Jennifer Westfeldt, 'Friends With Kids' Star And Director, On Creating A 'Drom-Com'
For her latest movie, writer-actress-producer Jennifer Westfeldt added a third hyphen to her usual cadre: director. Westfeldt -- best known for writing and starring in "Kissing Jessica Stein" and "Ira and Abby" -- stepped behind the camera for "Friends With Kids," a decision she said "freaked her out." Not that you'd know from the finished product, which finds Westfeldt doing heavy lifting as the film's female lead and juggling a high-wattage cast of your favorite people.
In "Friends With Kids," Westfeldt stars as Julie, a Manhattan singleton who decides to have a child with her platonic BFF, Jason (Adam Scott). Can two people have a child and not tumble down a rabbit hole of messy emotional complications? And how will their married-with-kids friends (played by Maya Rudolph, Chris O'Dowd, Kristen Wiig and Westfeldt's real-life boyfriend, Jon Hamm) handle the taboo-breaking new family? Not really and not well, which is what drives "Friends With Kids" into some heady emotional territory.
Westfeldt spoke to Moviefone about how friendship dynamics change as people hit their mid-30s, what big comedy director almost helmed "Kids," and whether the new film could be accurately described as a "drom-com."
Your last movie, "Ira and Abby," came out in 2006. How long had you been working on the script for "Friends With Kids"?
I'm not really a writer by trade. I've made these three films in ten years, so every five years it seems like I have some inclination to get something down on paper for some reason. Some response I'm having to life phases or something. This story, in particular, I wrote the first half of it -- I just banged out, like 65 pages just came out -- four years ago. Then I put it in a drawer and didn't know what to do with it. I got busy with acting jobs and shelved it. I kinda forgot about it. Then I picked it up again, like two years ago, and just reinvested in what the original idea was. That I was just really interested in the dynamic of this ensemble, this group of friends. I wanted to explore the notion of being out of sync with your peer group and how the friendship dynamic changes and how the romantic-relationship dynamic can change and morph and then morph back. And how these selfish singles try and beat the system and rewrite the rules and kind of avoid the sacrifices and compromises you have to make in this seismic shift of becoming parents. I wanted to explore how that choice rippled through the group of friends. How it would maybe breed jealousies or insecurities or how people would hold up a mirror or judge each other. How the friendships would change because of it. I wanted to show in these eight characters very different perspectives on parenting and what that identity shift is -- that priority shift.
How much did you draw on your own life and experiences for this?
There's no character that's based on anyone in my life, but the kernel was watching -- especially in the last five years -- so many friends making the transition and becoming parents. I have really close girlfriends and they're happily and luckily, I think, really candid with me and their experiences. Because sometimes people aren't. Sometimes people say, "It's all amazing, it's nothing but amazing! It's the easiest thing in the world. It's nothing but joy!" I feel like my friends who are really the closest to me, all have different version of the same sentiment. They find the love so overwhelming and so tremendous and almost inexplicable; the kind of love they could never imagine first hand. But they also say this is the hardest thing they've ever done in their lives. And no one told them that part. I don't know what that is -- that we can't talk about the hard part. Everyone can talk about the joy, because that's real and profound and true. But there does seem to be something where people won't share the truthful strain. You're sleep deprived, you're sniping at each other. Everything is new. Your body is a food source. You don't have an identity. Some of my girlfriends have talked about that first year in parenting as almost feeling there's no self left. They can't even go to the bathroom. They can't do anything. There's no time. I was really interested in that duality. That both of those strong sentiments are equally true. I wanted to present both of them.
Were you planning to direct the entire time you were writing?
No, no, no. No! No plans to direct it at all. We were trying to get the movie off the ground, we were meeting with directors. With an indie, there are so many moving parts. There's actor schedules, the money, locations, the seasons I needed for this. So many things have to come together to make it go. We had circled in on this wonderful cast by fall 2010 -- we wrapped this a year ago in February. We had been in conversation with Jake Kasdan to direct it. We had been trying to work together for a long time -- I love Jake and he loved the movie. It felt like the right fit for this project. But he was still working on "Bad Teacher," he had just had a baby himself -- so he was a first-time parent. Of course he could relate to it all the more, but his baby was like four months old at the time. Or even less.
Wow. So he just couldn't do it.
There's usually like one magic window where you can get the actors you want to be available at the same time -- we were waiting on Adam Scott with "Parks and Recreation" -- and that window happened in the dead of winter last year. Which was the worst time it could have been, frankly. But that was when it was. And Jake had commitments on "Bad Teacher" post-production. So he kind of convinced me to step in and direct it, with his support as a producer. John Sloss, Jon Hamm -- all of our producing partners were on me to take this challenge. I was scared and uncertain and a little freaked out [laughs], but not only did we assemble the right team to support me and help with the steep learning curve, but Jake also promised that he would come to New York during the shoot itself and watch the monitor while I was on camera. Which he did, which was unbelievable. He took his wife and his baby and he came to the worst winter in New York. He came every day to the set. So he couldn't do proper post, but he was the second pair of eyes. He was a great creative producer. He was someone who, as a producer, kicked ass for us on the project. He's just so knowledgable; there's nothing that throws him. He's so used to every situation that it was just this invaluable support.
Mike Nichols is an executive producer on this, which is kinda awesome and totally surprised me. How engaged was he in the process?
You know, this is how Mike got on board. We had the opportunity to workshop the screenplay. There's a place that's sort of my creative home in the summer, it's called New York Stage and Film -- it's up on the Vassar campus. Basically, all of the best New York playwrights go and work out their material there before bringing it to New York. So, for example, John Patrick Shanley, everything he's ever written, he's developed there. It's this great place for writers, because you can put up full productions with actors -- you can do workshops, you can do readings -- and work out the kinks in your script. It's mostly been for theater recently, so I had been there as an actress for a few years in a row. And the heads of New York Stage and Film, who have become friends, they were like, "You need to put the film back in New York Stage and Film! Let's workshop your screenplay." I was like, "OK." So we did this four day workshop. We got a group of actors together, and we started the whole four-day process with a cold table read. We invited some screenwriting mentors, and Mike was one of them.
That was terrifying. We had been trying to raise the money and be producers: meetings with agents, meetings with actors. We'd been in full-on producer mode for a chunk of time, because this was toward the end of summer. I had just gotten off the plane. Adam had just got off a plane and he was sweating and in a t-shirt. We were at this long table. I looked up and there's like Mike Nichols and Tina Fey. I was like, "Oh, this is a terrible idea." I got so nervous and my heart was pounding. But it ended up going well, and Mike was really taken with the screenplay. He sort of became a godfather to the project. He kind of loaned his name to it and was really supportive. We were so grateful.
You've talked about the difficulties of getting this film -- or any indie film, really -- off the ground. Did you ever think about releasing it via VOD platforms? Your co-star Ed Burns has really embraced that for his features.
I'm a purist. I don't really get the VOD thing. I know it's really successful and useful. For me, I guess, I'm old school. I'm not on Facebook or Twitter. I'm a Luddite. It's embarrassing. I get that. But I'd rather go to the movies. I like seeing movies at home too, obviously, but I would just hate that brand of entertainment -- that seems so special to me -- to go away. I feel like, if anything, I want that to be happening more than it is. Because everyone can download and stream and this and that. What's the experience? There's something really special about a collective experience. It so informs everything. It's a little heartbreaking that press screenings are like done for three people. And you're like, "Oh, it's the worst way to see a movie that has comedic elements in it!" Because it's part of the experience to be with a group, and the different things that people laugh at or react to. Almost like the permission it gives you to appreciate something. Or not. Or react. That's part of the gig. That goes away when you're at home on your couch.
"Friends With Kids" is kind of tough to put into a genre box? Would you call it a romantic comedy? Do you like that term?
I don't know what it is. It's funny, because some people talk about it as a romantic comedy. Some people have called it a drama. David Edelstein compared it to "Scenes From a Marriage." Some people see it as something else entirely -- as an ensemble relationship dramedy. Although some people hate the term "dramedy." I was with some friends in Washington DC the other night -- I have been on a five-city press blitz. We went out for dinner, and one of them was like, "Maybe it's a 'drom-com.'" I was like, "Maybe it is a drom-com." But how would you spell it? With an "a"? Then would you say dram-com? We were like, "Should we coin that? Should we Tweet that? What do the kids do today?"
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