The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Booksmart.
Katie, you’ve taken a script that had been around for several years and made it feel brand new. That must be a huge challenge — what was your approach?
Katie Silberman: We talked a lot about what made us love the classic high school movies, and what made us want to make movies like that. And we talked about how the best ones are very timely — they’re very specific to the generation that they’re reflecting — and when you watch one, it’s not too specific, but you think to yourself, “oh that’s what it was like to be a teen in the ’80’s, or ’90’s, or ’00’s,” and they’re also timeless in terms of the story that they’re telling, and the humanity, and the character arcs, and all of that. And so much has changed for young women in the last 5-10 years since the script was originally written, in terms of what young women are facing and in terms of how much they’ve had to step into the role of personal activist — of being in charge of themselves and fighting for themselves. As we were developing it and thinking about it, it was a time when not only did we have more access, probably, to first-person perspectives of teenage life than ever before (since everyone puts themselves out in to the world on social media), but it was also when the Parkland students were organizing the March for Our Lives. They were so publicly active and inspiring to us, and we were so inspired by that generation, that it was about trying to reflect in the script what it’s like for these young people who are so brave, and courageous, and smart, and progressive and inspire us in so many ways. Because we were being inspired by them, on a daily basis, in real life. And it was about acknowledging in movies and in real life that it took so long for women to understand that they could be taken seriously… and then the next step is then acknowledging the multi-dimensionality of female characters, that you can be serious and fun. That you can be a lot of different things now, when in the past you’ve been reaching just to be taken seriously at all.
Part of being a director is learning how to fight for your ideas
Olivia Wilde: Katie originated the idea that the other students who Molly and Amy had assumed were sort just party animals were actually also going to great schools. That was in her first pitch: what if the other kids are also really smart? That is the crux of the film — that is the premise. Which proves that it’s possible, when doing a re-write, to maintain the heart and soul of an original idea while also restructuring the premise entirely… and by so doing, to elevate it. I found that to be really fascinating, to observe the evolution to bring the story to the level you see on the screen. Jessica and I were astounded: we knew it was brilliant. Then Katie proposed that there be three different parties, and making it a night of graduation parties. And that allows them to go on an adventure, and then it’s the Wizard of Oz, and they can learn about themselves in this different way. It was just incredible to see how she took the same piece of material I’d been staring at for so long and unlock the story completely.
Jessica, from your perspective as a producer, what was your impression after the version of the story Katie pitched?
Jessica Elbaum: It just clicked. From Olivia pitching — and I should tell you, she pitched it as Training Day, basically, as a buddy cop movie… because as we all know, high school is basically going to war — so from the time Olivia pitched it and had such clarity and conviction, I felt so safe with her, and that lead to Katie, and Katie pitched it, and sort of reinvented and reinvigorated the soul of the story in a way that we both loved. For me, as a producer, all you want is to be lucky enough to make choices that make you feel safe. And I have just never felt as safe with two filmmakers in my career. For me, it was just a dream come true. When you feel that confident, the answer to everything they pitched was always, “yes, of course, we can make that happen,” because every idea was better than the last. You just want them to keep going!
There are several scenes in this film that are incredibly risky. They elevate the film and work beautifully, but they must have been hard to get on the screen, no? I’m thinking specifically of the Barbie scene, the dance number, the pool scene, and maybe even the pizza guy scene.
OW: Part of being a director is learning how to fight for your ideas. You have to get really good at clear communication. You have to be able to illustrate your vision very clearly. You can’t complain about people not seeing it if you’re not really describing it well. So I fought hard for those sequences because I could see them very clearly in my head, and I learned through the process that it’s really about making sure that you’re explaining why they’re necessary within the larger narrative. Why it’s worth the investment and the time. And, you know, on the page the Barbie trip does not seem like an essential part of the production, so I had to fight for it. But we made it work, and it starts to be a strategy: you take money from somewhere else, and you say, “I have the money to do it, don’t worry, we’ll do all the work, just let me do it.” And to their credit, they let it happen, but yeah… I had to fight for it. And I feel good about earning those scenes and continuing to fight for them, and I’m really happy they’re still in the movie, but anyone making a film should know: just because someone pushes back, it’s not inherently unfair. As long as when you make your case clearly, and effectively, that then you are permitted to do what you want. But you’re going to be forced to fight for those things, and that’s worth it.