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‘Book Club’: How Robert Redford’s Former Producers Made the Rare Rom-Com About Women Over 65

Inspired by the best-selling "Fifty Shades of Grey" trilogy, Bill Holderman and Erin Simms made the jump to feature filmmaking with a charmer about older women living life to the fullest.

“Book Club”

Paramount

Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.

There are four leading ladies in Bill Holderman’s directorial debut, “Book Club,” and each of them get equal time to explore burgeoning new romances that light up their individual lives (and that are further enlivened by the introduction of E.L. James’ steamy “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy to the eponymous book club). It’s cute idea, but it’s also one that’s quietly revelatory: each of the film’s stars is over the age of 65. Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, Candice Bergen, and Diane Keaton all play long-time best pals trying to squeeze some life out of their waning years. The lesson, of course, is that they’ve gotten plenty more to do, no matter the number of candles on their birthday cake.

Romantic comedies have sputtered out in the studio world over the past few years — the last bonafide rom-com hit from a studio was 2009’s “The Proposal,” which initially seemed poised to inspire all sorts of new twists on the genre for an audience clearly hungry to see them, and then, well, didn’t — but “Book Club” is proof that they’ve still got charm, and that charm doesn’t need to be bound by age. It’s a lesson that came naturally to director and co-writer Holderman, along with co-writer Erin Simms, who took the stuff they learned in the indie production world (plus their genuine admiration for the genre) and turned it into a rom-com befitting the films that inspired it.

The creative team first met at Robert Redford’s Wildwood Enterprises, where Holderman served as the Hollywood legend’s long-time producing partner and former actress Simms worked her way up from Redford’s assistant to gigs developing and producing for the indie shingle. Discovering that they shared a similar work ethic and love for the feel-good movies of yore, the pair set about making a film that was, yes, initially inspired by one heck of a weird Mother’s Day present. Here’s how they did it.

1. Don’t Be Afraid of “Insane” Inspiration

By Mother’s Day 2012, James’ books were flying off the shelves, and Holderman was convinced they’d make a good gift for his freewheeling mother. “I knew what they were about, and I was like, ‘My mom’s gonna like these books,'” he said. “So I sent them to her for Mother’s Day, and we were working together at the time, and Erin saw me doing this—”

Simms cut in: “I thought he was completely insane…I’m not a prude at all, but the concept of a son sending [these books] just completely blew me away.”

And yet there was, as Simms termed it, a “mad genius” to the gift, and she also sent copies to her own mother and stepmother. That kickstarted a conversation between the pair, one about “our moms, and all their different perspectives on the age that they are and dating and attitudes,” Simms said. “The next day we had the idea for the movie.”

2. Write What Brings You Joy

“In creative endeavors, everyone has their opinions and their way of doing things. For us, we really had a shared sense of story, a shared sense of tone, the type of movies that we liked, the types of movies that we wanted to make,” Holderman said. “When this came up, it was kind of a no-brainer. This was a) something that we both got inspired by and b) we were desperate to go make a comedy. We really wanted to have fun.”

“Book Club”

Paramount Pictures

Collaboration came easy to the pair, which helped give first-time screenwriter Simms the push she needed to flex her writing muscles. “I really wanted Bill to write a movie from scratch,” Simms said. “I had never written anything, that was not part of my master plan. But when we had the idea, it was just because we were having so much fun working together, we thought why not? Why not also write a movie?”

The pair didn’t initially set out to write for anything else beyond just the joy they felt while in the process of working together. “When we were writing the movie, you don’t think the movie is actually going to get made, to be honest,” Simms said. “You’re just writing the movie because you want to. The rest is just a miracle.”

Simms catches herself. “I should rephrase that,” she said. “We worked at a production company where movies got made, so we didn’t think it was impossible or anything like that. We were writing it because we were just excited to write the script. I’m sure not many people can say that. They’re usually writing because they want a job and they want to make money. We already had jobs and just really loved the idea.”

3. Embrace an Audience That’s Underrepresented

They weren’t the only ones. “I remember being really inspired by ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,'” Simms said. “I loved that movie and it was completely out of left field. So many people loved it. The writing was so smart, and it didn’t matter what age they were, it was a good movie.”

John Madden’s 2012 Fox Searchlight feature was a big hit, pulling in over $135M in box office returns against a $10M budget and inspiring its very own sequel, one that filled the gap for feel-good movies about the older set, the same population who tend to be voracious movie-goers but who doesn’t always see themselves up on the big screen.

“You feel society’s pressures to, at a certain point, relegate people over 40 or 50 to absolutely put them out to pasture,” Holderman said. “They are no longer relevant. And my experience, being raised by such a strong woman, was that didn’t even occur. Literally. It did not register.”

The entertainment industry reflects that same thinking Holderman was pushing against, one which Holderman and Simms were determined to rebuke. “Hollywood is so reflective of that ageism,” Holderman said. “We were just inspired but those outliers of people who were like, ‘We’re still here. We’re still living our life.’ Not only are we still living our life, we know more than we knew then and we’re having fun.”

Simms added, “We did really want to have a very universal quality to each one of them. People don’t hit a certain age and suddenly they’re not humans anymore.”

That deep humanity helped guide the film from start to finish, adding a level of relatability to the characters and their situations that can appeal to everyone, no matter their age.

“I don’t think that when I’m 65 that I’m gonna suddenly have all the answers,” Simms said. “I looked at my mom and I looked at my step-mom, and I want to be excited to get older. We’re all going in the same direction, so it’s like self-aspirational. This is how want my life to be when I’m older. It doesn’t mean that you have to be with someone romantically or whatever, but to still have your best friends. To still have fun. To still challenge yourself.”

(L-R) Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton in the film, BOOK CLUB, by Paramount Pictures

“Book Club”

Melinda Sue Gordon

And it wasn’t just the audience that was hungry to see women of a certain age tearing it up on-screen, it was also the legendary actresses they cast in the film.

“These are not people who just took jobs,” Holderman said. “We’ve seen that before. They wanted this to be great. Those sparks and those feelings all happened on set. The first time they got together, you could feel that we were doing something special. I think that was the great blessing here, is that they were excited to be friends on-screen because they were becoming friends off-screen and off-set.”

The film is a rarity in Hollywood, a wide release film that hinges entirely on the lives and loves of a gaggle talented women all over the age of 65.

“Candice has said it, she hadn’t been offered anything where she actually had a role the whole way through the film,” Simms said. “And God only knows how many years she’s playing the mom or the bride wrangler. I think they were all like, ‘Oh, oh! This is an actual real role where I am the lead character.'”

4. “Feel-Good” Is Still a Good Thing

Holderman and Simms’ personal connection to the story — something sprung from the women they loved, something so fun to craft — obscured another unique element of the story: it’s just not the kind of movie that Hollywood makes so much these days. And not just a rom-com starring and aimed at older women, but just a rom-com in general.

“Now we look back and there is this sort of whole vacancy that’s happened in the business, but when we were coming up with this idea, and writing it, and persevering for all that time, it was never to fill a void,” Holderman said. “It was really because it was these are movies that we love…That genre has kind of been decimated bit.”

They had some guideposts — they both named Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers as inspirations — the kind of filmmakers who made the exact kind of movies they wanted to check out at the multiplex.

“I worked on those movies that are quote un-quote ‘important,’ and to me the world needs the counterbalance of things that also make you feel good,” Holderman said. “That can be also more inspiring.”

Simms added, “This is a movie I wanna go see! This is the movie that I want to go see.”

“Book Club” hits theaters on Friday, May 18.

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