In 2o13, a relatively unknown name appeared on The Black List, Hollywood's list of year's best un-produced screenplays, as voted by 250 studio executives. A recent Yale graduate named Olivia Milch made the cut of 72 finalists with Dude, an all-female stoner comedy that was eventually picked up by Netflix, and released earlier this year headlined by Lucy Hale, Alexandra Shipp, and Awkwafina.
I say "relatively unknown" because Milch didn't just wander onto a movie set. Her father is David Milch, creator of NYPD Blue and HBO's Deadwood, and the two partnered on her first credit out of Yale: a series of adaptations (not yet produced) of William Faulkner's novels and short stories for HBO. But it would be unfair to peg her lightning ascent solely to nepotism. At 29, Milch has now has three major writing credits under her belt, and made her directorial debut. In addition to Dude (which quickly became a sort of Netflix must-see for millennial women) she was tapped to co-write the script for Ocean's 8 alongside director Gary Ross, which hits cinemas June 18. Her next job, already lined up, will be to write the screenplay for Sony's live action Barbie movie starring Anne Hathaway, and directed by Alethea Jones, projected for release in 2020.
What makes her success even more exciting is that she's not alone. Milch is one of a small but growing group of young, female screenwriters to get jobs on major studio films this year: The Post, Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated film starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, was 32-year-old Liz Hannah's first ever screenplay; 36-year-old Emily Carmichael, who co-wrote Pacific Rim: Uprising, has already been tapped to co-write Jurassic World 3, aimed to be released in 2021.
Ahead, Milch weighs in on her surprising trajectory, why she wants to continue to tell women's stories, and the struggle to get female friendships right.
Refinery29: Dude, Ocean’s 8, and the upcoming Barbie movie all explore facets of the female experience. Was that your goal going into screenwriting? Telling women’s stories?
“Yes! I get the greatest joy out of, and feel most passionate about, telling stories about women, and seeing the range and diversity of all of the complex, nuanced, complicated, wonderful women that I know, and that I see in the world. [I want] to see more of them represented on screen and more of their stories being told, and hear more of their voices telling their own stories. I would be very happy if I got to continue working on movies about women forever."
Did you feel like as a woman working on this major movie (Oceans 8) with all-female cast, there was more pressure to succeed, and get it right?
"When you’re working on a film, and you’re writing, you can’t think about reception. You’re just trying to serve the story, and do justice to the characters, and have it be real and authentic and dynamic. And sometimes I’d look over and say: ‘Oh my god, there’s eight women onscreen right now, this is amazing!’ But it's a shame that, because the percentage of films that are either made by women or with female protagonists is so low, there does tend to be this pressure to perform very well, or if you screw up, then you’re never going to get the chance again. That’s starting to shift a little bit, but it’s one of the reasons we really have to support marginalised voices, or people who don’t have the opportunity. If you go out, buy tickets, watch their movies on Netflix, and really support those people who are making films and television and art like that, then hopefully you’ll get to see more of it."
I read that one of the reasons you were drawn to Ocean's 8 was because you felt there weren't enough accurate representations of female friendships. What’s missing, and how did you try to fix that in the movie?
“The way that women speak to each other. And it shifts, depending on whether you’ve grown up with somebody, or if this is a new friend, but there is a language that’s very specific in how we communicate, and there’s thought and emotion involved. And, the sense of humour that women have with each other, the shared experience, and how we use comedy and humour in the world –that is really just a fact of female existence, and we don’t often get to see that. Women are funny on purpose — not funny because they’re dumb or inebriated ! They're funny because they intend to be funny. And there’s also a love and a care between women and in female friendships that’s really potent and powerful, and you don’t get to see represented in a lot of work. But that’s starting to change as there’s women, but also allies: somebody like Gary [Ross], who I think has had a very feminist perspective throughout his entire body of work, people who really care to get it right, and want it to feel real."
One of the lines from the movie that I keep thinking about is when Debbie (Sandra Bullock) says: “A him gets noticed. A her gets ignored. And for once, we’d like to be ignored.” Did you write that?
"That was actually Gary! It's an incredible turn of phrase. As someone who’s been working in this industry and telling these stories, something we talked a lot about, particularly in a heist film, is that difference. When do you want to be seen, and when do you not want to be seen? And when do you want attention being paid to you and when do you not? And sometimes those are choices that women don’t necessarily get to make — society often makes those decisions for them. Part of what’s exciting about this movie is you have women who are autonomous, who have agency, who are pulling the levers at every stop. And that is the joy, and the relief and the release that we get to have as audience members."
We so rarely see women get to be attractive, glamorous and funny, and not as a cover for some deep inner trauma or damage.
"Yup! We’re all these things simultaneously. I’m 10 different things on any given day. We want to see women look beautiful in amazing clothes, and be brilliant, and dynamic, and funny, and caring and complicated, and make mistakes – but that’s not necessarily their defining feature. And every action that we have doesn’t have to be motivated by some heartbreak or trauma, although as human beings they often are. But Gary and I thought a lot about wanting to spend time with women where they were excellent at their jobs; their jobs just happened being criminals, and they wanted to steal because they wanted to steal. We didn’t have to say there was some deep dark reason."
Pivoting a bit, for Dude — what made you think that the time was right for a female stoner film?
"Anytime would have been a great time for a female stoner movie. It's crazy that we haven’t had one — Smiley Face is great, and obviously there’s Broad City — but women want to see their lives accurately and realistically portrayed, and for a lot of us, that includes smoking weed! And that doesn’t meant that we’re just stoners. Stoners in films are just the kids in the corner who are eating fucking Doritos. But the reality is that I know a lot of very high-functioning stoners, and I knew young women who were captain of the soccer team and president of their school, and committed and dedicated members of their community and their family, and smoked weed. That doesn’t make you a bad person.
And similarly, why is it time for a female heist movie?
"Because it’s such a wide-ranging genre, there’s so much elasticity to it, and it’s malleable. It’s also really healing for women in this moment, to get to see...we’ve been spending a lot of time reckoning with what is painful or traumatic about being a woman in the world, and it’s crucial at this moment that we do that, but the flip side of that is that there’s a lot of joy and fun and love that is shared between women and in the female experience, and something like Ocean’s allows people to celebrate that, and feel very satisfied to have the opportunity to be together witnessing that."
It’s a major achievement to jump from a Netflix movie to a studio picture. How did that come about, and how can we make sure more women get that chance?
"It really speaks to someone like Gary Ross, who understands how important it is to have that partnership, and have that female voice. Give those opportunities wherever you can. Keep the door open; the tent is big. Invite all these people in. And continue those stepping stones so that we can create the opportunities for more people. People are realising now, not only is it the right thing to do, it makes better art. It’s more enjoyable to experience a world where all these voices are getting to create and tell stories. To go from something like Dude, a little baby movie, a labor of love, to Ocean’s, was such a remarkable, magical experience, and I learned so much. It’s a period of time I’ll cherish in my life. Awkwafina was in Dude, and Gary saw her, and cast her in Ocean’s, so it’s really been special for us to share that wild experience together. I hope I get to keep on making movies. That would be a dream."
Ocean's 8 is out in cinemas June 18