited Series Or Movie), The A.V. Club spoke to Makowsky about avoiding sensationalism, how journalism and the 2016 election influenced his narrative, and why he views Hugh Jackman yelling “Accelerate!” at a table read as an honor.
AVC: You were in middle school or junior high when the news first broke of the embezzlement and Frank Tassone’s arrest. Do you recall being aware of the scandal as a kid? Did any of your memories from that time inform your script?
Mike Makowsky: Oh, I was totally aware of it. It was probably the biggest news story that ever happened in my hometown. I was a 13-year-old at Roslyn Middle School. I was in seventh grade at the time, but I had grown up in the school district and would graduate five years later out of Roslyn High School. It kind of instantly became this overnight crazy story; it was the only thing that anyone in my town was talking about, whether it was teachers, kids’ parents, my parents. Every day, it seemed like there was some new sensational detail that was being uncovered, firstly, by Hilltop Beacon, our school newspaper, but then by Newsday, The New York Times, the New York Post, and all these other outlets that kind of really seized on the story. I think it was just because it was stranger than fiction in so many ways. And we couldn’t believe that this man, Frank Tassone, who the whole community loved and trusted and had done so many positive things for the students that are in our town, could be implicated in such an egregious way. It was kind of just beyond all belief.
AVC: When I first saw Bad Education, it reminded me of this 2000 HBO movie called Cheaters, starring Jeff Daniels and Jena Malone, that’s actually based on an academic decathlon scandal that happened in Chicago when I was in high school. It’s just so weird to watch that movie and see my public high school be treated as the Goliath in this David and Goliath story. For as many TV shows and movies that are ripped from the headlines or based on real-life event, it’s still really strange to see something pulled from your childhood or adolescence on TV.
MM: Totally. I have to track down Cheaters, although I imagine that it’s probably not available on HBO Max because they’ve done a notoriously bad job of inventorying their old TV movies. That’s not to blame the people that we worked with on the film, I don’t really know what their situation is, but there was one TV movie I was trying to track down with Holly Hunter—that “murdering cheerleader-housewife” movie. I’ve been told that tonally our film bears a very similar resemblance to that one, but I have no way of watching it currently.
AVC: There is always a concern when you adapt real-life events that you can end up unintentionally sensationalizing them. I know you did a lot of research and you made sure to speak with former staff and some of Frank Tassone’s neighbors. Ultimately, you decided not to involve anyone or not to consult with anyone who was involved in the embezzlement out of respect for the people of Roslyn. Can you talk about that decision?
MM: Sure. I specifically did not speak to any of the perpetrators of the embezzlement scandal, but did speak with a lot of other people that were tangentially first-person observers to what had gone down, whether they were faculty and staff of the school or parents who had had close working relationships with Tassone through various initiatives. I think in not electing not to speak to Tassone and to [Tassone accomplice] Pam Gluckin specifically, that was just a decision that was born out of mostly this notion that these two people had really victimized my community. There were these deep-seated wounds that are still strongly felt by people whom I care about quite deeply in my town. And it felt wrong to give them any agency to shape the narrative and participate in a story that was well-publicized at the time. It felt morally like a kind of catch-22 that I preferred not to wade into, at least the short term. And by then Pam Gluckin was deceased, so that decision was kind of made for us.
AVC: You grew up in Roslyn, which means you know what colloquialisms fit, what signifiers would make the movie look and feel like home. Is there a particularly obscure or deep-cut reference you’re proud to have worked into the script?
MM: That’s like my favorite question I’ve ever gotten about the movie. [Laughs] Let me think. There’s a handful of things, right? Because we shot the majority of the film in and around my hometown on Long Island. And we did an entire day that was just going around and getting establishing shots of different kind of Roslyn iconography. The downtown clock tower and Kitchen Kabaret, which is this kind of famous local eatery off exit 39 that if you’re not from the immediate area, might not mean so much to you, but visually, for anyone that’s grown up on Long Island and Roslyn, it means a great deal.
But in terms of specifics in the dialogue, there’s all these reference points to different developments within Roslyn, like country estates. There are certain teachers who I did cite by name. And I named a lot of the composite characters that were not directly depicting real subjects after friends of mine from high school, which was really fun and was also a clearance nightmare. But fortunately my friends were really game to sign waivers and kind of be memorialized in that way. Like Rachel Bhargava [Geraldine Viswanathan’s character] is named after my best friend from high school, Shema Bhargava.
AVC: Rachel is one of those composite characters, because there was a whole team of students who worked at the student paper who discovered the embezzlement. How did you go about creating that character? Because she’s as much of a lead character as Frank Tassone is.
MM: Yeah. It was kind of, at least from a literary perspective, very difficult for me to resist the idea of grounding the stories through the perspective of a high school journalist, because I also worked at that school paper years later, which, in a large way, defined my high school experience. But also just on a more general note, when I was writing the script, journalism at large felt like it was really on the verge of a complete and total de-legitimization. It was right in the middle of the 2016 election. And the idea of centering the story around this character, so we could see the events unfold through her eyes in real time, was very attractive to me. And insofar as her backstory and crafting an identity for her, I think we just wanted to depict a character who had a real emotional investment and not just a tangential investment in how the scandal ultimately plays out—someone who would have a strong kind of moral perspective on these crimes that are being committed under everyone’s noses.
AVC: That’s something I hadn’t really thought of while watching the movie, but I am struck by hearing you describe that idea of metabolizing something, of thinking about the things we were warned against that we’re no longer scared of as adults. We don’t often have a chance to really go back and process them.
MM: Yeah. It was certainly the most unique experience I’ve had so far as a screenwriter, but I can’t imagine that I’ll ever have an experience quite like it again. It was surreal in every definition of the word, but it was a real privilege. I’m still kind of just beyond myself that people care about what happens in my small town in 2004, and that now suddenly the name Roslyn is invoked in articles and interviews and on HBO, and that it’s kind of like a thing with capital. It’s very strange for me and very, very difficult to process for me and my family and my friends back home, my old teachers. It’s just something that we’re constantly talking about, and that’s really exciting.
AVC: Hugh Jackman is incredible as Frank Tassone. I’m sure you had no doubts about him filling that role, but was there a point during filming or when you’re watching dailies where you were just felt like it all clicked into place, where it just felt like he was really embodying the character?
MM: He really showed up from day one. We were at the table read, and for whatever reason, our casting director decided to seat me between Hugh and Allison [Janney]. And it was the first time I’d met either of them. And I got to play a small role in the table read, as the little kid who can’t pronounce the word “accelerate”, which was my favorite scene probably in my entire career. But I’m sitting there, and I hadn’t known that before he even got to the table read for that scene specifically, he had taken the time out of his day to already memorize it so he could come in and start rehearsing . And I’m playing Chad Schweitzer [laughs] and I’m going, “Assle-rate? Ackle-rate?” And he is sitting right next to me, and he’s also much taller than I am. He’s a very tall man, and he just sort of summons this energy and like stares down at me and starts screaming, “Accelerate, accelerate!” The rest of the table, nobody was expecting him to come in with that much pathos at a table read. And then immediately, it was just this thing, where I was getting lunch with Cory [Finley, director] right after, and we both just looked at each other and we were like, “Wow, this is going to be an insane process.” We were just so fortunate that he wanted to come and play with us and embody that role. It was totally unexpected. He’s never really done anything like this role before.
AVC: That’s one of my favorite scenes from the movie, and one where it feels like your sensibility and Cory’s really meld. I talked to Cory about it earlier this summer, because there’s a moment toward the end of that diatribe, where Frank says something about the parents viewing the school staff and faculty as almost like customer service. It reminded me of a moment in Thoroughbreds where one of the characters says something along those lines: “We’re all your maids.”
MM: Right. And Pam has a line similar to that in Bad Education even earlier, where she says something like, “We show up here every day because we want to help you, because we’re good people, because we want you to have a good education and succeed in life. And you’re going around, digging through files and stuff, trying to dig up dirt on us.” I never made that connection before, but I love Thoroughbreds, and I love Paul Sparks who plays the stepdad in Thoroughbreds. I said earlier that the “accelerate” thing was my favorite to write, not just because it’s a big sort of grand-standing moment, but because I was also able to air out a lot of the sentiments that I was feeling in going back to my high school, speaking with these old teachers and reconnecting with people that I hadn’t even really thought about for years and years since I graduated. But the sort of unexpected joy of that was that all of these teachers felt... I got to see them as adult humans for the first time in speaking to them on a more one-on-one level, not just as a teacher/student. But these were people that saw me through my worst, most formative years and were among the first ever encourage me to even pursue creative writing for the first time, who gave me notes and helped shape me as a writer and a person.
I feel like far too often, we think about high school and we just want to forget that whole experience, because it was so emotionally fraught for nearly every teenager in America. But for me to be able to go back and just thank some of these people for the first time and really acknowledge just the effect that they had on me was extremely meaningful. And I think I wanted to seed some of that into someone because that’s the thing—public school educators and teachers are so rarely ever properly acknowledged for the investment that they put into these kids. And how many of them actually come back and visit afterwards? As Rafael’s character says when [he and Frank] reconnect in Las Vegas, “I would have figured you would have forgotten about us the second that we walked out of the school.” And Frank, just being like, “No, we never forget. We don’t forget our students.”
So it is a kind of profoundly one-sided relationship in a lot of ways in trying to diagnose the root of what about Tassone’s status as an educator felt less than totally satisfying: what he could have told himself at the beginning of this process, when he went to Columbia Teachers College, when he went and became a public school superintendent, that his expectations versus reality, I think, and getting to the root of what that really entailed was a really interesting rabbit hole to go down for all of us.
AVC: We do see Frank moving between worlds, both figuratively and literally. How did you coordinate with Cory to capture that feeling?
MM: I mean, it’s no secret that the details of Frank Tassone’s personal life were kind of grossly and unfairly conflated with the crimes that he committed in Roslyn. But I think just in base terms, like when you think of your old teachers and you really only ever knew them in one sphere, in the sphere of their careers and their workdays. And you kind of have to imagine to yourself, “What kind of person are they when they come home and they let their guard down and they see their significant other?” So to me, that was really interesting and something that we talked about with Meredith Lippincott, our production designer, who’s incredible in terms of even putting together the small details about each of these spaces that he’s inhabiting, whether it’s his ritzy apartment in New York City, or it’s the house that he buys in Henderson, Nevada with Kyle. Does he feel particularly at home at these education conferences in Las Vegas, or is there a different of himself that he’s showing when he’s sitting by himself ordering food at a bar at the hotel bar afterward? I think that’s something that Hugh and Cory in particular really worked to calibrate, but it was something that certainly I was trying to always be cognizant of in the script phase as well.
AVC: The movie is as much about Frank’s ascent as it is his descent—in the opening scene, we see him riding high, being greeted like a celebrity. I read that you initially thought to make him more of a straightforward villain. What changed your mind, and how did the character more generally change as you worked on the script?
MM: I think when I ultimately settled on the idea of potentially going back to Roslyn to adapt this story, my immediate sense was that Tassone was going to be a villain, because that’s how I had been conditioned to perceive him as a kid. From 13-years-old onward, he was the boogeyman of my childhood, of all of our childhoods. When his name was invoked in our town, it was in relation to it being some sort of cautionary tale or a blight on our community. All the positive contributions that he had made to our town had largely been erased or written out of history.
In going back to my high school and speaking with a bunch of my old teachers, I learned very quickly that he had kept a really top-notch education system while he was there. There was a reason why we were so highly ranked in the country as a public school system in the mid-2000s, because this was a man who really devoted his life to education. And going back and speaking to my old teachers, I realized you don’t become a public school educator because you intend to steal $12 million. [Laughs.] So it became far more interesting to me as a writer, and I’m sure to Cory and to Hugh and the rest of our crew, to kind of interrogate this idea that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. How do you take a man who really just wants to accomplish good things in society and see how he gets led astray? What are the factors that will pave that road for him?
It felt like a far deeper kind of character study that I kind of fell into accidentally, because I really thought he was going to be the villain. I learned that it was far more complicated than that, and I grew to empathize with him a lot more than I was expecting to throughout the research process.
AVC: Well, the expansion of the themes of the movie starts with Tassone, but it just keeps panning out from there, because you also have Ray Romano’s character, and you have the entitled people from the community who are all but saying, “Return on investment” to these educators. You eventually come to see the larger critique, especially once you start thinking about how property taxes affect the school resources. The people who have access to the best education are the people who already have everything.
MM: Mm-hmm, yeah. And it’s an awfully cynical portrait of my school district, but also one that I think hopefully is as objective as I could have possibly made it, because I think that it is a reality about a lot of public schools in America, certainly in privileged communities like the one I grew up in on Long Island. If you’ve seen season four of The Wire, you know that public schools, it’s not just about the education, it’s never just about the education. And again, that’s a really cynical viewpoint, but I think you have to sort of look at the different societal mechanisms at play that help guide some of the decisions that these administrators and the taxpayers make on behalf of the children. So to me, it was really interesting to kind of pull back the curtain on my own school experience and what it meant to grow up in a town like Roslyn.