Sometimes, I look forward to an interview for the pure and simple reason that I suspect the person I'll be talking to is going to be exceedingly nice. Sure, you dig their movie and/or appreciate them as a performer or director, but all indications are that the conversation is going to flow because the subject is a great talker. Allow me to introduce to you Jennifer Westfeldt, the writer-director-producer-star of FRIENDS WITH KIDS, a bittersweet (sometimes outright dark) dramedy starring Adam Scott, Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Chris O'Dowd, Edward Burns, and Megan Fox.
Yes, a great deal of that cast looks like it was plucked from the cast of BRIDESMAIDS, but this film finds its humor and dark patches in the reality of the situation it sets up. Westfeldt and Scott play best friends who decide to have a baby together without having a relationship because all of their married friends with kids are watching their household implode as a result of children being introduced into the mix.
Prior to FRIENDS WITH KIDS (her first time directing), Westfeldt was probably best known for writing and starring in two films: the lesbian romantic comedy KISSING JESSICA STEIN, followed by IRA & ABBY. She's also been in the spotlight a bit more lately as Hamm's longtime companion, and thanks to a series of television roles on such shows as "Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place," "Judging Amy," "Grey's Anatomy," "24," and "Notes from the Underbelly." But above all else, she's a breeze to chat with and her new movie is worth checking out. Enjoy my talk with Jennifer Westfeldt…
Capone: So I’ve been watching Jimmy Fallon's show this week because it's Bruce Springsteen week, and I went to watch last night's episode this morning, and there you were.
Jennifer Westfeldt: “Wait a second!” [Laughs] I’ve done a lot of travel lately.
Capone: I know. It’s been a whirlwind for you. I didn’t realize you'd been promoting this film since Cannes last year.
JW: We were in the editing room during Cannes. We were editing it at that time, so we were sort of pre-promoting it. No one had seen it yet, but they had the press notes that we were in post on it at that time, and then we debuted at Toronto. Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time on this one.
Capone: Is it good to finally just get it out there?
JW: I mean I’m terrified. It’s so vulnerable obviously, but it’s also exciting, and I’m proud of it and I’m so proud of the wonderful group of actors who said they would do it and I just hope people embrace it. I have no idea.
Capone: When BRIDESMAIDS came out last year, did you say to yourself, “Hey look at me. I’ve got a lot of these people in my movie. We’re doing alright!”
JW: [Laughs] You know what? It’s such an odd coincidence really, because Jon, Adam and I were attached early on. We've known each other for 15 years, and Kristen wanted to be involved early as well before she even shot BRIDESMAIDS, mostly because I think that role in particular she thought she could show a different side of herself that people haven’t seen.
Capone: You made her cry.
JW: I was excited for people to get to see her in a more dramatic role and get to see that she has a tremendous range. She can do anything and so she was involved early. Then Chris O’Dowd I met through the casting process. His agents really loved the role for him, and I sat down with him. I didn’t know him and I didn’t know his work, and he had this thick Irish brogue and he was wildly charming, and his essence felt so right for this role of Alex. I'd always pictured that role as this kind of oversized teddy bear of a guy who is winning no matter what he is saying. So then he auditioned for us with an American accent and he was great. He won me over 1,000 percent.
Then Jon, he shot only like a day and a half on BRIDESMAIDS. We didn’t even think he’d end up in the final cut. I mean Judd Apatow famously has these four-hour first cuts and then he cuts half of it. So it was not likely that he would end up with any real presence in the movie. It’s an uncredited cameo for Jon, so we didn’t really think about it, and obviously we couldn’t have ever predicted the unbelievable juggernaut and the success BRIDESMAIDS has been, which is amazing. I’m so happy for Kristen and Annie [Mumolo, co-writer with Wiig] and Maya and everybody involved. It’s such an amazing thing.
Capone: I noticed one of your executive producers is Mike Nichols. I can tell you the exact moment in your movie where I went from liking it to loving it was that scene in the Vermont cabin, when everything just falls apart. That’s where it becomes the Mike Nichols movie to me. And I didn’t realize that he was involved with this until after I saw the film, but in my head I’m like “Here’s the VIRGINIA WOOLF moment.” Did he have a hand in crafting your script, or did you bounce the script off of him at some point.?
JW: Here’s what happened. We had the good fortune to do a workshop of the screenplay the summer before we shot, and there’s a company that I’m involved with called New York Stage and Film. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it, but it’s an amazing place. Every summer a group of artists go to Poughkeepsie on the Vasser campus, and it’s where basically every great New York playwright goes to work out their writing without critics and just put things up with actors before they come to New York with them.
For example, John Patrick Shanley has work shopped every single thing he’s ever written at New York Stage and Film. They used to do a lot more with film, and I’ve just been acting there every summer, and they’ve become kind of my creative home and they were like, “You need to put the film back in New York Stage and Film. So they were eager to do a workshop of a screenplay and they chose mine to do. So we had like four days to work on it, and the first day the first thing we did was a totally cold reading at a table with some invited screenwriting mentors, and Mike was one of those mentors.
Of course that was terrifying to get off a plane and all of these people I’m asking to just pitch in, and we didn’t rehearse or anything and opening up a script and realizing I hadn’t read it in a while. Then I looked up and saw Mike Nichols, and Tina Fey was next to him. I was like, “This is a terrible idea. What was I thinking? I’m terrified.” But anyway, Mike really just loved the screenplay and he really responded and he teared up at the reading and said the nicest things about it.
And we all had a roundtable about what worked and what didn’t in the script, or what I should be keeping on or what I should spend the weekend really honing, and Mike was so excited about he ended up loaning his name as sort of the godfather to this project and gave us his blessing. That was probably the greatest moment of my life. Honestly, just getting an email from Mike Nichols about the script I had written that moved him was probably the highlight of my life so far, and so it was just an amazing and generous thing that he did to sort of help us get it off the ground.
Capone: So he really was like a mentor to this project to a certain degree? That’s great.
JW: Yes, and I’m just so in awe of him and I’m so in awe of Diane [Sawyer] it was just another kind of “pinch yourself” moment of “Really? You think it’s okay? You think we have a shot with this one?” It was a nice vote of confidence.
Capone: So how long have you been developing this script?
JW: It’s funny, I wrote the first half of the script, like the first 60 pages or so very quickly about four years ago and then I didn’t know what to do with it. I put it in a drawer and then did a lot of acting jobs for a while. I couldn’t figure out where it went, because I was just at that point where the tension starts with the friends in response to this alternative family choice that my character and Adam’s character make, and I was sensing it had to get a lot darker and I didn’t know quite how to marry those tones. So I pulled it out of a drawer about two years ago. In December, I finally had some time off during the holiday break and I guess I just reinvested in what I was going for, which was in all of my three films that I’ve written and been in, there seems to be this sort of subversive rom-com question of like “Why do we have to do it the way everyone else does? Why can’t we just change the rules?”
Capone: They are all like the alternative versions of what we're used to seeing.
JW: Yeah. “Why can’t we beat the system a little bit and do it our own way and change the rules?” I guess I got reinvested in that, the unintentional trilogy aspect of this and that the initial kernel of this movie was really about a group of friends and how their transition to becoming parents, when kids enter the picture how it changes the dynamics among the friendships, among the romantic relationships, and how all of these people handle the transition and how their definitions of love and family evolve and shift as they get older and as they have these different life experiences.
So when I reinvested in that, that’s when the Vermont dinner scene came, because I was like, “This has to have real consequences for all of them,” and I didn’t know if I was going to get away with that scene. I mean [noted writing instructor] Robert McKee would probably say, “That’s the worst structure I’ve ever seen in a screenplay,” because it’s a 10-minute scene. It’s 10 percent of this movie, so it was risky. I was like, “Can you do this in a movie?” Obviously, it’s something that you would see more on stage in a way, an extended real-time scene with a group of people. But for some reason, it just felt like it needed that much length and weight and gravitas in the story to properly have everything come to a head with all eight of us. That’s what happens in that scene.
And I think Jon’s character in particular--at least what I was hoping for and intending--was that as dark as he is in that scene and obviously he’s had too much to drink and he’s at a painful place in his life and he doesn’t say anything very nicely, but he is the voice of the audience and he is the truth teller in the story. That’s the function of his character, that he’s basically telling it like it is. “You didn’t think this through. What’s going to happen to this kid? Who are you to do this?” I can only imagine most audience members are thinking that at a certain point before he says it. They probably wouldn’t have said it as unkindly as he does in that moment, but nonetheless he’s right about everything.
Capone: The line I remember him saying, and it’s not in that scene, I think the one where we see him and Kristen for the first time with a baby, is "It's not like I raped you to have a kid." That's the first moment you bristle at him. That’s where we first start to go, “What is wrong with this guy?”
JW: Oh shit, I know. Again, I wanted every character and every couple to represent a different perspective on the topic. Megan Fox’s character is the free spirit who absolutely knows what she wants and what she doesn’t want, and she doesn’t want kids and she’s fine with is and great with it. Eddie Burns’s character is probably the only character in this film who has no issue, no struggle whatsoever with his identity as a parent. He’s good with it. He’s happy with it. He’s aware of the compromises therein and he’s a father first and foremost in his life and happy about that, whereas the six of us are all struggling and straining to find our way through this epic profound life transition.
And in the case of Kristen and Jon’s characters, they are the most romantic, the sexiest, the hottest, the most enviable couple at the top, and then theirs is the relationship that falters the most under that initial strain of becoming parents. One of the ideas in their character arc I was going for was that if the hardest part of becoming parents is that first year--that’s when you’re sleep deprived, where everything changes and you are trying to figure out the implications--if there’s a crack in the foundation of your relationship, I think it will be magnified under that strain and I think that’s what we're looking at with their characters in particular in the film.
Capone: It’s interesting having Ed Burns being in this movie, because this film isn’t that far off of the sort of things that he does. Maybe they don’t get quite this dark.
JW: [Laughs] I’m not sure he’s written something that does get as dark as this, but yes in terms of an urban relationship, character dramedies.
Capone: Yeah, couples coming together, people talking. It was kind of comforting in a way to see him, because he's very much in his element.
JW: Nicest guy on the planet.
Capone: Yeah, he was just here last month, and we talked about this movie and him being a part of it. But enters the story, there’s a little bit of baggage with him. In terms of the idea for this film in the first place, did you draw ideas for this film and the way that couples respond to being parents and handle the pressures from people that you knew?
JW: I mean a little of both. I feel like between friends and people in my life and friends of friends and just what I’ve observed out there, I just feel like I’ve seen certain trends in the way people approach it, and there are many more trends that are not in this. But no one is based on anyone per se, but I do think that I tried to take what I observed and then find ways to thread all of those themes through various and different characters in the piece. I wanted to show a swath of experience. I didn’t want to show just one type of couple.
So Maya and Chris, for example, for me they represent the hero couple, the anchor of hopefully all good couples everywhere and wanting to show that they could be yelling at each other one moment and kissing and loving the next, and that’s life, right? That is what a good couple does. They get angry and then they forget about it a second later. I feel like finding Maya and Chris, these wildly lovable actors, to embody those roles was such a gift, because you never want to worry about that couple. You want to be like, “Whatever it is, they’re going to get through it. They're going to get through it. They're lifers. They are meant to be together. So yeah, so a little from life and a lot of fiction is mixed together to try to show a variety of experiences.
Capone: I just wonder if your friends are going to be worried that you’re observing them all of the time for new ideas.
JW: [laughs] It’s so funny. You know all of my friends with kids were systematically canvassed at every stage of this journey, in the first draft and on, all of the drafts of the script, all of the cuts of the film, all of my friends with kids, I was like, “Tell me what you think. Tell me if you think it’s fair. Is it relatable? Is it truthful? Does it speak to you? Do you feel like it captures anything in your experience?” And everyone was really supportive. I was terrified.
Capone: I can imagine.
JW: I was terrified that they would feel offended and I think that they all said that because it’s a sort of even-handed approach that there were so many different character who represent different points of view, they felt like it was incredibly relatable for them, and that was all I needed I guess to have the guts to try and do this.
Capone: The scene where your character and Adam’s are announcing that you’re doing this and explaining it and essentially putting down everybody else in the room and how their relationships have turned sour, anyone who doesn’t have kids and is old enough and in a relationship, we’ve all kind of been in a version of that conversation.
JW: “Lucky us,” right. Foot in mouth
Capone: It’s a funny scene, but it’s a very truthful scene too that I think you really capture well.
JW: Thank you.
Capone: Why was this the story that you wanted to direct as well? Why did you think that this was the one?
JW: I was not planning on directing this. That was never the plan. In fact, we were in conversations with a number of directors, one actually very high-profile, famous director wanted to do the film for a minute, and then upon re-reading the script and realizing how many days would involve babies, toddlers, and children thought better of it. He was absolutely right on that tip. That was a challenge.
Then the person that I wanted to direct it who wanted to direct it was Jake Kasdan, who ended up being a producer on it. But he was working on BAD TEACHER at the time, and it kept extending and extending the post process, so we weren’t sure he was going to free up in time, and with any indie film, you get one magic moment where your cast becomes available, and that happened to be the dead of winter and the worst winter in 40 years in New York’s history last year. So the only way to make the movie at that point and not lose our cast was for me to step in.
So that’s how that happened, and we did it with an agreement with me and Jake where he would come for the actual shooting days and be at the monitor while I was on camera and watch my back, and he did that and it was amazing. My DP, William Rexer, who is also Eddie Burns’s DP, was this wonderful partner and collaborator. He was endlessly patient with me. I spent so much time with him before we were on set going through every last thing and trying to make sure I could rise to this steep learning curve, and that he could fill in my gaps. It is a steep learning curve. Not so much working with actors, that stuff feels natural to me, but everything else--the shot listing and the technical elements. I’ve been on a lot of sets, but to be in charge on one is a big transition, and I would never have been able to do it without Jake, without Will, without Jon, and Josh [Joshua Astrachan, producer], and all of the incredible sort of people who came together to collaborate on it with me.
Capone: Having Jake watching your back, that’s a pretty good arrangement.
JW: It was amazing. It was the most generous thing anyone has ever done. He basically took his wife and newborn baby and came to New York in the dead of winter to be on set with me. So he was just incredible, and I’m so grateful.