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‘Ocean’s 8’ Screenwriter Olivia Milch on the Joy of Assembling a Cast of ‘Badass’ Actresses

For her first studio film, the in-demand screenwriter told IndieWire she relished the "healing" power of building a film around a team of awesome women.

Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Gary Ross (Director), Olivia Milch (Producer)The Cast and Filmmakers of 'Ocean's 8' at The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Temple of Dendur in the Sackler Wing, New York, USA - 22 May 2018

Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Gary Ross, and Olivia Milch

Marion Curtis/StarPix/REX/Shutterstock

Behind every heist, there’s a plan, and behind every heist movie, there’s a screenwriter actually writing that plan. With “Ocean’s 8,” that screenwriter is Olivia Milch, who wrote the newest film in the expanding “Ocean’s” franchise alongside director Gary Ross, a fun and frisky take on the genre that is entirely populated with women who, in the words of Emma Watson, really just “wanna rob!” 

The new film moves the action of the Steven Soderbergh-created franchise (itself spun off the Rat Pat-starring feature from 1960) to New York City, where it’s another member of the Ocean clan – Debbie, played by Sandra Bullock – who brings together a talented team to rob the glittering Met Gala of even more glittering jewels.

And that team is an enviable one: It includes Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helen Bonham Carter, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, and rapper-comedian Awkwafina. It’s no surprise a woman helped create the vivid characters that populate the film, which includes a banger of a heist that takes place at one of the fashion world’s most important events. It may be a big concept, but it’s also one that hinges on crafting a team of criminals that’s more entertaining than the heist itself.

While some may have balked at the hiring of Ross – you know, a guy – for the directing gig, his deal went hand-in-hand with Milch’s, who calls the veteran director her “writing partner, dear friend, and mentor.”

“We wrote side-by-side at the computer together, and so we spent so many hours just thinking about these women and these characters and talking about their story and who they were and what this plan was gonna be,” Milch said. “That was just such a great joy and privilege to be able to do that with him. Gary is a legend. You know, fucking ‘Pleasantville’ and ‘Big’ and ‘Hunger Games’!”

Milch and Ross’ writing process was “a continuous conversation” between the pair, which also translated to Milch’s production experience. As a co-producer, she was on set every day, which allowed her to ensure that her characters and story stayed true to their original intent. For Milch, that meant making a film about cool women, starring cool women. If anything is shaping up to be her signature, it’s that.

“I love movies that treat young women and young female protagonists with respect and portray young female protagonists who have self-respect, who are self-possessed, who have ownership over their choices and have agency,” Milch said. “Even though they’re gonna make mistakes and fuck up and they’re not perfect. I really do think that that is much more the reality and the authentic experience of most young women, and in part that’s why I think audiences are responding to those kind of portrayals.”

And here are some world-class fuck-ups in “Ocean’s 8,” which starts with Bullock’s Debbie Ocean getting let out of the clink after five years doing hard time: When she emerges from prison, she’s wearing the outfit she was arrested in — a sparkly ballgown. Something clearly went wrong for Debbie, and “Ocean’s 8” uses that as the entry point for a slick heist story that’s also got a revenge bent to it.

Ocean's 8 Rihanna

“Ocean’s 8”

Barry Wetcher

Debbie is far from the only member of the team to have been waylaid by some bad choices – our introduction to Blanchett’s Lou sees her overseeing a room full of workers cutting bottles of already-cheap vodka with water, and that’s just the second member of the team we meet – but they are women with agency, who are about to take control of their choices to make something better. Bonus: it’s fun, and while there’s obvious danger to the heist, Milch wasn’t interested in making a film where it felt like something bad was going to happen at any minute.

“It was almost healing in a weird way when the trailer came out, to see a group of women on screen together and feel like, ‘Okay, I can enjoy these women being excellent, being on a team, and I don’t have to worry that something terrible is gonna happen to them,’ which I felt like for a period of time in our society was what we were really reckoning with,” Milch said.

Milch was effusive about the movie’s underlying appeal. “It is such a joy to see those eight women on screen together,” she said. “I think beyond that, the skill and the camaraderie that goes into a heist film is so exciting and fun, and the legacy of the ‘Ocean’s’ movies is strong. I think it’s something that people are really excited for, because seeing badass women steal shit is a movie we all wanna go see.”

The film is Milch’s first studio feature, but she’s hardly a newcomer to the industry. In 2011, just months after graduating Yale, Milch signed on to produce a number of new adaptations of William Faulkner’s work, which were to be penned by her father, David Milch, creator of such lauded television series as “NYPD Blue” and “Deadwood.” Though the Faulkner deal didn’t go anywhere, Milch credited her father for shaping her as a writer.

Ocean's 8

“Ocean’s 8”

Barry Wetcher

“He’s a genius and a legend, and I would never deign to compare myself to him in any way,” Milch said. “He has taught me so much, if not everything, that I know about writing, but I think particularly the dedication and commitment to the practice of writing, the discipline, the writing every day, and the freeing of yourself.”

Her parents also steeped Milch in movies early on (her mother is former film editor Rita Stern) and she ticked off some of her early favorites: “There was everything, from ‘To Sir, with Love’ and ‘Lilies of the Valley’ to classics like ‘Network’ or ‘Broadcast News,'” she said. “And then, of course, John Waters movies. ‘Cry-Baby’ was one of my favorite films as a like a five-year-old, which maybe speaks to a little bit of why I’m the twisted, fucked-up person that I am.”

Milch is also a big comedy nerd, and grew into her sensibilities by watching lots of Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell movies, the full Judd Apatow oeuvre, women-centric comedies like “Heathers” and “Clueless,” with a generous dash of “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons.”

These days, she’s particularly hyped on films from fellow female filmmakers, including Marielle Heller and Anna Rose Holmer, and she’s never quite gotten over an early love for Leslie Mann’s comedic stylings. “There are female filmmakers in particular right now who are working who are just so inspiring, and there’s no shortage [of them],” she said.

Milch’s first directorial outing, the high school stoner comedy “Dude,” also debuted this year, thanks to a deal with Netflix. A spin on the kind of movies that typically star young men, the former Black List script instead centers on four best friends during their senior year in high school, with all the joy and pain that entails. The streaming giant released it on April 20, all the better to capitalize on some of its weed-laced sensibilities. Milch’s wild teenagers might indulge in bad behavior, but that’s part of the authenticity she’s trying to capture.

“Dude”

Netflix

“They have senses of humor that are rooted in the human experience, which oftentimes is bodily and gross and guttural and visceral and all of the things that make us human beings and connect us to each other,” she said. “The idea that that is the purview males exclusively is ridiculous and a lie.”

She’s got no bones about releasing her first film on a streaming platform, even though she’s still got a soft spot for the theatrical experience. She struck a practical note when considering the movie’s key demographic. “It’s so wonderful to be able to see your movie on the big screen, but I think the reality is that, especially for ‘Dude’s audience, they’re gonna watch it on Netflix,” Milch said.

While both “Ocean’s 8” and “Dude” are contemporary films told in contemporary settings, Milch’s obsession with crafting relatable women isn’t bound by period. Before either project existed, Milch was set up with another story about a group of women: a big screen adaptation of Louise May Alcott’s seminal novel “Little Women.” The writer was brought on to the project in 2013, her first studio gig, and she got pretty Method with the material. Though she lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the time, she would drive to Alcott’s home in Concord every morning to write in her Orchard House.

“I would actually write in the room where she wrote ‘Little Women,'” Milch said. “I would sit underneath the desk where she wrote ‘Little Women’ and write the screenplay. I didn’t dare sit at her desk. In the afternoons, I would go to Walden Pond and write and read, and I would sit at Louisa May Alcott’s grave, and it was just a totally magical, transcendental experience.”

And then? “All of which is to say, they didn’t end up using my script,” she said with a laugh. “Which is, in a certain sense, the perfect, beautiful end to that story. I think as a young writer and as a writer in general, one of the realities that you experience is you work on things for a long time, and then they leave you. The project itself evolves and has a life of its own.”

“Ocean’s 8” opens on Friday, June 8.

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