When Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins’ “Booksmart” landed on the Black List of best-liked unproduced scripts back in 2009, it promised a tantalizing twist on the high school comedy: “Two overachieving high school seniors realize the only thing they haven’t accomplished is having boyfriends, and each resolves to find one by prom.” Despite the heat of a Black List endorsement, the screenplay languished, eventually getting a 2014 rewrite from filmmaker Susanna Fogel (best known for her appropriately female friendship-powered films “Life Partners” and “The Spy Who Dumped Me”). And then… nada, not for whole years.
But you can’t keep a good idea (or, as is the case with “Booksmart,” two good girls) down.
Hot off the production of what would become a smash hit for Netflix, the charming rom-com “Set It Up,” rising screenwriter Katie Silberman was tapped to draft her own version of the “Booksmart” script in the spring of 2018. No, really, she was very hot off the production: just weeks after wrapping “Set It Up” in New York City, Silberman was meeting with director Olivia Wilde to chat about what would become their version of “Booksmart.”
“There are sometimes these projects that are around for a decade, and it’s because everyone knows they want to make a movie in the core of what it’s about, it’s just trying different iterations of how to tell that story,” Silberman explained in a recent interview with IndieWire. While the story changed over the years, that core — about “two very smart best friends who try to navigate the end of their high school experience” — remained the film’s driving force.
“Booksmart,” which debuted to massive acclaim at the SXSW Film Festival earlier this year and is now teed up for a buzzy theatrical release, took the idea that Halpern, Haskins, and Fogel all crafted and ran with it. Set during the waning days of senior year, a made-for-the-movies time period that continues to serve as the backdrop for many high school films, Wilde’s film follows BFFs Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), who have dedicated their young lives to academic pursuits. It’s paid off for the pair: they’ve got excellent grades, stellar resumes, and are ready to embark on the next chapter of their brilliant lives.
But while Molly and Amy have been busy busting their butts with books, the rest of their co-ed cohorts have been off living it up, with some surprising results: they all got good grades too. And they are going to good colleges. And they have bright futures. Oh, and they had so much fun, the kind Molly and Amy have studiously (literally) eschewed for so many years. As “Booksmart” hilariously unfolds, the duo set about changing all of that, at least for one last glorious night of high school freedom.
“I was a real Molly in high school,” Silberman said, who also produced the film. “I did not party that much, and I think I convinced myself it was because I was doing the responsible thing. Then I got to college and saw all the kids who I thought were just partying in more advanced classes than I was. I was like, ‘Wait a second, what have I done?’ In a lot of ways I pitched a story that was wish fulfillment for me.”
Before Silberman could make her delayed high school dreams come true, she had to find her own tribe of whipsmart ladies to push her to the top. Silberman first came out to Los Angeles in January 2012, where she snagged a job assisting Dana Fox, who was then serving as showrunner for the short-lived sitcom “Ben and Kate.”
“She was so generous and wise and funny and taught me so much, not only so much about lighting and making movies and about telling stories,” she said. “But also about how to treat people and how to have the happiest version of a life in this industry and surrounded herself with only the same kind of lovely people.”
Early in the show’s run, a “very, very nervous” Silberman pitched a joke to her boss — she lauded Fox for having a “best joke wins” policy that allowed her to feel comfortable coming forward with her idea — that ended up in an episode. “I remember watching it on television and being like, ‘Oh, my god. I can leave now. I’ve had one joke on TV. I can do it. I can go home and tell my nana it’s been accomplished,'” she remembered.
After “Ben and Kate,” Silberman and Fox teamed up as a writing duo, and the pair worked on films like “Hot Pursuit” and “How to Be Single.” Inspired by her love of rom-coms, Silberman took the leap and eventually wrote “Set It Up” by herself. “I would say probably the first time that I really felt like, ‘I can do this. I think I’m going to do this for my life, for my career, because I love it so much,’ was when I finished ‘Set It Up,'” Silberman said.
While the timing of “Set It Up” and “Booksmart” — and don’t forget the Silberman-penned “Isn’t It Romantic,” which hit theaters in February, right between the wrapping of Wilde’s film and its SXSW debut — might seem wild, Silberman said it was the result of years of hard work and staying true to the kind of films she wanted to make.
“I had been hoping to make a high school movie for a long time,” Silberman said. “I told Olivia I wanted to make a Nora Ephron movie, and I wanted to make a ‘Clueless’ type movie, because those were the movies that made me want to write when I was younger.”
Silberman hailed Wilde for having her own clear vision of what she wanted to create: “Training Day” as a high school movie. “She was really playing into the idea that high school is war, and she had this incredible vision and energy and vibe about the kind of high school movie that she wanted to make,” Silberman said. “She wanted to tell a story about two brilliant best friends and really have it reflect 2019.”
“We were thinking a lot about the generational anthems that high school movies can become,” she added, pointing to films like “Clueless,” “Dazed and Confused,” “The Breakfast Club,” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” as key guideposts. “They’re so evocative of the decade that they’re set in and what it was like to be a teenager in that decade, but they’re also so timeless,” Silberman said. “You can watch any of those movies and get as much out of it now as you did back then.”
Silberman said they also drew inspiration from buddy comedies that hinge on the relationship between best friends, like “Bridesmaids,” “Outrageous Fortune,” “Thelma and Louise,” and “The Big Lebowksi.” Keeping the central relationship at the heart of the film was elemental, but it got even easier once Wilde cast Feldstein and Dever.
“Beanie and Kaitlyn are the most inspiring of all,” Silberman said. “Once they were there, it was so easy. Writing for them is the easiest thing in the world.” It didn’t hurt that the duo bonded intensely during production, going so far as moving in with each other and becoming best friends in their own right.
Inspired by Feldstein and Dever (plus a stacked cast of supporting stars, including breakout Billie Lourd, Molly Gordon, Diana Silvers, Jessica Williams, Victoria Ruesga, Skyler Gisondo, Eduardo Franco, Mason Gooding, Noah Galvin, and Austin Crute), Silberman and Wilde set about making a movie that could speak to the younger generation and honor their uniqueness.
“They’re so smart and brave and progressive,” she said. “And we thought a lot about what it’s like to grow up as a smart, young woman with the role models that they’ve had their whole lives. We talked a lot about what it’s like to be a high schooler who grew up with ‘lean in’ as a concept that had been used basically your entire life, as opposed to something you had to learn about later as a young woman.”
Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures
When the film started shooting in May of last year, Silberman was on set most days — a “very rare” experience for a writer, and one she previously enjoyed while making “Set It Up” — which allowed her and first-time feature director Wilde to continue to build their vibrant, hilarious buddy comedy.
“It was a very evolving process, the core of the story and the script stayed true to what it was from the beginning, but making a movie is a chemical equation of the location and the weather and the day and the set you end up on and the prop that you end up with,” she said. “To be able to work with the actors and with Olivia to help adapt the script to the reality of what we had in front of us was so, so, so much fun.”
Despite a crunched shooting schedule and a fast-paced environment, Silberman still lights up when talking about the production. “I was nostalgic for it while it was happening,” she said. “This is the only movie I’ve ever been on where I wish it was an 150-day shoot instead of a 26-day shoot. … It was four weeks of nights, which can literally drive someone crazy, it can send someone to the loony bin, but it felt like a party the whole time.”
Silberman said she and Wilde are already planning to do something together again soon, “kind of another female buddy comedy, but about women in a different phase of their lives.” Earlier this month, Silberman signed on for another dream project: a rom-com that reteams her with “Set It Up” stars Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell for a new rom-com tentatively titled “Most Dangerous Game.” The film is not a sequel, but it does promise to do more of what Silberman hopes to keep doing with her career.
“I think I’m hoping to just make more movies about smart women who feel like the friends I have in real life who make me laugh,” she said. “So, that’s kind of the general overarching goal and then there are some specific ones underneath that.” Sounds smart.
Annapurna Pictures and United Artists Releasing will release “Booksmart” in theaters on Friday, May 24.