Booksmart is Olivia Wilde’s directorial feature film debut, and she has knocked it out of the park. The film is about two nerdy girl besties, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), who discover that the classmates they have looked down on for being partiers have gotten into the same Ivy League schools they did – save for one, who is skipping college after being recruited by Google to be a coder for a six-figure salary. Realizing they’re the only ones in the entire school that have never allowed themselves to have a full teenage experience, they make a pact to have one night of debauchery together before high school officially ends. This leads to a night full of crazy twists and firsts on the way to ultimately being a night that changes their lives.
At SXSW, I got a chance to sit down with the all-women team, including director Olivia Wilde, writer/producer Katie Silberman, and castmates, Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever and Billie Lourd, to find out what it was like to be part of making Booksmart, working with Olivia, and so much more.
Can you guys tell me what it was like to be led by Olivia?
Beanie Feldstein: It was truly a dream. I think Liv is just, the most extraordinary leader. I feel like leaders come in different versions, and you’re either the warm, cuddly leader or you’re like, this is the vibe that we’re bringing, or you’re like, the really smart one, and she’s all of those things combined. I think that’s why our movie is so special, is because Olivia and Katie, their collaboration and Olivia’s direction…she brought this incredible, punk, cool vibe. But then, she’s also the smartest woman and the warmest woman. Together, that is a really unique combination that I’ve never seen before. It was so great.
Olivia Wilde: You just hear me sobbing quietly.
BF: It’s true.
Kaitlyn Dever: I think what was so incredible about working with Olivia is that she never placed anyone on the set inside of a box. And she never said, ‘OK. This is what we’re all doing, and you’re going to have to follow my lead.’ It was, ‘OK, I want to hear your story. I want to hear your story, and how can we bring everyone’s little nuances into each character.’ I think, ultimately, it’s what made it so magical and so realistic. And, it was just such a fun set. It was such a beautiful, family-oriented group of people. I could go on and on. But it was just really incredible.
Billie Lourd: People always say that their set or their movie is like a family. And this is not that cliché; it really is a family. I’ve never felt more comfortable or more open on any set I’ve ever been on. I just started improving recently, and this movie was the first time I ever really got to go into it. And it’s a little scary. You’re really putting yourself out there. And I don’t think I ever could’ve done what I did without Olivia. She freed me in a way that I can’t even free myself.
OW: I feel like I have to jump in with one thing here, which is really exciting that we’re all gathered like this. This was my dream cast. And a lot of directors don’t get that, right? You put on your vision board a few pictures, and you’re like, ‘We’ll never get these actors, ’cause they’re busy and-’ you’re just never going to get your dream. Katie can attest to this. This was my look book right here. Everybody else was a question mark, and we found incredible people for the rest of the cast. Allison Jones, our casting director, is a genius. She is known for creating generations of comedians and of casts that feel that they define their generation. Everyone from Superbad to Freaks and Geeks to The Office. She’s extraordinary. When I came on and I said, ‘This is who I see in these roles,’ it’s so funny, it feels so revealing. I want to show you guys my early, early notes, because you’re all on there. I was like this weirdo stalker, just looking to follow up on the internet and it was really exciting. I have to say, one of the things that first grabbed me about being a part of this was Kaitlyn was attached. Kaitlyn was the first person of all of us, she has the longest relationship with this film. And it was really exciting because I was like, well that adds an element to this that I’m already hooked by. And ever since I saw her work on Short Term 12, I was like, are you kidding me?
BF: You can’t bring that up, I love that movie.
OW: She’s on another level. I could go on for a long time about Kaitlyn. I really was so excited. Like, ‘Wait a minute, Kaitlyn Dever is doing this comedy with Annapurna? This is something exciting; this is really cool.’ That grabbed me. And I was like, who do I want to pair her energy with? And I sat down. And I was like, this was literally a year before we even started filming. I was like, if I could get Beanie Feldstein to be in this movie. And her brother can attest to it, ’cause I was sitting next to him at an event and I was like, ‘Jonah, I’m really obsessed with your sister.’ And he’s like, ‘So I am! She’s the most brilliant person on Earth!’
Did your brother help nudge you?
BF: Oh, I was nudged. I was like propelling myself in Olivia’s direction.
OW: It was amazing because, wow, it’s kind of dawning on me now. Gosh, it’s incredible if you really are specific about your vision boarding. If you’re very specific, you can manifest. But you have to have that clear vision and you have to fight for it. Billie was also the first person – well, first of all, the character changed quite a lot. This character had a different name and-
BL: Really hard to pronounce.
OW: It was really hard to pronounce! Gigi is named after the most exciting, thrilling, intimidating, craziest, most hilarious girl I knew in high school. But I had Billie’s picture on there, and I was like, God. I just want her so bad. When she came into her audition, I was so starstruck.
BL: I kept forgetting the lines and screwing up. But I was like, you know what? ‘It’s all going great, it’s totally fine. Don’t worry about me! This is how I do my best work!’
OW: Meanwhile, I was just putting my hands up, ‘She’s got the role. I’m ready to make the offer. Do we even make her stay?’ But it was so incredible to know, to be inspired by all of their work. To have seen Beanie in Ladybird and be completely overwhelmed with awe, of like what? And I was so excited as an actress looking at fellow actresses, too. I was personally inspired by them. And to be able to gather them and to play with them was so exciting. So for me, the complete thrill and honor of being able to assemble a cast and then set them free, was … it’ll never get better than that.
I’ve been doing this for a long time and this is the first time I’ve sat down with a group entirely of women that includes the director and writer-producer. How does it feel to be part of that change? Do you feel a weight of responsibility with that?
Katie Silberman: I don’t know if it feels like a weight as much as it’s a fun responsibility. I think this is an autobiographical story in that the women in our lives are hilarious and multi-dimensional and smart and cool and punk, and it’s very rare to see female characters able to encompass all of those things. In movies, much like high school, women get put into labels that you think you understand. They’re the smart girl or the cool girl or the hot girl. I think when it’s coming from a female director, and we had female producers and female executives, and it was a very safe space to be able to make a story about the women that we all know in our lives, and that is really special.
OW: It’s wild that it’s rare. It shouldn’t be so rare for women to direct any film, particularly studio films. I do think there’s a sea change, but it is, I think, up to the community as a whole to hire women differently. In order to shift the paradigm, we have to change the way that we hire people. Because of the impediments that are put in front of women and people of color, you’re not going to find people who have as long a resume as white men. So you cannot hire based on resume. You have to hire based on passion and creativity and ideas. It was really fun, to finally be in the position where I got to be the boss and hire those people. It is exciting to be in the position where you can show that it can be done differently, and shifting the paradigm from within is something that I believe that we all have a responsibility to as actors, writers, directors, producers.
BL: Also, it feels the sea change was all of us getting to watch that, because it’s like she infused it in all of us. I think now we know how we want to go forward and try to copy her in always and everything, our whole lives.
KD: I have to say too, when I read the script I feel like it’s crazy, the limited amount of opportunities young women get, especially to be funny, in movies and show their humor. I love making people laugh. I am at home all the time making my family laugh. These women are so funny that we don’t get a lot of opportunities to just do that. So I’m glad that’s finally happening. I just had to say that.
OW: And funny in all different ways. It’s not like we had one comedic tone. That’s what’s so cool. Everybody here has completely different comedic styles and they worked so perfectly together. That was so fun.
How important do you think it is, especially for young girls, and even for grown women, to see themselves represented in not just, as you said, one type, but several types?
OW: I think it’s interesting ’cause this movie, while a female audience will really love it, I think men can also learn a lot from this movie. First and foremost, a respect for really hilarious women. Also, there are male characters in the film that I hope that guys see. I have a son and a daughter, and it’s funny ’cause now everything I create, I have them in mind. I want my son to see the examples of the different types of men in this film as well as women. So the representative nature of it is hopefully something that feels authentic to all different types of people. But the most important thing is that people should feel like, oh. I can be smart in a different way. I can … it sounds funny to drop this line, but one of my favorite lines is Molly Gordon, who plays Triple A says, ‘I’m incredible at hand jobs, but I’ve got a 1560 on the SATs.’ Of course, that’s a joke and we wrote it to be a joke, but what that is saying is ‘Don’t pigeonhole me. I can be confident and sexy and fucking brilliant. And don’t tell me I can’t.’
The film received raved reviews after its premiere at SXSW, and I, for one, cannot wait to see it on the big screen. Many will offer comparisons to other coming-of-age teen comedies, like Superbad, but Booksmart is in a class of its own.
It’s in theaters this weekend. Get your tickets with Atom.