Coming to Sundance with your first feature film is both a nervous and exhilarating experience, but imagine coming to the renowned festival without having any previous filmmaking experience at all. Such was the case with playwright-turned-filmmaker Lesyle Headland, whose film Bachelorette is not only her first feature, but her first time behind the camera in any sort of capacity.
Throw in the fact that your film has some serious star power (including Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, James Marsden, Adam Scott and Isla Fisher) and is produced by the powerhouse team of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay and you have a recipe for excitement. I was fortunate to sit down with Leslye to discuss how the film came about, her background in theater and what’s she’s learned from her first time in the directors chair. Check out the interview below and my review here.
The Film Stage: I love the way you’re able to balance the comedy with the substantive issues in a very almost seamless manner, which to me gave the film some gravitas and depth, which you don’t see in comedies, you know?
Leslye Headland: Well that’s why that John Hughes comment almost made me cry, because also-
And that comment was dead on, because you’re essentially doing a film for our generation, when we haven’t had a real film. Some people said, “These characters are unbelievable, no one acts like that” – I’m like, you don’t know the people.
Leslye: It’s a generational thing, the same thing happened with the play. Honestly, it really is. It might also be a social milieu thing, you know what I mean? That’s exactly the reaction the play was as well. There was like the group of people who were like “I f*cking hate these characters” and then there was the group of people who were like “This is the greatest f*cking shit I’ve ever seen,” because I’m seeing people behave the way that my friends and myself behave, you know.
And not to say those people are immoral, but they’re just crazy, and they’re doing stuff that’s insane, you know? They’re not behaving the way that characters are dictated to behave in something. So what people are responding to, they’re not responding to the fact the characters are mean, they’re responding to the fact the characters are not behaving the way they’re used to seeing in that type of movie, do you know what I mean? They know people like that.
I don’t believe for a second that you don’t know people like Regan [Kirsten Dunst], or you don’t know people like Katie [Isla Fisher]. You don’t know some poor girl who can’t hold her liquor and ends up at every party totally wasted, trying to screw some guy. You can’t tell me that you don’t know those people. What I do think, is that when you come into the theatre — whether it’s theatre or film — you do have a certain prescription for what you think you’re gonna see. And if it’s not that; do you know what I mean? That it’s upsetting, or that it’s frustrating.
Right, you have these kind of like built in your head, like archetypes of what you expect this kind of comedy will be. People should not go into this movie thinking Bridesmaids 2. It’s not. It’s inevitable that comparisons will be drawn, but two completely different films.
Well, it’s something I didn’t really say a lot. I didn’t want to come off as like an asshole, but, you can’t compare the two movies. Their budget was ten times the amount our budget was. We prepped, shot, wrapped, edited this film in under 9 months. That film was in development for how long? They had a huge budget, and I’m not saying that makes them bad. They’re from two different worlds, and I totally get that. We can’t compete with that. And the fact that people even think we’re competing is actually an amazing complement, because we’re like, “oh, really? You think our tiny little movie looks like that? Awesome!”
And could have the reception it had as well, which is-
And I also think that McKay and Ferrell may assume that we had all this money or something, you know what I mean? I’m like, no no guys, we shot this in 23 days. [Laughs]
All in New York?
All in New York, during a hurricane. This was an independent movie, it’s just that my DP and I sat down and we watched Pulp Fiction, and that was $8 million dollars, looks like $25 million, how do we do that?
How was your overall experience making the film, and coming from a play world, was that such a huge difference?
I went to this studio called Player Horizons, the idea behind it was that you developed your projects. Going into the film, I knew what it was to follow something through all the way to the end. I knew what it meant to work for 15-17 hours a day, and get no sleep. I knew that feeling, having worked for Harvey Weinstein. I was used to having a 24-hour job.
But nothing prepared me for how emotional it was gonna be. I think this is why you don’t find a lot of female directors. I do think men and women are extremely different in the way that they process emotion, like extremely different. And I think that men, it’s a role that they can fulfill, I think they feel more comfortable fulfilling it. Kirsten and I have talked about that, I think that it’s very hard for a woman to come in with that swagger and steer the ship and not be called a bitch by everyone.
Did you talk about Sofia [Coppola]?
We actually talked about Sofia a lot, because Sofia is the only other first-time director she’s worked with. And so this was her second time working with somebody who’d never made a movie before. And we talked about Sofia a lot, and talked about how inspiring she is and her process and how different it is from mine, and all that. Besides the sort of gruelling aspect of it, it was so much fun. Literally there would be days where I would let the girls improv most of the scene, and we would just sort of use two cameras and just follow them and just let that be the day.
And then there would be other days, like when Clyde is singing to Gena and that SteadiCam shot comes off, and I haven’t seen that shot for 5 years. I could fulfill that moment. But there was never one way or the other. I was never this storyboarding maniac and I also wasn’t freeballing. It was a back and forth with Doug [Emmett, cinematographer] and I, for sure.
Some people might not be familiar with your playwright background. You have the 7 Deadly Sins? And you’ve done six of them?
I’ve written six of them, yes.
And Bachelorette was which sin?
Gluttony. The first was lust. And it was called Cinephilia, and it was about being obsessed with movies. It was five buddies who were obsessed with movies. Yeah, people dig that play. I don’t think it would make a very good movie but people dig it. It’s just about hipsters living in Brooklyn. It was my first play, and [about] hipsters living in Brooklyn boning each other, I’m like quoting Warren Beatty movies. And I had this obsession with blowjobs in my first few-
That was actually one my favourite parts.
It’s good, right? I really do have an obsession with oral sex that I think I need to calm down about.
No, people are obsessed with oral sex but they are afraid to talk about it. You’re not afraid to talk about it.
Not at all.
That’s great. I think that got some of the biggest laughs in the screening, or at least one of them. Someone asked at the Q&A what were the main differences between the play and the film? And you talked about how you’d taken out some of the darker sides?
I like dark plays but I don’t like dark movies, which is true. I hope I didn’t come off as c*nty, it’s just true. There’s something visceral about when people are right in front of you. There’s a scene [in the play] where a character, a woman, masturbates on stage. She actually has overalls on, which I didn’t realize that was gonna be genius until it actually happened. But Gena masturbates on stage and you don’t really realize she’s doing it and then you sort of tune in environmentally because it becomes quiet and then you’re like, “wait a minute, she’s masturbating.” Then you sort of put it together and you have this experience with her, it means something to you.
Now you compare that with Naomi Watt’s masturbation scene in Mulholland Drive. It’s in your f*cking face, do you know what I mean? It’s like, “whoa! I don’t know what’s happening but I’m definitely feeling something.” There’s something extremely confrontational about film, and theatre too, but in a very different way. Plays are more environmental, films are movement. The audience is relying on you to show them what’s gonna happen next. One of my main critiques when I don’t like a director is because I don’t like their composition. I don’t know where I’m looking.
I find that’s a fault to a lot of indie films too. They don’t always concentrate on where you should be focusing on and sometimes they’re more concentrated on other elements. Did Will and Adam give you any advice before?
Make it darker. They never wanted me to make something that was pandering or accessible. They wanted me to make something that was real. McKay would go on and on about how he would watch cuts as I turned them in. He would say, “these characters are so real! I really feel like I know them and I care about them and I care about what happens to them”.
I genuinely felt that way, like these people are real and I sympathize with the things they’re going through because like it’s real problems. Balancing humour with the serious things so it feels like this is not just some slapstick comedy. These are real people in a rapport that can be accessible to a lot of people but then it’s got a lot of heart, a lot of emotion.
With Adam Scott’s character I was like, “what would Ferris Bueller be doing now?” He’d probably be trying to fuck 18-year-olds and like.
Did the success of Bridesmaids help in getting the financing for this to kind of go out to sea, or were the wheels in motion before that?
The wheels were definitely in motion before that. I think that that was…
Maybe a catalyst?
No, I’m not being cagey. I just actually can’t remember if we got it before or after it opened. I actually can’t remember. I do know that when it was coming out, everyone felt like it was gonna be successful. They did that article about Anna Faris in the New Yorker, and like there was sort of this vibe going on, so I don’t know if it was just it technically opening or just the vibe. Or the fact that No Strings Attached made a lot of money, or the fact that Whitney Cummings had just signed on to do about 8 different shows.
It was sort of something that was like in the air, so I honestly can’t remember if it was before or after. But it was like a time period where everybody was like, “Oh, dirty chicks. That’s the thing.” I was like, ” I can slip my ’90s movie in here.” [Laughs] Empire Records was a good movie I thought, especially the part where they’re arguing in the strip club, and she’s talking about her being bulimic and then she yells at her about the abortion, that Liv Tyler, Renée Zellweger conflict. That argument they had in Empire Records was like one that I always thought of whenever I was watching that scene. I’m gonna pick on the thing that I know is gonna bother you.
What was the trickiest or most difficult scene for you to shoot?
It’s so funny, they all were! [Laughs] There’s so many dolly shots in the movie, I actually kissed my steadi-cam operator on the mouth after our screening.
I love the opening shot too, where it spins. So great.
Leslye: That was actually the last scene to be written. We were going into production and I still hadn’t finished that scene. I still couldn’t figure it out. And Doug and I were watching Pulp Fiction, to watch for colors and what it meant and all that. And we were watching the opening scene, and I said, ” You know what would be great? If I could make like the girl version of this.” When you start out thinking it’s one thing, and then by the end of the scene, you’re like, “Whoa!”
But I didn’t answer your question. Probably, it’s a boring answer, but probably the reception because there were lots of different set-ups, all these extras, so many people and the entire main cast on stage, you know? The rehearsal dinner was really tough, too. It was seven and a half pages. We had to get it done in one day with all eight principals.
How are you hoping that the audience will react? What is the kind of emotional connection? I know we mentioned it before a little bit, but what do you want people to get out of this?
I’ve actually shown the film to some 18-25 year old girls that I know. And what I see in their faces is just so unbelievably worth it and indescribable. But when I see them after the screening and know that they get it, it’s like hey don’t have to hide the things that they feel the most shame about, which are eating disorders and abortions. It’s your right to choose, but we never talk about it. We never talk about it the way that Gena and Clyde talk about it in this movie. Except in Fast Times, like 20-25 years ago. We just haven’t talked about it recently. These girls are getting abortions in high school, they’re developing eating disorders in high school.
I’m not saying they specifically have these problems, but they’ll know people who have these problems, and they certainly have their own issues. And women at my age wouldn’t feel so much shame about these things. And as far as the guys go, the best complement I ever received was that a guy – after seeing one of my plays that starred two female characters – said, “I’ve never identified with a female character before and I actually recognized the feelings she was feeling and could place myself in the shoes of the protagonist.” I would love men to feel that maybe once or twice during the movie, just in the sense that if a guy can relate with Gena, that’s huge. If a guy can relate with Regan? That’s insane to me.
I think that’s part of the reason why I like this movie so much, because there are those moments when I really do relate to them. I understand them.
Yeah! I don’t think it’s that far off. That’s the way that I do think men and women are the same. I think that we process them differently, but I don’t think the emotions are different. I think we’re all still f*cking human and all that sh*t.