Universal (Illustration: Amelia Ross and Natasha Taylor)
Long before "Pitch Perfect" became a hit franchise and every group of women became our #squadgoals, there were the Toros and the Clovers. Fifteen years ago this month, Universal released "Bring It On" into theaters, a low budget, high-school comedy about rival cheerleading teams that spawned four spinoff films, a stage musical, and helped pave the way for the Barden Bellas, the McKinley glee club and many more.
“I remember one time I was watching TV, and there was another cheerleader movie on -- not 'Bring It On,' but they were watching 'Bring It On' in the movie," star Kirsten Dunst told MTV News. “You know you have a hit when they're watching a movie in the movie. That’s the pinnacle.”
“Bring It On” arrived in theaters on Aug. 25, 2000, finished at the top of the box office for three straight weeks, and wound up grossing $90 million worldwide. It turned Dunst and the cast of up-and-comers, including Jesse Bradford, Eliza Dushku and Gabrielle Union, into stars, and marked the directorial debut of Peyton Reed, who would go on to make “Ant-Man.” But despite becoming one of the most successful teen movies of the 21st century, “Bring It On” almost didn’t even exist.
“I went to 28 or more places and meetings. I had about 27 pitches because sometimes I’d go to a studio and they’d love it and they’d take it to their boss and they go, ‘We love it!’ and take it their boss and then it would get a pass at the third time,” screenwriter Jessica Bendinger told MTV. It was Bendinger, a model turned hip-hop journalist turned music video director, who came up with the idea for “Bring It On,” which she based on her love of cheerleading competitions and hip-hop music.
"I wanted to mix cheerleading and hip-hop, the two tastes that taste great together, it's like peanut butter and chocolate,” Bendinger said. “It would be so funny to put them together because they are so antithetical to each other.”
How “Bring It On” would eventually come together from that pitch is the stuff of history -- or in this case, an oral history. MTV spoke to Dunst, Bendinger, Reed, Bradford, Dushku, Union and many, many others who had a part in bringing “Bring It On” to the big screen. Get your spirit fingers and spankies ready, it's going to be quite a trip.
Photo courtesy Nicole Bilderback
After graduating from Columbia University, Bendinger moved to Los Angeles with the hopes of turning what was then called “Cheer Fever” into a movie.
MAX WONG (Executive producer): Jessica comes in, and the first thing she does is she shows us this videotape of the national cheerleading championships from that year. It's like a car accident. It is super riveting, we cannot tear our eyes away from what we’re watching. So she says, you know, this is the universe that I want to talk about and then does her pitch. And the pitch is amazing.
CAITLIN SCANLON (Executive producer): She showed it to us and we were like, this is amazing! Who knew? Who knew it was a sport and this athletic? We went crazy. We thought that this had the potential for this great, classic sports movie structure, but it had something completely new and different that we hadn’t seen before.
WONG: Everyone has an opinion on cheerleaders. I went to a high school in Arizona that was totally "Friday Night Lights," and there was not one cheerleading squad, there were three of them. I hated cheerleaders. And you just realize that everyone in America has an opinion about cheerleaders. You love cheerleaders, you hate cheerleaders, you were a cheerleader, you want to f--k a cheerleader.
SCANLON: It was about girls being tough and badass and smart and sexy at the same time – you just literally didn’t see that.
WONG: And we just really, really liked the fact that Jessica was talking about cultural appropriation. That hadn’t been discussed in teen movies, and here's this sort of poppy cheerleading movie where she’s actually talking about societal issues that are really engaging in a really important fashion.
SCANLON: Then the process of trying to get our bosses interested in it began, which was really hard.
Wong and Scanlon pitched “Cheer Fever” to their superiors at Beacon Pictures. They, like so many others before, passed.
WONG: I think that a lot of the nos and resistance that Jessica got when she pitched were based on the idea that nobody is going to want to see a movie about the stupid girls that you hated in high school. I was like, "I hated them in high school and I would still see this movie."
JESSICA BENDINGER (Screenwriter/producer): I would talk about it in meetings and the studios would be like, "Yeah, that doesn’t matter, yeah." They would pass and I’m like, "Well, you’re wrong." I just knew everybody was wrong. I just knew everybody was totally wrong.
WONG: Hollywood, it always wants the last best thing, it’s never the next best thing. They made this assumption that nobody would see this movie since there hadn’t been a movie like this in forever.
SCANLON: The marketing people at the studio, at Universal, were like, "You can’t market to girls this age." That was a big thing – because nobody ever says, "We don’t know how to do it" – they say, "You can’t do it."
WONG: A month passed, and Caitlin and I would not stop talking about this cheerleading pitch. So Caitlin called up her agent and said look, is this still available and it was. So we went to our boss, Marc Abraham, and we literally crawled on the carpet of his office begging him to buy the project. The only other previous time that I crawled on the carpet for him was for “Scream,” which is a project that I'd gotten an hour earlier than the rest of the town. And I begged him for it and he said no. That was my argument: "Last time I crawled on the carpet and begged you for something, it was for 'Scream' and it made $300 million dollars, it’s a franchise. Look, do you want to be poor? Are you afraid of success?" And he just looked at us and was like, "Oh, so you’re saying this cheerleading project is going to make $300 million?" And of course, we have, so there you go.
Photo courtesy Max Wong
After Beacon bought the pitch in 1996, it languished in development for four years, with Scanlon and Wong struggling to put it into production. Then, fate took over: they sent the script to director Kristi Zea, who read it, loved it, and sent it to her Academy Award-winning friend, "Silence of the Lambs" director Jonathan Demme.
WONG: Jonathan Demme flipped out over the project and called Stacey Snider who was then head of Universal and was like, "Oh my God, this is such a jam. You have the freshest thing I’ve read in so many years, you are a genius." Literally 48 hours later, I was sitting at a meeting at Universal and we’re being told like, "You’re the architects of 'Bring it On,’" and "This is so brilliant." We were immediately put into production after that meeting and we had 90 days to find a director. For four years we’d been begging and scraping and then literally overnight, all of a sudden our film had traction.
BENDINGER: It was highly unusual and people will go, "Wait, that doesn’t sound right." And they’re right. It is so weird, what I am about to tell you: The movie was green-lit before there was a director attached. That doesn’t happen. Let’s reiterate: That doesn’t happen.
With the clock ticking on a summer shoot, it was time to find a director. Peyton Reed, in search of his feature directorial debut, was sent the script.
PEYTON REED (Director): I was directing a sketch comedy show for Comedy Central called "Upright Citizens Brigade" (UCB) and we were shooting in New York. I’d been doing a lot of comedic TV stuff and had been looking for a movie to do and my agent called me and was like, “There’s a movie called 'Cheer Fever,' it’s a competitive cheerleader movie.” And my reaction was like, “Wow, what?” It didn’t make any sense to me at all. Why me?
SCANLON: We had seen his work and here’s what we knew about him: We knew he went to University of Virginia -- and our boss, who’s really the decision maker, had gone to University of Virginia -- he played the drums, he was super nice and just kind of a cool guy, so that was the personality part of it. The other part was just the pure work. He came in on time and on budget and everyone said great things about him.
REED: Jessica’s script at the time was this really epic thing, if she had made that original script it would’ve been a three-hour movie, it would’ve been "Godfather"-style. But it was really, really funny and it also was this weird sort of window into this crazy subculture that I knew nothing about, which was competitive cheerleading. The idea on the face of it, competitive cheerleading, was ridiculous to me. But once I read her script and actually then went to see some of these competitions, it’s hard to not get kind of sucked into that world because it’s really fascinating and it’s intensely furious, in terms of the stakes.
WONG: Caitlin and I from the get-go had loved this idea because it is a feminist movie and it is really empowering, and so we had always seen this as like a sports movie, and Peyton saw that. And in sports movies, with men, you aren’t really seeing the jokes being on the guys unless they’re doing something specifically stupid. Nobody ever says to a basketball player, "You know, your goal in life to get out of your bad town and go to college on a basketball scholarship is stupid." You never hear that. But that’s what these women in cheerleading also do.
SCANLON: We sat down and Peyton was the first person to say, "Um, I was the band nerd in a Southern high school, I did not like cheerleaders, they were sort of my natural enemy, and I liked these girls. I care about them. I wanted to turn the page." He’s just like, "We have to play this completely straight. All of these girls have to sell this, we have to believe that they believe cheerleading is the most important thing on the face of the planet, and we can’t be laughing at them, ever." And that was it, because a lot of these other directors came in and said, "Oh, these girls are ridiculous, like as an audience we’re making fun of them in a way." We actually loved them. That’s how Peyton got the job.
REED: I think I was into my third episode of "Upright Citizens Brigade" and then I got the job and I needed to come back immediately and hit the ground running and start work on the movie. I quickly finished up my last episode and headed back. I think I literally landed at the airport and went to dinner with the line producer.
Photo courtesy Nicole Bilderback
"Bring It On" had a great script and director, but the studio needed a star as well.
REED: They were meeting at the time with the lead who was going to play Torrance, it was an actress named Marley Shelton. I met with Marley Shelton and I gave her a couple of things and she seemed really cool. Then a day or two later we found out that Marley Shelton was no longer interested -- she’d taken the rival cheerleader movie that was going on: “Sugar, Spice, and Semi-Automatics.” So then we started looking at, well, who could play this role? I was like, Kirsten Dunst. I love Kirsten Dunst, she’s great.
SCANLON: We kept coming back to Kirsten – and she kept turning us down.
REED: She already had this body of work. She was intriguing to me because she had comedic [chops] but she also has a real soulfulness to her, from a very young age.
KIRSTEN DUNST (Torrance): I didn’t have to read for the part. I got the script sent to me. I was working, actually in Prague on a really depressing, bad indie film.
WONG: She was working on a film in Prague and tired of eating gruel at craft services.
DUNST: I read it and I was like, "OK, I was a cheerleader in 8th grade so I can relate," and also my best friend was a cheerleader all throughout high school and junior high, so I was very familiar with cheerleader stuff. I read it and was like, “Oh, this is a fun movie,” but then I was like, “I don’t know." Then I talked to Peyton Reed, the director, and he just sounded like the most awesome fun guy ever and I thought, "OK, this is going to be a fun movie.”
REED: That was what really kind of got Universal very excited at that point: “OK, now we have our lead and we’re off and running.”
And what would a rom-com be without a love interest? Nailing the casting for Cliff, a sexy but casual rocker type to contrast with and complement Torrance's perky blonde cheerleader character, proved difficult.
REED: There were so many people who came. Jason Schwartzman read for that role, James Franco read for that role. I remember Franco coming in and they had just shot the "Freaks and Geeks" pilot and I think was getting ready to do the series -- “I’m waiting to see if my show gets picked up. I don’t know.” But there were so many different versions of that character and some of them, like Schwartzman, were the more off-beat version of that character, but Jesse just sort of brought all of that to the table.
JESSE BRADFORD (Cliff): I don’t think I auditioned for it. I think I got offered the part and I read it and I liked the character and I liked a lot of things about it. I was 20 years old or whatever, there was a little something about the cheerleading, and I was like, what kind of movie is this gonna be? I just had some questions.
WONG: This is after we’ve auditioned 300 people for Cliff and nobody had been like Jesse Bradford. So we went back to Jesse and we were like, “Come on! It’s going to be a cheerleading movie. You’re going to be in the sun in San Diego with a bunch of girls! What could go wrong?” And he was like, “Can I get a convertible?" And I was like, “Of course!” Which was a total lie.
BRADFORD: I liked the script anyway, I don’t want to give the impression I didn’t or anything. But I remember I took the meeting [with Peyton] to discuss it and then I liked this guy so much. I said to myself, this guy’s not trying to make a cheerleading movie, he’s trying to make a great movie.
Photo courtesy Nicole Biderback
Next came Cliff's sister and Torrance's BFF, bad girl gymnast-turned-cheerleader Missy. The character was the audience's point of entry into the world of cheerleading, so she had to sell it. Eliza Dushku was on everyone's minds from the beginning.
REED: When we really started casting, once we got Kirsten, we were all "Buffy" fans and knew Eliza’s work from "Buffy" and later on "Angel" and she just seemed like the perfect person. I loved the idea that physically those two looked different: one’s a blonde, one’s a brunette. Almost like a second Archie comic in a way, there’s Betty and Veronica. And she just seemed to be that character.
ELIZA DUSHKU (Missy): I begrudgingly showed up at the audition after having called my agent the morning of and said, “I’m not going on this stupid audition because I still can’t understand why you're sending me on it. I’m not a f--king cheerleader.” But they said, you know, that was only a part of what they asked for, so just try it. So I went and showed up and sure enough there were girls and boys cheerleading and doing stunts in the lobby and outside the building. I believe I was a little hungover and I was dressed in all black.
BENDINGER: I had a big picture hanging on my computer, which was Gwen Stefani. “I’m Just A Girl” that punk, that kind of OCD ska, early punk stuff was just starting to happen. It was that, “F--k you,” it had a lot of bravado to it, but was still girly. That was exactly what I was trying to go for in Torrance and the girls. It was just a very early form of empowerment, bitchy empowerment.
DUSHKU: For all of my dark 'tude, Peyton just kind of really, really enjoyed it. He asked me outright if I could cheer and I think I said something along the lines of, "Hell no, I used to fight cheerleaders growing up and in high school." And he said, "Can you do a split?" And I said, "I don’t know, let me try," and I popped into a split right there and thought, hey, maybe. You know, that’s cool.
REED: I’m sure at some point there was a second choice, but I can’t even remember who it was because I always just wanted Eliza.
Inner city rival squad the Clovers needed their captain as well. Gabrielle Union had played the role of Isis in early table reads of the script, and nabbed the part for the movie as well.
BENDINGER: Gabrielle was always Isis. She was Isis at the reading and she was Isis in the movie. She was destined to play that part.
REED: Gabrielle was someone who had been around and is such a good actress. I think at the time Gabrielle was older than most of the other people, she just looked like she was still in high school. Gabrielle was very crucial to me because when she came in, she and I worked really closely together on the Isis character.
GABRIELLE UNION (Isis): There were a ton of teen movies at the time that I passed on that were not committed to getting it right. The reason why I even took the table read of "Cheer Fever" was because the cheerleading movie I wanted about bank robbing ["Sugar and Spice"] – they didn’t want to go black on any of the characters. So it’s interesting, the group that didn’t want to commit to diversity didn’t seem to do well and the movie that was about righting the wrongs did well, and that included diversity. I remember at the table read my character being a combination of Foxy Brown and about eight other Blaxploitation characters sort of rolled into a cheer-lawyer-defender type person.
WONG: She was like, "You know what, I’m not down with Foxy Brown. I want this character to be super real because I am representing -- I will be perceived as monolithic and I don’t want to be that, because that’s what happens when you’re not white and in a movie."
Rounding out the Clovers was musical girl group Blaque.
SCANLON: We needed to cast the team, and we were seeing a lot of girls, a lot of individual girls, but the whole thing was we have to get the leader, Isis, and then basically we’re filling in -- because those girls don’t have a lot of lines.
REED: Then the girls from the group Blaque -- Shamari, Natina and Brandi -- they came, they had a recording career, they were about to put out an album and I was like, “There are these girls, they’re a girl group from Atlanta, could we audition them as some of the Clovers?"
SHAMARI FEARS DEVOE (Lava): We talked to Johnny, our manager, about running back to be in this new cheerleading movie. He’s like, “OK, ‘Cheer Fever,’ it sounds like a cool little thing to do on the side of singing and performing with NSYNC and TLC. So we told them, "Yeah, we’ll do it."
REED:They came in and all three of them had charisma like you wouldn’t believe. They can dance, they look great, and they were so enthusiastic that we immediately cast them, they were great. And they got along really great with Gabrielle.
And, of course, the villainous outgoing team captain who got the Toros into this mess in the first place: Big Red.
LINDSAY SLOANE (Big Red): I remember auditioning a few times. They didn’t read girls for Big Red, or at least I never read for Big Red. I think everyone was just reading for Torrance and then they decided who you would be right for and then they would bring you back. They asked me if I could cheerlead – and I was like, "Oh, yeah, sure," you know, as every actor lies and says you can do any skill set they ask you to do. Two weeks later I got a call that I got Big Red. I didn’t even remember what part that was. I was like – I vaguely remember her being the total bitch in the script and they were like, "Oh yeah, that’s the part that you got." And I was like, "What! How did this happen, I went in reading for the nice girl and now I’m playing this horrible person!"
Ian Roberts spent three days on set to shoot his memorable scenes as ultra-aggro choreographer Sparky Polastri. He had worked with Reed on "UCB" and was invited to play the part and make the character his own.
IAN ROBERTS (Sparky Polastri): [Peyton] just asked if I would like to be in this movie and he told me he wanted to change the role from what it was, which was sort of a stereotypical gay choreographer, and he wanted to make it more a hardass Bob Fosse type.
WONG: The spirit fingers were always there, from the start. But you know he sold that line. “These are spirit fingers. And these are gold.”
Photo courtesy Nicole Bilderback
The cast complete, the cheerleaders converged on San Diego for a cheer boot camp before filming began.
REED: We had like a six-week period off and on that they were going to be rehearsing these routines. Anne Fletcher, who was the choreographer of the movie, organized all the choreography and she brought in also a separate choreographer, Hi-Hat, to work under her to do the Clovers so they conducted this miniature cheer camp. A lot of the actors came in and did the full program.
SLOANE: All the girls and guys, we met in San Diego at cheerleading boot camp and we fell madly in love with each other. It was like college.
PADDY CULLEN (Line producer): Everyone but Kirsten Dunst, because Kirsten was actually on another movie, so she couldn’t come until the day before shooting, which I was very nervous about, because I thought how is she going to learn everything that the other girls learned? She is just such a pro, she picked it up so quickly and she would just be on set with the girls, learning the moves and practicing all the time. It was miraculous that she could get it all down in such a short amount of time. Very impressive.
UNION: There were a few of us that were older who happened to look younger, but I’m hanging out with the girls from Blaque’s parents, like, "who wants to go get a drink? These rehearsals are killin’ me!" So you know, booze and IcyHot and the parents of the girls from Blaque, that helped me.
BRANDI WILLIAMS (LaFred): Yeah, I think the dancing for Gaby was probably a little… challenging but she did it. A lot of upper body shots.
CULLEN: The girls were calling me all the time, can we have a masseuse? And I was like, there are too many of you, you’ve just got to do this camp. They’re young, and they trooped through.
DUSHKU: I had to have special, like, Eliza dance cheer days because all the other girls came in like little...you know when you turn the thing on the box and the jack in the box comes out? It felt like that’s what all the other people were and I was so confused. Like, I can’t do a step aerobics class without getting frustrated because I have no clue how to keep up.
SLOANE: I remember being so nervous, thinking, "Oh my God, they’re going to realize I can’t cheerlead and I’m going to get fired." It was myself and one other girl we came in halfway through the week, because we only had two big dance numbers – it was Carver, the girl that broke her leg and was on crutches. There was another actress that played her initially that was hired and that actress and I would keep joking that we would get fired after the rehearsal. And she actually got fired.
DUNST: They were fun, I liked learning dances. That was part of me growing up, I was totally into that whole thing. And all the girls were really cool, like we all got along and it was just a really easy going group so it was fun to learn the dance. That stuff wasn’t so hard for me.
Photo courtesy Nicole Bilderback
Even after weeks of rehearsal, the cast said the cheer sequences were the most challenging -- physically and mentally -- to shoot.
SLOANE: I think my go-to move back then was I tried to flaunt my big fake breasts. When I was feeling down, I’d just push out my chest and be like you got this. We’re going to be OK. You’re Big Red, you’re going to be alright.
NICOLE BILDERBACK (Whitney): The competition scenes were long, big days. We have to do it so many times in a row. It’s exhausting. We’re doing a two to three-and-a-half-minute dance routine and having to do all the stunts and keep all the energy up. You’re out of breath on the first take and you’re definitely out of breath on the fifth or seventh take.
UNION: The harder the scene, the more fun we had together because we were all kind of in this hell together. The scene at Nationals that we filmed down in Oceanside, not only is it all of us together, but all of these cheer teams together, and if you messed up, that was a whole take that we had to redo. There was a lot of tension. Nobody wants to be the person responsible to have to reset a whole take when it’s such a huge production.
The cast immediately hit it off, both on set and behind the scenes.
WONG: Jesse and Kirsten were such old pros by the time they got there -- and because they were super nice and super professional and didn’t act out, all the other actors were kept in line; that’s usually how it is on set. If the stars aren’t problematic, nobody else feels that they can act out.
SLOANE: I remember a lot of beach day trips and I remember the feeling that we all kind of collectively adopted Kirsten – because she was the youngest of the group. And she was the only one out there with her parents, with her mom and her brother. So I remember a lot of beach days, where we would kidnap her and spend the day at the beach, and then we would drop her back off. And have a good day – because she was a sweet young girl and had to go sleep with her mom... And then back at the hotel, craziness happen[ed].
DUSHKU: She was such a sweetheart. She wasn’t involved in as much of the debauchery because she was still in high school.
DUNST: I was so happy because I was still in school and I didn’t have to do homework because it was the summertime. That probably made the experience a little more enjoyable because of that, because working and doing school work is the worst.
SLOANE: I remember a lot of intermingling with the actual cheerleaders and I remember there was a lot of flirting, but I don’t know how far things went with that. I know there was a weekend where they went to Tijuana – that happened. Eliza somehow she ended up there. I mean we were kinda close [to Tijuana] but I remember thinking like, "Oh wow, she’s kind of like her character in the movie, she went to Tijuana, she’s so edgy."
CULLEN: They wanted to go down to Mexico on the weekends, and I said no going because I didn’t want them to cross the border and not come back.
UNION: It was a pretty good time, there might have been some trips down to Tijuana, perhaps. Unconfirmed! [laughing] Unconfirmed bribing of federale. The stuff of legend.
WONG: Basically a bunch of the actors and a bunch of the cheerleaders went to Tijuana one night and, you know, were on the beach drinking and got arrested and got thrown into Mexican jail. And at some point, Eliza and a couple of the actors felt like they were in so much danger they decided to make themselves less attractive [by] using lipstick to draw all over their faces. I don’t know how that worked, but that was their strategy. Needless to say, I got a middle of the night phone call to bail them out, and I did.
DUSHKU: I want to go on the record and say no producers came and bailed us out. There may have been an incident in TJ one weekend but we got ourselves out of it. I got us out of it and there was no producer bailing out happening, so that was an embellishment. I am quite a negotiator. I would admit there was an incident, but we got out in that turquoise convertible VW beetle and were back for work on time.
WONG: Their biggest fear was that I would tell Paddy Cullen and that they were going to be in real trouble with the line producer because she was the hammer on the set. I could only laugh.
DUSHKU: We were legitimately scared that Paddy would -- you know, she was a tough broad. Love her to death. We knew she would not be amused if we didn’t make it back for filming.
CULLEN: I think, two girls and maybe one boy, went [to Tijuana] one weekend. And I didn’t hear about it until after. I’m not going to say who I think it was.
DUSHKU: I know my bro Jesse Bradford was with me. I love that kid.
BILDERBACK: We were training and working from morning until evening – we were so young, the energy to party and hang out until the wee hours of the morning and to get up at 6 a.m. to get picked up for a 7 a.m. call – now, it’s a different story, I would not survive that now.
DUNST: That summer we all had a great time but I didn’t think it’d be what it was, you know? Obviously you never know what you're making. We had a great time together but it felt like summer vacation-slash-movie, because we got to go to the beach.
UNION: We all hung out together and did a lot of stuff together, like Kirsten would have BBQs and parties and we would all hang out in each other’s rooms and to this day I still hang out with a lot of the same girls.
WONG: It’s one of those things when you’re working on a movie with really, really young people, it’s sort of like a weird babysitter job, because you have to pay attention to what your cast is doing. So, you know, I was always talking to hair and makeup to find out like, who came into hair and makeup with sand in their hair? Who slept on the beach instead of their hotel room?
ROBERTS: It was kind of summer camp-ish because everybody was young. There was this teasing, kidding around with Kirsten Dunst and Peyton Reed, joking like she was an out of control diva which she completely wasn’t, and this faux tension -- and it was just kind of light. [Eliza] was funny because she was kind of tough girlish in real life. Like, "What’s up man, so what do you do, man?"
DUNST: I never remember anything about this project feeling difficult, you know what I mean? It was always like we were having fun, we really just had a nice time.
Photo courtesy Nicole Bilderback
Though shooting was a blast and cast quickly became family, there were roadblocks along the way. The members of Blaque, who played The Clovers, were totally new to acting.
REED: I do remember one of the first days we were shooting with Blaque, because they had only ever done music videos, we were doing a scene, I think it was one outside the Clovers' high school with Gabrielle when they confront Kirsten and Eliza. We were shooting the girls' coverage.
SHAWN MAURER (Cinematographer): Peyton and I were watching the monitors and after that take we just looked at each other like, "What is going on, it looks like they were looking right at the lens?" When we cut we were like, “Are you looking at the lens or are you looking at Kirsten when you’re talking to her?” And they were like, “No, we’re looking at the lens, that’s what we do for music videos, that’s what we’re used to.”
REED: I had to stop for a minute and discreetly have a conversation about, "Look at the actors, look at the people, look at Kirsten, look at Eliza," like really basic stuff about, "When you’re talking to them, look at them. You’re acting with them," sort of having to recalibrate them. Gabrielle, who was privy to all that stuff, she was really great about taking them under her wing and helping them do that stuff.
UNION: It was their first time acting, period. So teaching them about marks and where the light is and where the cameras are... It was one of those movies where everyone wanted to get it right and everyone was committed to humbling themselves to do the work. And if it took a village, it took a village.
WILLIAMS: We were used to shooting videos, music videos but doing a movie was completely different, just learning how to handle that and deal with hidden cameras and angles all that kind of stuff. It was a little different for us at times.
DEVOE: But a wonderful experience for sure.
Shamari, however, had other memories of her on-set woes.
DEVOE: I had this huge pimple on the side of my face, and I was like, “Oh my God, I finally make it to the big screen and I have this huge pimple.” So that [first Clovers] scene sticks out because that was before I popped my pimple.
The women of Blaque also faced other difficulties off-screen. They were still a touring band, and had to balance their obligations as musicians with making the movie.
BENDINGER: It was super ambitious and a lot of bodies and a lot to do. There was a lot of teen hormones and little bit of stuff going on from what I heard.
WONG: The girls in Blaque, they were in the crucible of stress. They never had any down time and this was a girl band that had to change their braid pattern every day. So that was hours and hours in a beauty chair while they slept getting their hair reworked. So, they’ve never been in a movie and they were constantly on tour together -- so they had a really, really dysfunctional family relationship as a result.
WILLIAMS: I guess for the label, at that time the priority was the album. So our manager, who at the time wanted to maximize every opportunity, was like, OK, they need to shoot this movie but they could still tour and perform. So when the other cast had days off Blaque was still working. We would fly out and do shows and still had to meet the other commitments that we had, so we didn’t really have a lot of down time... We still had to promote our album.
WONG: At one point they got in a fight at their hotel and they pulled the fire alarm, just because somebody got mad. They were having an inter-band fight and they pulled the fire alarm. And of course the hotel was not happy.
WILLIAMS: OMG, really?! She brought that up? OK.
WONG: These girls were used to being the superstars in the music world and they weren’t stars in the movie world. They were used to being able to act out and trash hotel rooms and that’s not okay when you’re working on a little movie that should not have that activity. So Paddy and I confronted them and basically said that you guys have to learn how to act like ladies and we’re firing you and replacements are on a train right now from Los Angeles coming down, which of course was a lie.
DEVOE: Yeah, Paddy wasn’t too fond of that time at the hotel.
WONG: We first put the fear into them and after that they were fantastic. In fact at the end of the film they wrote us thank you notes, it was like, thank you so much for telling us we should be ladies, that’s really good advice.
"Bring It On" also veered a little too close to the cutting edge at times. One joke in particular could have earned them an ‘R’ rating.
WONG: There’s a scene where Nathan West’s character actually puts his finger inside of Clare Kramer's character [Courtney] when he picks her up -- and originally he sniffs his finger. The ratings board had a conniption.
TOM BLISS (Producer): That was the most controversial shot of the movie It had to be trimmed, actually, to make sure we got the right rating.
WONG: Larry Bock, the editor, figured it out -- how many frames Nathan West can lift his hand. So he still does it, you still know what he’s doing and he holds his finger up, it just doesn’t run all the way to his nose.
BENDINGER: I went to a screening of "Bring It On" last summer and I brought a bunch of friends and I was like holy s--t, this is bad! You couldn’t get away with it now. The whole thing where he’s lifting her, lifting Courtney and he shoves his finger up her butt -- wherever he’s shoving it -- that’s so "Porky’s"! You can’t do that now!
BLISS: There’s a lot of implied sexuality but it’s very clean, so it can ride that bubble where it could be a family movie –- where your 7-year-old is not going to get it, but maybe your kids that are a little older will laugh, and you can laugh with them. It all depends on how prudish the parents are.
Photo courtesy Nicole Bilderback
More than just being funny and quotable, it was important to the filmmakers to have realistic portrayals of teenagers: sexy, dirty language and all.
REED: We wanted to create a world where these issues were real issues and were really talked about -- not just the class and race issues, but sexuality issues like homophobia, and how we dealt with the characters on the Toros. Sexuality is talked about in the movie in a really frank way. Particularly in the groups, the cheerleaders, [there's] a real instant acceptance.
WONG: [When] Jessica brought us this project, she was opening this world of cheerleaders: yes, cheerleaders fart, they say bad words, they have sex, they are not this pristine robot culture that people like to paint them as.
REED: When Eliza’s character is first going to the game with the other Toros and they start talking about, “Are you gay? Are you straight?” And they’re all talking very openly and everybody’s comfortable with everybody’s sexuality in the thing and it was idealized in a way. But it was an aesthetic that I really wanted to have in the movie, where even during the final competition we took out a few seconds to have Huntley Ritter’s character Les, who’s the openly gay character, he sees a guy on the other team, like, “Hey, great job” or whatever, and there’s a moment between the two of them. I liked that it was this openness and it was just treated completely like it would be if it were a guy and a girl and the flirtation going on.
REED: I feel like that aspect of the movie has aged well, and I’m proud of that fact.
BENDINGER: It’s outsider art. It’s these outsiders who had to sit on the sidelines and comment on everything that was going on about it and whisper to each other. They were always the most entertaining people, because we took that and put that in cheerleading. Like, how funny to give that energy to the people that are center stage? Those were my influences, gay culture and hip-hop.
REED: We have the football players talking to Jan and Les and they say, “Hey, f-g.” You hear that saying, which is so politically incorrect but that is the context of the movie. That’s what these characters have to deal with. These meat-head football players shouting hateful stuff at them like that. I liked that we dealt with that stuff in the movie directly.
BENDINGER: We got away with it because [the jocks are] such tools. They’re idiots. High school is inappropriate. Everybody is so inappropriate and unformed, so I’m happy that stuff stayed.
If it was a priority to show real sexuality, it was important for the filmmakers to talk about race in a relatable -- and defensible -- way.
BENDINGER: It was always "Clueless," it was "Strictly Ballroom" set at the national high school cheerleading championship. That was my log line. The hip-hop piece was really the secret sauce and that was very much in the pitch.
REED: We needed to ground it a little more and make it just a little more reality-based. Isis' point of view was really, really important because we were dealing with -- there’s a big class and race aspect of that movie, which is very present in the movie, so we had to be really smart about how we dealt with it because none of us wanted to make a movie that was wrong-headed about ideas of race and stuff.
UNION: I did definitely draw on my later years in high school and college in being active, I don’t want to say in the movement, but being the voice for social justice, if you will. Becoming a little bit more aware and sort of lending my voice to help educate and inspire people to do the right thing.
WONG: One of my favorite scenes in the movie is basically where the Clovers confront the Toros outside of the gym and “Can we just beat these Buffys down? I have curfew.” There’s just so much going on in that joke. First of all, the white cheerleaders were totally afraid of the black girls even though the black girls are obviously good students and have a curfew and are fellow cheerleaders. Just the fact they’re fearful says a lot. That is deeply critical of race relations in this country, but at the same time also funny.
REED: There was a lot of discussion at the end of the movie when there’s the dialogue between the two of them after the competition, when they come in second and she says, “You guys were the best!” and she’s like, “We were, weren’t we.” A lot of people, that line rubbed the wrong way, but I loved it because I always felt like it was a Michael Jordan line. Like, “Yeah, I was the best, that’s just a statement of fact. We’re the best, we’re number one.”
UNION: I think it’s interesting that when people do reenactments of my scenes, they turn me back into the caricature that we didn’t want. I was like, what did you get about me speaking that somehow turned into neck-rolling, finger-wagging, just awful, crazy stereotype that you imagine in your head with this dumb black woman telling a white woman no and enough is enough? It became the angry black woman stereotype, and I never played that. It’s very interesting; perception is reality. And the perception of my character was that she was an out-of-control, young black woman.
Despite all the boundaries pushed in some areas, Cliff and Torrance's romance was sweet and innocent. No scene demonstrated that more than a dialogue-free encounter when the duo brushed their teeth together.
REED: I love that scene just because I felt like Kirsten and Jesse had good chemistry, and also it was an entirely wordless scene. The scene stood alone as a thing that clearly conveyed how they felt about each other, but not a word was said.
BENDINGER: That scene was Peyton -- we were trying to extend the feeling of romance between the two of them. I remember, I had been dating somebody and we just had that moment of brushing teeth together for the first time. I remember just studying him and what he was doing, and it was not very cute. I remember sitting in my apartment and I was like, what about this?
REED: Kirsten was really young, she just turned 17, and she was like, “Am I brushing my teeth the wrong way?” Becoming very self-conscious about how, what your tooth brushing technique, so I quickly was like, “No, no, no, you’re doing great,” but they do have very different styles of brushing their teeth. Also Kirsten came up with a great thing about shielding the side of her mouth from him when she’s spitting which I thought was just great. That was all Kirsten.
BRADFORD: I remember my intention going into it was, well, if it’s kind of about this like, sexual play or whatever, oh, the way, the way to do that, for a guy, the way to do that and have that come off that way is not to give a f--k. It’s not sexual tension like, "Oh, I feel kind of embarrassed brushing my teeth," it’s “Oh, I’ve got a f--king job to do. What are you gonna do, watch me brush my teeth? Yeah, all right. Got to go now, bye.”
BENDINGER: I wrote that scene so quickly because I had just been through something like that. It was a cute way to show when you are shy, you know all that shyness you have as a girl, having anything to do with hygiene because that’s the least -- I think the most adorable, that self-consciousness, but also flirtatiousness was easy to write for me. And also the gross boyishness. He super doesn’t really give a s--t.
DUNST: You get that feeling of adolescence, and you're embarrassed, you’re doing something so normal, but you're with your crush and it’s just -- there’s nothing said but it’s a sweet scene.
MAURER: It’s innocence, romance, which is very much the style of the pillow talk era of movies. But specifically on set, I just remember them getting very tired of brushing their teeth. I’m sure their teeth were very clean after that day of shooting.
Photo courtesy Nicole Bilderback
Throughout the entire filmmaking process, the ending of the movie was also a point of contention with the studio.
REED: I remember there was a whole debate about who was going to win, and there were people in the mix that were like, “Well, Kirsten’s the lead, the Toros have to win.” Well, nah, that’s not the story.
WONG: If you’ve ever seen "Rocky," Rocky doesn’t win either and people forget that. And for us, the biggest thing about being a sportsman or a sportswoman is about grace in loss.
REED: She took that team from being a team that robbed their routines from someone else, and she made them on their own work hard and do it on the up and up, and they did an amazing job. But they came in second to the other team, and it was a life lesson for her.
WONG: It’s not about being a gracious winner, it’s about being a gracious loser, because generally that’s what happens when you play competitive sports. You have to power through that; and what does that say about [her] character? We were with the idea, we loved the fact that this is a "Rocky" with girls, a "Rocky" for girls.
An alternate ending, which found Torrance and Isis at U.C. Berkeley, was actually filmed and included on the DVD, but has been all but forgotten by those involved.
REED: I remember shooting at UCLA. I think it was a post-credit scene where you see Kirsten and you see Gabrielle and they’re in college now. They’re going to the same college, and they are on the same cheerleading squad.
WONG: The fact that at the end of the movie they’re still not friends is really the point: they respect each other, which is different from like, "Oh, give me a hug," because they don’t have that relationship. They’re rivals.
REED: I literally have not thought about that scene until right now that we’re talking about it. I think I ended up not wanting to put it on the DVD supplemental thing because it really kind of had no real place in the movie, but we did shoot it. Like, do we shoot a thing where it’s the next year, where they end up being on the same team?
DUNST: Oh really, did we shoot that? I don’t remember, but that’s awesome! We went to Berkeley! We're smart!
BENDINGER: The movie [originally] opened with her writing to the International Olympic Committee to consider an exhibition sport for the next game, which was cheerleading, and then it ends with her writing to them to thank them because she had her wish come true, and she’s cheering at Berkeley.
REED: But it really didn’t feel like it said anything, or did anything, so we just decided to cut it. The idea of doing "Mickey" and doing the bloopers stuff just felt like -- this is a cheerleader movie, we’ve got to go out on this, it’s all about energy. And nothing seemed to be better than that.
DUSHKU: I love the lip sync "Mickey, you’re so fine" at the end too, I think that was kind of an afterthought that they decided to do after shooting the big final thing down in San Diego. And it was so much fun. It was ridiculous. We kind of just threw it together completely unplanned and it ended up being so hilarious.
DUNST: That was fun because we could do whatever we wanted to. We just made it up.
Photo courtesy Nicole Bilderback
The next year, while the film was being edited, was a time of waiting. With production wrapped, it was time to unleash the movie onto the public and see what they thought.
BENDINGER:I brought my friends to a cast and crew screening in LA and I was still scared. It’s just so strange to me – there’s the movie you write, the one you shoot and the one you cut: three totally different movies. So I was pretty panicked, insecure and anxious. Look, it’s a team effort, and making a movie is such a collaborative thing, but the studio was almost embarrassed. I remember seeing an executive who shall remain nameless at the premiere of the movie and I said, "Oh, this is so-and-so from the studio," and he said, "Yeah, but I had nothing to do with the movie!"
SLOANE: I grew up in Chatsworth, California and they were doing a test screening in Chatsworth at the movie theater I used to go to growing up. I put on a wig and went with some friends and my boyfriend at the time. I remember sitting there watching it thinking, "Oh my God, this is really special." I had no idea what it was going to be, and it really surprised me and kind of blew my mind.
DUNST: We went to cheerleading camp, we learned our dances and stunts and all that stuff and all of us were just having fun on the movie, not thinking, "Oh, wow, we're working on a great movie. This is going to be huge." I remember my brother saw the movie before me, there was some screening, and my brother was like, "Oh, Keeks, this is going to be a hit." I was like, "Really?" and he was like, "I can tell, I can tell."
SCANLON: The budget was $12 million. When we were testing the movie, it tested really well and they were like, we actually have something on our hands that isn’t just a weird little indie movie with a bunch of girls in it -- because that’s how [the studio] approached it. But once they realized what they had, they were like, "OK, we’re going to put a lot of money behind marketing."
WONG: When we were trying to figure out the trailer for this film, I kept getting these trailers and the trailers were just not good. And, I was just like OK, let’s take a page from Jerry Bruckheimer. Jerry Bruckheimer does a trailer for ladies, a trailer for gentleman, and a trailer for an urban audience, which is not monolithic. So, we were like, OK, we have to make three different trailers. One has to be a trailer that explains to men why they have to see this movie. The reason they’re going to see this movie is because we’re going to use every tit and ass shot we have in this picture in the trailer. And we’re going to use the scientific voiceover from our test screening that says, “73 percent of men polled said they would not be willing see a movie about cheerleading. Here’s why you should see a movie about cheerleading.” And then cut to the bikini carwash.
SCANLON: They realized they had this huge marketing opportunity to African-Americans, and we didn’t have enough pivotal trailer moments. So we shot a couple of those for marketing.
WONG: We shot additional footage of Gabrielle and the girls from Blaque just walking around a gymnasium, just to make it seem like they were a bigger part of the movie -- and used that as an urban trailer.
WONG: The Friday that we opened, they had done the tracking report for the market place and the initial tracking report said that movie was going to open at $6 million dollars -- which is not good, because the movie's budget topped $11 million.
REED: I really never imagined. I remember up until the weekend of the release just wondering, “OK, is this going to be a disaster?”
Photo courtesy Max Wong
"Bring It On" opened on August 25, 2000, and made $17.3 million domestically its first weekend.
SCANLON: They thought it was going to be this modest opening, but it ended up being this phenomenon the first weekend. I mean, girls showed up in their cheer uniforms. Entire teams came together. People were doing cheers in the aisles. It was crazy. It was insane.
REED: At the time there was a Wesley Snipes movie, "Art Of War," that was coming out that same weekend, and Wesley Snipes was huge at that point. We’re like, “OK, we’re going to get crushed by this movie, but I wonder if we can be second?” and we ended up coming in first place by a pretty big margin and beating that movie and we were like, “WHAT!” That didn’t make sense to any of us. It was amazing.
DUNST: I remember we went to Universal City Walk to see how it was doing in the theaters, and every theater was packed. I had never experienced that first hand, so it was very celebratory and so awesome.
REED: I remember Kirsten kinda getting teary eyed and saying, “I have the number one movie,” it was such a big thing, she was still in high school and it was a really, really amazing night. And then we ended up being number one for two more weekends after that which was just crazy.
DUSHKU: A good number of the girls and I went out on the town to celebrate and may or may not, you know, have jumped in the pool at Sky Bar and were like, we have a number one movie!
BRADFORD: When I saw the movie before it came out, I was like, huh, this movie turned out so funny. It’s smart, it doesn’t play down to anything. It’s not like a cheerleader movie. It’s not a dumb movie disguised as a cheerleader movie, it’s a good movie disguised as a cheerleader movie.
Photo courtesy Max Wong
"Bring It On" was a certified hit, the little movie that could. It spawned several straight-to-video sequels and a Broadway musical in years following -- though none of the key players were involved.
REED: I have passed by the sequels, you know, flipping around on TV at times, but I just have not been able to watch them. Because to me, I certainly know they have fans and everything, but because they’re not the same cast or whatever, I don’t have any association with them. I’m not just saying that, I’ve never seen them. I haven’t seen the musical either.
DUNST: I have not seen the musical, and I’ve only seen glimpses of the other things on television, but I have not watched them yet. But I’m impressed that OUR movie was a movie that was an inspiration for cheerleaders.
REED: There’s that part of me that always wishes, oh wow, I wish they had greenlit a feature sequel, because I think we probably would have come back and done it.
Fifteen years later, the film is still beloved, and the cast and crew see echoes of "Bring It On" in newer work.
BLISS: We didn’t imagine it would have this amount of staying power, we just didn’t anticipate it, and that [people] would be thinking about it 15 years later. All I can tell you is I read the script and it just sparked. It just sparked for me.
UNION: It had a message, there were very clear characters to get behind and it was a campy good time! To me, it reminds me most of "Grease." That spawned the sequels and the musicals and still lives on –- are you a Frenchie, are you a Rizzo, are you a Sandy? It still inspires that campy good time.
SLOANE: That’s a big part of it –- and that’s why "Pitch Perfect" is such a huge success as well. When there’s music tied into something and you can sing along to a song, and the song makes you think of the movie, that’s kind of the easiest way to spread the seed to have it resonate with a big group of people. It was just unadulterated fun. People were incredibly talented. The cheers were catchy, it just appealed to a lot of people, it appealed to the underdog. There’s no one that doesn’t love the underdog story.
DUNST: It was a genuine surprise, and there hasn’t been a movie like it like afterwards. “Drumline” and even "Pitch Perfect," you know what I mean? Those movies wouldn’t exist without "Bring It On." Competitive, female-oriented comedies.
SCANLON: "Pitch Perfect" [is a modern-day "Bring it On"], a thousand percent. I mean, this sounds so self-aggrandizing, but even the TV show "Glee." Really anything with sort of a sports and/or musical structure that has a little bit of attitude and a wink and a nod. "Mean Girls" is one. I don’t think that could have happened, we’re talking great minds that put together that movie, but I don’t know if it would have actually sold and been made.
DUNST: I don’t think there had been a movie that it had been surrounding mostly women, one, and two the team that you're following doesn’t win, which is a good lesson too. We have very good morals in the story. I think that’s refreshing... But it's also everyone that was hired, even the small parts, everybody was just weird and quirky in their own way and a great way, that when it came all together, it just hit the right notes at the right time.
Now, a decade and a half later, the cast is still connected, and "Bring It On" stands as some of their most recognized roles.
WONG: They’re still really good friends with each other, like Nicole Bilderback was like the maid of honor at Clare Kramer’s wedding. They’re still best friends. Jesse Bradford and Eliza Dushku pick each other up at the airport when they’re in each other’s towns. They’re really, really close because of this movie.
UNION: I’ve run into Kirsten over the years, and it’s always love. It’s like something happened in that movie that kind of cemented us all. We all respect the experience and hold it near and dear. Because I don’t think any of us have had [it] like THAT, ever again.
DUSHKU: I have a forever bond with all those ladies. For a tomboy like me who grew up with three older brothers beating up cheerleaders, it was special in itself to have a girls club.
BILDERBACK: Believe it or not, I still get recognized from "Bring It On" frequently. You walk into the grocery store, the Grove, the mall, a friend’s house –- you know, literally everywhere.
ROBERTS: At a certain point I decided to focus more on writing than acting but to have done this one role in this movie that people care about. I remember I got something sent to me that they wanted to put my scene in this game called "Scene It," which is some movie trivia game. I was like, "What, wow! My scene’s in a movie tribute game!" You know? So it’s funny.
SLOANE: I couldn’t have imagined my character would have become something that people connected with in any way or would have loved to hate. Especially gay men. I remember there was a Halloween right after the movie came out, and there were a lot of Big Reds in Santa Monica. Which made me so happy –- nothing makes you feel like a man dressing in drag as a character you’ve played.
UNION: I don’t have any other movie where it inspires Halloween, not just dress-up as the Toros and the Clovers, but whole routines. And this has been going on for about 15 years: it actually picks up speed every year, to be honest. I’ll have soccer dads doing whole routines in Target like, "Do you remember this?" I’m like, oh my God. It’s a movie that hasn’t escaped anyone –- everyone has a memory.
DUNST: It's amazing, even my own friends have quoted me in "Bring It On," I mean for a while if anyone was getting out of the back seat or opening a door they’d be like, “I’ll get the door, Tor." Well, I was embarrassed that my friends would quote a movie to myself that I was in, it’s just weird... But they enjoyed it, so.
BRADFORD: People will say, oh yeah, "Bring It On." I hear it all the time. Like, if I don’t shave for two or three weeks and then I do, that day and for a week, I hear it every day.
UNION: "Brr, it's cold" is a fan favorite. I don’t know it to save my life, [and people are always] like, "Am I getting it right?" and I don’t know.
DUSHKU: Gay men want to do the cheers in the produce aisle with me, and sometimes I do.
DUNST: It’s been a while, but if it's on TV and I’m flipping through I’ll pause for a second because it’s just, you know, memories.
Photo courtesy Jesse Bradford
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