“I really liked the idea that these two young women were so actively uncomfortable within an environment that other people would find really appealing,” Wilde tells EW of her the setting for her directorial debut. “That was why it needed to be California.”
The film, a dark-horse awards contender, is also a missive for Valley kids everywhere. The suburbs beyond the Hollywood Hills are a pop-culture staple by this point (“We all remember the line from Clueless when she’s like, ‘I’m in The Valley,'” adds Wilde) but Booksmart paints a much more realistic picture of this very real place. As Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) search for their seminal fun anecdote they take audiences on a one-night odyssey of real-life locations, from their Burbank high school to a deserted pizza shop parking lot. Here, Wilde and production designer Katie Byron take EW behind the scenes of the movie’s most iconic spots.
Molly lives in the San Fernando Valley, but the house that Wilde and Byron chose for filming is actually in Pasadena because they fell in love with the retro peach color of this ’50s apartment complex. The team went in search of a quintessentially Angeleno complex, which would serve as a subtle set piece to explain the differences between the two best friend’s lifestyles. It’s never said explicitly, but viewers are meant to come to the understanding that Molly is raised by a single mother and moved apartments often (see: the relative sparse-ness of her bedroom in comparison to Amy’s) whereas Amy’s upbringing was, as Wilde puts it, more bucolic and suburban.
“One thing that I loved about the friendship was that, in my mind, they were friends despite coming from very different backgrounds,” says Wilde. “I also love that [Molly’s complex] is designed to make you commune with your neighbors, yet it’s something Molly would want nothing to do with.”
Bryon adds that they conjured a bit of movie magic to bring the apartment to life: The building they eventually chose was missing one of the cheesy, vaguely European monikers that evoke a vacation rental, so they created one of their own. They chose “Le Capris,” intentionally misspelled so that it wouldn’t be confused with a real building.
San Fernando Senior High School in the Valley’s Pacoima neighborhood acted as a stand-in for Molly and Amy’s Crockett High, including the infamous bathroom showdown scene where various seeming slackers reveal their A-list postgrad destinations.
“I’m from the East Coast so I didn’t really understand the huge difference between, like, San Fernando [the stand-in for the school] and Burbank, two completely different school districts with their own culture,” says Wilde. “I imagined this as a big high school that would pull from lots of different neighborhoods, but it was definitely a good public school where kids could go to Harvard, Yale, and Columbia.”
The overlook where Molly and Amy retreat to discuss the upsetting revelation that despite spending all of high school partying many of their peers are attending Ivy League schools, was filmed at Overlook Trail in Burbank — the eastern edge of Los Angeles that provides a view of the Valley. Wilde and Byron scouted the location on a sunny day (right during golden hour), but the shoot day turned out to be incredibly overcast.
“It kind of worked!” Wilde exclaims. “At that point, emotionally, the characters are pretty stressed out, so we rolled with it. I called that my E.T. overlook.”
(Anyone going on the Booksmart tour of Los Angeles should take note: The park is actually home to a swing set — Bryon points out they brought in their own picnic table for the shoot.)
Molly, Amy, and Gigi (Billie Lourd) get consensually bashed on a legit yacht in Marina del Rey, renting from a company whose fleet is typically used for weddings. Wilde and team shot Booksmart in 26 days — many of which were technically night shoots — and this scene, which features fireworks (“Light ’em up, Luanne!”) and drug-coated strawberries among other moments, was one of the most intense, logistically-speaking.
“The yachts are docked overnight and usually they go out into the harbor for the weddings,” explains Byron. “With that particular location, the issue was scheduling all around the weddings that were happening on that boat. We had to bring our stuff in that morning and wrap out that night because we were bookended by weddings.”
While the location of the theater contingent’s murder mystery party was left slightly ambiguous in the movie, the real-life house was right in central Los Angeles (read: not the Valley).
“We wanted to have different types of homes,” Byron says of the many party stops. “We had already established that Amy lives in a suburban house, Molly lives in an apartment — and Nick’s aunt’s house is a fabulous architectural gem. The giant old homes in the West Adams area were the perfect world for the [dinner party] space.”
Movies often rent out homes that belong to real (or, rather, industry-adjacent) people, and the Booksmart team took their visual cues from the owner of this abode.
“The man who lived there — and his furniture — was super charming and amazing,” Bryon explains. “We based our ideas on that and just made it more dramatic and cinematic and opulent.”
The great carjacking attempt of 2019 takes place at this iconic Valley haunt in Van Nuys. Wilde chose Lido because of its strip-mall location — an L.A. trademark — and its camera-ready neon sign.
“I love the architecture in Los Angeles and the way it’s lit up at night,” she raves. “When we lit that Lido Pizza sign I really fell in love with that location.”
The director has seen the social media evidence of Booksmart fans making (likely late-night) pilgrimages to the pizza shop and marvels at their dedication to sleuthing out the movie’s path. But, be warned: Anyone who simply stops to snap a shot in the parking lot, without going in to sample the goods, is making a grave mistake.
“They make amazing pizza, which I discovered,” she adds. “We ate so much pizza that night.”
Every epic teen party movie needs an equally epic party house. This one, just over the hill from Bel Air in Encino (Wilde describes it as a “midcentury Bond villain” abode), charmed the filmmakers instantly. But it had to be handled with care. The permanent residents are art collectors, and the house was filled with so many pricey pieces, the crew had to clear them out before shooting the movie’s climactic sequence involving the pool debacle and the most heart-wrenchingly awkward bathroom hookup ever.
Where to decompress after a night shoot? Wilde and her crew turned to the Drawing Room, a Los Feliz dive bar that conveniently opens at 6 a.m. And the cast and crew’s fave non-alcoholic fuel? Countless burgers from the L.A. chain In-N-Out, which Wilde says were the only way to survive the all-nighters.
It might be easy to think that shooting an entire movie — and one’s directorial debut at that — in less than a month, on an indie flick budget, during overnight shoots, all the while wrangling a group of 20-something actors, could turn a person off of Los Angeles. But according to the cast and crew, everything about Booksmart was total kismet (see stars Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, and the rest of the gang singing Wilde’s praises) and the flick’s current award season momentum is just the latest in a highly charmed run. The director herself tells EW that her experience was so positive that she’s chosen to film her next movie in LA. And for Booksmart, a tour through the city serves as perfect symbolism.
“The whole idea of the movie is that their characters assume they’re being ostracized and then realize that they are the ones who have isolated themselves,” Wilde says. “What they learned by the end was to embrace the world around them.”