Vanessa Hudgens ("High School Musical 1 & 2," High School Musical 3: Senior Year) and Aly Michalka ("Phil of the Future," pop music duo Aly & AJ) join Gaelan Connell (Chocolat), Scott Porter (Speed Racer) and Lisa Kudrow ("Friends") in the music-driven comedy Bandslam.
When gifted singer-songwriter Charlotte Banks (Michalka) asks new kid in town Will Burton (Connell) to manage her fledgling rock band, she appears to have just one goal in mind: go head-to-head against her egotistical musician ex-boyfriend, Ben (Porter), at the biggest event of the year, a battle of the bands called Bandslam. Against all odds, their band develops a sound all its own with a real shot at success in the contest.
Meanwhile, romance brews between Will and Sa5m (Hudgens), who plays a mean guitar and has a voice to die for. When disaster strikes, it's time for the band to make a choice: Do they admit defeat, or face the music and stand up for what they believe in?
Featuring dynamic musical performances by its multi-talented cast, the film is directed by Todd Graff (Camp) from a screenplay penned by Graff and Josh A. Cagan ("Undergrads").
LET'S START A ROCK BAND
When it came time to cast Bandslam's three leads, the filmmakers knew they needed players who possessed both extraordinary acting ability and musical chops. For the character of Sa5m ("the 5 is silent"), a quirky outsider who eventually finds her voice in the coming-of-age story, the filmmakers needed an actress with the skills to make the slightly odd, introverted character likeable--and the musical ability to rock the house in the film's climactic scene. It was a tall order, but one perfectly filled by actress and singer Vanessa Hudgens, known to millions of adoring fans for her role as Gabriella Montez in the mega-hit High School Musical franchise. In addition to her acting experience on stage and in films, Hudgens has recorded two hit albums.
"I met Vanessa very early on in the casting process while she was in New York doing press for 'High School Musical,' and really liked her," recalls Goldsmith-Thomas. "She's a cool, very honest, sweet person."
After gaining worldwide recognition for playing the brainy, popular Gabriella in the phenomenally successful High School Musical trilogy, Hudgens was thrilled to have the opportunity to stretch as an actress. "Sa5m's very moody and standoffish; kind of the outcast of the crowd," she says. "I've been playing the sweet, nice girl for a while. Don't get me wrong, it's a great character to play, but it's a lot like me; I really wanted to play a different character. Going out of my comfort zone to play the opposite of me was really exciting to me as an actor. I got to have a lot of fun with it."
Hudgens enjoyed working with director Todd Graff, who is himself a former actor. "Todd gave us notes we would actually understand," laughs Hudgens. "He would just tell it to us like it was and explore all the options we had in a scene. Todd also has an amazing voice; he's a great singer. His knowledge of music definitely sets this movie apart. All the references in the movie--like writing letters to David Bowie--are really neat because that's something he really knows about."
The actress was also excited to be on location in a new city--Austin, Texas--with her young castmates. "Aly and I knew each other before, but we really got to know each other here. We had a lot of fun together. I am such a bad influence on her when it comes to shopping! Also, I fell love with Austin because of the music. I loved just being able to go out to dinner or walk down the street and there would be a live band playing. It was just a nice change and really relaxing. Everyone was so laid back."
Pop recording artist and actress Aly Michalka (half of the pop duo Aly & AJ) was cast to portray high school "it" girl Charlotte Banks. An accomplished musician and songwriter in real-life, Michalka was drawn to the script's combination of humor and pathos.
"It's a very funny and witty script," she observes. "But at the same time it's not so light and funny that it can't be real life. There are heartbreaks and struggles. This is a really rare type of movie and I wanted to be a part of it. I never thought that I would be doing a movie with music in it, because I usually keep my music and my acting separate. But, I had to do this because it is so different and I really respect the way that Todd envisioned it.
The singer-actress was also attracted to the role of Charlotte. "She's a very cool character. She definitely is a tough girl who fronts this band, but she has a sensitive side to her, and you see the arc in her character over the course of the film, which is great.
She's really funny and witty and is always on her toes and has something to say."
Michalka says she identifies with the character on several levels: "She definitely is stubborn and so am I. She also has a lot of confidence, but sometimes doubts herself."
Goldsmith-Thomas sees Michalka as the perfect choice for the role of Charlotte. "Aly is gorgeous, strong, funny and goofy. She's beautiful like Bridgette Bardot in the '60s. Aly is the woman every guy wants to meet."
Michalka was thrilled to be part of such a large group of young actors who all shared so much in common. "I think the reason we bonded so well as a cast is because we all had spent time together, on and off set. We'd go out and see a band play or have dinner together, or hang out and play Rock Band in the dressing room. It was like a family. It's hard to find people you can really connect with as artists. We all get each other. We're all different and quirky in our own ways, but we're all musicians and it's just a lot of fun.
We goof around and make music together. It's genuine, it's something that's really honest and I think that comes off on screen."
Bandslam isn't truly a musical in the sense that characters don't burst into song during dramatic scenes. Instead, the music comes naturally out of the setting of a group of bands preparing for a competition. "What I find really interesting is that Todd was able to write music around the story," says Michalka. "If you took the music out, everything would still make sense, but the music speaks for itself."
Gaelan Connell stars as music savant Will Burton, who transfers at the beginning of his junior year to a New Jersey high school where the students are obsessed with a local tri-state battle of the bands competition called Bandslam. Used to being a misfit, Will is thrilled to find that for the first time in his life he is uniquely suited not only to participate in something, but to truly make a difference.
"Will is this pretty awkward teenage boy who, although he can't really play any musical instruments, knows a great deal about music," Connell explains. "He's got this encyclopedic knowledge of all the classics, what makes a great song, and that's why he makes it his mission to form this rock band at his new school."
Director Graff offers his own description of Connell's character: "When the movie starts, Will has retreated entirely into his own world. All he does is sit in his room and obsess about music. He doesn't even deal with music in any real world kind of way. He doesn't go to clubs or shows, doesn't join a band, doesn't play anything. For him, music is not about contact and community. It's about escape and solace. During the course of the movie, however, he is forced--kicking and screaming--by Charlotte into interacting with other people. By managing the band and turning it into the vision he has in his head, he learns how to connect."
The filmmakers felt blessed to find a young, gifted actor for whom the role resonated on both an emotional and musical level. "The material spoke to him in a unique way and his talent gave the role dimension," says Goldsmith-Thomas. "In a way, we are all Will. We want to hide when we are embarrassed. He's also a kid who bears the burden of the sins of his father."
Graff was extremely impressed by Connell's ability to portray the uncomfortable, introverted Will. "It's complicated to play a character who's all about self-protection and just wants to disappear, particularly for a young actor because kids usually wear their emotions on their sleeves. But as openhearted as Gaelan is as a person and as an actor, there was something he was able to access that felt like somebody trying, not entirely successfully, to hide what they're feeling. That was a real important nuance for the character."
Although Connell's and Will's temperaments are worlds apart, their musical interests substantially overlap. "Will loves the indie music scene and we're pretty similar in musical tastes," says the actor of his onscreen alter-ego. "There are several bands in the movie, like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah that I was definitely listening to before I ever picked up the script. It's cool to be saying the lines about bands that you listen to at home anyway. Let's just say Will has a great taste in music."
Although Connell is an accomplished musician who plays cello and guitar and sings in a band, Graff took it upon himself to expand the actor's musical knowledge. "My first day in Austin there were five rock 'n' roll books in my room," Connell recalls. "I'm not talking about little books, I'm talking about 500-page books of everything I'd ever need to know about rock 'n' roll."
As Graff explains, "Will is supposed to be obsessed with music, not simply because it's just a quirky character trait, but because it is literally all that he has. He has to invest completely and fully and emotionally in what music represents to him. I don't really know how you do that as an actor unless you do the homework and you do the research and you connect somehow. Since Gaelan is a musician, he was able connect."
The musical education turned out to be a two-way street, says Graff. "His iPod is literally like my iPod. Gaelan made me a playlist of stuff that I didn't have. He got off on coming up to me and saying, 'Have you heard of blah, blah, blah?' And if I hadn't, it made his day."
Connell also embodied the innocence of the Will character, says co-star Vanessa Hudgens. "Gaelen Connell is kind of a newcomer to the business; this is his first big thing. He also came into this later than anybody else did and really just jumped in with both feet. You could tell he was nervous. It's so funny because all the time he kept saying, 'I'm just really awkward.' I'm like, 'Okay, good. Keep that,'" she laughs.
In fact, Connell had to jump in on his first day of rehearsal by running through not one, but two different kissing scenes, one with each of his leading ladies.
"I just met them that day! Having to work with these wonderful girls and having to kiss them totally freaked me out. So what you see on screen is actually, believe it or not, just true emotion," laughs Connell. "Todd wanted real when he cast this film--and I was real scared!"
Connell locked lips with Michalka for the scene in which, as part of her efforts to draw Will out of his shell, Charlotte helps Will prepare for a date with Sa5m. "It's a really sweet scene of me teaching Will how to kiss," explains Michalka. "I'm like, 'put your right hand up near my face, slow, okay, stay there, now close your eyes'… it's just funny. He's nervous and shaking and it's just a very sweet scene. It's the best first kiss you could have. And he falls out of the car, and it's just hilarious."
But it's in Sa5m that the loner Will, much to his delight, finds his true soul mate, says Graff. "Will's relationship with Sa5m is thrilling to him in that he never thought there was another person in the world like him. This girl gets that there is another perspective on the world other than a sheep mentality, other than having to be in the right clique, other than having to listen to this kind of music and wear these kinds of clothes. The idea that he's not alone in the world is very heady for him and very exciting and very comforting.
"Will looks at Charlotte, on the other hand, like she's growing in a Petri dish," laughs Graff. "He has no concept of what a person like this is, and yet she will not leave him alone. She will not allow him to stay stagnant. She will not allow him to be on the margins of life. She takes Will under her wing for her own personal reasons, but she's a good person deep in her heart. When Will has to deal with the fact that Charlotte and Sa5m don't get along, it's tough because they're each giving him something essential and new and disorienting, and he's just treading water as best he can."
Graff saw actor Scott Porter performing off-Broadway a few years before the film began production, and kept him in mind to play Charlotte's ex-boyfriend Ben Wheatley--leader of Bandslam favorites Ben Wheatley and The Glory Dogs.
Porter says he was interested in the project for a number of reasons, including the director's sensibilities, the smart script, original characters and the chance to perform music on screen.
"What sets Todd aside is his attention to detail," comments Porter. "He makes sure that we rehearse, so we know strictly where we're coming from, before we start shooting. But then, once we're filming, he's able to lay back and see what happens. Let's make it organic and let's really go for it. He made sure that there wasn't an ounce of corniness or anything. He wanted everything to be really genuine. Once you make it as real as possible, that's when it really piques my interest, and that's what Todd is all about."
Porter believes teens are hungry for an intelligent story with heart. "This is a breakthrough, a fresh approach. These characters have so many layers and Todd really fleshed out Ben in the revisions. He could have very easily been shot as a very flat, typical ex-boyfriend jerk kind of character. But once we really delved in, we figured out that he's just a little confused. He is a kid. He wants to win. He's come so close, so many times. But he's not a hateful person. He's not a jealous person. Everyone, including Ben, is wondering why Charlotte left him behind. What did I do? I was a great boyfriend. I was good to you. I'm a rock 'n' roll star. What more could you want? He's really confused and really head over heels for Charlotte."
In the New Jersey high school Will, Sa5m, Charlotte and Ben attend, music is the focal point instead of sports, Porter observes. "Like in Texas where high school football is everything--in Jersey, music is everything. Bandslam is like their high school football play-offs. Ben Wheatley has been the front man for the band that their high school has sent three years in a row. After being the runner-up twice, he recruits these mega monster, future rock 'n' roll hall of fame players, these prodigies, and he brings them in and replaces some of his friends. Ben's not a bad guy. He's a good guy who's got a great heart, but he's just really competitive. He's as close to a rock star as you get in that school. He's misunderstood for a good portion of the movie."
Emmy Award-winning actress Lisa Kudrow brings her unique comic gifts to the role of Karen Burton, Will's protective mother, whose new job moves them to New Jersey. She also becomes the object of a schoolboy crush of the drummer in her son's band.
"Lisa plays this character with great pathos and humor," says producer Goldsmith-Thomas. "You believe she's a great mom, you believe her guilt and you believe she's doing the best she can for her son."
"What I really loved about this story and the character of Will is, that as poorly as he's being treated, he does have a certain amount of inner strength and maturity to understand that it's temporary and he's just going to get through it," says Kudrow. "High school is not the happiest time for most people, but it's four years. You just have to know it'll be over at some point."
According to Kudrow, her character's past experiences have led her to be suspicious of the world and overly protective of her son. "She just doesn't trust anything and she certainly doesn't trust Charlotte. This beautiful ex-cheerleader girl is interested in my son… I mean, that doesn't add up. I know he's great, but she doesn't think Charlotte's smart enough to notice."
Kudrow especially enjoyed the youthful exuberance of newcomer Connell. "He's just so excited to be here and he's like, 'I'm the lead in a movie!' The first day he said, 'They keep yelling for first team. Is that us?' I said 'Yeah, first team's us.' It just makes it all a little more exciting. It makes you remember how exciting it was when you were starting out."
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
TODD GRAFF (Director and Screenwriter) made his acclaimed directorial debut with Camp, entered in Dramatic Competition at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.
Following a successful tour of the festival circuit--including the New Directors / New Films Festival at Lincoln Center, the Sydney Film Festival (where it took top prize), Provincetown Film Festival (Best Film), and many others--Camp was subsequently released by IFC Films.
Following a successful career as an actor in films such as The Abyss and on Broadway in "Baby," for which he received a Tony Award nomination and a Theatre World Award, Graff made a name for himself as a screenwriter.
His screenwriting credits include both credited and uncredited work on Used People, Zoolander, Dangerous Minds, Coyote Ugly, The Preacher's Wife and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, among others. Graff has also written the upcoming projects The Crowded Room, for Regency Films/Fox Searchlight, and Tomorrow Never Knows, the biography of Beatles manager Brian Epstein, to be played by Jude Law.
JOSH A. CAGAN (Screenwriter) spent seven years of his life in theatre school, at the end of which he broke up with theatre entirely, saying, "It's not you, it's me. " He fell into the willing arms of MTV Animation, where he served as the head writer in their development department. He helped bring the series "Undergrads" to air in 2001, the first season of which still runs on Teletoon in Canada and does a brisk DVD business.
Cagan aligned himself with H2F Entertainment in 2003 to make the switch to features and in early 2004 he did just that, selling two spec scripts in two weeks: Bandslam and Gotta Dance, which is a funny movie about a big guy who falls down. A lot.
In 2007, Cagan sold the family comedy The Man Who Rocks the Cradle to New Line Cinema with Samuel L. Jackson attached to star and produce. When he's not working on his own, Cagan's also a member of the six-man writing team "The Job Factory," which as a collective has sold projects to Revolution Studios and the Walt Disney Co
MAKING BEAUTIFUL MUSIC TOGETHER
MAKING THE FILM
THE MUSIC TEAM
THE ART OF ORIGINAL FILMMAKING