Call Olivia Wilde a director, but don't call her a female director.
"Even though it feels like a progressive line of thinking, it's actually putting us in another corner," admits Wilde, whose directorial debut, Booksmart, hits theaters on May 24. Rather than focus on the concept of female films, she says, we would all be better off simply telling good stories—"stories that are representative and authentic."
The story of Molly, played by Beanie Feldstein, and her best friend Amy, played by Kaitlyn Dever, is a rare coming-of-age romp that rejects the notion that romantic conquests are central to high school stories. Instead, Booksmart highlights the importance of female friendship‚ and what that friendship can withstand—as the audience joins the girls on raucous ride through the eve of their high school graduation. The two academic try-hards are determined to cram four years of fun into one night. Thanks to Wilde, they're able to do so free of stereotypes.
"In another film, they'd be going after the same guy. In this movie, first of all, only one of them is going after a guy, and it's the fifth thing of importance on her list," says Feldstein, who starred alongside Saoirse Ronan in Greta Gerwig’s 2017 hit, Ladybird. "It's the story of one queer girl and one straight girl, and there's never any tension or awkwardness that comes into that dynamic." Molly and Amy's friendship may be the heartbeat of the film, but its energetic and hilarious ensemble—including Noah Galvin as openly-gay theater director George, and Billie Lourd's mysterious wild child Gigi—overhauls decades of teen film tropes with nuance and wacky charm.
On the eve of Booksmart's premiere, BAZAAR.com sits down with Wilde, Feldstein, Dever, Galvin, and Lourd for a discussion about patriarchy, porn, and the problem of likability.
Harper's BAZAAR: The script had been kicking around Hollywood for nearly a decade before you took it on. Why do you think it languished for so long and how did you adapt it for 2019?
Olivia Wilde: Sometimes, society has to catch up with concepts. I think when Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins wrote the original in 2009, it struck a nerve—enough that it was on The Black List. It got people's attention. And at that point, it was a very different incarnation of the story; it focused on two very brilliant young women who were best friends but, aside from that, everything else was pretty massively different. But there was something about it that made people say, Yes, we want a female friendship story! We want two women who are unapologetically brilliant and love each other. But for whatever reason—and I would argue maybe society as a whole wasn't super eager for a female friendship story about two smart girls in 2009—it never made it to production. Then cut to 2014: Susanna Fogel did a pass on it and she made a lot of changes that updated it to where the world was in 2014—obviously a massive shift from 2009. Yet at that point, it still didn't make it all the way to production, and I would again argue that's because something about the thirst in the world for this specific story wasn't yet at the place where it needed to be.
Harper's BAZAAR: Consumer thirst?
Olivia Wilde: No, because I think at that point, when it's still in the development stage, it's where the industry is and what the industry senses the audience wants at that moment. In 2014, it just hadn't clicked into gear, so it went back into the files. In 2016 I pitched on it, fresh off the election and furious as hell about the world, and about the inability for people to allow women to be smart and likable. We were hitting this conversation, which of course, we are still continuing to struggle with: Can women be more than one thing?
Then it happened, and I think it's because not only had the industry evolved to a place where the support for female-centric stories and female filmmakers was at a point where the film could be made, but I think society as a whole was like, "Yes, give us this movie." So it feels timely in that way. Every stage of development was necessary for it to get to this place. It was like layering the foundation.
Kaitlyn Dever: I first read the script in 2014. I think of it as its own organism, the way that it has lived so many lives. I remember sitting down with our producer, Jessica Elbaum, and she said, “This movie deserves the best.” I had waited for this movie to happen for such a long time. The story about the friendship was always there—it was always about Molly and Amy, that was always at the core of it—but I remember sitting down with Jessica and she was like, "This movie can be made, and it can be okay, but we don't want that for Booksmart, so you need to wait." And I waited, I really did.
Olivia Wilde: It was the chemical reaction of everything coming together at one point, and that feels like real good fortune. But it was our writer-producer Katie Silberman re-imagining of the script, and her complete openness to some of my truly weird ideas that she rolled with, that it became real. I think every other writer would have been like, "What is this lady doing? This isn't going to work."
Kaitlyn Dever: It also, to me, speaks to the power of collaboration. Before Booksmart, I thought all great movies were a one-person operation. What I love so much about Booksmart is that every woman who contributed to it up until Katie Silberman, helped [her] strike a nerve even deeper. The movie is all about layers, and it's all about how multi-dimensional we are. The script is infused with so many different female voices, and Katie Silberman was the one that shaped them and molded them and curated them with Olivia.
Noah Glavin: At the helm of it, Katie and Olivia's relationship was just sparkling and lovely and we all wanted to just match their love for each other. It imbued the movie with some magic.
Olivia Wilde: Katie and I are Amy and Molly 40 years later. [Laughs]
Noah Galvin: Okay, calm down!
Kaitlyn Dever: It's for young women who were never given the opportunity to be funny, smart, and intelligent at the same time. I can't really think of a lot of comedies for young females. Then once Olivia told me Beanie was going to be a part of it, I just knew it was going to be a dream come true because I was such a big fan of hers.
Olivia Wilde: The power of manifestation! I was like, "Beanie will play Molly, she will play Molly."
Beanie Feldstein: Meanwhile, I was in New York just bopping along, had no idea any of this was happening.
Billie Lourd: In my first meeting with Olivia, she said this movie isn't being made without Beanie. It's just not going to happen.
Olivia Wilde: How creepy that you were on my pitch deck and didn't even know it! [Laughs]
Harper's BAZAAR: It's refreshing to see a film that rejects the notion that romantic conquests are pivotal to coming-of-age high school stories. Instead it places the importance on female friendship. Why is it important for young women to see that?
Kaitlyn Dever: As incredible as romantic relationships are, I think specifically at that time in your life your best friend is the person getting you through your day. And whether or not you're in a relationship in high school, it's still that person who knows you so deeply, who you can give your entire self to. The media doesn't have enough stories of that deep friendship for young women to contextualize their own. We were so moved at a Q&A we did last week, where a sophomore in high school started crying, saying, “I'm having a tough time with my best friend right now. I just want to call her and tell her how much I love her. You're helping me learn how to work through it." The more stories we have about something, the more you can, as I said, contextualize your own and give meaning to what you're going through and feel less alone in that.
Beanie Feldstein: Molly and Amy's friendship is the heartbeat of the film. The space between me and Kaitlyn is the leading character in the film. It's just so deeply special. I also love that the story is of one queer girl and one straight girl, that their sexuality and their desires are celebrated by the other person. It's like “Go get her! I love you! I'm so happy for you! I'm so proud of you.” There's never any tension or awkwardness that comes into that dynamic. In another film, they'd be going after the same guy. In this movie, only one of them is going after a guy, and it's like the fifth thing of importance on her list.
Olivia Wilde: But a footnote in their story. If I could have seen a movie growing up where two girls who are so self aware, not ashamed of being smart and just love each other so much that they don't ever feel the need to take off their glasses to impress someone, or straighten their hair to be a princess, never feel the need to change anything about themselves, it would have changed my life. I'm curious, because we've talked so much about female friendship, but I love how much men also love this movie. It really moves me as a director. Living with this film for so long, and thinking that it's so much about women, I'm so moved by the fact that men are really connecting to it.
Noah Galvin: Any representation of authentic friendship is appealing to everybody. It's rare that we get authentic relationships portrayed on film. And this film does it beautifully. It transcends gender. And it goes to show that if it's good, nobody really gives a shit what it's about.
Billie Lourd: It's so much fun to watch my boyfriend and my best friend, who is a guy, watch it together. They were laughing more than my girlfriends. Howling. Screw gender!
Olivia Wilde: The concept of female films, and the idea that we need more female films out there for women, even though it feels like a progressive line of thinking, it's actually putting us in another corner. It's just about telling stories that are representative and authentic. I think a lot about how people talk about female directors. We need more female directors to tell the female stories. And it's like, wait, we should all just be telling good stories.
Harper's BAZAAR: I don't think stories about women were ever considered "good," which was part of the problem. Perhaps that's what's changed?
Beanie Feldstein: Or considered funny. That's a big thing. Women never get to be funny like this.
Olivia Wilde: I think it used to be if you were a funny woman, or if there was a movie about funny women, it had to be highly sexualized. Think about Thelma and Louise. In order to get the men in there, they had to be hot as hell. We never were under any pressure to sexualize the film, that never came up; I mean I've heard of horror stories of studios telling directors, "Where's our sex scene?"
Billie Lourd: This movie is not without some sex in it though! [Laughs] I mean, we bring a lot of sex. There's a lot of uncut stuff in there!
Harper's BAZAAR: Speaking of sex, the hilarious porn scene in the back of the Lyft is one of the rare times we see women watching porn in a mainstream film. How did the scene come about?
Olivia Wilde: It was about making it as horrifying as possible while not judging the fact of what they are doing, and not needing to show the porn. That was something that was really important to me. There was a huge debate at one point pre-production of like, "We are going to have to show the porn; it's an R-rated film, if you suggest that there is porn, we have to see it, we are going to have to shoot it." And I said, "I am way more interested in watching them watch the porn. We can all fill in the porn for ourselves." It's actually funnier; the way they are analyzing it and then despite themselves, getting a little bit sucked into it in a way that's not placing any judgment on them or on the porn itself. It's an interesting thing that touches on the conversation of young people today and their access to porn through their phone. I mean, we can't assume that they're never looking at it, and we can't assume that looking at it is immediately a negative thing. So it was about how to create something that was at once mortifying without placing any sort of negative judgment on the activity itself.
Beanie Feldstein: Also to have a casual reference to sex-positive feminism thrown in, in what's arguably the funniest scene in the movie, is so dope. There's no other word for it.
Olivia Wilde: And that's what ends up getting her to watch it: "I thought you were a sex-positive feminist?" It's like, "Fine!" [Laughs] We've been talking a lot about how we didn't just put male jokes in women's mouths.
Noah Galvin: Which would maybe be the easiest way to go.
Olivia Wilde: We've seen plenty of those films where the gimmick is the fact women are talking like dudes. This is an example of the opposite. We are not talking like men. It is very specifically women talking about porn. And I really love watching it, they have two really different perspectives on it. That scene for me kind of encapsulates and represents what we are saying about sex-positivity, intelligence, [and] modern women.
Beanie Feldstein: And filming it was insane.
Noah Galvin: Were you actually watching porn?
Beanie Feldstein: We didn't watch it!
Olivia Wilde: That's how good they are! They're looking at a blank screen.
Beanie Feldstein: We shot it in the studio, so this poor grip had to make the car move. We're sitting in this moving car with Jason [Sudeikis] and I just couldn't look him in the eye. [Laughs]
Kaitlyn Dever: When Jason turns around and says, "Was that Cardi B?" Oh my God. [Laughs]
Noah Galvin: What was the actual audio called?
Olivia Wilde: "Extra Juicy." It was very loud.
Billie Lourd: We should send it over to Cardi like, "You need to sample something? Here's a porn track." [Laughs]
Harper's BAZAAR: I want to talk about "likability," which, with the 2020 election coming up, is unfortunately continuing to dominate the conversation around female candidates. At the start of Booksmart, most of Amy and Molly's classmates find their intellectual personas insufferable. Was likability—or lack of likability—a consideration with the characters at all?
Beanie Feldstein: For me, it was and it wasn't, in that I think I was really daunted by Molly for many reasons. Just her intensity and her energy that she approaches a school environment with. It's very different when she's alone with Amy and she can be loose and funny and silly. But specifically the scenes where it's more than just the two of them, I was daunted by the intensity in which she approaches things, and intimidated by her intellect and her stubbornness, which could be perceived as "not likable," or prickly. But what I love so much about Olivia's direction of the film, and Katie Silverman's writing, and getting to play off Kaitlyn, is when Molly and Amy are alone together you see how goofy she is, and how silly she is, and how open she is. And you realize that all that other stuff is like armor that she puts on to protect herself and protect her vulnerability. It's important to see a character like that, because I feel like the Paris Gellers or the Tracy Flicks of the world, they don't get the time to be gross and weird. I love Booksmart so much because you see how loving and loyal she is beneath all of that intensity.
Noah Galvin: Those women weren't given the opportunity to be likable. They're only allowed to be one thing, so likability doesn't come into play.
Olivia Wilde: It makes you wonder, all the women that we've judged over the years for being "too intense"—what are they like alone? Is it just that they have this guard up because they're scared? The likability thing is... Well it's interesting. It's like, "Well, she's not very fun." That was something that we acknowledged, was a sort of, not a danger, but a reality that we were aware of.
Harper's BAZAAR: Even in books, if you have a female character who's "not likable," people will say she's hard to relate to, or that readers aren't going to be able to connect with her. Booksmart seems to prove all of these theories wrong.
Billie Lourd: Gigi definitely seems like a psychopath. She's presented as this awful, rich, disaffected a-hole, for lack of a better word. And then by the end of the film, you realize there's reason she's like that. It's probably because her parents abandoned her and she had a hard childhood, and she needed to act like this in order to get any kind of attention. Underneath, she's a really kind, loyal-as-hell person. Like to a scary point.
Olivia Wilde: She's refreshing, I think, because she's not trying to be liked, and so there's this freedom and fearlessness to her that I think people are very attracted to.
Billie Lourd: Gigi is Gigi for Gigi. Gigi is not Gigi for anybody else. She's not there to impress them, she's not there to impress anybody else, to try to win a guy, to try to win a friend. She's there to just be Gigi.
Harper's BAZAAR: On the other side of the coin, the film also gives good girls a chance to act out. It's not often where we see the straight-A female student given license to act out as a way to "find themselves." Whereas boys are, all the time.
Olivia Wilde: In my experience, the fear of going out and having fun, and having the chance to kind of be bad, was so connected to judgment. I wasn't afraid of something bad happening to me; I was aware that I would be judged, and I carried that. I look back and wish I hadn't carried it or cared at all. I got great grades, I went to a great school. But yeah, I liked to go out and would immediately be labeled as rebel party girl, a wild animal. I mean, I dealt with a lot of the Gigi reputation. But I felt like, "I just went to a party, guys, it's not a big deal."
Billie Lourd: It's like, "I'm sorry I went to a concert. Why does that make me a drug addict? I'm not sure how that correlates."
Olivia Wilde: I think maybe the message is, absolutely give yourself the freedom to go out and have fun, and just don't give a fuck. If people assume that means you are somehow less intelligent, it's just because they're threatened by your multidimensionality. You can be both things.