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SUNDANCE FUTURES: ‘Bachelorette’ Writer-Director Leslye Headland Talks About Loving “Unlikeable” Women

SUNDANCE FUTURES: 'Bachelorette' Writer-Director Leslye Headland Talks About Loving "Unlikeable" Women

Why She’s On Our RadarLeslye Headland, 30, came to Sundance with some serious buzz about her debut feature “Bachelorette,” based on her hit Off-Broadway play. It’s a raucous, fast-paced and hilariously foul-mouthed dramedy about a gang of old girlfriends who come together and screw everything up at their friend Becky’s wedding. The cast is led by a terrifying Kirsten Dunst as Regan, the sadistic and insecure maid of honor from hell, Lizzy Caplan as Gena, a cokehead party girl who has to confront the ex-boyfriend who she says ruined her life, and a scene-stealing Isla Fisher as Katie, a ditzy and troubled perpetual retail slave. But the core of the film is Headland’s insightful and relentlessly side-splitting screenplay. She is a force to be reckoned with.

What’s Next: She’s in rehearsals for her third play, “Assistance,” which opens in February at Playwrights Horizon in New York, which she calls “His Girl Friday” meets “No Exit.” As far as films go, she says she’s “still very much in ‘Bachelorette’ mode, which is a great place to be.” Also, she is a complete motormouth and what she has to say is just as witty and smart as her film, so late-night talk show programmers should definitely be taking notice.

So, let’s start with the million-dollar question. I’m curious about your thoughts on this whole women-in-comedy revolution that the press keeps talking about. Looking back, I think women have always had such a strong voice in comedy in the movies, going as far back as Marion Davies or Anita Loos or Dorothy Arzner. There’s an important legacy there. What do you think about the hubbub?

I haven’t been a writer for hire for very long. I’ve only been doing it for three or four years. I was doing my plays and putting them up in black boxes and all that kind of stuff, but in my experience in the studio work for the very first time, I was really surprised about how intense they were about likeable female characters. I never thought of my characters as unlikeable. Ever. I thought I was writing women and that was that, you know? And then it just became this thing where they would say, “It makes her unlikeable if she does blank.” I don’t understand that. 

What would be an example of “blank”?

The example I like to use is that “Sleepless in Seattle” would never be made now, because she has a nice guy and a nice life, and her only problem is that she’s miserable and unhappy and she doesn’t know why. And she hears this guy on the radio and she starts to fall in love with the idea of this man, and believes that they’re soulmates and all that. But if I were to pitch that movie today, they’d say, “Well, she can’t have a fiancé, because that would make her unlikeable.” Does that make sense?

Yeah, I think that’s totally true.

I really do firmly believe that. That’s a hypothetical conversation. Of course, I’ve never had that exact one. But you get these romantic comedies with women in the last 10 or 15 years where… If “Reality Bites” were made today, she would probably end up with Ben Stiller. It’s like, you get these women at the beginning of these movies and they’re fine. They don’t have any problems and it’s because they’re not allowed to have any problems. 

And then you have the rise of the Judd Apatow comedies and these comedies about men who are really struggling with their masculinity. They’re not quite men yet. And the idea of women not quite being women yet is something I don’t think people really understood. And so I think the reason that women are responding to women in comedy is that they’re starting to move away from that crazy, unattainable, boring ideal, and they’re moving a little into what has become mainstream comedy, which is like… We’re not adults yet. We don’t really know what’s going on. My life is sort of a mess. One of the things I love about Adam McKay’s work is that there’s nothing funnier than being confidently wrong, and I think that sums up Will Ferrell’s work as well. 

But I don’t think there’s a space for women to be wrong, in a lot of ways. And obviously, in my film, they’re nothing but wrong. They start off the phone call and you’re like, “What’s happening? Why are they so upset?” And hopefully, you’re not thinking, “Oh my God, what bitches.” You think, “I wonder what’s going to happen to them. I wonder if they’re going to learn something. I wonder if they’re going to go on a journey.” That’s where you start with a lot of male protagonists in comedy. But a lot of times with the romantic comedies that are going on now, you just have women who are already fine. Really, they just don’t have a guy. That’s what it comes down to.

And “Bachelorette” is very rooted in what these characters don’t have on a personal level. They sort of define themselves by what they don’t have. And so when their friend Becky is getting married, they wonder, “What’s going on? Why don’t I have that?” And Kirsten’s character has that whole speech where she’s like, “I did everything right. And nothing is happening to me.’ And that was a character that always interested me. As opposed to, “Ah, there’s one thing missing. What is it? Oh, it’s a penis.” Wow, I just gave you so much, didn’t I? Gosh.

Speaking of the characters, did you have any specific inspirations for each of them?

The main inspiration was that both of my sisters got married before me, and I’m the oldest, so when I was at their weddings as a bridesmaid and a maid of honor, lots of people would come up to me and ask, “Is it hard?” And I was thinking, “Are we still trying to do this?” I have a career, and I’m working on things that I think are really important. I guess I wasn’t living in a world where those are things that are important. If it happened, it happened. If it didn’t, it didn’t. That was the jumping-off point. When I had the initial idea for the play, I thought it was interesting that no one had done a female “Hurlyburly” and you weren’t seeing too many movies about female drug use or female gluttony. 

All of the female characters in movies don’t really have very deep problems. They have superficial problems. So once I had those ideas of women who are stuck in endless cycles and trying to get out of where they were, or not knowing they were stuck, I decided to set it at a wedding. Then all four of the characters basically became me, or different parts of me. All four of the characters, including Becky, are different parts of myself talking to myself. There’s the Regan in myself who’s like “Why don’t I get stuff? Why is this happening to me?” Then there’s the Gena in me who’s like “Why do you care so much? Who gives a shit?” Then there’s the Katie in me who just keeps wandering into bad situations, and doesn’t know what she’s doing and doesn’t think she’s smart enough, and can’t see that there’s this great guy right in front of her. And so that’s where it came from. 

I was never someone who had a group of girlfriends or had girlfriends being mean to me. I have always had very, very good girlfriends. I was never part of the kind of gang that got lampooned in “Mean Girls.” But, I did see my sisters go through that. But I was just interested in having a dialogue about what it means to be a woman, and whether or not marriage is something I want, and when I was going to grow up, and when I was going to start to change. It’s from a very personal place, but it’s not autobiographical.

Well, let’s talk about Sundance. Are you nervous about showing such a personal film to this whole crowd?

Oh, for sure. Oh my gosh, yeah. I mean, I don’t have children but I can only imagine it’s like sending your kid out, and you just want everyone to love your kid as much as you do. And you know there will be people who don’t, as well as people who do. That’s very painful, but it’s something you have to do. You can’t keep it to yourself. That’s very, very scary, to do that without couching it and really explaining it.

You’re freaking out?

Very much so. Of course I’ve experienced it with plays and opening nights over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever even seen 1,200 people, let alone showed my work to a crowd like that. It’s insane. We’re having a really, really big premiere. My stomach has been playing tricks on me all week. I hear that audiences here are very friendly, though. I was here five years ago as an assistant, but I didn’t get to see anything.

So, let’s talk about adapting the project. I’m assuming the script when through some pretty significant changes from stage to screen.

For sure. It’s funny, because plays are very character based. You can just throw a bunch of characters in a room and turn the fire on and see what happens. That’s really how I wrote the play. It was like I came up with these different characters, and even the male characters emerged fully formed, and I had them talk to each other and all these terrible things happened. There was just one room in the play, and there were just two male characters in the play, instead of three. I was never a film student but I’ve always been a serious film nerd and movie lover and rabid reader of film reviews and Pauline Kael. And I especially love Truffaut’s writing. His Hitchcock book was so, so important for me as a film lover.

I have two copies, and the first one is just a mess.

Oh my God, man, mine is nothing but highlighting and underlining. The Cassavetes book, “Accidental Genius,” was another book that was really for me when it came to learning about filmmaking. But, of course, I did understand when I was rewriting it that movies are slaves to plot to a certain extent. You can’t just throw people in a room and turn on the gas. You do have to structure it to a certain extent, so the audience feels like you’re going somewhere and you’re being led somewhere. David Mamet puts it best when he said, “In plays, people are wondering what’s happening now, and in the movies, they’re wondering what’s happening next.” So, suspense was something I really wanted to inject into the film, especially in the third act. 

The race to the wedding is a pretty amazing sequence.

It came out exactly how I wanted. It’s something you can do in theater, for sure, but it’s so integral to the film. I think the perfect film is “Back to the Future.” It’s a perfect script. The A-story and the B-story connect at exactly the right point, and you’re never given a piece of information that you don’t need, and in the second part of the first act, they explain time travel for you in like two minutes. It’s so succinct, and it’s so fast, and you’re never wondering what’s going on in the moment, and you’re just with it the entire way. That’s something that was a big inspiration to me, even in writing this film, which, of course, has nothing to do with sci-fi or anything. I just kept thinking that you’ve got to keep going. I always said to the cast when we were filming, and I said to Will and Adam that we’re doing everything right if the audience isn’t sure if Isla’s character is going to wake up. If we’ve suspended the disbelief to the point that they’re freaking out that we might kill off a major movie star, then we’ve done our job.

So what’s it like being here for the first time as a filmmaker, for you?

Like I said, I came here five years ago, but it was not the same experience at all. I’m just so excited that almost all of the cast could come, for a little time anyway. All of the girls are here. We had a really good time making it, and not in that cheesy way. As a director, I really pride myself on creating a family, especially in independent theater, where nobody is getting paid, so you really do have to appeal to people’s emotions and their enthusiasm, and you have to keep everyone excited about something nobody might ever see. This was one of those sets and one of those casts where everyone was happy to be there and having a good time, and I think you can tell that from watching the movie.

And you just finished the movie, right?

Oh, yeah, we just did the final mix about a week ago. It’s funny when you’re editing, and I feel like I’ve been spending all this time with them, and then they’re here and I’m realizing we haven’t actually seen each other. I also just think they’re all really cool. I love watching them. Sometimes, I guess, when you’re working on a movie and you see it over and over, you can only start to see the little cracks in it, but I love watching them, because there’s so much going on in their performances. There’s things about Isla’s performance or Kirsten’s performance that I didn’t notice until I had watched the movie for the tenth time.

When was the decision made to make it a film? Was this before Will Ferrell and everyone signed on? Or were you thinking about it when you were writing the play?

I almost wrote them simultaneously, actually. I hate to say this because it will sound so douchey, but it was a little mercenary, because I had just been signed as a writer and I didn’t have a spec screenplay. I loved these characters so much, and I knew them so well and I knew how they spoke. I figured I could play around with structure and make some mistakes, but these characters will shine through. I wrote it way back in 2008 and it made the Black List back then. But, this is when I found out that the R-Rated female comedy was the kiss of death. 

So, I think there’s a little validity to the idea that because “Bridesmaids” opened last year, and because it make a lot of money that there is a marketable thing. It has an audience. And the only benchmark they had previously was “The Sweetest Thing,” which was in, like, 2002, so they’re like, “Well, that failed, so it will never happen again.” Well, actually, I think it did make money, but it probably wasn’t reviewed so well back then. But anyway, people were like, “Leslye, it’s a great script, but it will never ever get made.” And Adam and Will and I were working on a television pilot that didn’t end up going  anywhere, and they came to see the play last year. They liked it a lot, and I was like, “Well, here’s the screenplay.” So, I guess that’s one of the reasons why it happened so quickly.

How quickly did it all happen?

I went to New York for pre-production in June or July, and I think we started shooting at the end of August. So what you’re seeing is the fastest movie of all time. I’m glad it doesn’t really feel like it, at least to me, but I think a lot of it has to do with sitting around and waiting and being ready. I’ve always been thinking about this movie and thinking about the shots and what the characters are wearing.  There’s that famous Robert Evans quote, “Luck is when opportunity meets preparation.” I was ready. And, oh my gosh, I hope to God that Sundance is ready too.

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