'School Ties' director reflects on the film that launched the careers of Brendan Fraser, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck

Yahoo Entertainment's Ethan Alter sat down with Robert Mandel, director of the 1992 coming-of-age film School Ties, to talk about working with the young and eventual star-studded cast. With names like Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Brendan Fraser and Chris O'Donnell all in the early stages of their career at the time, Mandel had plenty to reflect on.

Video Transcript

- If I did cheat and you did see me and didn't report it, you'd be in violation too.

- I know. But I can't let the whole class fail.

- He's bluffing. He won't fail anybody.

- Gierasch wouldn't bluff.

ETHAN ALTER: Bob, I know we're talking about "School Ties" today, and that was big for my teen years. When you came on board, you said some actors were already cast. Were Matt Damon or any of those people cast at that point? Or who were the actors who are already in place when you came on?

ROBERT MANDEL: Many of the main actors had been cast. We had not found the lead, Brendan, and the movie wouldn't be greenlit until we did. And it took a pretty long time to find that person. They had done-- and I continued to do a massive talent search.

At that time, we didn't have a lot of streaming. So people sent tapes. And I went to New York to see the casting directors. And people flew in. Certainly, Matt and Ben came in from Boston. And Chris came in from Chicago. And so it was a massive talent search. And then we brought them all back for a screen test because we thought we'd find the lead among the people who already either had been cast or we thought should be tested. And we didn't.

So we kept looking, and finally a new talent agent casting director found Brendan in Seattle. None of them had done very much. So you couldn't reference a whole lot of their past work. You had to go by what you saw in the room. And then finally, we brought a number of them into Hollywood to screen test them. And that's how we got it.

ETHAN ALTER: Dick Wolf had based the script in part on his own experience as well, going to school and being a Jewish student in a predominantly Catholic and Christian background. Speaking more about the cast, notably, the lead, Brendan Fraser, is not Jewish. And there isn't a Jewish actor among the main cast.


ETHAN ALTER: If you made the movie again today, do you think you would maybe more lean in that direction to cast a Jewish actor in that role?

ROBERT MANDEL: I would try. If I couldn't find the right person, I probably would not. I'm not sure how it would be perceived today. We looked high and low. And the important quality of that character was that he had to feel different from the others. I mean, they really had to be a different feeling. And the others, when many of the others tested for that role, they didn't quite have that quality. And I thought Brendan did bring that quality.

ETHAN ALTER: Well, speaking of Matt Damon, was he considered for David? Was that ever a reality?

ROBERT MANDEL: I'm sure we tested him for David. But we loved him for Dillon. So it wasn't just that we were looking for David. We didn't want to give up a Dillon. We didn't want to give up-- we knew what we had.

ETHAN ALTER: It's so interesting. Two of his best roles, I think, have been "School Ties" as a villain then also "The Talented Mr. Ripley." There's something about him that leans really well into darkness when he's willing to go there. I wonder if that was part of it for you, you saw the sort of darkness behind his All-American looks too.

ROBERT MANDEL: Yes, I think you're right. I think he does willingly go there. He doesn't resist. When I think about willing to go there, I mean, the shower scene is a pretty big scene for these guys who have never been on camera before.

- It turns out our golden boy here is a lying, backstabbing [BLEEP].

ROBERT MANDEL: That scene, although it was written in the script, was not addressed in the screen tests. It was you're on the set, and you do it at a certain point in the movie when everybody is very cohesive. But you still ask, and you still want them to do it. And they were. They were good about it.

ETHAN ALTER: Yeah, I was going to ask about that scene actually because Matt Damon doing rear nudity at that point, showing his butt at that point, was probably a big deal for him to have to do.

ROBERT MANDEL: It was. I mean, I'm sure it was for all of them. And you put it on the call sheet, just-- I mean-- and you close the set, and you do what you need to do.

ETHAN ALTER: But that is Matt Damon's butt in the movie. He didn't use a stunt double for that.

ROBERT MANDEL: No, it's all their butts. It's Brendan-- all of those people were there. We knew that it was an important scene, and we had to do it. And they did it. And it was great. I mean, cutting that scene was also difficult. I mean, we obviously had outtakes we couldn't use. And then when we previewed it in a little longer version, the audience got very uncomfortable watching it. So you had to kind of cut it down to size that would be within keeping with the rest of the movie.

ROBERT MANDEL: What made the audience uncomfortable at the shower scene?

ETHAN ALTER: There was a time when you're with the movie and you're with the boys, and when it went on for too long, it kind of took you out of the movie, and you thought, oh my God, they're really naked in the shower, and they're doing-- suddenly the audience became aware of the physicality. Would they get hurt? And you know what I'm saying? It wasn't in the storyline.

- (SINGING) Diggin' all them scenes at Smokey Joe's Cafe. This chick came walking through the door that I had never seen before.

ETHAN ALTER: Was it Ben's idea in that big scene where they're all singing and dancing in the dorm room together to "Smokey Joe's Cafe?" Was it his idea to take his shirt off in that scene? Because his name is Chesty.

ROBERT MANDEL: I may have encouraged him to do that. I don't think he resisted. But I may have encouraged him.

ETHAN ALTER: He has one of the smaller parts in the movie. But could you tell that he was destined for bigger things, just working in the few scenes you did with him?

ROBERT MANDEL: I would say that of the group, none of them really surprised me in their trajectories, none of them. When it happened, maybe I was surprised because I think Chris O'Donnell immediately shot up in an Al Pacino movie he made. And it took Matt-- I would say, a couple of years later, I thought Matt would also shoot up pretty quickly. I was surprised at certain roles that Brendan chose to play after that.

I probably was surprised at the course of Ben's career. I'm certainly shocked today. Ben was a big surprise, not now, but also the roles he started to do. He took over Harrison Ford's role in a couple of those action movies. That was huge. That was enormous. What I said then and I say now is, good for him. Would I have known he'd wanted that public a life? I did not see that at the time.

ETHAN ALTER: Was there ever a different ending for "School Ties," I'm wondering, or if you made any major changes as you were shooting?

ROBERT MANDEL: Excellent question. Yes, the answer is yes. And we did reshoot the ending. The original ending was he walked off, as he does, but the other boys joined him. So they were all-- all of them joined. And then the audience did not like that ending. You do previews, and they loved the movie, but the ending made them-- they didn't believe it. They just didn't believe it.

So we reshot the ending, and we shot it three ways. I believe we shot it in the snow so it looked colder and it wasn't a sun-filled frame that they were going to walk off in happiness. So now we did it gray, and we put snow down, and it was more somber. We took a day that was more somber. And we had them walk again, all of them.

Then we did the same shot basically and changing a few things with just three of them walking, or just Brandon walking alone, and then Chris runs up to join him. Maybe Cole Hauser runs up to join him. And it's just two or three of them, I can't remember, walking across, the others no, just three of them. And then the last time, we did it again with minor adjustments. We just had David walking alone.

We previewed all three. Clearly, they wanted David to be alone. And having recently seen it because of this interview, I think it was a really good choice. I mean, I wouldn't have necessarily known it at the time because of many things. You work with these kids. They seem really happy. They're such a happy group. You want the audience to know what you've seen for the last five weeks, six, eight weeks, whatever it was, 10 weeks. And so the idea, a romantic idea in your head is all these kids would join. But it wasn't to be.