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'Booksmart' Director Olivia Wilde: Teen Movies 'Made Me Excited To Be Young'

Beanie Feldstein, left, and Kaitlyn Dever, play Molly and Amy, two star students who decide they need to cram four years of high school partying into one night in <em>Booksmart.</em>
Annapurna Pictures
Beanie Feldstein, left, and Kaitlyn Dever, play Molly and Amy, two star students who decide they need to cram four years of high school partying into one night in Booksmart.

Right after Olivia Wilde saw Lady Bird the 2017 film about the loving, infuriating, infinitely complicated relationship between a teen daughter and her mother — her first impulse was to pick up the phone to call her mom. Now, when the credits roll on Wilde's new film Booksmart, audiences are dialing their old high school best friends.

These are the friends who got you through adolescence, Wilde says — the ones who knew you best, allowed you to be vulnerable, and saw you in a way that was "more intense and intimate" than romantic relationships. Wilde continues to have those friendships today — this film, she says, is "my way of honoring the female friendships that have sustained me."

Booksmart tells the story of two star students headed to the Ivy League. For years, Molly and Amy have put academics first, but the night before graduation, they realize that the kids who partied also got into good schools. Worried that they've missed out, the two friends decide to cram four years of high school partying into one night.

Wilde says Booksmart is a "love letter" to the '80s and '90s movies that defined her adolescence — and she hopes it will help today's teens "celebrate being young." Wilde says she's "endlessly inspired" by young people: "They really, actually, make me feel optimistic about the future, which is hard these days," she says.

This is Wilde's directorial debut, and she says the pre-release jitters are both far better and far worse. "I've never been so anxious to release something into the world, but I've also never been so proud," she says.

Interview Highlights

On pushing back against the stereotypical "boxes" of teen movies

You think this is going to be a movie about two nerdy young women who are eager to assimilate to be accepted by their peers. What it really is, is the story of two very smart young women who are unapologetic about their intelligence, who go through a transformation to realize that they have misunderstood their peers to be one-dimensional when actually everyone around them is also very smart. They've just been living their lives differently.

We wanted the audience to go on this journey of realizing that every stereotype they expect from a teen high school film is actually not what it seems — and that there's complexity and nuance to these characters that I hope will inspire people to allow for that same complexity in their peers and in themselves today.

On celebrating platonic friendships

Society gives us so much context for the romantic relationship — there are so many love songs about romantic relationships ... beginning the middle and the end. We have very few love songs, movies, stories about friendship — platonic friendship — and yet it is in so many ways deeper. ...

People realize this later in life after maybe romances come and go — that those friendships are incredibly significant. And I hope that this film allows people to look around them and value those friendships even more.

On how actors Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein prepared to portray a "layered, deep," 10-year friendship

They knew that in order to create this chemistry they were going to have to build a history. ... So I suggested that they live together [during the making of the movie] and during preproduction as well. Because they needed to spend enough time together where they were no longer sort of charmed by the newness of a friendship. They needed to sink into it a little bit more and spend some time just getting to know each other in all types of moods. ...

They lived together in LA for at least 10 weeks, and they spent every waking moment together, and they drove to work together — and what they created is a texture that you can feel when you watch the film.

On teen friendships as a training ground for loyalty and betrayal

There is something in these very intense friendships in our youth where any sort of resistance is seen as betrayal. And there is a pivotal scene in the film where one character reveals that she isn't actually on board with the plan that the other thought they had agreed upon. And in that moment there is a fissure — there's a crack in between this very, very intense union.

I wanted to highlight that that kind of trauma to a young relationship is something that is necessary in order for relationships to evolve and for us as individuals to evolve. You must be able to tell your closest ally: I disagree with you. I am my own individual. And so we really worked hard on that argument and showing that in order for these two to continue as friends they have to go through this kind of traumatic break.

On aiming to make an "anthem" for Generation Z — the generation born in the mid-90s and early 2000s

I grew up watching The Breakfast Cluband Fast Times at Ridgemont Highand Say Anything, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Clueless -- and those movies were more than just movies to me as a young person; they kind of contextualized the adolescent experience for me. They made me excited to be young and that was my goal with this movie — it was to allow this young generation — Generation Z — to feel that they had been kind of immortalized. ...

It must be so hard to be a young person right now. We've put them in such a difficult situation. ... They've decided to demand a different paradigm. They say: We are going to change the way we look at gender, sexuality, politics. They kind of incorporate politics into their individual identities and they really understand the significance of their voice.

Actors Kaitlyn Dever, left, and Beanie Feldstein work with director Olivia Wilde on the set of <em>Booksmart.</em>
Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures
Annapurna Pictures
Actors Kaitlyn Dever, left, and Beanie Feldstein work with director Olivia Wilde on the set of Booksmart.

On asking her Generation Z cast members to help make the script sound authentic

When I hired them I brought them together and said: "We're going to read the script and every time something feels inauthentic, I want you to raise your hand and tell me. If there's a moment that you think could sound more organic, I just want you to rewrite it in your own voice." ...

Sometimes it was just sort of slang that would be a little bit more natural. Sometimes it would be something more significant, like: There used to be a line in the script where Molly said to Amy, "You've been out for two years and you've never had a lesbian experience. I want that for you." And when we were rehearsing, the girls called me over and said: "You know, Liv, we don't really say 'lesbian experience,' we would just say experience."

And I thought: That's great. Change it. That's wonderful. ... Things have really changed ... Ten to 13 years ago when I was playing a young, queer woman on network television on The O.C. it was a very different conversation. It was all about owning labels and being very upfront about labels. ... It was a different conversation at that time.

On whether this film about female friendship could have been made by a man

I'm sure it could, and it would just feel slightly different. ... Men can make stories about women — just like Bo Burnham's incredible film Eighth Grade . ... I encourage men to direct films about women, and I encourage women to direct films about men — because we kind of have to break out of this assumption that female directors are here to tell "the lady stories." ... It's not necessary to separate us. ...

Amy Heckerling directed both Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless,and it's probable that a lot of people growing up on those films didn't realize they were both directed by a woman. ... I hope [audiences watching Booksmart] just feel that it's a good film that feels authentic and funny, and that when they look up and see that it's a woman they say, "Oh, that's interesting."

Mallory Yu and Sarah Handel produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.