On the day that the news is bleak with terrorist acts in New Zealand, Total Film hooks up with Olivia Wilde in LA where the NY resident is wrapping up editing promotional material for her first feature-length film in the director’s chair, Booksmart. It’s the sort of breaking news that makes one despair at the state of the world and the ruination of younger generations. But Wilde is optimistic about the compassion and intellect of movie audiences who have embraced her coming-of-age teen comedy, Booksmart, which exhibits the same kindness and positivity at the heart of other recent zeitgeist school-set laffers like Ladybird and Eighth Grade.
Our sister title, Total Film magazine, loved the raunchy, funny, sweet high-school comedy Booksmart so much that they had to talk to its director, actress Olivia Wilde about how she made such an assured debut. This featured appeared in their April issue.
Like those films, Booksmart charts multi-dimensional young women through formative experiences via tart comedy, recognisable emotional beats and a fond lens. That trend (with similar titles Good Boys and Mid90s incoming) is a ‘direct reflection’ of a more sophisticated audience and community, according to Wilde. “The younger generation are operating in such a different way. They’re demanding higher standards – they are demanding to be set free from a binary way of thinking in terms of sexuality, gender and politics. They are, in so many ways, so much more evolved than we were,” she says – having just celebrated her 35th birthday the day before we meet.
“And because audiences are finding great content on television, they’re are proving that they are more intelligent and more eager for character pieces than studios may have assumed before. People are actively seeking out things that feel more authentic and intelligent – they don’t want to be defined in overly simplified ways, they want to have fun without being pandered to or patronised.”
Wilde could be speaking about herself. Having found fame playing Alex Kelly in teen soap The O.C, her 24-year acting career has been defined by shrewd, off-beat choices and social activism; Dr Remy Hadley in House, Spike Jonze’s Her, foil to Steve Carell in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, doing her British accent in Rush, TV’s Vinyl and recent Reed Morano drama, Meadowlands (Let’s not mention Cowboys Vs Aliens or Tron: Legacy).
As the child of established journalists – her Brit Dad, Andrew Cockburn and American Mum, Leslie are investigative reporters/documentary makers/film producers – it’s perhaps inevitable that Wilde possesses an analytical, observational quality and a curiosity that led her to explore producing and directing. After producing duties on Drinking Buddies, she started out directing on music videos (only including the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Dark Necessities) before writing and directing 2011 short, Free Hugs, a comedic vignette follow an LA girl’s post-break-up meltdown and cameoing Wilde as upbeat woman offering free embraces for the broken-hearted outside a supermarket.
It was this due diligence that convinced her that helming was for her and taught her the need to find material that she truly loved. “I suppose that should have already been a rule for myself,” she admits wrying, “but I think it really came into focus for me with directing. So when I came across Booksmart I knew it had potential to be elevated into a more current state, that I could personalise it to bring it closer to me and my own perspective... I knew that this was the one that I would love and make good.”
Make good she has – a sweet and salty coming-of-ager about two studious girls (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) who decide to have one night of partying at the end of high school artfully mixes messaging about feminism, sexuality, profiling and body positivity with plenty of bawdy wanking, scissoring and puke jokes. It’s a heartwarming concoction that recalls the dirty/delightful nuances and star-making turns of Superbad – plus Feldstein is Jonah Hill’s real-life sis, making the association even stronger.
It received a standing ovation and was called a ‘masterpiece’ at SXSW which has been a reliable tastemaker and launchpad for breakout comedy hits like Trainwreck, The Big Sick and Blockers. So it’s not blowing smoke up Wilde’s ass to assume it could likely become a huge hit. She’s clearly delighted by the response. “It really is evidence of what happens when you fully commit, and you truly use all the lessons you learned, and you listen to wiser people than you,” she grins. “I had such great mentors in my life and we had such a great team working on this – behind the camera, and in front. So when you have that many people focusing on a likeminded effort, and then people actually like it, it’s this amazing shared sense of gratification.”
Culture of collaboration
Having worked on numerous sets as an actor, Wilde knew she wanted her cinematic ship to be run as a collaborative, inclusive and pleasant place of work – not that she’s mentioning any names when she recalls unhappy sets or unprepared colleagues who turn up to shoot peering at their scripts and saying ‘oh, it’s that scene’.
“I created the set I had always wanted to be on. I kind of reject the assumption that film sets must be miserable and slow and exhausting. I’ve done theatre since I was kid. Even with long hours in theatre, there’s a sense of joy, of camaraderie and excitement. I realised that that’s because everyone involved in a theatrical production really is valued, and there is much more of a community sense in the approach. In film, there isn’t as much."
"There is a small group of people are committed to it fully and then a peripheral group who haven’t been brought into the process. So why should they be enjoying themselves? Why should they be energetic with the fourth week of night shoots? So I decided that I want to hire a crew that I really believe in, and I want to empower them – because I can ask a lot of them. We only had 26 days [to shoot], and I told everyone beforehand, ‘We have a strict no-asshole policy. And we’re going to have a lot of fun. But what I ask of you is 100%.’ I told everybody to be off-book [no scripts while filming] and people really enjoyed being asked to rise to their potential.”
You only have to look through Wilde and her cast’s Instagram to see the theatre company atmosphere at work. She encouraged her two leads to rent an apartment together to establish an authentic rapport (‘I believe chemistry cannot be faked’) – it’s evidence in their on-screen affectionate but piss-taking bantz – and threw in an ambitious stop-motion sequence where the two girls take drugs and hallucinate about being anatomically-ludicrous dolls. “I wanted to turn the action-horror genre on its head and bring in some real feminist ideals. I’m not going to lie – it was an intense amount of work but I’m really happy we did.”
Having nabbed Birdman’s Chris Haarhoff on her team, Wilde was also keen to make bold cinematography choices in her school-com, putting a Goodfellas-style steadicam shot in a party scene and charting a back-and-forth argument between her leads with an unbroken, swooping shot and muffling their words mid-rant to affecting silence. High-wire choices for a teen comedy but Wilde is self-assured about her voice and her ability to create laughs, citing Fleabag as one of her touchstones for the particularity of comedy.
Looking for something to put on your radar after the release of Booksmart? Why not check out our list of the most anticipated upcoming movies of 2019.
“Quentin Tarantino has a famous line of: ‘Make the movie only you can make’,” she says, “I thought, ‘I’m going to make the movie that I really want to see, and that I really would have loved to have seen at a younger age. I’ll make myself laugh, and that’s all I can do.’ I do think specificity in comedy ends up being universal.”
It should also come as no surprise that Wilde should be intrigued by the mechanics of comedy, living with a key creator of it in her husband, Jason Sudeikis (the couple have two kids together; Otis, 4, and Daisy, 2) who also appears in Booksmart as the headmaster. But she was keen to ensure laughs were not had at the expense of empathy, even as a fan of classic high school comedies that rely on bullies, meanness and comeuppance.
"I realised at a certain point in my life that lessons I learned in my mid-30s – I wish I had learned in adolescence,” she smiles. “My own high-school experience was really coloured by those arbitrary barriers, and the assumptions people made about me, and the frustrations that I had with that. We waste a lot of time putting ourselves and others into categories, and assuming a competitive lifestyle, even subconsciously. And as we get older, we suddenly realise that everyone is dealing with their own shit. Everyone is complex and actually much more nuanced than we first assumed.”
Being viewed as more complex and able to rise to full potential are elements that are pertinent to the TimesUp movement which Wilde champions and she views one of the strongest way to affect change is to provide opportunity. Which is why a healthy number of her heads of department on Booksmart were women and why she’s looking for ways to give those coming behind her a helping hand.
“A door has been opened for me, and I think my job, right now, is to turn around and bring someone else through the door with me. So many people, specifically women, helped me get to this place, and now I have the opportunity to do that for the next young director. That’s how we’ll get more female directors. Once you direct, you’ve got to immediately turn around and say, ‘OK, who needs to know what to do? I’ll give you all my advice and experience. Let’s multiply ourselves!’"
With a new comedy project on the boil with Booksmart scribe Katie Silberman and a yearning to make a thriller it sounds like Wilde has decided to stay in her director shoes? “I think one of the great things about the film industry is this fluidity that’s allowed within our industry. You are permitted – unlike some other industries – to jump around in different roles. I’ve been producing for years, and acting, and now I get to direct, which is just the most fun. I want this to be my job – I’m hooked. But I also love acting, I find it to be cathartic in a necessary way…” She muses for a minute; “So I’m curious if I had the courage to act in something that I direct. That’s something that I’m wondering about...”
With her can-do ethic it’s unlikely she, or we, will be wondering for long.
Booksmart is scheduled for release on May 24, 2019