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Screenwriter Josh A. Cagan Discusses Bandslam

April 15th, 2010 by Paul Martin

Music-driven teen entertainment abounds on the small and large screen, but few endeavors have the heart and intelligence of last summer’s Bandslam, now available on DVD.

Penned by Josh A. Cagan and director Todd Graff, Bandslam received much critical acclaim. “What makes the film work is its feeling for the characters,” praised Roger Ebert, who gave the film 3 out of 4 stars. Ebert is not alone: Bandslam has a 90% approval rating from the industry’s Top Critics on RottenTomatoes.com.

Bandslam stars Vanessa Hudgens, Aly Michalka, Gaelan Connell, Lisa Kudrow and features a cameo from David Bowie.

Suite 101’s Christine E. Taylor spoke with writer Josh A. Cagan to discuss Bandslam, the musical resurgence, and how an adult writes for modern teenage characters.

What compelled you to write Bandslam, a movie aimed at and starring teens?

I was painfully nerdy as a kid (not much has changed), and it wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that I kind of found my peer group. It’s amazing what a confidence boost you get from just knowing that there are three or four people who occupy the same rung of the social ladder as you, and know all of the same Monty Python routines.

I wanted to write a movie about the exact second of your teenage years where you realize you aren’t the only one who feels like you.

To what degree did your original vision of Bandslam make it to the screen?

It is a simple fact of the industry that most studio pictures are worked over by various writers, re-writers, and Carrie Fisher. And it’s always a roll of the dice.

There’s a great line from Sunset Boulevard: “The last [movie] I wrote was about Okies in the Dust Bowl. You’d never know because, when it reached the screen, the whole thing played on a torpedo boat.”

So although the script was certainly reworked and rewritten by Todd [Graff], who I just can’t say enough nice things about, it is still, at its essence, the movie that I wrote. The lead characters are still there, their voices are intact, and it doesn’t take place on a torpedo boat.

As with any intelligently written movie aimed at teens, inevitable John Hughes comparisons have been made. Did you find inspiration in Hughes’ work?

Hughes’ work is certainly the gold standard in this genre, and I’d like to think we came within three or four football fields of achieving the kind of Zen perfection his best movies attained.

That said, I probably drew just as much inspiration from non-Hughes-canon teen films, like Lucas, Heathers and, of course, Ski School.

Teen-driven musicals are making a huge comeback. Did you draw inspiration from High School Musical and Todd Graff’s Camp?

Please don’t tell Vanessa [Hudgens], but I have never seen High School Musical. I understand it is very peppy, and everyone in the cast has very nice smiles.

As far as Camp goes, it is a hug in movie form. I was a theater dork growing up, and Todd speaks that language beautifully. As much lip service as Glee gets, Camp should get that times infinity.

Teen character Will Burton’s musical taste is pretty mature. To what extent did you use the film’s characters as a channel for your own musical taste?

There is always that thin line between writing interesting teen characters, and having a movie where the teenagers all talk like 37-year-olds. Will’s musical tastes are certainly mature, but I think the film does a good job of balancing that with his basic immaturity as a teenager.

He’s still flummoxed by girls, his mom, and the basic act of walking down the hallway of his school. No amount of knowing facts about the Velvet Underground will help you understand any of those things.

But, yeah. The kids in the movie like the music we do, because we didn’t want to write a movie about kids who love Justin Beiber. Although I am currently developing “Beiberslam,” which now that I’ve said out loud, sounds like some kind of German Denny’s breakfast special.

How did you and Graff write for the young female characters without making them into stereotypes of the way in which adults assume teenagers speak?

I wrote the female characters in the movie the way my gal pals in high school talked. They were all pretty down-to-earth, nerdy chicks, so I’m pretty confident in my ability to write teen girl characters like that.

If I had to write Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, I’m not sure if my dialogue would ring as true.

Which of Bandslam’s critical accolades means the most to you?

Three stars from Ebert. ‘Nuff said.

How did you and Todd come to collaborate on Bandslam? Do you have plans to work together in the future?

Hollywoodily enough, we actually met for the first time at the premiere. The film was shot during the Writer’s Strike, so sadly, I wasn’t allowed to be on set, or communicate with him. I’d love to work with him in the future, as I truly believe he’s a unique American talent.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m currently, along with fellow writer Greg Coolidge, rewriting a comedy we sold to WB last year called Dirty Old Men. We have Morgan Freeman attached to star, and Peter Segal attached to direct, so that’s pretty freaking cool, right there.

And then I’m getting ready to take out a new script, that’s a coming of age movie a-la Bandslam. I tend to ping-pong between wacky comedy and the sensitive teen drama, because at heart, I am a sensitive wacky teenager. But aren’t we all? No? Just me? Is this thing on?