'Old School' at 20: How Will Ferrell streaked his way to stardom in the 2003 college comedy hit
Screenwriter Scot Armstrong says no stunt butts were used in the classic scene.
You might say Will Ferrell streaked his way to movie stardom. Twenty years ago, the Saturday Night Live fan favorite dropped trou and raced onto Hollywood's A-list in Old School, Todd Phillips's raucous college comedy that raced up the box-office charts when it premiered in theaters on Feb. 21, 2003. Although Ferrell had been a standout Not Ready for Primetime Player since joining SNL in 1995 and stole scenes in everything from Austin Powers to Zoolander, he hadn't yet found his Animal House, 48 Hrs. or Caddyshack — the film that would kick his career to heights previously scaled by John Belushi, Eddie Murphy and Bill Murray.
Enter Frank "The Tank" Ricard: a newlywed and newly reformed party animal who slides back on his old ways in spectacular fashion after he and his best friends Mitch Martin (Luke Wilson) and Bernard Campbell (Vince Vaughn) start their own fraternity so that freshly single Mitch doesn't have to give up his Harrison University-adjacent bachelor pad. "The Tank" makes his first appearance when Frank gets completely wasted at Mitch-A-Palooza — the name for Mitch's epic housewarming party — and invites all the actual college students to join him on a streak through the quad. Needless to say, that's a run he makes alone.
And in case you were wondering, no stunt butts were involved in the making of that sequence. "Will really did it," confirms Old School screenwriter Scot Armstrong who penned the movie with Phillips. "He was running down a street in Pasadena with something covering his front. I remember seeing neighbors walking their dog and going, 'What is this?'"
According to Armstrong, Ferrell wondered that himself prior to shooting the scene. "I remember him saying that he thought it was a funny bit when he read the script, and then on the day of shooting he realized he actually had to do it," the writer says, laughing. "He was awesome about it, but it was a funny comment. You don't put two and two together sometimes!"
Although Frank the Tank wasn't specifically written with Ferrell in mind, Armstrong can't imagine anyone else playing a part that has to balance crazy streaking stunts with more dramatic beats like Frank realizing his marriage is over before it even really begins. "We were so lucky to get Will," he says, adding that he went on to do some punch-up work on the script for Elf, which opened eight months after Old School and solidified Ferrell's standing as SNL's next major movie star. "He has the unique ability as a comic actor to play it big, but also emotional at the same time."
"He's really playing the part like Frank wants to go backwards," Armstrong continues. "He's trying to embrace all the things that a young person would, and that's funny, sad and dark in a heartfelt way. In the wrong hands, it could have come across as corny and over the top. And Will's definitely over the top, but he's also so funny. Frank is a character that people still bring up to me — they love that character."
Twenty years later, people still really love Old School which consistently makes the grade on any list of the all-time best collegiate comedies. For the film's platinum anniversary, Armstrong — who went on to collaborate with Phillips again on Starsky & Hutch, School for Scoundrels and The Hangover Part II — shared some stories out of school about the making of the comedy hit, from the famous visitors who stopped by the set to the never-made sequel that would have sent Frank, Bernard and Mitch on a Spring Break to remember.
Ivan Reitman was their college movie professor
The road to Old School began 25 years ago at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, where Phillips and co-director Andrew Gurland premiered their long-lost documentary Frat House to great acclaim (including a Grand Jury Prize win in the Documentary category) and a high-profile sale to HBO. But the movie — which depicted the antics of various frat chapters at Pennsylvania's Muhlenberg College — never aired on the network after the filmmakers were accused of staging scenes. (Frat House has still never been released commercially, but pirated versions can be found on YouTube.)
Among the Sundance attendees who caught Frat House during its festival run was Ivan Reitman, who produced 1978's Animal House — the film that launched the next two decades of college comedies, from Revenge of the Nerds and Back to School to House Party 2 and PCU. By the late '90s, though, the genre was in a fallow period, and the Canadian comedy auteur personally stepped in to help bring it back. (Reitman died in 2022.)
"Ivan saw Frat House at Sundance and wanted to meet Todd," Armstrong remembers. "He wanted to make an 'Animal House on the road' movie." That pitch became 2000's Road Trip, which was the first collaboration between Armstrong and Phillips. When that comedy took off, they pitched Reitman on a fraternity-themed follow-up that would swap out college-aged kids for older guys.
"There's a weird brotherhood that happens when you're in college were you're kind of finding yourself, and it was funny to think of old people doing it," Armstrong says, adding that Phillips's recent experience making Frat House provided additional fodder. "We felt like we had permission to pick and choose from the tradition of college movies and do our own spin on it to make it fresh."
But the duo also took advantage of having one of the deans of college comedies as their executive producer. "He knew the power of putting a traditional structure in there while also doing weird stuff. Todd and I were a little rawer and more radical, and Ivan would kind of steer us by saying: 'OK, you can do some of that stuff, but maybe do it this way and you'll get more of a reaction.' He had so much experience in comedy and knew what audiences would react to. Sometimes we would fight for something, and he'd say: 'Well, if you feel that strongly about it, I guess we could try it.' And then it would end up in the movie!"
One example of a scene that Armstrong and Phillips got by Reitman is the basement wrestling match where geriatric frat pledge, Blue (played by the late Patrick Crenshaw), is set to wrestle two college girls in a wading pull filled with K-Y Jelly. The writer confirms that moment was directly inspired by the mud wrestling in the Reitman-directed comedy hit Stripes but with a modern twist.
"We didn't want to do the same thing," he remembers. "And we felt like these characters — older people trying to be a fraternity — would do something like that. Working with Ivan, we felt like we had the permission to pick and choose from that tradition of comedy, and then do our own spin on it so it plays in a weird and unique way. We were all a good team for that reason."
Snoop Dogg had a great time on set (Gwyneth Paltrow not so much)
Whether he's on or off set, never let it be said that Snoop Dogg doesn't keep it real. The rapper and actor showed up for his Old School cameo as Mitch-A-Palooza's surprise musical guest ready to party. After performing his side of the number, Armstrong remembers Snoop inviting a number of the extras to his trailer during the 45-minute wait between camera set-ups. "He basically turned his trailer into a club," the writer says, laughing. "It was rocking in there!"
Snoop and the partygoers were having such a good time that they neglected to report back to set when the camera was ready to roll again. "There was a production assistant trying to get him to come back to set, and he couldn't get past the bouncers," Armstrong remembers. "They weren't letting him into the trailer! They were like: "Snoop's unavailable.' So we just had to wait! It was so funny."
Gwyneth Paltrow was a little less amused during her time on the Old School set. Unlike Snoop, the Shakespeare in Love Oscar winner wasn't there to film a cameo; she was visiting then-boyfriend Luke Wilson, who she'd met when the starred opposite each other in Wes Anderson's 2001 favorite The Royal Tenenbaums. Needless to say, she quickly discovered that Old School was a very different kind of comedy than that earlier movie.
"I remember that she was by the monitors where I was standing," Armstrong says, laughing. "We were shooting that scene where we pan across all of the pledges naked butt cheeks, and it eventually gets to Blue's really old butt. She turned to me and said: 'What's this movie about again?'"
Vince Vaughn was ready to be funny again
After his breakout turn in the 1996 indie hit Swingers, Vince Vaughn's career was so money. But the actor squandered some of those dollars on a series of dramatic flops that included Return to Paradise, Psycho and Domestic Disturbance. With Old School, he swerved back into the wiseacre comedy lane that led to future hits like Wedding Crashers and The Break-Up.
"Todd and I love actors like Vince, because they play it real," Armstrong says. "Even when it's very heightened, the more real you play it the funnier it is to us. He's one of my favorite people to write for, because you can hear his voice in your head when you're writing. And he inspires you to write better, because of the way he hits jokes."
The character detail that tickles Armstrong the most about Bernard is that he has the most successful romantic relationship of the three leads. Even when he's throwing wild frat parties or overseeing pledge hazing rituals, he remains a committed family man to his wife, Lara (played by Leah Remini) and their young kids. "As crazy and irresponsible as Bernard is, he justifies it as helping his friends," the writer explains. "Yeah, he likes to have fun, but he's a good husband ultimately."
"We also liked that he's himself around his wife: he's not acting one way in front of her and another way in front of everyone else," Armstrong continues. "And we didn't want to do the traditional thing where Lara's some nagging wife. She has a cool banter with him where if he pushes it to far, she'll call him on his s***. So we really did think he was a good husband — just not a great husband."
Luke Wilson liked being the straight man
With Ferrell and Vaughn stealing scenes left and right, it would have been understandable if Wilson had been a little envious of his co-stars. But Armstrong says the actor had no issues being the movie's designated straight man. "The thing that's so funny about Luke is that he has this sort of existential angst built into him — that's something that Wes [Anderson, who directed Wilson in Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums] definitely tapped into. And that really worked for Mitch, because he had to have this 'What's the meaning of life?' vibe that's a part of his character."
"Being the straight man is one of the hardest jobs in a movie," Armstrong adds. "And we'd always punch up a scene for him if he ever asked. We never took things away from him: we made sure he was given time to shine. Will and Vince are hilarious, but Luke has perfect timing and plays it very grounded so they can be over the top."
Armstrong and Phillips also wanted to distinguish Mitch from his friends in the romance department: where Bernard is the family man and Frank is on the way to divorce, Mitch gets the single guy storyline of finding new love after his previous relationship blows up in spectacular fashion. A pre-Grey's Anatomy Ellen Pompeo plays Wilson's main love interest in the film, a former high school crush currently dating a toxic boyfriend (Craig Kilborn). "Luke has the movie's romantic arc, and he has to sell that," Armstrong says. "Even though we didn't give him many scenes to sell that relationship [with Ellen], it works for the audience because he's so good."
Of course, Mitch does have one other memorable romantic encounter in the movie. The morning after Mitch-A-Palooza, he wakes up in bed with Elisha Cuthbert's Darcie, who is revealed to still be in high school. "We shouldn't have done it then, and we definitely wouldn't do it today," Armstrong says when asked about that age gap now.
For her part, Cuthbert still has fond memories of her Old School days. "How funny would it be to see where that high school girl is now," she remarked in a recent YouTube interview about whether she'd return for a potential sequel. "I have such fond memories of being so awe-inspired by everyone that was on the film. Luke Wilson [was] so nice and generous to me. To be able to be with that huge gang again would be so cool."
Old School Dos had a story, but not a full script
Three years after Old School, Phillips and Armstrong seriously considered getting the band back together for Old School Dos — a sequel that would have sent Mitch, Bernard and Frank off on that wild collegiate pastime known as spring break. "Sequels are always hard, because the audience wants to see the characters do the same thing again, but they also want a totally new story," Armstrong says of that premise. "The thought of putting them on the road for spring break seemed like it would have a good balance of both, because you're back in the same world while also in a fresh environment."
Armstrong says that he and Phillips collaborated on a "rough first pass" for Old School Dos before bringing it to the stars. "We had a story, but it wasn't a shooting draft yet," he recalls. "We were still playing around with it." Ultimately, the actors ended up passing on the sequel pitch, with Ferrell later saying that the first pass had "some super funny set-pieces" but that he and Vaughn felt that they would be "doing the same thing again."
"It didn't work out," Armstrong says now. "You know, Will and Vince are so super-funny that they're also super-busy! So that makes it hard to schedule." But with college comedies once again in a moribund state on the big screen — although popular streaming series like Netflix's Dear White People and HBO Max's The Sex Lives of College Girls are thankfully picking up the slack — he'd love to see someone come along and make the modern version of Old School.
"There's definitely room for movies like Old School to come back," Armstrong says. "That genre is known for pushing the limits: you want to have a visceral reaction because you can't believe what you just saw. I talk to people all the time who miss movies like that."
Old School is currently available to rent or purchase on most VOD services.