Only Katie Silberman could make me want to go back to high school. It’s not that the writer, whose new movie Booksmart (written with Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, and Sarah Haskins, and directed by Olivia Wilde) manages to make hallway politics and college applications look any less humiliating and stressful than they are, but rather because if I did get the chance to go back to high school, Booksmart has taught me the right way to do it all over again.
Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever play Molly and Amy, two best friends who have spent the past four years focusing on nothing but school. And it worked! They're off to great colleges and one step closer to completing their meticulously-documented five-year-plans. However, when they discover that their classmates, who they previously wrote off as slackers and partiers, also got into great schools without sacrificing fun, they realise they made a huge miscalculation. There's one last night of high school, and they need to party, dammit.
Not only does the movie flip the script on the tradition popular-kid-versus-nerd trope, but it also subverts how young women are portrayed on screen in general.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Silberman was able to take a worn out concept and make it feel brand new. She did just that back in 2018 when her rom-com, Set It Up, landed on Netflix and kicked off a summer of movies like Crazy Rich Asians and To All The Boys I've Loved Before, reviving a genre of movies that had fallen out of vogue. She even has a "spiritual sequel" to Set It Up in the works (more on that below), once again starring Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell. But right now, she wouldn't be able to stop talking about Booksmart even if she wanted to, which worked out because I had a million questions — not just for me, but for past me, as well:
Refinery29: Set It Up came together largely because you had a lot of personal experience as an assistant and were able to draw from the stories you heard. Were you pulling from personal experience for Booksmart?
Kate Silberman: "I feel very lucky in that both those movies were able to be so personal because that's when I think people are able to do their best work. I was a lot like Molly when I was in high school. I was very focused on academics. I had great friends and I had fun with them, but I didn't party or really try any crazy things, and it was because I had convinced myself I was being responsible, thinking about the long term and, and making the right decision for the future. And then when I later realized that everyone that I thought was making the irresponsible choice was just as smart, if not smarter than me, and doing much better than me later in life, I had to acknowledge, ‘Oh that was definitely fear that was stopping me from doing that.’"
You mentioned Beanie's character and we’re huge fans of her at Refinery29, as well as Kaitlyn Dever. How much of a role did you have in casting those characters?
"When I came on, Kaitlyn Dever was already attached as Amy, and Olivia was attached to direct and she sent me her pitch deck. It was a big photo of Kaitlyn and then a big photo of Beanie. And I was like, 'Oh, Beanie's attached, too?’ and Olivia was like, 'Not yet, but she will be.' They were the faces and the voices that I was writing to the whole time. It's like a wonderful miracle that they were in it. Not only because that had been the dream, but because they're just the most talented, brilliant, funny actors I could ever imagine working with. Both of their voices are so specific and the timing is so specific. Olivia infused it with so much of their real personality. She called me one day and she was like, ‘Well, Kaitlyn plays the autoharp, so we gotta put an autoharp in her somewhere.’"
Since you bring up the autoharp, what's something that each of the actresses brought to their characters that you hadn’t initially written for them?
"Beanie has this compliment that she gives people sometimes and we noticed that a lot on Instagram that when someone looked really particularly beautiful, she would write, 'I have no breath.' And so the way that they complimented each other and their friends, we stole a lot of that language. That was always something that we wanted to include, that that's how women interact with each other. But then we were able to really tie it specifically to the way that that Beanie and Kaitlyn speak."
What I love about the cast is there is no one character who's the villain. And they’re all such rich characters! Did you have a favourite secondary character that you wrote?
"That was a huge part of the kind of movie that we wanted to make from the beginning. Our thing was there's no bad guy, there's no villain. And in the beginning, if it seems like there is one, it's because either the audience or Molly or Amy hasn't kind of taken a deep enough look at the people that they're interacting with and really gotten to know them and see their multidimensionality.
"Billie [Lourd] is like a comedy machine. So much of her stuff, we were shooting at five in the morning when she wasn't technically supposed to be there and she just stuck around and we would come up with an extra scene for her to pop up in. I think Noah Galvin and Austin Crute turn every line that shouldn't be a joke into the funniest line in the scene. Skyler Gisondo, who plays Jared, I wish he was following me around all day. Molly Gordon, who plays Triple A, took a character that I think in a lot of movies or in a lot of other hands wouldn't be so funny. She reminds me of Rose Byrne in Bridesmaids, like not the most obvious and comedic performance on the page, but she just nailed it in such a specific way."
One of my favourite parts of the movie was Molly’s bedroom. There were so many cute pictures and quotes and I just wonder how that came together. Did you write it that way? Did Beanie contribute anything?
"All credit goes to Olivia and our unbelievable production designer named Katie Byron. There were some things that were in the script. We knew the kind of person Molly was with many, many academic awards and trophies and the books and a photo of Michelle Obama and the photo of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and just covered with photos of Amy. It was one of the special things about having so many women as the department heads, that [Katie] is a young woman herself and so she had a very clear idea of what a young girl's bedroom would like. There were just layers and layers to the detail of it."
And what is it that Molly is listening to in the very first scene?
"It’s a motivational morning meditation. Could you tell whose voice that was? Because this is kind of a fun easter egg."
Well, I was going to ask! I kind of recognise the voice but I couldn't place it.
"It's actually Maya Rudolph. She and Olivia know each other and we're such huge fans of hers and it was kind of like our little fun Easter Egg that we were able to include her. It's my favourite thing that her voice kicks the whole thing off."
I have to ask you about the scene where Molly and Amy are tripping, and they turn into animated dolls. Can you just tell me everything about that?
"That was on the very, very first phone call I had with Olivia when she was attached to direct. She was like, 'I want to have a drug trip where the girls turned into Barbie dolls.' It was my job to just figure out where it best fit in and where the best place for it was. For these young feminist progressive women, a drug trip can be your worst nightmare. And the worst nightmare for these women would be to be Barbie dolls, to be the embodiment of everything they are kind of against, everything that's kind of ruined society for women. But I feel like it got really exciting when we realised that the real nightmare would be if one of them starts to like it."
It was just announced that you're writing another Glen Powell and Zoey Deutch rom-come for Netflix. What can you tell me about Most Dangerous Game? What made you decide to reunite with the gang?
"If you find a couple that has terrific chemistry and terrific comedic timing with each other, you want to just keep writing for them over and over. That's what Nora Ephron did, and my whole life is literally me trying to copy what Nora Ephron did. It was such an unbelievable joy working with them. They're both so smart, they're so funny, they're so kind of really collaborative. What we were really excited to do is to tell a spiritual sequel of sorts, to tell a new story, to be able to examine a new kind of rom-com. I spent a lot of time thinking about the other kinds of romantic comedies that I love, that I hadn't seen in awhile, and we realised we hadn't seen a fun action romantic comedy in a really long time. So, it's kind of a modern version of that kind of romantic comedy that has a little more action."
Do you feel any pressure now that you’ve been credited with helping revive the rom-com?
"I think it's only flattering and encouraging. I'm so grateful that it came out in the summer of Crazy Rich Asians and To All The Boys I've Loved Before, and Someone Great which just came out, [and] I loved. [And there's the] Emilia Clarke/Henry Golding movie that I'm so excited about! It does feel like there's a fun resurgence, I give so much credit to Netflix for stepping into the void in a lot of ways. Now people are excited about them and talking about them and people want to be in them again. I think it's the genre that so many people loved, and so, the more excitement that better. I hope I get to keep making them."