'Booksmart' Director Olivia Wilde: Teen Movies 'Made Me Excited To Be Young' | WYPR

'Booksmart' Director Olivia Wilde: Teen Movies 'Made Me Excited To Be Young'

May 24, 2019
Originally published on May 24, 2019 6:13 pm

Right after Olivia Wilde saw Lady Birdthe 2017 film about the loving, infuriating, infinitely complicated relationship between a teen daughter and her mother — her first impulse was to pick up the phone to call her mom. Now, when the credits roll on Wilde's new film Booksmart, audiences are dialing their old high school best friends.

These are the friends who got you through adolescence, Wilde says — the ones who knew you best, allowed you to be vulnerable, and saw you in a way that was "more intense and intimate" than romantic relationships. Wilde continues to have those friendships today — this film, she says, is "my way of honoring the female friendships that have sustained me."

Booksmart tells the story of two star students headed to the Ivy League. For years, Molly and Amy have put academics first, but the night before graduation, they realize that the kids who partied also got into good schools. Worried that they've missed out, the two friends decide to cram four years of high school partying into one night.

Wilde says Booksmart is a "love letter" to the '80s and '90s movies that defined her adolescence — and she hopes it will help today's teens "celebrate being young." Wilde says she's "endlessly inspired" by young people: "They really, actually, make me feel optimistic about the future, which is hard these days," she says.

This is Wilde's directorial debut, and she says the pre-release jitters are both far better and far worse. "I've never been so anxious to release something into the world, but I've also never been so proud," she says.


Interview Highlights

On pushing back against the stereotypical "boxes" of teen movies

You think this is going to be a movie about two nerdy young women who are eager to assimilate to be accepted by their peers. What it really is, is the story of two very smart young women who are unapologetic about their intelligence, who go through a transformation to realize that they have misunderstood their peers to be one-dimensional when actually everyone around them is also very smart. They've just been living their lives differently.

We wanted the audience to go on this journey of realizing that every stereotype they expect from a teen high school film is actually not what it seems — and that there's complexity and nuance to these characters that I hope will inspire people to allow for that same complexity in their peers and in themselves today.

On celebrating platonic friendships

Society gives us so much context for the romantic relationship — there are so many love songs about romantic relationships ... beginning the middle and the end. We have very few love songs, movies, stories about friendship — platonic friendship — and yet it is in so many ways deeper. ...

People realize this later in life after maybe romances come and go — that those friendships are incredibly significant. And I hope that this film allows people to look around them and value those friendships even more.

On how actors Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein prepared to portray a "layered, deep," 10-year friendship

They knew that in order to create this chemistry they were going to have to build a history. ... So I suggested that they live together [during the making of the movie] and during preproduction as well. Because they needed to spend enough time together where they were no longer sort of charmed by the newness of a friendship. They needed to sink into it a little bit more and spend some time just getting to know each other in all types of moods. ...

They lived together in LA for at least 10 weeks, and they spent every waking moment together, and they drove to work together — and what they created is a texture that you can feel when you watch the film.

On teen friendships as a training ground for loyalty and betrayal

There is something in these very intense friendships in our youth where any sort of resistance is seen as betrayal. And there is a pivotal scene in the film where one character reveals that she isn't actually on board with the plan that the other thought they had agreed upon. And in that moment there is a fissure — there's a crack in between this very, very intense union.

I wanted to highlight that that kind of trauma to a young relationship is something that is necessary in order for relationships to evolve and for us as individuals to evolve. You must be able to tell your closest ally: I disagree with you. I am my own individual. And so we really worked hard on that argument and showing that in order for these two to continue as friends they have to go through this kind of traumatic break.

On aiming to make an "anthem" for Generation Z — the generation born in the mid-90s and early 2000s

I grew up watching The Breakfast Club and Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Say Anything, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Clueless -- and those movies were more than just movies to me as a young person; they kind of contextualized the adolescent experience for me. They made me excited to be young and that was my goal with this movie — it was to allow this young generation — Generation Z — to feel that they had been kind of immortalized. ...

It must be so hard to be a young person right now. We've put them in such a difficult situation. ... They've decided to demand a different paradigm. They say: We are going to change the way we look at gender, sexuality, politics. They kind of incorporate politics into their individual identities and they really understand the significance of their voice.

Actors Kaitlyn Dever, left, and Beanie Feldstein work with director Olivia Wilde on the set of Booksmart.
Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures

On asking her Generation Z cast members to help make the script sound authentic

When I hired them I brought them together and said: "We're going to read the script and every time something feels inauthentic, I want you to raise your hand and tell me. If there's a moment that you think could sound more organic, I just want you to rewrite it in your own voice." ...

Sometimes it was just sort of slang that would be a little bit more natural. Sometimes it would be something more significant, like: There used to be a line in the script where Molly said to Amy, "You've been out for two years and you've never had a lesbian experience. I want that for you." And when we were rehearsing, the girls called me over and said: "You know, Liv, we don't really say 'lesbian experience,' we would just say experience."

And I thought: That's great. Change it. That's wonderful. ... Things have really changed ... Ten to 13 years ago when I was playing a young, queer woman on network television on The O.C. it was a very different conversation. It was all about owning labels and being very upfront about labels. ... It was a different conversation at that time.

On whether this film about female friendship could have been made by a man

I'm sure it could, and it would just feel slightly different. ... Men can make stories about women — just like Bo Burnham's incredible film Eighth Grade. ... I encourage men to direct films about women, and I encourage women to direct films about men — because we kind of have to break out of this assumption that female directors are here to tell "the lady stories." ... It's not necessary to separate us. ...

Amy Heckerling directed both Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless, and it's probable that a lot of people growing up on those films didn't realize they were both directed by a woman. ... I hope [audiences watching Booksmart] just feel that it's a good film that feels authentic and funny, and that when they look up and see that it's a woman they say, "Oh, that's interesting."

Mallory Yu and Sarah Handel produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The new movie "Booksmart" is about two best friends - two girls, top of their high school class, overachievers headed to the Ivy League. And the night before graduation, one of them has an epiphany.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOOKSMART")

BEANIE FELDSTEIN: (As Molly) We chose. We didn't party because we wanted to focus on school and get into good colleges.

KAITLYN DEVER: (As Amy) And it worked.

FELDSTEIN: (As Molly) But the irresponsible people who partied also got into those colleges, they did both.

DEVER: (As Amy) So?

FELDSTEIN: (As Molly) So we messed up. We didn't have to choose. They did both.

KELLY: Thus is hatched a plan. Molly and Amy set out to cram four years of everything they have missed out on into one night.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOOKSMART")

FELDSTEIN: (As Molly) We have to go to a party tonight.

DEVER: (As Amy) What?

FELDSTEIN: (As Molly) Let's go to Nick's party.

DEVER: (As Amy) Are you kidding? No. No way.

FELDSTEIN: (As Molly) We only have one night left to have studied and partied in high school, otherwise we're just going to be the girls that missed out.

KELLY: That is the stunningly simple premise of "Booksmart," which hits theaters today. But if the premise is simple, the director's ambitions are not. Olivia Wilde says she wants the film to be a generational anthem. And Olivia Wilde joins us now. Hi there.

OLIVIA WILDE: Hello.

KELLY: You set yourself a completely unambitious goal here - making a generational anthem of a movie.

WILDE: (Laughter).

KELLY: Tell me what you mean by that. What's it mean?

WILDE: Well, you know, I made this movie as a love letter to the movies I grew up on and, in fact, the movies that made me fall in love with film.

KELLY: Like what?

WILDE: I grew up watching "The Breakfast Club" and "Say Anything," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Clueless." Those movies were more than just movies to me. It kind of contextualized the adolescent experience for me. They made me excited to be young. And that was my goal with this movie. It was to allow this young generation - Generation Z - to feel that they had been kind of immortalized.

KELLY: So this is not your generation exactly. I should mention you're in your 30s. How did you go about trying to make a movie that would feel like the really authentic voice of a generation that you're not part of?

WILDE: Well, I was lucky enough to have a cast that actually does come from this young generation. And I really wanted them to infuse their characters with their own voices and their own ideas. And when I hired them, I brought them together and said, we're going to read the script. And every time something feels inauthentic, I want you to raise your hand and tell me. If there's a moment that you think could sound more organic, I just want you to rewrite it in your own voice. Like, there used to be a line in the script where Molly said to Amy, you've been out for two years and you've never had a lesbian experience. I want that for you. And when we were rehearsing, the girls called me over and said, you know, Liv, we don't really say lesbian experience. We would just say experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOOKSMART")

FELDSTEIN: (As Molly) You've been out for two years and you've never kissed a girl. I want you to experience this.

WILDE: Whereas, you know, 10 to 13 years ago, when I was playing a young queer woman on network television on "The O.C.," it was a very different conversation. It was all about owning labels and being very upfront about labels.

KELLY: Yeah. The script - I saw you've been through a zillion drafts, even more than I gather is typical in Hollywood. And the original one was from a decade ago, from 2009.

WILDE: Yes.

KELLY: And the country has changed so much. Did the script have to change so much to feel authentic and relevant now?

WILDE: Yes. The scripts really evolved. When I came on board in 2016, it was ripe for another rewrite. And I wanted to update it to allow it to really reflect what I was hearing from young people today.

KELLY: Can you give me an example of what changed?

WILDE: Well, yes - the notion that the other students had also gotten into really good colleges. That was an important one for us because we wanted to show that this film was also discussing judgment and the idea of putting one another into categories.

KELLY: You open the movie with that, with Molly thinking about how she's looking down on everyone who's ever given her grief.

WILDE: Exactly.

KELLY: And she's going to yell and she's going to show them all.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOOKSMART")

MAYA RUDOLPH: (As Motivational Voice) Stand atop the mountain of your success, and look down at everyone who's ever doubted you.

WILDE: Whereas you think this is going to be a movie about two nerdy young women who are eager to assimilate, to be accepted by their peers, what it really is is a story of two very smart young women who are unapologetic about their intelligence, who go through a transformation to realize that they have misunderstood their peers to be one-dimensional, when actually, everyone around them is also very smart. They've just been living their lives differently.

KELLY: OK. So let's talk about Molly and Amy because their friendship, which is fierce, which is brutally honest, this lovely female friendship is the heart of the movie. They, like probably pretty much all best friends, sometimes talk in code.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOOKSMART")

FELDSTEIN: (As Molly) I'm calling Malala.

DEVER: (As Amy) Wow. You know you only get like one Malala a year.

FELDSTEIN: (As Molly) Yeah, I'm calling it - full support, no questions asked. You are coming with me.

WILDE: Malala is their code word for unconditional support. So what malala means is that what I'm asking you to do now with me you must do.

KELLY: Is this related to Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan?

WILDE: Yes, of course.

KELLY: Who's one of their role models.

WILDE: Of course. Malala is one of their great role models. And I think that's why she holds the most significant place in their friendship, the idea that if you call Malala, you must really mean it.

KELLY: But it's so lovely because it speaks to that, you know, if you love me, if you're loyal to me, if you're really my best friend, you're just going to trust me on this one and follow where I'm saying we need to go.

WILDE: Absolutely. But that's an interesting thing the movie also deals with - loyalty and betrayal - because I think there is something in these very intense friendships in our youth where any sort of resistance is seen as betrayal. And there is a pivotal scene in the film where one character reveals that she isn't actually onboard with the plan that the other thought they had agreed upon. And in that moment, there's a crack in between very, very intense union. And I wanted to highlight that that kind of trauma to a young relationship is something that is necessary in order for relationships to evolve and for us as individuals to evolve. You must be able to tell your closest ally, I disagree with you. I am my own individual.

KELLY: I read that, on the set, you all talked about how intense these friendships are - your very first best friend, your first soulmate - and that a lot of people ended up reaching out and calling their old high school besties. even ones they had lost touch with over the years. I love that.

WILDE: It's really great. And people leave and they call their best friend, who they realize is the person who got them through what is a very confusing time in adolescence. I think of that friend as being the person who knew you better than your parents, the person who really allowed you to be vulnerable and in so many ways was more intense and intimate than you the romantic relationships starting around that time or that followed after that.

KELLY: It's fascinating because you feel like the romantic relationship is the everything in that moment, but it's your best friend who you're still going to be calling decades later.

WILDE: Exactly. And society gives us, you know, so much context for the romantic relationship. We have very few love songs, movies, stories about friendship - platonic friendship. And yet it is, in so many ways, deeper. Those friendships are incredibly significant. And I just - I hope that this film allows people to look around them and value those friendships even more.

KELLY: I think our takeaway from this interview is going to be go call your best friend from high school and catch up and say hi.

WILDE: Exactly.

KELLY: Olivia Wilde - she is director of "Booksmart," which hits cinemas today. Olivia Wilde, thank you so much. This was a pleasure.

WILDE: Thank you so much. It's a real honor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.