In the new film “School of Rock,” Jack Black portrays Dewey Finn, an unemployed musician whose dreams of making it big have overshadowed his every other ambition in life. After his band, No Vacancy, boots him in a push for corporate-rock glory, Dewey seems to be at the end of his rope. But a chance phone call leads to an unusual opportunity: substitute teaching fifth graders at a prestigious private school.
Once in the classroom, Dewey dispenses with the regular curriculum and begins to mold his students into a hard-driving rock’n’roll machine with an eye on a bigger prize: a lucrative “battle of the bands” showdown that will once again pit him against No Vacancy.
Directed by Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused,” “Slacker”), “School of Rock” features a cast of pre-teens chosen as much for their acting skills as their musical chops. The kids play all of their instruments in the film and on the Atlantic soundtrack, due today (Sept. 30). Black will join them for a Friday appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” as well as a Wednesday slot on “Live With Regis and Kelly.”
The musical aspect of the film was aided by former Shudder To Think frontman Craig Wedren, who penned the score and the original song “Heal Me, I’m Heartsick.” Sonic Youth member/producer Jim O’Rourke worked behind-the-scenes, helping the child actors get a handle on playing music with a rock’n’roll feel.
Black, who is also one-half of the beloved comedy/rock duo Tenacious D, recently spoke with Billboard.com about his experiences on the set of “School of Rock” and his upcoming projects.
How much time was spent working on this film?
Jack Black: I guess it was three months. That’s how long it usually takes. A 10-week limit. All I know is that it was during the coldest part of winter in New York. Those three months. Icy. We shot mostly in Long Island, Staten Island and Queens.
Where is this supposed to take place? Some scenes reminded me of Chicago.
Yeah, it doesn’t say. I don’t think it ever does say. It was cold. There was talk of doing it in Austin, because that’s where [director Richard] Linklater is from and he knows the area so well. But they thought there’d be more areas in New York that looked like places where there’d be a school like that. I think they were right. I like the way it looks.
Were the kids pre-screened so it was ensured they had enough musical ability to rock the house?
Oh, yeah. They saw thousands of kids. There’s a casting director. Ultimately, it’s Linklater’s call. They say 90% of directing is casting, and he’s got a real talent for finding people. Everyone trusted his instincts when it came to the casting, for sure.
But were they auditioning as musicians as well?
Um, yes. Well, it was definitely a prerequisite that they have tasty musical chops. Really, you kind of needed prodigies, if they were going to be 10 years old and playing all the songs we needed them to play. That’s kind of what we got.
Were you involved in this process?
By the time it got to me, it was really down to like, three or four kids for each part. They had narrowed it down. I read with a couple of them, yeah, but I wasn’t sifting through resumes. I wasn’t doing the grunt work on that job, no.
How set in stone was the storyline? Did anything change once you got going?
No. [Actor/writer] Mike [White] did a few re-writes based on notes from the producer and from Richard and I. But by the time we started shooting, it was pretty much set. The only thing that wasn’t set was that we didn’t have all the songs written. That was scary, because you’re working on a time limit and you’ve got to get these songs. I wrote most of the ones in the classroom. All of the little nuggets are mine, you know what I mean? They’re not really songs. I was able to pull it off, because the guy is supposed to be kind of a failed musician. A frustrated rocker. It’s okay if they were kind of crappy but delivered with passion. That sort of added to the comedy. And you know, I’m a songwriter. We put out an album with Tenacious D, but we had 10 years to f***in’ put that thing together and only a few months to write all the songs in the movie! I tried, but I failed. We needed help. That was the real challenge, to get the songs together.
And that’s where Craig Wedren and Jim O’Rourke came in, right?
Did Craig tell you that Linklater told him he wanted a Creed ballad for No Vacancy to play? It’s like, annoying, but also kind of good and catchy. He nailed it, I thought.
Who else helped you with the songs?
[Tenacious D collaborator] Liam [Lynch] helped out a little bit on “Step Off.” Besides that, it was Mike writing a lot of the lyrics. “In the End of Time,” I cranked that one out myself.
Were there any musical bits that didn’t make the cut?
Uh, no. All the music that was tasty nuggets, they all made it in. There was one scene that got cut out, where I go to my brother’s house to ask him for money. And his son is having his fifth birthday. I forgot that it was his birthday and I didn’t have a present. So I pretend like I have brought him the gift of music and I play “Happy Birthday” on my guitar. But that scene was cut, and I think for good reason. I could see it making it back on the DVD.
Who played the brother?
A really good actor and I can’t remember his name [laughs]. I have a really bad memory.
Did you have any qualms in working with a cast largely made up of young kids?
The only qualm I had was that there’s a stigma against kid movies now, where automatically people think, “uh oh, kids movie. Automatically sh*tty.” But we were kind of on a mission to make a really funny one. A really good one. There was a time when those movies didn’t have that stigma, like “Bad News Bears” and “Willy Wonka.” Those are just great movies. You don’t think of them as kids movies. I didn’t bring the soft and cuddly version of Jack Black. I brought the hard rock! Yeah. I think they were a little scared at first, because I brought some crazy energy. I don’t know that they were prepared for it. But then they got used to it after a couple of days and we had a good time.
Did you wind up doing anything that would amount to a jam between you and the kids?
Yeah! I mean, we had six weeks of rehearsal and a lot of that was just jamming. The kids jammed a lot more than I did, because I was rehearsing a lot of scenes with the rest of the cast. I felt like we were pretty tight on the two or three songs we worked on. We sounded good, man. We could totally open for a real band.
Jim said Robert Tsai, who played the keyboardist, Lawrence, was a bit stiff when it came to initially understanding how to rock.
That’s true. Well, he was the one who was actually the most accomplished musician and the least rock. The rest of them had at least a working knowledge of rock, especially the drummer and the lead guitar player. Those guys were really into it, actually. The drummer, Kevin Clark, was a full Metallica head. Joey Gaydos, the lead guitarist, has an encyclopedic knowledge of classic rock and would definitely beat me if we were in a trivia contest. The bass player, Rebecca Brown, she was a real quick study. She knew a little bit.
Are you going to be playing live with the kids on TV?
Yeah. We’re going to play “Leno.” I’m scared because, you know, unlike the kids, I’m unable to pull off some of the stuff we did in the movie. The lead guitar solos, I mean, the sh*tty ones I do in the classroom are mine [laughs]. But the ones at the beginning and end of the movie, I’m not good like that. I don’t solo. I’m a power chord guy. I let Kyle [Gass] do all the solos in Tenacious D, pretty much, unless it calls for a crappy one that’s funny. That’s when I step in. When there’s a face-melting solo [in the movie], check out my hands. I’m always moving them. It’s hard to get a bead on what I’m doing [laughs], and that’s for good reason. So, when we play on “Leno,” I think we actually have to cut it down for time anyway. The first thing that will be cut will be my guitar solo. Otherwise, I’m going to have to pull out the rare and controversial “Ventrilo-solo.” You can’t see my lips moving, but I am singing the guitar solo and moving my fingers as if I’m playing it.
You wouldn’t, would you?
If I had to. It actually might be the best part [he begins humming the solo into the phone]. I’m already ready to do it, but I’m hoping we cut it out. Even though my “Ventrilo-solo” skills are tight, I will be exposed by those who really know.
Is that going to be the lone TV appearance?
Believe it or not, I think we’re going to do “Regis” [laughs].
Well, at least that might give you the opportunity to kick over a table or something.
Yeah. Well, that goes without saying. I’m going to try to rip the lid off of it every time we play because, by God, we’re trying to get people to come to the movie. We have to actually really rock, which I’m confident we can. But there’s always an extra pressure when it’s on TV. It’s kind of like the moneyball of live performance.
What is next up for you? Will you move right into the Tenacious D movie?
That’s the plan. We’re done writing it now. It’s a little premature to say which studio is putting it out.
Do you know how many new Tenacious D songs there will be?
There’ll be a few, and there will be a few old ones too, because this is actually a chronicling of the history of the D. It wouldn’t be right without a few of the highlights from the past. They belong to our history. There will be some new ones.
Are you intending for the movie soundtrack to double as the next Tenacious D album?
That’s definitely the plan. We don’t want to put out another record before the movie comes out, that’s for sure. We’d use up all of our nuggets.
When will all of this get underway?
After the New Year. Shoot it early in the year and release it hopefully by the end of the year. You know, we’re releasing the Tenacious D DVD on Nov. 4, and it’s called “Tenacious D: The Complete Masterworks.” It has all the “Mr. Show” stuff, and it also has our greatest live performance ever captured on film. London. What made it special is that I battle and slay a 70-foot dragon. Fire-breathing, I might add. At great expense. We paid a lot to rent the dragon. It breathed too much smoke and you couldn’t see us for awhile, but you could hear us rocking. Then, as the smoke clears, you see that the f***in’ dragon has been vanquished.
Do you think Tenacious D will play any shows in the near future?
I don’t know. I’d like to shoot the movie first and then do some shows, you know what I mean? Priority one is the movie. We toured the crap out of that last album. I’m definitely into the next thing.