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Jennifer Westfeldt On Her Accidental Directing Debut, ‘Friends With Kids’

Jennifer Westfeldt On Her Accidental Directing Debut, 'Friends With Kids'

“Kissing Jessica Stein” co-scribe and star Jennifer Westfeldt is back with another New York-centric romantic comedy, “Friends With Kids” (opening this Friday). This time, she also directed it — though that wasn’t her intent. 

Westfeldt and Adam Scott star as a pair of single Manhattanites who decide to have a kid together, despite not being romantically attached. Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig, Chris O’Dowd and Westfedt’s longtime partner, Jon Hamm, are the friends who don’t know what to make of the idea. And complications ensue when Westfeldt’s character falls for the soon-to-be father to her child.

Westfeldt sat down with Indiewire to discuss her first foray behind the camera and why it’s been so long since her last script, “Ira & Abby” (2006).

You sure like to keep fans of your writing waiting.

I’ve made three films in 10 years, with perfect five-year intervals (laughs). I had to write this essay for Landmark Theaters, where our film is playing, and I was trying to make sense of this weird, unintentional trilogy I seem to have made about my take on life phases.

Now you’re well known as a director/writer, but “Friends With Kids” marks your first stab at directing. How did that all come about?

We didn’t mean for it to. We met with a bunch of different directors. We were in conversations with Jake Kasdan (“Bad Teacher”) to direct it. We has wanted to work together for such a long time and he’s a great talent.

With an indie film, you have all these balls in the air, where, you know, Adam (Scott) is available now, and there’s this one window where this person is available, and the money’s coming together and we just haven’t had the dealmaking done. There’s so many moving parts to get an indie film off the ground. We knew the cast we wanted and they were all attached, but they all had pending schedules. We had to find the magic three weeks when everyone was going to be available. You’re not gonna get that opportunity more than once, and it came in the dead of winter last year in the worst New York winter in 45 years. And that’s just when everyone could do it.

Jake Kasdan was still in post on “Bad Teacher,” so he convinced me to do it myself. All of my producing partners were pushing me to take the reins on it. So, Jake cut a deal with me. He said, “What’s your biggest worry?” And I said, “Well, I’m acting in most of this, and I don’t want to compromise the performance or the directing, because there’s so many hours in the day.” And Jake said he’d be on set and be a second set of eyes while I’m on camera, and he did. And he was there every shooting day when I was working as an actress. It was an amazing solution and he became a really influential, creative producer on set.

We were an indie band and everybody pooled their resources and worked together. My DP, Will Rexer, was endlessly patient with me and generous and we spent so much time in prep, because I wasn’t sure I would be able to translate things as I saw them to the crew.

I know what actors need. I know how to help actors feel comfortable and confident and get the performance. But as far as shotlisting and camera crews, I really wanted to make sure I was 100% prepared. So, it was just 24/7 of us going moment-by-moment and shot by shot and going through each scene and figuring out how I wanted the blocking to go with me playing all the parts with no dollars and no time. He really helped me figure out a game plan. And then half the time the plan gets thrown out because the kids have a meltdown or we lost our day or there’s suddenly 24 inches of snow. You have to keep reinventing as you go, but it was great to be so comfortable with the essence of what we’re going for so you can do a 180 in the moment.

It’s funny how your first directing gig happened by sheer coincidence. It feels like such a natural progression for you as an artist.

It never was on my radar. I spent time in the editing room on both of my other two movies, watching as a producer, so I had been involved with everything in a peripheral way, so post didn’t scare me. The shoot scared me. On the first few films, I was working 18 hours a day, but this one was 24 hours a day. I had the shakes and I lost my voice. Things happen and you have to keep dealing with them.

Writing and directing and editing are all endless jobs. They’re all jobs you never feel like you can complete. In acting, the curtain goes up at 8 and it’s got to go down by 11. There’s something really liberating about that because you might have a wonderful performance or it might not be great and then you get up and do it again the next day. You could edit a film for four years and never feel done with it. You’re so aware of wanting to exhaust every permutation and constantly put it in front of fresh eyes to get a fresh perspective because you no longer have one.

With all the hats you were wearing, what did you do to focus on set and deliver what’s a pretty endearing performance?

The truth is that Jon (Hamm) was there, Jake was there, Will was there and they’re all people I inherently trust so much. I’ve known Adam for 15 years as well, so there’s a real comfort in working with people you believe in and trust. We were all kind of there for each other.

The thing about an indie film is that there are so many joys and the pitfalls. Nobody is making money and nobody has trailers and there’s none of the things that people expect actors to get. What that means is that everyone is there for the right reasons. It feels very pure, like you’re back in college and doing a play in your dining hall. It’s a funny thing when you’re up against it and everyone bonds together. Every person with a ton of experience thought it would be impossible to get this movies made. It was under $10 million. And with this script in particular, there were so many locations and so many kids who are getting older, and so many seasons. So you expect it to be four months of shooting and $40 million dollars. But, whatever, I’m an Aquarian. You get emboldened by the fact that it’s impossible.

Seems like you’re really close with most of the people involved.

Well, Jon and Adam and I go back. I’ve known Adam for fifteen years, and his wife Naomi (Sablan) is a producer, and her first job as a producer was “Kissing Jessica Stein.” So there’s a full-circle familial atmosphere to this.

And Kristin (Wiig) and Maya (Rudolph) have worked together for years and years and Jon has worked with them. And Eddie Burns is good friends with Will Rexer’s family. And Megan’s (Fox) husband Brian (Austin Green) did a movie with Adam a few years ago.

Did you go to Ed Burns for any advice? He’s an old hat at the directing/writing/acting game.

He was actually quite busy, but on the set, he was like, “You seem calm.” And of course I wasn’t calm. And the first day we shot was that walk-and-talk near Brooklyn Promenade, so it was like 9 degrees and we sat shivering in a van when we could. He was such a good sport and so was everyone on the project.

Are we going to see you direct anything else down the road?

Definitely not soon, but if something comes along and I feel like I have something to bring to it…and we have more time to prepare.

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