Amy Poehler on mining friendships and eschewing comedy labels for Wine Country
“Mid-life crisis? I don’t even know what that means!” Amy Poehler says with that trademark Leslie Knope outrage and exuberance that makes you want to immediately agree, join arms, and rise up against the patriarchy.
It’s that same energy that drove the comedian to make her feature-length directorial debut in Netflix’s Wine Country, out in limited theaters and on the streaming platform Friday, a film that reunites Poehler, 47, on-screen with her Saturday Night Live cohorts – Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, Paula Pell, Emily Spivey, and Liz Cackowski (the latter two co-wrote the script).
Inspired by the group’s real wine country trip for Dratch’s 50th birthday, Poehler described Wine Country as delving into the “juicy middle” of the women’s lives. “It’s not a movie about a bunch of old ladies acting inappropriately,” she explained. Shot over seven weeks in Napa Valley and Los Angeles, Wine Country follows six girlfriends as they reunite and relax in the California sunshine. Poehler plays Abby, who is facing life in her forties as single, childless, and unemployed. Each of the characters come with their own problems and as friends, have to face some truths over the course of the boozy weekend.
When assembling such a powerhouse team of comedians, did the gang feel the burden or pressure of comedic expectation thrust upon them? “The short answer is no. I think when you’re trying to make something, the last thing you want to do is decide that you’re important in the moment,” Poehler explained. “I know that we all pick projects that matter to us and in that way we try to curate good stuff … Once you’re in it, you really just have to go back to your improv rules and commit, you can’t comment on it while it’s happening, you have to just commit to it and see where it goes, hopefully trust the captain who’s leading you.”
The truths of female friendship are what Poehler hoped to tap into, and she said she’s excited to be working at a time where more women are becoming gatekeepers in Hollywood and championing real, authentic female-driven stories. “I’m proud of the fact that all of us are really good friends that support each other’s work and I think we all try to give and provide opportunities for women especially and that we work in an industry that is constantly making us have to advocate for ourselves,” she said.
Poehler spoke to EW about making Wine Country with friends, how female-driven comedies are often received, and what’s up with those Parks and Recreation reboot rumors.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What inspired you to take on Wine Country as your directorial debut?
AMY POEHLER: There’s so many rich stories that exist certainly to tell through a female lens but also that don’t involve the juicy middle of someone’s life. There’s a lot of undiscovered territory in terms of female characters comedically at that time in their life because the women I know and that I’m around are incredibly busy, a lot have young kids and are amazing parents and have a lot of pressure and also have a somewhat solid sense of who they are or who they’re not, so there’s a lot to draw from. I know when I look around my world, there’s all these complicated, funny, interesting, layered characters so it’s not a movie about a bunch of old ladies acting inappropriately. It’s like, what are the conversations to be had with friends that you’ve been friends with for 20-plus years and what are the stresses and fears and joys and celebrations in that time, because it’s a really interesting time that people either fetishize or they make fun of.
What was it like extending a weekend away with friends into a seven-week shoot with all the ladies?
The actual trip was fun and not work, but of course making a film is a lot different. One of the big differences was that I did not enjoy myself in Wine Country in any way or imbibe in any way, I was tee-totaling it the entire time because I was in charge. So that was a big difference! I think we are all women who work and love working and love working together but we don’t always get to so we didn’t take it for granted that we were all getting a chance to work together because unfortunately, especially when you’re working a lot, it’s kind of the only way to see your friends, so I think we were happy for the time together. The women in this film are such pros that, separate from the fact that they are my friends, they’re just so good at their job and to be a director and have such an amazing performers who can really deliver, it’s just an incredible relief because you know that you’ve got professionals in your hands. Everyone came to work ready and there’s a difference between life and work, and everybody rode that line pretty well.
Were there any moments that stood out to you, or any on-set pranks?
No, on-set pranks to me are, I don’t know…
It’s what George Clooney likes do to, right?
I always think of the poor PA that has to spend all night “helping” with the prank, to execute the prank. There were not any pranks. There were just a lot of jokes, a lot of talking, just lots of laughing and setting each other up for success really, not for failure. We had a lot of really hard, hard laughs and also tender moments because everyone was hopefully feeling vulnerable and open enough to try things, which was cool.
Were there any sequences you enjoyed pulling together or anything that presented a challenge?
There were two things that I loved. One was I loved our dance, we had this free-form dance party and I really wanted to show, it’s not like we’re joking around, we’re not dancing bad or dancing for anyone else. There’s a lot of women that I know that dance for themselves and they’re in their own world dancing, and I think that’s always interesting to watch for me to watch men and women dancing just for themselves, so that was a segment I wanted to pull off and I’m so glad we did. From a much broader perspective, there’s a big set piece at the end of the film that’s really physical and with big stunts, and that was really cool because we had six amazing women — our stunt coordinator and I had a conversation about making sure that we had women playing women and we had these six amazing stunt women who not only never get to work together because there’s usually only one lady in a movie falling down a hill but they also stayed and had a wine country weekend after they were done.
What drew you to the character of Abby?
I don’t think it’s that far off from things that I’ve done, to be quite frank, but what I like about all these characters is that they present … all these archetypes, stereotypes, but then when you go a little bit deeper, hopefully you see the kind of stuff that everybody is going through, the small little neuroses or cracks in the armor or stuff that’s unsaid … My character, she’s trudging along and trying to pretend everything’s normal whereas in fact she’s struggling with the fact that she doesn’t know what to do with her life and she’s afraid that if she stops, everything will fall apart, and she’s gotten fired and hasn’t told her friends and she’s in a spiral.
There’s so many films about males in midlife crisis, and what that looks like and I don’t even know if I believe in that term. Mid-life crisis? I don’t even know what that means — what mid-life means — but I do think it’s really interesting to dig into this idea that you can know someone for a really, really long time but you have to really keep learning who they are, you have to stay current, you have to actually keep staying intimate. Intimacy is about you having to keep checking in, whether it’s romantic or a friendship, what goes on in people’s heads and people’s lives can often be really surprising to you. I dig the idea that these people feel like they know each other like the back of their hand but also they don’t know very much about each other and that’s what’s interesting about having relationships for 20-plus years, you’ve been through so much together but is the version that you know the right one and is it current and does it work anymore? Those are the big themes.
I’ve seen this film referred to as the female Hangover…
It’s funny, sometimes in dramatic films, people are really patient in parsing out what kind of drama it is, like it’s a psychological drama or maybe it’s science fiction, but with comedy, it gets thrown into this pile. I would say that, if I dare say, throwing every comedy into a big party pile is so not fair to a lot of films that are talking about a lot of different things. I think that isn’t a fair assessment of the film. We were much more interested in drawing on real long-term relationships and films that have to deal with fact and the stuff that happens along the way.
Well, female-fronted comedies do so often get labeled as the “female something,” which does feel unfair.
People don’t apply the same fine-tooth comb to comedy, they just don’t. And by the way, they don’t have to, but I just think from a reviewer’s point of view or a journalist’s point of view, people do that. I think there’s three categories: broad comedy, romantic comedy, and dirty comedy, and I think there’s so many more subsets to that. “Compare and despair,” as my friends in the program would say. I try as best I can do to leave the comparisons, but I think that the richness of films that deal with friendships, and long-term friendships, if there’s any mentions of those in talk of Wine Country, I’d be really psyched.
You’ve championed a new generation of female comics like the ladies of Broad City. How do you feel, since you’ve started in this industry, that women in comedy have been able to evolve and what boundaries have they been able to push and break?
It’s a big question and a big answer, but I think that it’s what’s exciting about producing and making features. I think just doing the work is the thing, doing is the thing and it’s really just about doing and doing and doing. It’s about providing opportunities, taking advantage of opportunities. What’s been amazing is the diversity of voices, the variation of perspectives that’s happened. I think there’s an explosion of it in television and in some ways, there’s an explosion of it in features, but it still has a way to go, but where singular voices with unique perspectives are getting to be the center of their own world show, and that’s awesome. That’s just blowing everyone’s minds in really good ways and I think more please!
I think it’s also just more women are becoming gatekeepers and becoming in charge of being able to get things made and get things done and just telling different stories and there’s no singular female experience. For a really long time we were really asked to all be fighting for the one part in a feature, and I’m excited that we have six female leads in this movie, you don’t even know who the star is. It’s the matriarchy!
I have to ask because this has now gotten into Friends territory — will there be any Parks and Recreation revival, reboot, or reunion of any kind?
I’m like Leslie Knope in one way, which is that I am not good at playing it cool, so if there was an actual thing happening, you’d probably be able to pry it out of me pretty fast. Mike Schur, our captain, is working on like, 50 shows right now but I have my suit ready. I’m Avengers-style ready to put it on at any time. Again, I should probably play harder to get but that’s really not me or Leslie’s style so you know, I’m avail.