A 27-year-old Tyra Banks was elated when she landed the role of Zoe, the no-nonsense bartender in “Coyote Ugly.” Although there weren’t high expectations for the movie, which starred a cast of mostly unknowns who play rowdy dancers at a seedy bar, the movie became a sleeper summer hit for Touchstone Pictures, grossing $60 million domestically on a $45 million budget. The female-led cast — including Piper Perabo — were featured on billboards and posters and the soundtrack went multi-platinum, with the help of LeAnn Rimes and songwriter Diane Warren.
Now, Banks tells Variety that she’s been lobbying for years for a sequel. “I’ve had a passion to do a sequel to ‘Coyote Ugly’ for some time now. I’ve even reached out to [producer] Jerry Bruckheimer and the team and the original writer and they’ve had some jam sessions on what it could possibly be,” Banks says. “I feel like we need to do some type of rallying cry to social media, you know, kind of like a petition to get people to sign to make the sequel. I actually really want to produce it. We have really been wanting to do that and even had a form of a treatment with the original writer. And even Warren, who did the original music with Rimes, is super passionate about this.”
“Coyote Ugly,” which opened on Aug. 4 2000, to mediocre reviews, was the kind of mid-budget movie that Hollywood used to take risks on. Like “Cocktail,” starring Tom Cruise with a touch of “Cheers,” it told the story of a group of restaurant employees. But this being “Coyote Ugly,” their routines were much racier — but not too racy, since the film had to be rated PG-13. The movie arrived in the same year as a cluster of other successful dance movies, including “Bring it On” (about high-school cheerleaders) and “Center Stage” (about ballerinas), and years ahead of Steven Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike,” which followed the R-rated adventures of male strippers.
The film follows Violet Sanford (played by Perabo), a young, struggling songwriter headed to New York City (all the way from New Jersey) to make it big. In order to earn some cash, she auditions to be a bartender — known as a Coyote — in the Coyote Ugly bar. Soon enough, Violet is thrust into Hogs and Heifers-like hangout (which was based on a real bar), alongside Banks, Maria Bello (who plays the owner, Liliana Lovell), Izabella Miko and Bridget Moynahan as the other bartenders. John Goodman played Sanford’s father, Adam Garcia is her hunky co-worker and Melanie Lynskey her best friend.
But the film had a long road to the big screen. The cast and crew talked to Variety about the making of “Coyote Ugly” and why the film has lasted, 20 years later.
When director David McNally first received the script for “Coyote Ugly” by Smith, he was sitting by a pool at the Mondrian hotel. Smith’s version was raunchy, so they went with Gina Wendkos’ draft. In preparation, McNally read “Eat, Pray, Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert’s piece in GQ, “The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon,” where she details her time as a Coyote in New York City.
David McNally: I was sitting out by the pool doing some work and this young man dressed in black with a Jerry Bruckheimer cap with a black envelope and he said, “Are you David McNally?” And I was like, “Yes.” He said, “Special delivery from Jerry Bruckheimer.” It was very dramatic. All of the wannabee actors and the film people, producers around the pool, all of their necks turned on a swivel when I got the envelope. I knew it was coming, I had been warned and I went right up to my room and read the script.
McNally and the cast went to the real Coyote Ugly in New York and two other similar bars – Red Rock and Hogs and Heifers – to get better acquainted with thew world.
McNally: I talked with a lot of women behind the bar, sometimes I’d tell them we were doing a movie and sometimes I wouldn’t and I just kind of tried to understand their personalities, their dreams and what made them tick.
Perabo, who was an unknown at the time, went into her initial audition blind. When asked, she told the casting director that she knew how to play the guitar, even though she didn’t. In order to impress at the callback, she learned how to play guitar while making “The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle,” her first big Hollywood role with director Des McAnuff.
Piper Perabo: McAnuff went and bought me a guitar he was like, “I’ll bring my guitar to work.” He would teach me how to play. I was just sitting on the set playing the guitar for the “Coyote Ugly” audition.
McNally and Bruckheimer agreed that they should cast unknowns for “Coyote Ugly,” but added in Tyra Banks — at the time one of the most popular supermodels in the world — for a small role. The majority of the lead actors had previous bartending experience, and some of them had even come from New Jersey to New York City, just like Violet. For Banks’s first scene, she and the rest of the Coyote bartenders are in a diner where Violet sits in awe of them for the first time.
McNally: She came to set and was so enthusiastic, like, “What do you want me to do?” And I basically said to her, “In this scene, there’s no such thing as having too much fun. You girls are meant to look like you’re having fun, you are the thing that this young woman doesn’t have in her life.” And Tyra went to town with it. A lot of that was completely improvised and that script wasn’t written that way for her to get up and try to shimmy and dance and do her thing. And she just did that spontaneously, ad-libbed some of those lines.
Choreographer Travis Paynes’ reputation working with Michael Jackson, En Vogue, Salt-N-Pepa and Janet Jackson preceded him when he agreed to take part in the film, teaching the women their moves. They would spend hours in a dance studio to get the choreography right, and dance became a major feature in “Coyote Ugly.” Bruckheimer had already worked on “Flashdance” which prepared him for the dance segments.
Jerry Bruckheimer: Dance is part of the whole ethos of those bars. That’s what those women do. We had a lot of interesting experiences on “Flashdance” and working with choreographers and that helped us and informed us to get to work with somebody we’d always looked up to.
Banks: I look at the footage of that movie today and just watch it and I’m like, “Who is that skinny girl?” I could hop on a bar with no problem and dive into a crowd and do all this crazy stuff. I never in a million years could do that today, although I can still jam and shake my butt.
Adam Garcia: When you’re dealing with a bar and women who are the focus of that bar rather than it being something more salacious, actual boot scooting and dancing and the skill that dancing requires, it helps enhance empowerment. Dance is a universal language. It’s a skill and it can be sexy, but it’s also athletic and artistic. And because it does happen in the bar it anchors this to something that didn’t make any of the possible sexuality gratuitous.
Garcia, a trained dancer and theater actor from Australia, was told that his dancing in one scene where he gets auctioned off to customers was “too perfect” and needed to be dumbed down so that the average male could relate to him getting up and dancing on the bar.
McNally: That was not in the script at all, that was Jerry’s idea because Adam was a theater actor, mostly in London, and he was a professional dancer.
Garcia: [Payne] was like, “You can’t look like a professional dancer. You can’t look as slick and polished.” We had to rough it up, put bits and pieces and then make it more improvisational. I probably would have just gone for it and tried to make it look as Gene Kelly as possible, but I’m glad he was that guy to go, “No, no. You’ve got to look just like the average guy who can spin around and show off a bit.”
Perabo and the cast broke many bottles of liquor behind the bar learning the infamous bottle-spinning technique, and the actress offered some advice for fans to copy the move.
Perabo: You only want maybe a glass or two of wine in the bottle so that then, when you spin it on your palm, the weight of the liquid doesn’t fling it out of the way. When we were doing the movie, it was Bridget who figured out how to do all that stuff, she’d been watching “Cocktail” and was like, “Let’s figure this sh– out.”
The dance numbers occurred on top of the bar, so the women were in danger of falling off. The ceiling of the set actually had to be raised so that Miko wouldn’t hit her head while dancing. Luckily, the actresses found a way to evade falling off the bar.
Perabo: We would pour Coca-Cola on the bar before we left at the end of the day so it would dry overnight and be sticky and tacky so then the next day, when we’d get up there in the morning, it was a little bit like a movie theater floor. We put our arms up against the ceiling a lot, but that’s really because we’re trying to balance and we’re holding onto each other.
Although Bello wouldn’t name the person specifically, she experienced sexism on set when she was told that she couldn’t participate in the dancing because she was “too old.”
Maria Bello: I was 32 at the time. I had argued for it because I worked at Hogs and Heifers, I said, “Why can’t I dance?” And I was told that I was too old. The truth is the movie was run by men, right? All male producers, a male director, so I don’t know where that information came from, but that information came to me. It was different back then. I remember arguing about it, but I wasn’t gonna win.
McNally and the rest of the team faced two hurricanes that set them back and got in the way of shooting.
McNally: I remember one of the first days of shooting with Piper and Maria in the basement where Violet meets Lil for the first time, when we got there that morning, that set was knee-deep in water and mucky. I’m like, “I guess we can’t shoot.” The crew was incredible. They were like, “Well, we can’t do this scene, we have to do something today.” I think our cover-set was also shut down by rain. They’re like, “Ok, just go and wait here,” and they pumped out the entire basement, they dried it, dressed it, put sandbags around the door so the water wouldn’t come in and we shot the scene.
Michael Bay made a cameo in the film, playing a photographer in the crowd at the bar. On set, Bay just wanted to be treated like any other actor. Other cameos included then-unknowns Kaitlin Olsen, Johnny Knoxville and country starlet LeAnn Rimes, who voiced the soundtrack.
McNally: We needed a photographer and Jerry actually said, “Why don’t you use Michael?” and I’m like, “Ok? Does he want to do it?” and he said, “Yeah, let me ask.” What was really funny about that, too, was I wanted to be quite deferential to him on set and we were a little behind that day. He was a big name and I remember he insisted on being treated like any other actor that would have that role as a photographer. He didn’t have a special trailer. We were running behind and I went up to him and said, “You know, Michael, we can move you up, it’s a little bit of a hassle in the schedule, but let’s move you up and get you out of here.” And he said, “No, I want to see what it’s like. I want to experience what a real actor in this role feels like.”
Oscar-winning songwriter Diane Warren worked closely on the soundtrack, creating original songs for the film. Perabo initially voiced those songs, but LeAnn Rimes took over last minute. Trevor Horn, who also worked on the music, invited everyone to his house in L.A. to record.
McNally: Weirdly, when we tested the movie, everyone said they loved the original songs, but that one [at the end, “The Right Kind of Wrong”] was not the best one. It just goes to show you that you don’t always know what people want. Of course, Jerry said, “You know, we’ve got to reshoot that scene. And Diane, you have to write the new song.” We were sitting in Jerry’s office and she came in again with her cassette tape or CD. She popped it in and it was an acoustic demo of “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” and right away we’re like, “Oh, yeah, okay. We have to reshoot the second to last scene.”
Perabo: I recorded the album with Warren and not long after we were finished, I had this sit down with the director and Bruckheimer and they were like, “So, we’re going to have to redub the whole album.” And I was like, “Oh my god, oh my god.” I was so scared they were going to say something worse. They were like, “We’re going to redub it, because your voice isn’t the right feeling for the character and the movie. I was like, “As long as the movie’s still OK, whatever.”
Carrie Fisher also contributed to the film, working on a rewrite as a Hollywood script doctor.
Bruckheimer: It was a kind of a dream team between the musical elements and the wonderful writers we had working with us. We have Scott Rosenberg and Nathanson who was there most of the time, coming up with great stuff. You’re always working with the actors and the director to make the movie a little bit better. And also, we had Carrie Fisher, who was funny and smart. She worked on the movie for a while, so it was an all-star writing team.
“Coyote Ugly” shot Perabo into the limelight, and she later worked on “The Prestige,” “Covert Affairs” and the “Cheaper by the Dozen” reboot. The film also helped Garcia secure an American agent and manager before moving back to London.
Perabo: I mean it was really the launch of it. That really got me in the door and I’ve been making movies for 20 years now because of it. I think, sometimes, that’s what people still associate me with. It’s weird because I don’t really dance on bars, but that’s OK, I really like the story of a young woman with a dream.
Garcia: It absolutely boosted my career. It was a Hollywood film and ended up being a pretty successful Hollywood film and certainly with someone like Jerry Bruckheimer, that was fantastic. It certainly opened the door during the years that I was in L.A., which was four or five years after that. And then certainly coming back to London, it helps if you’ve got a couple of international movies for the casting.
“Coyote Ugly” resonated with its viewers and was a departure from Bruckheimer’s previous work on “Armageddon,” “Bad Boys” and “Beverly Hills Cop.” Young women were the target audience and it succeeded at the box office.
McNally: I didn’t expect it to endure for so long, but I’ll still be working on set and young women will come up to me in their 20s and say, “I love that movie.” And often, they’ll say things like it moved them to follow their dreams. It made them want to do the thing that they felt they were destined to do and to me that’s very humbling.
Perabo: It’s sort of an American version of a Cinderella story, but it’s not a prince you’re looking for, it’s your job or your art. It’s positive and it’s about friendship and figuring out how to do things on your own which a lot of people can relate to. With all that’s going on right now in our country, sometimes it’s nice to watch somebody who goes to the city they love, gets a job that’s going to support them while they make art and they eventually break through. I mean, for me, that was the dream.
Bruckheimer: It’s one of those movies that when you walk out, you feel really good. The audience embraced the movie in a very positive way. And that’s why it did very well and had a phenomenal afterlife. We’re still talking about it 20 years later, so it just goes to show you, the movie has really stuck.
Bars like Coyote Ugly started appearing across the globe after the success of the film, with Bello stumbling upon one in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Bello: I went to a famous warehouse gallery and I went upstairs and someone said, “There’s the Coyote Ugly bar.” And the owner of the place had built a replica of the Coyote Ugly bar in his warehouse in South Africa. And every Sunday night they had “Coyote Ugly” night. And it happened to be the next night. So I went to it and surprised the crowd and did a little speech and song and danced on the bar.
Not only Banks is passionate about a sequel to “Coyote Ugly,” the rest of the cast and crew are also on board.
Bruckheimer: Yeah, we’ve been trying to get something going. We’ll continue to do that. We haven’t had much luck yet but you never know. Disney owns it. They have kind of a different brand. There’s no Touchstone Pictures anymore. It’s all Disney. So they make different types of films.
Perabo: When Tyra and I were DMing, I was like, “We have to really think about it,” because obviously we’re all 20 years older and we have to rethink the story. Like, “Who owns the bar? What are we all doing? Do we all still know each other? And what’s it about?” Because that movie in 2000, that was a really different moment, that was the sort of stiletto-feminism and women’s rights and we’re maybe in the third wave of feminism now and things have evolved and I would want the movie to reflect that evolution.