Like the characters she creates, writer/director/playwright/producer Leslye Headland is delightfully unhinged. She doesn’t hold back in her work or during an interview.
Headland was last at Sundance with her raucous, female-driven directorial debut “Bachelorette,” based on her hit off-Broadway play. Since then she has developed projects for television and wrote the script for the Kevin Hart film, “About Last Night.” Headland’s anticipated second feature, “Sleeping with Other People,” premieres in Park City tonight and is said to be as raunchy and incisive about relationships like her debut. The comedy stars Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis as a pair who lose their virginity to each other in college, only to later reunite at a sex addicts support group in New York.
Headland spoke with Indiewire before Sundance got underway to discuss her latest film, shooting sex scenes and what she makes of the controversy surrounding the recent Academy Award nominations.
So, the film premieres in a matter of days. Is everything locked?
We’re actually done; I’m actually watching the final playback this evening. But yeah, we’re ready to go, I think! [laughs] Ready to unleash it upon the unsuspecting public.
When you say “unsuspecting,” is that because the film is intended to shock in a way “Bachelorette” did?
I don’t know, to be honest. I went to Sundance with “Bachelorette” not really thinking that my characters were that unlikable or that the film was that dark [laughs]…so the reaction of, oh my gosh… was like, oh! As far as unsuspecting population, it was also like, unsuspecting filmmaker. I’m not quite sure, I think it will be a positive reaction, but I also am just not quite sure.
Something I will say that the films have in common is that they’re both so personal. Not that they’re about any sort of autobiographical thing, but they’re about pain, both of them are about real pain, and making fun of that pain. And so whether or not the audience responds to it in a positive or negative way, I think…it’ll just be interesting to see.
Why is pain funny to you?
I think comedy is pain. If you think about the most basic joke of slipping on a banana peel, that’s pain that you’re laughing at. You’re laughing at someone falling over, even if you look at the Marx Brothers, you’re laughing at discomfort, you’re laughing at the three to four personalities going into the upper crust of American society, playing these incredibly huge archetypes, based on all kinds of racial stereotypes and everything. And it’s all pain!
Specifically with this film, I wanted to look at sex and intimacy and loneliness and romance and all of that kind of stuff, and essentially I really wanted to write a romantic comedy. Everyone was sort of like, oh well romantic comedies are on their way out and they’re not very good, it’s dead… [but] as long as we have sex, we will have a romantic comedy. As long as people are fucking each other, you’re going to have a romantic comedy. I felt it needed to be reinvented. [The romantic comedy genre] couldn’t just be the same thing it’s been doing since 2005, it needed a new thing. Like a new suit to put on.
“Bachelorette” was also deep down a romantic comedy. And “About Last Night,” the comedy that you wrote that was released last year, was a romantic one. You’re clearly a fan of the genre. Can you speak to that and why you’re so passionate about bringing a new, modern voice to the romantic comedy template?
When I was at Tisch, at NYU, I had this great design teacher who was also a very successful costume designer. At the end of the year there was this big thing called The Movie Project, and you were assigned a genre…and you basically had to do a pitch that also had visual elements to it…and he gave me romantic comedy and I was so offended, because I was 18 and I was very dark and I was very important. I wanted a realist drama or something. I was watching “Bridge on the River Kwai” every day, [and] I was so offended that he would give me romantic comedy. Then I wrote the story that basically is [“Sleeping With Other People”]. It’s the story that I keep telling over and over again, and I think that I’m attracted to it in spite of myself.
It’s a long way to answer your question…I try to be very serious and very intense and all these kinds of things, but I think deep down I want to be [Frank] Capra or [Ernst] Lubitsch or Billy Wilder. There’s nothing more satisfying than writing something that all ties together, and that really makes people fall in love with the film, the way that the characters are falling in love. You can hate-fuck your audience if you really want to, but I sort of want to take everybody out on a really uncomfortable date. [laughs] And hopefully they’ll call me back for another one. A really uncomfortable date with hot sex that you don’t really understand.
Is that your idea of a perfect date? Awkward, followed by hot sex?
My perfect date is everything goes wrong, and then you have just incredible fucking. Everything [is a let-down] and you’re like, I’m ready to get out of here, and then you fuck in the bathroom. It’s the not knowing and the confusion that I find the most exciting about relationships. I think we all want the happy ending, but there’s no fun in that, really, is there? It’s great to have a happy ending in your film, but you don’t want that in your life, that would be so boring. Oh my god, that would be horrible. If you were just content? No! [laughs]
You’re such a writer.
Oh, I know, I’m so dark. You’re also the first interview I’ve done, so I have no idea what I’m talking about.
No, I love it; keep going.
Adam McKay said that when he saw the first early cut of it, he said it’s a really sexy movie, which you don’t really associate with comedy. I think you associate comedy with trying to get sex. But actual sex? Real sex and how weird that is? I mean, sex is weird, it’s fuckin’ weird… and I think in the romantic comedy it’s usually this sort of emblem of love. That’s how the romantic comedy started: let’s watch foreplay for 90 minutes! And now everybody fucks each other within 15 minutes of meeting each other, so sex had to be a different thing in [my] movie, it couldn’t be the end goal of the character. It almost had to become a character in and of itself. And just like a character, sex is multi-faceted, there’s a lot of different things going on. It’s not just the consummation of an attraction, it’s all other kinds of weird shit that we’re carrying around in ourselves and that we unleash on someone, when they put their penis in us. Like, here you go! Here’s all my energy! And as much as people try to mask it, your body doesn’t lie. It can’t, and if you try to get it to lie, it won’t behave, after a while. What am I saying, Nigel!?
Nothing I don’t agree with.
Should I just call my therapist? Is this even about the movie?
I’m guessing there are a few sex scenes in “Sleeping With Other People,” given what you’re telling me. There was one very memorable one in a bathroom in “Bachelorette.” Not coming from a writer’s perspective but from a director’s perspective, what’s it like to shoot those scenes with the actors? Have they gotten less awkward over the years?
It’s funny, because the sex scene in “Bachelorette” was really fun. We shot it at the end of the day and we were running out of time…and [James] Marsden and [Kirsten] Dunst were so game, and there wasn’t any nudity…it was just fun! I let the camera roll and I would yell out stuff, like “say don’t cum on my dress!” It was sort of loosey-goosey. And then [“Sleeping With Other People”] was the polar opposite. I had [the sex scenes] very heavily storyboarded. I was like, “And then we’re gonna be here, and then we’re gonna be here, and then this thing’s gonna happen”…in a weird way [the sex scenes] were almost like the set pieces in the movie, and they were very carefully thought out, they were not [improvised] in any way. I sat down with the actors and I showed them the storyboard and said, “This is what I’m thinking, this is what we’re going to do,” and then they would augment it with, “I don’t quite know if my character would say this.” They never said, “I feel uncomfortable doing that,” that never happened. They’re all such pros, but they were more coming from an emotional place of, I’m not quite sure this works…I know what you’re trying to get at, Leslye, but I don’t know if what you’ve suggested will convey that.
It was all very much discussed ahead of time, and walked through ahead of time. So by the time we were there and we were actually shooting, everybody knew what they were gonna do, especially [Alison Brie and Adam Scott’s] sex scene, it felt almost like a dance sequence. It was so heavily choreographed.
Now, we have to talk Oscars. As a female filmmaker, as a female writer, working in Hollywood, I’d love to get your take on all the think pieces that came out when the Academy snubbed Ava DuVernay, who had been pegged for months as possibly being the first African-American female director to be nominated for an Oscar.
That was such a bummer, wasn’t it? Because it really felt like, oh gosh, this is exciting, the first African-American woman is going to get nominated! It was a bit of a bummer, wasn’t it? I don’t know. Who did get nominated? A bunch of white guys?
I think it’s the whitest Oscars since 1995. There are no people of color nominated in any of the major categories.
To me that just seems crazy. To me, directing seems like such a female act. You know how, way back in the Hollywood system, way, way back in the studio system, editing was considered women’s work, because they thought it was sewing? To me, the birthing of a story, the birthing of a movie, it’s so maternal. I feel so maternal on set. I feel like I’m gestating the project, and then I’m in labor for 23 days of shooting…pushing it the fuck out of my body…to me it just seems like women would be more embraced in this category, and I’m not sure why that isn’t the case. Is it just that people feel more comfortable with the way things have been? And then every once and a while you get an Ava [DuVernay] or an Angelina Jolie or a Kathryn Bigelow or Sofia Coppola, and they just sort of push through. And then people like me see that, and go oh, look! I can do it; I can do it! It seems like a job that’s tailor-made for women.
Also, I tweeted this and nobody cared, but does anyone else feel like “Birdman” is a poor dude’s “Black Swan?” I was watching it thinking, I remember when this was “Black Swan.” And it was fucking awesome. It’s like, the same story.
Except from a male perspective.
From a male perspective, yeah, exactly, exactly…that’s always funny. I always said that about “Bachelorette” the play, and the movie: I wonder, if [the characters] were men, if this would be perceived differently. Not that I would want it to be perceived differently, it was exactly what it was supposed to be, but especially when I was doing the play off-Broadway, and people were like, those were hateful women! I just wondered if they were all dudes, if it was called “Hurly-Burly,” if it would have come off the same way.