What we learned from watching Legally Blonde with the people who made it
We can barely remember a time before Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon), the human cartoon with the heart of gold and the brain of a genius. So in celebration of Legally Blonde, the 2001 crucial girl-power hit, we gathered screenwriters Karen McCullah and Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith, and cast members Selma Blair and Alanna Ubach, at McCullah’s house to watch the film and offer commentary. (What, like it’s hard?)
As the women take their seats on the couch, the movie begins. Immediately, the viewer is thrown into Elle’s world — she brushes her beautiful blonde hair while Greek row shenanigans happen all around her. Frat boys are drunk on the lawn. Sorority girls are working out. And Elle is getting ready for what she hopes is a big night.
KAREN MCCULLAH (co-writer): This is not Reese’s hand [brushing her hair]. Not her hair, not her hand.
SELMA BLAIR (Vivian): And that’s not Reese’s toes. Reese has gorgeous toes and hands. She really does. It’s like one of the first things I’ve always noticed.
ALANNA UBACH (Serena): She is like a doll.
MCCULLAH: This group of drunken frat boys was really a group of drunken frat boys and they kept trying to ruin the shot and then finally [director] Robert [Luketic] was just like, “Do you guys just want to be in the movie?” But none of these are actual sorority houses, they’re just houses in Pasadena that they stuck Greek signs in front of.
Cut to Elle going shopping with her besties Margot (Jessica Cauffiel) and Serena. They’re on the hunt for the perfect dress for her date with Warner (Matthew Davis), because she believes tonight is when he’ll propose. And yet, the shopping scene wasn’t just about finding the right outfit.
BLAIR: This is where she shows her smarts right off the bat.
MCCULLAH: That’s why we put this scene in here, so everyone would know she was smart.
KIRSTEN “KIWI” SMITH (co-writer): It was a scene that was added pretty late in the development process.
McCULLAH: They were like, “We need to see that she’s smart,” and we’re like, “Well how about low-viscosity rayon knowledge? Because that always proves a point.” [Laughs]
UBACH: That was the first day we worked.
Once Elle has found the perfect (pink) dress, she heads out for a magical night with Warner. Only, instead of the date ending with a marriage proposal, it ends with a breakup (and a pretty epic breakdown).
McCULLAH: Before this scene was shot Matt asked, “Did I ever love her or am I just a dick?” I said, “No, you loved her, but your parents want you to be serious.”
SMITH: There was a lot of testing for the hair; she went through a lot of different blonds.
McCULLAH: It was so freezing this night that you could see the air coming out of her mouth. They had to CGI that out. [The restaurant exterior] is UCLA, they just dressed it to look like a restaurant.
UBACH: No way!
McCULLAH: Yeah it’s like the teachers’ lounge or something. USC and UCLA were the exteriors. They had to staple fall leaves on the trees to make it look like Harvard.
UBACH: I remember Reese and Jessica [Cauffiel] taking a bunch of sorority girls from USC out to get wasted.
BLAIR: They went to get margaritas and talk about nails.
UBACH: The sorority girls were like, “Instead of ‘What’s up?’ you have to say ‘Wasabi?’ Because we’re the sushi crowd.” [Laughs]
SMITH: We must bring that back.
McCULLAH: [Director] Robert [Luketic] had us take him to Aaron Spelling’s house so he could see the neighborhood where Elle grew up, and while we were there Kirsten pretended to moon the Spelling mansion and all of a sudden we heard this giant voice go, “We saw that” on the security cameras. [Laughs] We also took Robert around to a bunch of sorority houses so he could get the vibe.
In her post-breakup blues, Elle turns to chocolate, until Serena and Margot remind her of the one thing that makes her feel better no matter what: a manicure.
McCULLAH: There was a very dirty joke [there]: “What’s one thing that always makes us feel better? Cunnilingus.” It was cut during the test screening because a movie executive said, “What does cunnilingus mean?” He’s no longer in the business.
BLAIR: He’s no longer with his wife, either.
McCULLAH: [To Ubach] You ad-libbed the Vietnamese [in the manicure scene].
UBACH: [About her scene partner] That woman was Vietnamese, and she said, “What do you want to say?” We were going over it and over it during the lunch break: “She’ll never get him back with those cuticles.”
Elle decides to win Warner back by following him to Harvard Law. When she gets in, she thinks the hard work is behind her…until she meets Vivian, Warner’s fiancée.
BLAIR: I was very nervous on my first day of shooting. I was still starstruck with Reese even though I knew her and we were friends.
UBACH: Yeah, she kind of glows.
BLAIR: I was the last person cast, and I remember Chloë Sevigny passed. Then they waxed my forehead.
BLAIR: My forehead is very exotic, for lack of a better word. It looks like a map of Texas upside down. They were like, “We’ll do more of an East Coast hairline,” as in not ethnic, I think. So they waxed it round, and the rest of the movie my hair is growing in and they’re having to put makeup on my forehead.
It wouldn’t take long for Elle to find a new love interest in nice guy Emmett (Luke Wilson), even if she doesn’t realize it at first.
McCULLAH: We always called this the Luke Wilson role as we were writing it. They auditioned a bunch of other guys and we’re like, “How about auditioning Luke Wilson for the Luke Wilson role?”
SMITH: It wasn’t Luke [at the table read].
McCULLAH: It was Gabriel Mann.
SMITH: After the table read, the casting director finally heard us.
Elle struggles to fit into the Harvard social scene, mostly because there isn’t one. At least not until Vivian runs into her in the hallway of her dorm and invites her to a party.
BLAIR: [To McCullah] Do you remember what happened while we were shooting that? I had a votive candle in my trailer.
McCULLAH: Did it light on fire?
BLAIR: Yeah. [Laughs] It didn’t burn the trailer down it just put a little smoke hole, but they’re like, “Selma, come to your trailer,” and it was between takes, and I thought, “Oh my god, I’m fired.” It was because they wanted to make sure I switched trailers. But it didn’t burn it down.
Elle eventually finds a friend at a nearby nail salon, Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge). And when Paulette needs help getting the UPS guy’s attention, Elle introduces her — and the world — to a move that works every time: the bend and snap.
McCULLAH: [Producer] Marc [Platt] wanted a B plot for Paulette. At first, we were like, “Should the store be robbed?” And then, “What if Elle shows her a move so she can get the UPS guy?” We’re sitting at a bar, and Kirsten did the move.
SMITH: It was a completely drunken moment in a bar.
McCULLAH: We never imagined it as a musical number. [Director] Robert [Luketic] did that.
BLAIR: I never understood it. She’s pushing her cleavage together?
SMITH: Yeah, it’s a leg-body accentuation.
BLAIR: Does it work?
McCULLAH: It became a dance move in gay discos in Italy. Jennifer Coolidge was over there shortly after the movie and said everyone was doing it on the dance floor.
Once Elle starts working on Brooke Windham’s case as part of Callahan’s internship, she quickly establishes herself as the only person who believes Brooke didn’t kill her husband. And her reasoning — “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands” — ended up changing one viewer’s life.
McCULLAH: I got an email from a guy who said that he was really depressed and was about to hurt himself when a friend called and asked him to go dancing. He said no, he didn’t want to go out. And then after he hung up the phone, he remembered that line: “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.” So he called the friend back, went dancing, had a great time, decided not to kill himself and wrote me a letter saying, “That line saved my life.” I was weeping [reading that]. What an offhand line to end up being so meaningful to someone. That blew my mind.
The film ends with a two-year time jump, which sees Elle giving an inspirational speech at her graduation. But that wasn’t always the plan.
McCULLAH: Originally it ended at the courthouse right after the trial. Everyone was congratulating Elle, and Emmett came up and gave her a big kiss. Then there was a tag where it was a year in the future and she and Vivian, who was now blond, had started the Blonde Legal Defense Fund and they were in the quad handing out pamphlets.
BLAIR: Did anyone like that ending?
McCULLAH: No. [Laughs] The test-screening audience didn’t feel like it was an exciting enough ending for her, success-wise. The kiss made it seem like it was a rom-com.
SMITH: They knew that this was not a movie about a girl getting a guy.
BLAIR: Oh, right, then we reshot her graduation speech.
SMITH: The bare bones of that speech were written in the movie-theater lobby after the test screening.
McCULLAH: At that point [Reese] was in England shooting The Importance of Being Earnest. She’d cut off her hair because it had gotten damaged from all the hot rollers, so they put her in a wig. And Luke had on a wig because he’d shaved his head for The Royal Tenenbaums. The whole graduation scene is shot in London, but all the reaction shots were in Burbank in a soundstage. If you look really closely, you’ll notice the lighting’s a little bit different. But the new ending was way more satisfying.
SMITH: [To everyone] When we were making the movie, did you guys feel like it was anything different or special?
BLAIR: Yes. Reese was so committed to it and the writing was so fresh and the whole look of it, it felt good. When I saw how committed Reese was on set, I was like, “Oh this is not just a fluff movie, this is a really important young, fresh thing.” It really had huge meaning for people.
McCULLAH: There’s an entire generation of women who became lawyers because of this movie. And we never thought we made law school look that interesting. Didn’t we make law school look kind of bad? [Laughs]