If you’re looking for measured, considered discussions about current events, the internet probably isn’t the place for you. Filmmakers Marc Silverstein and Abby Kohn learned that lesson the hard way back in February, when the first trailer for their comedy “I Feel Pretty” hit the web. Amy Schumer stars in the film as Renee, a seemingly regular gal with low self-esteem who literally wacks herself — she cracks her head open during a particularly bad SoulCycle class — into believing she’s the most beautiful and confident woman in the world.
It didn’t go over well.
Social media backlash to the trailer was so immediate and widespread that it became a Twitter Moment. Comedian Sofia Hagen took to the platform with her concerns, writing a long thread that opened with some questions, “Who is this supposed to resonate with? Before we can enjoy the premise, surely we have to buy into the fact that she is not pretty. How many of us are bigger than her? Are we supposed to accept that THIS is ugly when it’s all we’ve been taught that we should aim for?” Think pieces and news items sprung up across the web, from Elle to The Independent, The Daily Mail to BuzzFeed, and the focus moved from the trailer itself to what it all meant.
The film was still more than two months from premiering.
“It did seem to go down two paths, which are both different things,” Silverstein told IndieWire. “One of them just missed the message of the movie, which was the obvious one, which was like, ‘Okay, see the movie.’ The other was like, ‘Oh, wait, so the premise of the movie is that you have to hit your head to feel beautiful.'”
Kohn jumped in. “And if you drill down on that message, maybe you do because of everything we’ve grown up with and all the media,” she said. “I felt a little bit like this feels like a quick-to-judgment referendum on the way Hollywood had been tone deaf in the past. It’s not real to the message of this movie, but maybe some old habits that [the audience] felt were happening before, they just assumed that we were doing the same thing, and that we were tone deaf or that we are clueless about what messaging we may be doing.”
The backlash may not have been entirely unexpected, but it clearly stung. Still, Silverstein joked about telling his social media savvy wife, Busy Phillips (who has a supporting role in the film), to stay away from Twitter during the early days of the controversy, calling it a “cesspool.”
“Everything has some sort of backlash to a certain extent,” Silverstein said. “So, I was expecting it, but the specific version of it was sort of surprising. I’m still unclear on how to address it specifically. First of all, if you see the movie, there’s no question at all.”
Kohn, who says she is considerably less active on social media than the Silverstein family, offered her own measured take. “I was much more surprised because I just felt like, ‘Well, let’s be educated in this conversation,’ and Marc’s like, ‘Educated in the conversation? Don’t go on the internet for educated in the conversation,'” Kohn said.
If nothing else, the pair has an easy fix for those they feel don’t understand what the film is about: “Just see the movie,” Kohn said. “How can we have a dialogue when you don’t know what you’re talking about?”
While Silverstein and Kohn have long been known as the screenwriting duo behind films like “Never Been Kissed” and “How to Be Single,” “I Feel Pretty” marks a major step forward for them. They’re not just a screenwriting duo any longer; now, they’re a full-fledged filmmaking pair. It was something that only took about 20 years.
“We met in film school and directed a short together in the ’90s and that was gonna be the sort of trajectory,” Silverstein said. “Then we sold ‘Never Been Kissed’ and that got made and it was just like, ‘Oh, we’re writers and that’s what we do.'”
Silverstein said that the pair have enjoyed “generally good experiences with the movies that have been made” from their scripts, but they’ve long harbored a shared desire to get back behind the camera.
“As we’ve progressed as writers, we try to write things, where we try to direct a little from the page, but you can’t,” Kohn said. “It was time. We took a few months and we gave ourselves a hard time about making sure we had the right idea and this really seemed to be it. It had a conceit that lent itself to be really funny, but said something and had the heart to it that we really wanted.”
Kohn added that, while they have also been offered a few projects only to direct, those didn’t exactly tickle them. “We decided if we are gonna do this, we want to write something that we feel really represents our tone and what we have to say,” Kohn said.
The filmmaking pair preferred comedies with “a romantic element,” Silverstein said. “This genre’s not a steppingstone for us that we’re gonna move out of. We want to be in this world and we want to make these movies as long as we can.”
“I Feel Pretty” fits that bill, as it hinges entirely on its lead character and the arc of her story (and one that happily bucks those bad “old Hollywood habits”). Building an entire film around that kind of person was a natural choice for Silverstein and Kohn, even though they readily admit it may have added an extra challenge that no newbie director needs.
“In retrospect, [it was] a really weird thing to do, because it’s not a super cast-able part,” Silverstein said. “You need her [Schumer] or someone you’ve never heard of before.” Initially, Silverstein and Kohn thought they’d have to go the unknown route, but when a chunk of time opened up on Schumer’s schedule, it seemed as if the pair were about to snag their dream star.
“We’d never met her before,” Kohn remembered. “We got on a Google Hangout call with her and she was just like, ‘I read it. I love it. It says everything that I want to say and I want it to be my next movie.'”
Despite the major vote of confidence, Kohn was somewhat skeptical about how well the interaction had gone. “We literally got off the call and I said to Marc, ‘Do you think that’s just the way she gets off the phone?’ Like, ‘I want it to be my next movie. See ya,'” Kohn said. “And that’s her way and you never hear from her again.”
Schumer wasn’t putting them on, and the actress signed on to star in the film last April. While Schumer is best known for her comedic roles (getting your start in stand-up will do that for anyone), recent choices have indicated that she’s ready to add darker roles to her repertoire (she’s currently in talks for a part in the boxing drama “Christy Martin” and will soon be seen in Rebecca Miller’s dramedy “She Came to Me,” alongside Nicole Kidman and Steve Carell). As funny as “I Feel Pretty” is, the film also builds in some surprising drama, and Schumer is outstanding in them.
The filmmakers said that Schumer sparked to that material just as readily as she did the funny bits. “I think she was as excited about that stuff as the humor,” Silverstein said. “Because it really tapped into some stuff that she wanted to say and some real stuff that you could tell that she was like, ‘Yeah. I get this.'”
There are a number of scenes in “I Feel Pretty” that see Renee knocked down by outside forces — from an embarrassing SoulCycle check-in process to a cringe-worthy interaction with a douchey guy at her local drugstore, the kind of stuff that fueled all that backlash — but Kohn and Silverstein’s film makes it clear that Renee is her own worst critic. Early in the film, Renee returns home after a night out with friends (including Phillips and “SNL” star Aidy Bryant), and sets about disrobing, stripping all the way down to her Spanx.
As the clothes come off, Renee’s mood sinks even lower, until she’s face to face with herself in the mirror, eyeing her own body with something that can only be termed shame. It’s heartbreaking, but it also delivers an early look at what the film is trying to express: You need to love yourself first.
“It’s my favorite thing in the movie,” Silverstein said. “When we saw the first cut of the movie, the credit sequence ends with her looking in the mirror. I was like, ‘I’m super proud that that’s the beginning of a movie that we made, because I don’t think you see that kind of thing at the beginning of a movie.'”
Kohn hopes that the audience gets it, too. “I think most women who look any which way, gorgeous, big, small, whatever, have these moments where you look at yourself and just feel bad and it is painful,” Kohn said. “I think she did that so beautifully. And I look at it and I feel it and I identify with it.”
“I Feel Pretty” opens theatrically on Friday, April 20.