Before Spencer, Aria, Hanna and Emily, there was Samantha, Roberta, Teeny, and Chrissy.
Fans of Pretty Little Liars know Marlene King as the showrunner behind the addictive ABC Family drama, but years before King introduced viewers to “A,” she brought four friends, the summer of 1970, and a killer soundtrack to the big screen in Now and Then, which was released in theaters 20 years ago on Tuesday.
King spoke to EW this week about the film, including the inspirations she drew from her own life, the cast (which almost included Leonardo DiCaprio), and the importance of female friendships on-screen and off. Cue up “Sugar, Sugar” and come along for a trip down memory lane.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you come up with the idea for the film?
MARLENE KING: I was just starting out as a writer, and had taken a lot of classes, and people said write what you know — and I decided to write about the summer when my parents got divorced, which was the summer of my 12th grade year. A lot of the movie was really what we were going through back then. I lived in a neighborhood called the Gaslight Addition, which was the name of the neighborhood in the movie and also the name of the script until right before it came out, when New Line changed the name because they thought it was better marketing-wise, which probably was right.
Right behind that neighborhood was a cemetery, and I had some best friends who were very much like the girls in the movie, and we used to have séances back then. And there is a real tombstone [like the “Dear Johnny” one in the film], and it was moved one day and we thought, “Oh my God, we brought Johnny back to life.” We spent that whole summer trying to find out the mystery of how that little boy died. … It was back in the day in those small towns when you went out with your friends and you got on your bikes and you didn’t come home until the streetlights came on.
The flashbacks in the film are set in 1970. What was it like growing up in that decade?
It was awesome, it really was. It was before cell phones – like the girls communicating with flashlights out their windows, and the rope and the string. Now you would just text your friend; there’s no romanticism to that. It was a very special time to grow up. And there’s a hint of how the world is changing when the girls meet the Vietnam vet played by Brendan Fraser on the road, and they think that everything is all hunky-dory but he sort of opens the window to the fact that things are changing. And I think that’s something that’s still a great era for people to look back at. And great music, too.
And Leonardo DiCaprio was originally cast in Brendan Frasier’s role, is that right?
He was going to play that Vietnam vet, and I think there was a scheduling issue at the last minute, and we found Brendan, and he was just so great to find at the last minute.
How involved were you in the casting process, and did everyone turn out how you envisioned?
It was awesome. At the time Demi Moore and Suzanne Todd’s company, Moving Pictures, were producers and they were extremely writer-friendly and allowed me to be as much of a part of everything as I could be. It was great to be able to participate in all that. Rosie [O’Donnell] and Rita [Wilson] and Melanie [Griffith] came out to support Demi. The little girls, I think we cast Christina Ricci first because we knew who she was and she had a big hit movie called Casper, and I thought Thora Birch was just awesome; I knew from her previous work that she’d make a great teenager. And then the other two [Gaby Hoffmann and Ashleigh Aston Moore] just came in after that.
What are your favorite scenes from the film?
Oh my gosh, that’s so hard. I really love the Scott [Devon Sawa]-Roberta [Ricci] kiss. When you see that it’s just so adorable. And I love when the girls are at the lake when Roberta pretends to be dead. I just think afterwards that is such an honest moment with her and Chrissy. And I love also — it’s so interesting because it does mirror Pretty Little Liars a little bit in these scenes where you see friendships within the group forming, like Teeny and Samantha on the rooftop watching Love Story and then in the tree house — I just love all those moments. And then in the final scene in the attic when they make their pact, I think that’s such a special tribute to girl power. In this age of bullying that’s so atrocious on social media, I love any movie or TV show that models or shows girls how they should behave with each other. I’ve always said that with Pretty Little Liars and with Now and Then the appeal is the unconditional friendship and unconditional love that these girls have together. That’s the wish fulfillment.
Do people still approach you about Now and Then?
All the time! I love it; I love it! Mothers are now sending me notes saying they’re showing it to their daughters. I feel like its become this timeless movie, and unfortunately more movies like this aren’t out there, so people I think have latched on to Now and Then as an example of what we were just talking about: positive girl friendships. And I think it’s become this iconic movie, and that’s awesome!
There was a TV series in development at one point, right?
Yes, we talked about that. It was on ABC Family but they wanted to change it so the “now” was present day and the “then” would be the ‘90s. I didn’t want to do that — I felt that kind of ruins how special the movie is. The movie still is so special to so many people, I didn’t want to take a chance on changing the time period. To me, there will never be a 1970s again, so to try to set it in the ‘90s when we had cell phones and things like that, I don’t think it would work.
Have you thought about where these characters would be now if you were to do another Now and Then?
I thought about it a lot when we were starting to do the TV show. I’d love to see them four years later when they’re 16, and where they would be as teen girls during the second most important year – 12, that’s coming of age, and 16, that’s like when you’re starting to date and see the world in that way. I’d love to explore that.
Do you remember what the reception to the film was like when it first came out?
Critics were not so kind, and it was projected to make no money, but it came in No. 2 at the box office — right behind Get Shorty. It was financially a success for New Line. I remember my mom calling me and saying that Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs down and she was so upset. I was like, “Oh, mom, they’re just two old dudes. They’re not going to get it and the audience will.” And that’s why still I think these movies just don’t get made. Women love a certain thing and girls love a certain thing, and people in studios still don’t understand what a great marketplace that is to explore — they’re still not tapping into it.
Looking back on the movie now, what stands out to you the most?
It was just such a special time. It was one of those things where everything was flawless. We came together as a family to make that movie, and I think you see it on the screen. It was such a special time, and it was a blessed project in that way. Everything that could go right, did go right.
I love that people still remember it. I love that people still send me quotes all the time, quotes from the movie that they love. It’s something special and I’m grateful to people for showing it to their kids, showing it to their friends, and keeping it alive. It’s the little movie that could! We made it for hardly any money back then and it still has this nice life, which is great.