Although she always knew she wanted to direct, Olivia Wilde didn’t know how much she would enjoy it until she made her first short, 2011’s breakup comedy Free Hugs. “I was so happy,” she recalls. “I was electrified, and I knew at that point, that’s what I really wanted to do.”
After honing her skills on the sets of music videos for bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Wilde makes her big-screen debut with Booksmart, a coming-of-age comedy about best friends Molly (Lady Bird’s Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Short Term 12‘s Kaitlyn Dever), brainy high school seniors who try to cram four years of missed partying into one (inevitably chaotic) night before graduation. The pair’s intense bond — and the way it evolves — hooked Wilde. “I’ve had friendships that were similar to Molly and Amy’s, where you become almost one human organism,” she explains. “[Friendships like that] have an intense pressure on them to last forever.”
On set, Wilde tried to replicate that camaraderie with her leads by having them live together. It worked: “Beanie and I absolutely fell in love with each other,” Dever gushes. “I’ll never forget the experience.”
EW has an exclusive first look at the film:
Below, Wilde delves deeper into what it was like directing her first feature-length film.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why Booksmart for your debut?
OLIVIA WILDE: I’m really inspired by the teen comedies that inspired me when I was younger, and [Booksmart] feels like a modern-day Clueless meets Dazed and Confused. I think it has a very, very unusual and fun tone to it. It’s a very personal movie… The whole idea of the movie is learning to really see people, and to feel seen yourself.
And it’s also just really fun. [Laughs] These days, we could use more movies like that.
Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Dever) certainly look like they’re having fun in the photo we’ve got (above).
[Laughs] I picked that one because I feel like it shows the energy of this movie. They’re on their way to graduation, but [this film] is mostly about friendship. They’re two really brilliant young women who realize that everything they’ve learned academically doesn’t necessarily help them in a practical way.
Yeah, we’ve all been through that. We go to school and then we go into the real world and we’re like, “Wait a minute. Waaaait a minute, what is all this?!”
At its core, as you’ve said, this film is all about female friendship. Did you have any close friendships you drew on to help you make this?
Oh yeah, for sure. I’ve had friendships that were similar to Molly and Amy’s, where you become almost one human organism. You become codependent in a way that is extraordinarily comforting but also debilitating after a while. When you’re young, you really lean into those intimate friendships… Typically that friendship is the first truly intimate relationship you have, before your first romantic one.
The crazy thing is, when we think about our romantic relationships, there’s an acceptance at the end of them. You move on. Platonic friendships have a really intense pressure on them to last forever, and it’s much harder to break up with a friend. It’s much more intense to say, “I need to grow without you.” I think later on, you remember how much that person did for you emotionally, how they supported you, but you realized that it was necessary for you to break apart. I think this movie taps emotionally into that feeling.
You’ve talked before about how you worked hard to hire as diverse and inclusive a crew as possible. How did you go about accomplishing this goal, and why was it important to you?
First of all, there’s no lack of female talent in this industry, so it’s really easy to hire brilliant women, but what I try to do is always look beyond the résumé and actually pay attention to somebody’s talent and passion. The paradigm of this industry has been set in a male-dominated fashion for so long, there is simply no way to judge somebody’s merit on their résumé because they may not have been given the opportunities afforded to white men.
So, you have to look beyond résumés when you’re hiring… [Booksmart] ended up being female-dominated, but it was interesting: It’s not like I chose women over more qualified men. I actually chose the most qualified people across the board, but when I did so without basing it on résumé, I was able to have a really representative set.
When I spoke with Kaitlyn, she said that despite four weeks of night shoots, this was the happiest set she’d ever been on. What’s your secret, Olivia?
[Laughs] Aww. The secret is music. I play music and only stop the music when we actually roll the cameras. So I believe in music, and I also believe in snacks. [Laughs] And I made sure everyone felt seen, empowered, and essential. There’s no reason that any working environment needs to feel oppressive and miserable.
The first time I was ever on a set, for a movie called The Girl Next Door, I was essentially background — I had been a casting assistant so they sort of did me a favor and let me be a glorified extra — and I remembered how that felt, to feel like cattle, where no one ever speaks to you or thanks you. So [on Booksmart] I went to extras’ holding [area] and as the director, I was able to just be like, “I appreciate you, I see you, you’re here and your DNA is a part of our DNA.” And then lo and behold, their energy was wonderful throughout grueling, long nights, and I think it’s about hiring people who embrace that energy and not hiring any a—holes. There was a no a—hole policy. [Laughs]
It’s a good policy!
And we got lucky. Everyone worked really hard, and there was a lot of positivity. You never get everything you want when you’re shooting a film, and there are things you lose, and sometimes I had three units going simultaneously and I had to run around like a squirrel on fire trying to get it all done. [Laughs] But I’m so proud of it. I’m so, so proud of the actors, and I cannot wait to show their work to the world.
Booksmart arrives in theaters summer 2019.
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