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Just as the film’s protagonist found a circuitous path into the entertainment industry, Coyote Ugly itself did not have an easy journey to the big screen.
With Coyote Ugly celebrating the 15th anniversary of its theatrical release, director David McNally, screenwriter Gina Wendkos and stars Piper Perabo, Bridget Moynahan and Maria Bello spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the making of the film. The movie, which grossed $113 million worldwide, centers on aspiring-songwriter Violet (Perabo), who moves from New Jersey to the Big Apple to pursue her dreams but ends up turning heads with her dance moves on the top of a bar.
The film’s team tells THR how producer Jerry Bruckheimer helped save Wendkos from getting fired by Disney’s then-president, why Perabo won the role over Jessica Simpson and how Perabo later got the “disappointing” news that her singing voice would be dubbed over by that of LeAnn Rimes.
Wendkos almost got the boot — until Bruckheimer saved the day.
Coyote Ugly began its life when Bruckheimer optioned a magazine article — about the real-life downtown New York City bar of the same name — and began looking for a writer. Gina Wendkos, who was sick of writing for sitcoms and did not yet have a feature writing credit to her name, landed the gig, eventually penning 60 drafts before passing it along to Bruckheimer.
Wendkos received the sole writing credit on the project, but it was almost not meant to be, as Disney’s then-president tried to have her axed before she had even handed in a draft, assuming that a first-time feature writer couldn’t handle the gig. Luckily, Bruckheimer came to her rescue. “Jerry says, ‘You’re not getting fired,’ ” Wendkos recalls. “‘You’re not leaving. … You’ll be [in this business] a lot longer than [the exec] is.’ And [Jerry] was right.” Wendkos adds that the president who tried to get her canned is no longer working in the industry. She also praises Bruckheimer as “the only producer that I’ve worked with that stood up when the bank was saying, ‘Go another way.’ “
McNally landed the directing job, thanks to a beer ad about a lobster.
With the script in place, Bruckheimer and producing partner Chad Oman began compiling a list with the names of over 30 potential directors. One of those was commercials director David McNally, whose recently launched production company received a very important call the day after McNally’s Budweiser spot featuring a lobster — which was his first U.S. commercial — was voted the best ad to air during the 1999 Super Bowl. “[My office] said a guy named Jerry Bruckheimer [called]: ‘Have you ever heard of him? He wants to see some more of your work.’ ” McNally, who had yet to direct a feature film and didn’t even have an agent, claims he was 30th on Bruckheimer’s list of possible helmers at that time, but he landed the job, which he feels is due in part to his belief that the cast should be comprised primarily of unknowns.
Kevin Smith didn’t quite have what the film was looking for.
Wendkos‘ script underwent a series of rewrites, with Kevin Smith stepping in to write a draft. McNally calls Smith’s effort “terrific” but “pretty raunchy” and ultimately “missing an emotional element to the relationship thing.” McNally credits Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can) as the writer who ultimately “brought the thing home.”
Jessica Simpson as Violet?
Casting the lead role of Violet was no easy task. “We did our due diligence and saw everybody,” McNally says. The director admits that Jessica Simpson was a “contender” for the role, with Perabo adding that Jewel was also up for the part. “Toward the end of the process, Piper walked in,” McNally explains. “She was actually from New Jersey and seemed to get it.” He adds that “everyone loved” her screen test and “that was the end of that.”
Bridget Moynahan’s headshot was sitting in the right box.
As difficult as it was to land on the right Violet, casting the role of strong-willed Coyote Ugly bartender Rachel proved an even greater challenge. “[Casting director] Bonnie [Timmermann] and I were actually at our wit’s end,” McNally says, explaining that Bruckheimer wasn’t pleased with the people who auditioned for the part. Finally, McNally and Zimmermann resorted to “actually thumbing through headshots in a large box,” at which point they stumbled on Moynahan, who had merely a Dove commercial to her name. Moynahan, who admits to not knowing who Bruckheimer was at the time, concurs: “I think they saw absolutely every girl on the planet in every single country.”
Adam Garcia danced a little too well.
Perabo remembers all the dance scenes being “really challenging” to film. “It gets really hot, and you do it again and again and again,” she says. But one person who didn’t struggle with nailing the moves was Adam Garcia, who played Violet’s love interest Kevin. Garcia, who is an accomplished dancer and was recently a judge on Australia’s Dancing With the Stars, was told by Bruckheimer that he was moving too well in his scenes. “American guys don’t really know how to do that,” Perabo recalls Bruckheimer informing Garcia, so she says the actor “had to keep figuring out how to make [his dancing] worse and worse.”
Perabo got some “disappointing” news about her singing.
Perabo initially sang and recorded all of the film’s tunes but was later informed that her singing voice would be replaced by that of LeAnn Rimes, which wasn’t easy for Perabo to take at first. “[McNally] said, ‘We’re going to dub the songs,’ and I was like, ‘Uh, OK.’ What can I say? I’m like 21. What am I going to say, no?” Perabo calls it “disappointing,” pointing out that she had been so excited about performing the songs that she had sent the album tracks with her voice on them to her mom to hear. Still, Perabo says she wanted to do “whatever’s going to make the movie great,” pointing out that she moved to Hollywood to become an actress, not a singer. The soundtrack ended up going four-times platinum, and lead single “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” hit No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Bruckheimer warned McNally to not read the reviews.
Wendkos, whose writing credits include The Princess Diaries, admits she didn’t have high expectations for critics’ reactions to Coyote, which currently holds a 22 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. “I knew they’d be lousy,” she says of reviews. “I knew this was not Citizen Kane.” Adds McNally: “I’ll never forget — Jerry called me the morning after the premiere, and the first thing he said was, ‘You’re not reading the reviews, are you?’ ” Bruckheimer instead encouraged McNally to “go out to theaters and see how people like it,” with the producer comparing audience reactions to those for his previous crowd-pleaser Flashdance, which similarly had trouble winning over critics.
The film’s legacy? It showed “young women who were in charge of their own sexuality.”
Bello, who played bar owner Lil, says she still has 12-year-old girls — who weren’t even born yet when the film debuted — coming up to her to tell her they love the movie. “It was one of the first films ever that showed young women who were in charge of their own sexuality, and they weren’t being used for their sexuality, but they were deciding how to dress and how to act and what to do,” the actress says of why the film holds up. “And they weren’t objectified — they were benefiting just from being authentic in themselves.”
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