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''The Faculty'' offers screams this Christmas

Be afraid: the twisted minds behind ”Scream” and ”From Dusk to Dawn” are adding another fright-fest to their resume

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Except for the cameras, cables, crew, and lights, the high school that’s been re-created on an Austin, Tex., soundstage for The Faculty is so average, even the teen extras seem at home leaning against graffitied lockers. Cast members gossip, grips fill out paperwork at undersize desks, and director Robert Rodriguez holds court while playing his fresh-out-of-the-box Nintendo. It’s so comfortably average, it’s almost scary — hardly the sort of place you’d expect to be ground zero for an invasion of overgrown, water-dependent, mind-controlling space leeches.

Yet come Christmas, that’s exactly what it will be. In the most devilish pairing this side of Mysterio and Dr. Octopus, the sultan of splatter (Rodriguez) and the duke of dismemberment (Scream scribe Kevin Williamson) are about to unveil their dual take on the horrors of high school. And if you thought detention was bad, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Williamson’s script calls for a battle royal between alien teachers and a plucky band of whip-smart, Scooby Doo-style high school sleuths. A dream team made in Miramax marketing heaven (or is it hell?), Rodriguez and Williamson are delivering the studio’s most promising gift. In an atypically anemic season for the studio, The Faculty is getting a $30 million promotional push — nearly twice the budget of the movie itself.

Sitting in his mercifully air-conditioned Austin offices, however, Rodriguez reflects on how the whole thing almost didn’t happen. The helmer of the well-received low-budget shoot-’em-ups El Mariachi and Desperado, Rodriguez was busy promoting his last ultra-gory effort — the George Clooney-Quentin Tarantino vampire pic From Dusk Till Dawn — in 1996 when The Faculty was first brought to Bob Weinstein, head of Miramax’s genre house Dimension Films. Weinstein gave the original Faculty script to the then-unknown Williamson to rewrite and ultimately direct. Then, of course, Scream went through the roof and everything changed. Williamson’s pet project Killing Mrs. Tingle was suddenly a go, with him attached to direct, and Dimension turned to Rodriguez. ”I really wanted to do a family comedy next,” Rodriguez remembers, ”but I was trying to start Alienated Productions [his Austin-area production company] and I thought doing familiar subject matter would be a good way to get rolling.”

Williamson wasn’t exactly heartbroken to give up the director’s chair. ”I wasn’t the guy who watched all those alien movies growing up, so it wasn’t totally my thing,” he says. ”But it was okay. I love movies like the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and that whole theme of conformity versus individuality fits perfectly into the high school metaphor. I got into that and tried to create characters that interweave in a Breakfast Club way and then left all the cool alien s— to Robert.”

That cool alien, uh, stuff includes rapidly reproducing space worms that set out for global domination by manipulating the world-weary, underpaid high school faculty of Herrington, Ohio (staffers include Robert Patrick, Bebe Neuwirth, Salma Hayek, and Jon Stewart), as well as a few unlucky student bodies, most notably that of on-screen quarterback and offscreen R&B superstar Usher Raymond. Saving the world is left to a ragtag band of misfit students, who include school photographer/geek Elijah Wood (Deep Impact), sci-fi slacker outcast Clea DuVall (How to Make the Cruelest Month), brilliant rebel outsider Josh Hartnett (H20), dimwitted jock Shawn Hatosy (In & Out), mysterious new girl in town Laura Harris (Suicide Kings), and bitchy newspaper-editor Jordana Brewster (As the World Turns) — all of whom resemble real teens; there’s nary an Ian Ziering hairline among them. Realizing that high school isn’t all about battling slime-dripping alien enemies, Rodriguez also worked hard to evoke some of the more run-of-the-mill horrors of the teen years.

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