“This is not a democracy, it’s a cheerocracy.” Twenty years ago this month, the world met the Toros and the Clovers, rival cheer squads at the center of Bring It On, the high school classic that sparked a musical, five sequels, and countless Halloween costumes. In celebration of the film’s 20th year, director Peyton Reed, who has since gone on to direct the Ant-Man franchise for Marvel, shares his initial thoughts on the script, what it was like directing his debut feature, and how the film’s themes hold up today.
As told to A.frame
I was directing music videos for friends’ bands and doing the second season of Upright Citizens Brigade when my agent sent me this script called Cheer Fever.
When I first asked what it was about, he said, “It’s a high school movie, it’s a comedy, and it takes place in the world of competitive cheerleading.” [Screenwriter] Jessica Bendinger had mined this whole subculture and was originally going to make a documentary for MTV, which at the time seemed like the most ridiculous thing.
I was initially dismissive about it. But then I read it: the specificity and the sense of humor and the point of view that Jessica wrote in that movie … She had really Trojan-horsed a lot of thematic stuff into this movie that seemed like it was going to be frivolous and frothy—and it certainly has that side to it—but there were some really serious things going on.
I’d always wanted to do a high school movie, and this seemed like something I had never seen before, so I met with the producers. I ended up getting the movie and, as soon as I finished shooting my episode of UCB in New York, I raced back to L.A. and hit the ground running. It was a low-budget movie, just over $10 million for Universal, so those things moved really quickly.
We were down in San Diego, and we were such small potatoes compared to everything else the studio had going on. I remember working on pages and changing things the night before. A lot of times at a studio, you’d have to submit those for approval and get notes, but there was no time on that movie. There was something really unique about that experience, partially because I don’t think there was a huge expectation. We really were left alone for the most part, which was exhilarating.
It was a comedy, but it was also a sports movie. I looked to Rocky as a template for a story that builds, and you get to a climax where the protagonist of the movie loses.
In this case, you’re witnessing it through the eyes of Torrance, Kirsten Dunst’s character, after her whole world opens up when she realizes, “We’ve been these five-time national cheerleading champions but at what cost?” Throughout the course of the movie, she finds out what was going on behind the scenes that she didn’t realize, so by the time they get to the end, and they come in second, it feels like a personal victory for her. So Rocky was an influence in that way.
When you tell someone, “Oh, I’m doing a competitive cheerleader comedy,” people tend to roll their eyes. Even though I was much older than the actors in the movie, we were really a united front. We all had something to prove.
It was my first feature as a director and I could not have asked for a better cast. What you get from actors at that age is just this unbridled enthusiasm. Everybody was thrilled to be there and took all the challenges—the acting challenges, the physical challenges—seriously. I really encouraged every actor to bring a lot of themselves to the roles, and that obviously went into how we cast these. If you put Kirsten Dunst in a frame next to Eliza Dushku, they’re very different kids, even though they were maybe a year and a half apart in age.
Kirsten was the first cast. I’d known her work, and she was actually a little on the young side, but that worked well for her character’s naïveté. I knew she was going to be at the center of the movie and could deliver dramatically and comedically.
Because the cast was so young, it was amazing to see them find a breakthrough in their characters. I remember directing Kirsten and Jesse Bradford in this entirely non-verbal scene, where they’re brushing their teeth next to each other in the bathroom—and how fraught that scene was. They were nervous, thinking, “Oh, is this going to be dumb? Is this going to work?” Kirsten just found these little moments, like cupping her hand and blocking her mouth so that Jesse couldn’t see her spitting toothpaste into the sink. These moments made for really great character stuff, and I realized that from such a young age Kirsten was such a talented actor.
And Gabrielle [Union] was just a force of nature. It was not only how she read the role, but how she talked about the role. What she added to the movie is immeasurable. All the way through, we had conversations about her character, Isis, what that character meant, and the idea that, at the center of the movie, we were really talking about cultural appropriation and how we were going to deal with that and not fall into something that felt clichéd or too arch. The tone of the movie, and particularly the language that all the characters use, is very stylized. We had to be really careful with all the characters, but also with the thematics, so it didn’t feel out of left field when we started to touch on more serious subject matters. If we were going to wade into themes of race and gender and sexual orientation and cultural appropriation, we knew we had to be smart and real about it in the context of this comedy.
There were certain comedic and dramatic requirements, but also a certain physicality. For the actors who were playing the primary cheerleaders, we were going to put them through a rudimentary cheerleading camp in San Diego, so they had to be able to withstand that. I didn’t want to have to cut away to cheerleading doubles every time because we were spending a lot of time with all these characters.
Cheerleading is actually a dangerous sport. In competitions, they practice and practice, and come out and do the routine once. I knew that we were going to have to do it multiple times to get the camera coverage that we needed and I didn’t want anybody to get hurt on the movie.
At first, Gabrielle was like, “Listen, I got to warn you up front, I am not a dancer. I don’t know if I’m going to make it.” And during the Clovers finale, she just turned it on. She was the perfect person for that role. We talked a lot about that moment between Torrance and Isis after the tournament where the Clovers had won and the Toros came in second. We talked about Michael Jordan as the inspiration for Isis’s confidence. When Torrance says, “You guys were good,” and Isis says, “We were, weren’t we?” it’s not arrogant, it’s a statement of fact. This is the team that the Toros had ripped off for the last four or five years.
We wanted the style of the two teams to be really distinct from each other. In the course of the script, you see the “Brr, it’s cold in here” routine, first performed by the Toros, and it’s a very white-girl cheerleader version of it. And then you go to the Clovers, and you see the original version that they ripped off, and it’s a whole different vibe in terms of the choreography and the cadence. It was important to set up what those two teams were and how they were different, and also, it went a long way to this theme of cultural appropriation. I think there’s a line later, where Gabrielle says, “Historically, you all steal something, put a blond wig on, and call it something different.” We needed to dramatize that.
These are issues that have been around long before our movie and obviously long after our movie. Cultural appropriation is one of them, but also, here’s a whole team that is all about white privilege and it really is about Kirsten’s character realizing how complicit she is. Even though she didn’t realize it, she was complicit in this institutionalized racism that was going on.
In the movie, the Toros are direct beneficiaries of this cultural theft. They’re five-time national champions because Big Red [the team captain] has been stealing these routines from the Clovers over the years and they’ve never gotten caught. Eliza’s character is the one who makes Kirsten’s character realize, “No, no, no. This truth you’ve been living is a lie. You have ripped off these cheers.” Then it’s about how this character is going to react to it. She has to unlearn everything that she’s learned, and she’s going to make a lot of mistakes on the way to try to make things right.
All of these issues are really coming to the forefront in the past few months, where people are talking about white fragility and asking whether it’s time for a national reckoning. I like that we were able deal with some of that. I was actually talking to Gabrielle a couple weeks ago about the fact that the movie is 20 years old—and how old it makes us feel—but also about the idea that the movie is liked by a lot of different people for different reasons.
She said, “White audiences have really fond memories of that movie because it’s fun and exciting and they like the music and it made them laugh. But there are other audiences to whom it means something more.” Gabrielle was talking about the idea that here was a movie where the Black girls won. That’s a big thing.