Kathryn Merteuil may hate when things don’t go her way, but thanks to “Do Revenge” writer-director Jennifer Kaityn Robinson, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s iconic “Cruel Intentions” character has a whole new life, now revived as the ultimate queen bee: a prep school principal who trims a bonsai tree when she (rarely) feels out of control.
“She was my first dream choice,” Robinson told IndieWire about Gellar’s casting almost 25 years after the beloved 1999 film debuted. “And it was one of those things where you don’t think she’s going to do it. I was like, ‘Yeah, of course, let’s offer it to her and see what happens.’ You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. But when she said yes, I was flabbergasted and so excited.”
Robinson added, “I will say, her saying yes was kind of co-signing this movie, and made me feel like we were doing something right. It really was like the turning point for me where I was just like, ‘Oh, I think this is like might really work and it’s going to be good.'”
As if “Do Revenge” needed that extra boost. The deliciously deceitful film is part Gen-Z cancel culture indictment, part blast of faux woke feminism, and overall a whirlwind burst of catchy slang, fabulous costumes, and a definitive guide to all of the best nostalgic ’90s and early aughts high school teen dramedies.
Camila Mendes stars as Drea, a fallen It Girl looking to retaliate against her former friends; Maya Hawke is new girl Eleanor who undergoes a meta makeover and similarly sets her aim on the popular crowd to exact revenge after a decade-old trauma. Why mine Jane Austen’s “Emma” or Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” for a teen revenge story when Patricia Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train” is also on the bookshelf, ready for an updated adaptation? It’s like Alfred Hitchcock went to high school and only wore deliriously clashing prints.
That’s not to say that Robinson discards films of decades past: The cinematic references in “Do Revenge” are beautiful and bountiful, a nod to “Cruel Intentions” with a black convertible here, a flip of a neon plaid skirt calling back to “Clueless” there. “Heathers,” “Jawbreaker,” and “10 Things I Hate About You” are among the influences lead star Hawke credited.
And director Robinson wanted to take that ode to ’90s films one step further. In fact, she rewrote the principal’s dialogue entirely once Robinson knew Gellar would be reading the script. “I just heard her and sat there and literally thought about Kathryn from ‘Cruel Intentions,’ like, if she was the headmaster of the school, what advice would she give?,” Robinson said.
Robinson also wrote 40 needle drops into the script, originally all ’90s tracks but then expanded to include Gen Z TikTok favorites, plus the ultimate bridge between the generation gap: modern covers of hit songs from decades ago. Maud’s cover of “Kids in America” and Harvey Danger’s alt track “Flagpole Sitta,” which lands at a perfect time in the film, are going to go, as the kids would say, “viral,” per Robinson’s predictions. “Running Up That Hill,” anyone?
Runway style from the 1990s influenced the film’s aesthetic with direct homages to “Clueless” costume designer Mona May’s ensemble looks. “This movie doesn’t live in reality,” Robinson said. “This is not a slice of life. We wanted to really pushed the costumes as far as they could go without feeling like costumes, just finding that line where it’s camp but it’s not Halloween.”
“Do Revenge” costume designer Alana Morshead and production designer Hillary Gurtler were tasked with creating “girl world” in the Miami-set film, blending a coastal grandma vintage chic (before the term even existed) with crop tops and kimonos.
“With the language and with the costumes and with the production design, it was about wanting to create a world and wanting to everything to feel like it is it doesn’t necessarily follow the rules of any world except for the rules of ‘Do Revenge,'” Robinson explained. “We’re creating those rules.”
It was during Robinson’s first feature, Netflix’s “Someone Great,” where she realized Hollywood has changed drastically since the ’90s. “I just feel like the movies that I grew up with in the ’90s and early 2000s just don’t get made anymore,” Robinson said. “They just aren’t the same.”
While she “loved” fellow Netflix film “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” Robinson found the John Hughes-inspired novel adaptation as the right inspiration to channel her love of “campy heightened films” she watched as a teen. Add in the modern teen A-listers like Hawke, Mendes, “Euphoria” star Austin Abrams, “Outer Banks” breakout Jonathan Daviss, “13 Reasons Why” alum Alisha Boe, and even Sophie Turner, and welcome to the “Revengers,” as Mendes joked.
“I do consume a bunch of teen TV,” Robinson said. “But honestly they were all just the perfect people for these roles. A script can only be as good as the person that embodies the character, and these performances really leap offscreen”
And like “Cruel Intentions,” Robinson’s “Do Revenge” is already a smorgasbord of rising talent, prime for a “we knew them when” callback years down the line, much like Gellar. “They’re all kind of finding their way, either kind of before this film or after this film,” Robinson said of her young cast. “They’re turning into their own kind of icons.”
“Do Revenge” starts streaming on Friday, September 16 on Netflix.