When I say or hear that name, I’m flooded with memories, as if I’m recalling an old boyfriend. “Billy Madison” turns 20 this week, and it remains the most surprisingly resonant project I have ever directed. I can’t believe how much of an impact it has had over the years. When I walk by crew members on a set, I often hear them quoting the film, typically repeating Billy’s classic “I am the smartest man alive” exclamation or making a Veronica Vaughn reference. I’ll think that they’re doing it to be kind to me. Then I realize they have no idea that I made “Billy Madison.”
In 1994, Universal asked me to fly to New York to meet the young Adam Sandler, who at the time was most famous as the opera guy and canteen boy* on “Saturday Night Live.” Having made “CB4” for Universal, I was the studio’s first choice for directing “Billy Madison,” which was Adam’s first starring role. I have a fondness for Jewish boys from New York (I’m married to Mike D of the Beastie Boys) and thought our meeting went well, but later heard from the studio that Adam wanted to work with an old friend.
In a strange twist of events, the director they hired shot for a few days, and then I got a call that Universal wanted me to replace him. I flew to the set in Toronto on a Thursday and started work on Monday. The movie was in trouble — Adam was so stressed that his neck had stiffened up and he couldn’t move his head. My job was to save the film and make it funny.
I hung out as much as possible with Adam and Tim Herlihy, the movie’s writer. I was trying to understand his comedy, become his biggest fan and laugh as much as possible at this silly world that we were about to create. I overloaded the sets and costumes with color to show how a kid sees things. My other goal was to make sure every crew member on the set was happy and giving me their best work. I wanted Adam to walk on set and only see faces looking to laugh.
This being Adam’s first starring role put a lot of pressure on the film, but the low budget and physical distance from the studio made me feel like I had the freedom to try anything. Producer Bob Simonds protected us from the studio execs. I don’t think they had any idea what Adam’s style of comedy really was when they greenlighted the project—and neither did I. Most of what was scripted didn’t make much sense to me at first. Why are your friends so old? I wondered. What’s up with the inappropriate nanny? And that penguin?
I learned early in my career to not let myself get in the way of humor, but instead find what is great in a talented person. I always had to genuinely like the actors I worked with and use my enthusiasm and vision to give them confidence to push their creativity and their humor.
Many of the stranger but most frequently quoted scenes in “Billy Madison” were unplanned. I don’t remember the “shampoo is better” conversation Adam has with himself being in the script, but that was what happened when Adam was loose and having fun.
One late night, Adam called me to tell me his plans for a dodge ball scene. He said he was going to actually hit the children with the ball, and he couldn’t stop laughing as he told me how funny it is to hurt a kid in comedy. Instead of telling him he was crazy, I believed him and got the parents’ permission for their kids to get hit genuinely hard. The kids started crying as soon as the ball hit them, so I had to cut away before the audience could see. (Incidentally, E! News was coming by the set that day. I tried to keep them as far away from the dodge ball as possible.)
Another Adam idea produced one of the darker moments of the film — when the clown falls down and a trickle of blood comes out of its mouth. When he told me about it, I was skeptical. We did it anyway, and it was hilarious.
We spent our nights hanging out with Chris Farley and David Spade, who were shooting “Tommy Boy” at the same time. We played a game in which one of us would fake our death and then be discovered by the group — Farley turned up naked with an Evian bottle up his bottom, and Adam was strangled with women’s panties. I loved that time and totally laughed my butt off.
During filming, I was obsessed with making Adam look attractive. I thought he was cute, and I wanted girls to like him, too. I harangued him if I found him eating two hamburgers, and I blocked scenes for his best angles. The Adam I knew was funny and adorable, and I tried to put that guy on film.
I wanted Bridgette Wilson, who played his teacher and love interest, to be not only beautiful, but smart and able to throw a punch. I tried not to oversexualize her — teachers don’t wear super-short skirts, so I had to change her wardrobe — and she’s not a ditzy character. The role holds up, especially compared to other female film leads from that time.
We had no idea what would happen with the film, which was quite unusual at the time; the boy/man comedy, on which Adam would go on to base his entire career, hadn’t really happened yet.
The studio didn’t know what to think about the film, which was, frankly, weird. Thank god for audience test scores — they loved it. Usually a director fears test audiences, but the 400 kids who saw it went crazy. (The kids didn’t seem to pay attention to Steve Buscemi’s lipstick scene, though adults laughed.) The studio was happy, and I didn’t have to make any of their incorrect changes, like taking out the shot of the family going over a cliff in a station wagon to their deaths.
The film opened at No. 1 at the box office, but the critics hated it. I was used to great reviews — my first film, “Guncrazy,” starring Drew Barrymore, was a critical darling. It was hard for me to hear anyone saying they didn’t like “Billy Madison.” I found solace in thinking that if a critic liked “Billy,” we failed; we didn’t make the film for stuffy intellectual critics, but for us, crazy kids who loved to party and have fun.
What’s behind the staying power of “Billy Madison”? Bridgette’s intelligent character certainly keeps the film from being too dated, and, weirdly, Steve’s storyline about a bullied kid grown up helps the movie feel relevant. This was long before bullying was a public topic. We were all so innocent in a way at the time. There was no predictability and no interference. We were trying to do whatever we thought was funny. It wasn’t a studio formula; it’s honest comedy.
* CORRECTION: This piece originally stated that Adam Sandler played goat boy on “Saturday Night Live.” In fact, Jim Breuer played goat boy; Sandler played canteen boy.