Summer Movie Preview: The women behind ‘Booksmart’

LOS ANGELES — If you’ve heard anything about the film “Booksmart,” you’ve probably also heard the words “female ‘Superbad’.” The high school comedy is about two best friends over the course of one epic 24-hour period. And, yes, the friends are women played by Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein (incidentally, Jonah Hill’s sister).

While director Olivia Wilde likes “Superbad” and understands there are similarities, she doesn’t love the descriptor.

“I do kind of bristle at comparisons that female-led films are granted, as though we can’t be our own film,” Wilde said. “I can’t wait till someone does that to a guy’s movie, like this is a guy’s ‘Booksmart.’”

“Booksmart” is the kind of movie that might inspire that kind of change when it opens nationwide on May 24. It’s a generational anthem about two super-students who on the last night of school decide to break their own rules and attend some parties.

It’s so of the moment that it might come as a surprise that the script has been around for a decade, originally written by Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins, with revisions a few years later by Susanna Fogel. Eventually, Gloria Sanchez Productions founder Jessica Elbaum got a call about it. Annapurna was looking for a director, and she had an unconventional idea: Wilde, who had never directed a movie.

“I said, I know you have no reason to say yes to this, but I’m telling you, Olivia Wilde is going to be an amazing director,” Elbaum said.

The two had been friends for years and were working on something else together. And even though Wilde had only directed a few music videos, Elbaum had a hunch that this was the perfect fit for the actress’ feature debut. And she was right.

“This was a movie I really wanted to see,” said Wilde. “It was a story about two very smart girls who are best friends at a time in life when your best friends are what allow you to survive adolescence. That is an important story to tell. I hadn’t seen that in a great young female best friends comedy. And the clarity with which I could see it made me feel like I had to direct it.”

And with that, Wilde, Elbaum and writer Katie Silberman (“Set It Up”) got to work translating the script into something that would be representative of teens in 2019. Silberman had the idea that even the party kids at the school were smart, not just the protagonists Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Dever).

“I was a real Molly,” Silberman said. “I learned too late that all the people I thought were just cool were absolutely as smart as me if not smarter. So it was kind of wish fulfilment of what I hoped had happened before I graduate.”

They had total freedom when it came to casting, and while there are familiar adult faces in supporting roles like Wilde’s partner Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow, the teens are all up and comers and unknowns and some who audiences haven’t yet seen the full potential of, like Billie Lourd in a breakout comedic performance.

“It’s a not a huge budget, but we didn’t make it for $100,000 in our back yard,” Wilde said. “(Annapurna) enabled us to make a film without any movie stars. And that is rare! I don’t know another studio who would have let me cast whoever I wanted.”

Her tonal touchstones ranged the gamut from teen classics like “Dazed and Confused” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” to the likes of “Beverly Hills Cop” and “The Blues Brothers.”

She even suggested that her leads live together during the shoot in Los Angeles. Feldstein and Dever went above and beyond and did so during pre-production too.

“They worked 90 hours a week shooting the film and then would go home and live together and spend 100 per cent of their time together which is why the texture of that chemistry is tangible, it’s authentic,” Wilde said. “That’s something you just can’t fake.”

On the set, which Elbaum describes as the “happiest” she’s ever been on, Wilde also took a page from Martin Scorsese and asked that her cast not have scripts on set. Much to Elbaum’s surprise, everyone obliged.

The film premiered earlier this year to an enthusiastic response at the South by Southwest Film Festival, and they’ve been showing it at colleges around the country to similarly positive reactions since. Now it’s headed for a wide release up against Disney’s live-action “Aladdin” and the horror “Brightburn.” And they’re feeling the pressure for it to find its audience.

“There’s a real desire for this movie to work not just because I want people to see ‘Booksmart’ but because I want women to be given more opportunities like this. I want this to be used as an example by studios to say like well hey ‘Booksmart’ worked and made tons of money and that was a woman directing it, and it was about women, written by women, produced by women, edited by women,” Wilde said. “Yet in my more clearheaded evolved moment I realize, hey, we’ve already succeeded because we’ve made the movie and it exists and you can’t predict what an audience will want in the summer.

If there was a science to this, every movie would make a billion dollars.”

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