MCN Columnists

By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvl@earthlink.net

The Gronvall Files: JENNIFER WESTFELDT ON FRIENDS WITH KIDS

What’s a gifted actress to do when Hollywood continues to bypass projects featuring strong roles for women, in favor of cookie-cutter productions kowtowing to that coveted 18-35 male demographic? In the case of Jennifer Westfeldt, you fight back, writing and producing indie vehicles to star in. The darling of critics and art-house fans for her 2001 film Kissing Jessica Stein and her 2006 follow-up, Ira & Abby, Westfeldt now becomes a quadruple-hyphenate with her directorial debut, the new Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions release, Friends With Kids. The bicoastal filmmaker, who splits her time between New York and L.A. with significant other Jon Hamm, has delivered a beguiling romantic comedy about two long-time single best friends, Jason (Adam Scott of the NBC-TV hit Parks and Recreation) and Julie (Westfeldt), who quite happily don’t feel any physical attraction for each other. But their biological clocks are ticking and, seeing how having children has stressed the marriages of their close friends Ben (Hamm) and Missy (Kristen Wiig), and Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd), Jason and Julie hit upon an idea. They’ll have sex to produce a child, but remain unwed until they each find the “right” person, meanwhile bringing up baby without any acrimony. Ah, but what’s that saying about “the best laid plans?” Westfeldt stopped over in Chicago recently to bask in the unseasonably warm temperatures and reflect on the hurdles to getting her boundary-pushing romcom made.

Andrea Gronvall: It cost less than $10 million to make Friends With Kids, but it doesn’t look or feel like a low-budget movie. How long did you have to shoot it?

Jennifer Westfeldt: We shot it in 24 and a half days, which is crazy, in the dead of winter, and then we had a couple of pick-up days in the summer. When you’re trying to get an indie film off the ground, there’s usually that one magic moment where the actors’ schedules align, and unfortunately, that happened to be in the worst winter in 40 years—not my plan!

AG:  How did Mike Nichols become involved as executive producer of the picture?

JW:  We had the great fortune to do a workshop of the screenplay the summer before we shot it, through a company called New York Stage and Film, which is sort of my creative home, this wonderful summer program held on the Vassar campus. Most of the New York playwrights work out all their material before it comes to New York; John Patrick Shanley has developed every single thing he’s ever done there. In the four-day-long weekend that we worked on it, we started with a cold table read with some screenwriting mentors. Mike was one of those, along with Tina Fey and various other people. And then we had a round-table discussion about the screenplay, and Mike was really taken with the script–so much so that he loaned his name to the project and became sort of a godfather.

AG:  As good as your first two films are, with Friends With Kids you’re kicking it up a notch, into more racy territory. Some writers have made comparisons to last year’s Bridesmaids, if only because your movie reunites four of that film’s cast members, and is also a comedy told from a woman’s point of view–with occasional raunchy language, Judd Apatow-style. But in your film, the explicit, blunt dialogue is not gratuitous. Particularly in the last scene, where it underscores the movie’s theme: which is that in order for a relationship to survive, desire has to be there.

JW:  Timing is everything, and my character, Julie, and Jason (Adam Scott), the two best friends in this film, have a very different trajectory. At the outset they’re on equal footing: they almost have a brother-sister relationship, where they can be honest to the point of crass with each other. In the final scene the language had to be that visceral to come back from the earlier scene of my [character’s] devastating birthday, [where she challenges] the way she and Jason have always thought about each other. A traditional ending with some declaration of love just wouldn’t work with this story. The film is trying to look at–from all the different characters’ perspectives–the evolving nature of love, of family, of passion, of attraction, and how these things shift and change as we get older and our priorities shift and change.

AG:  We certainly see that in the ebb and flow of Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd’s marriage, and the high point and later the nadir of Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm’s marriage. You’ve written some strong roles for your costars, not just for yourself. Let’s talk a little bit about that dinner scene in the Vermont lodge; it distinguishes your movie from the usual Hollywood romantic comedy. The fact that here there’s actual pain, and—

JW:  Consequences, yeah! I didn’t know that I’d get away with it—it’s 10% of the movie, that scene. I knew I was breaking a lot of traditional story-telling rules to suddenly have this 10-minute, real-time scene–which almost never happens in a movie. That really is the domain of theatre. But here these selfish singles have this idea about how to beat the system, and have it all. And, you know, you can’t have it all. There always are consequences. Anything worth having in life, there are going to be messy parts, high highs, and low lows—particularly if the rules change a little on one side, for one person.

And Jon’s character—as dark as he is in that scene, where he’s obviously in a lot of pain—is also the voice of the audience. He’s really the truth-teller, even though he doesn’t say it nicely. He’s saying what everyone’s been wondering, which is, did you think this through? How is this going to affect this child? That sentiment had to come out, in a way that involved a sort of emotional climax for all eight characters. I wanted to show how this choice Julie and Jason make ripples through their group of friends, how the dynamic starts shifting when everyone feels judged, and I felt like it all had to come to a head in that spot.

AG:  The two actors in smaller roles, Megan Fox and Edward Burns, give good support. What led you to cast them?

JW:  Megan I met through the casting process; her agent was very keen on this script and this part for her. I met with her and another producer, Jake Kasdan, and was so taken with how smart, and how funny, and how irreverent she was. Her character represents the free spirit, that person who can get on a plane to Europe—tomorrow, without even thinking about it—and stay there for two years. She knows she doesn’t want to have kids, and is fine with that choice.

Eddie Burns’s character, by contrast, is the one character in the film who is not struggling in any way with his identity as a parent. He is 100% okay with the compromises, the sacrifices involved with having kids, and he identifies as a father and as a parent, first and foremost.

AG: He’s mature.

JW: He’s a grownup, yes. Eddie is a tremendously appealing presence, obviously; he’s also a great dad himself. When I met him and [his wife] Christy [Turlington] and their family, I thought that’s exactly what I need in this role: someone who is that great at parenting, and that easy and charming with it.

AG: When you write for yourself, do you have notions of a persona in mind, or are you consciously trying to create a different character each time out?

JW:  Because I’m really an actor first, I think about each role I write as though I were the actor playing it; so, whether it’s a man or a woman, or old or young, I think about what would make sense, what would feel truthful to me in the part. I don’t how else to write. But I do want to say one last thing: it’s a really exciting time for women right now with the success that Kristen and Annie [Mumolo] have had with Bridesmaids, and Tina Fey with 30 Rock–but also Miranda July, Julie Delpy, Lena Dunham, and Rashida Jones. We just saw at Sundance there were five movies where women were writing for themselves. I hope to support other women doing that, and to continue to be in the company of all those gals; it’s really exciting to be a part of that wave.

One Response to “The Gronvall Files: JENNIFER WESTFELDT ON FRIENDS WITH KIDS”

  1. Tandy says:

    Best screenplay workshop are Kal Bashir’s videos at http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html

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