From 'Kissing Jessica Stein' To Kissing Her Best Friend: Jennifer Westfeldt Discusses Her New Film 'Friends With Kids'
You may know Jennifer Westfeldt from her 2001 indie film Kissing Jessica Stein, in which she examined how looking for love as a single girl in Manhattan can lead you into relationships you never imagined. She wrote, directed and stars in a new film, Friends with Kids, where she once again examines an unlikely relationship. When this single New Yorker Julie (Westfeldt) and her best friend Jason (Adam Scott) observe that their friends who have started families have lost that loving feeling, they decide to have a baby together as friends. Having checked procreation off their list of things they really want to do, they hope to then find long-term love and happiness with people, besides each other, and therefore buck the trend they've witnessed.
You might also know Jennifer as longtime girlfriend of Mad Men's Jon Hamm, who also appears in this film. They've never married and don't have kids, but they've been together for 15 years and seen many of their coupled friends start to have kids. The dynamics that shift within circles of friends and between lovers when they become parents is one Jennifer was eager to explore.
She recently chatted with us about her inspiration for writing the film, the challenges of directing, and how she hopes people aren't disappointed when this movie, co-starring the likes of Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd, isn't actually a sequel to Bridesmaids.
Did you base this film on anyone's life - yours or a friend's?
None of the characters are directly based on anyone in my life, but the kernel of the idea does come from my life -- that is, from being out of sync with my peer group and observing so many friends and people in my sphere making this profound, seismic life transition -- and observing the ways in which different people handle that transition, the ways in which the friendship dynamic can shift and morph for a time, the ways in which the romantic relationships can be affected, the way you miss (and your friend misses) the one-on-one time you used to have and the like. I am lucky that I have so many close girlfriends who were incredibly candid with me about the experience and the identity shift. I noticed a theme or thread in what they all said. They said, in one way or another, that they had never experienced a love as profound or deep or rewarding as the love for a child, but also that it was the hardest thing that they had ever done. And that no one had told them that part! It was that duality that really intrigued me.
This is your first film as a director. How did that change the process, juggling the acting and being in charge?
I hadn't planned to direct the movie. We were in talks with Jake Kasdan to direct, which we were thrilled about, but on any indie film, you generally find one small window when your cast is available at the same time. When that time came, Jake was still working on Bad Teacher. So Jake, along with our other producing partners, strongly encouraged me to step in. We would have lost our cast otherwise and not made the movie. I only agreed when Jake proposed a deal, he would come aboard as a producer, and was on set for the actual shoot, as a second pair of eyes when I was onscreen. He was a mentor and incredible collaborator, and was so, so generous to uproot his wife and newborn baby to be on our set during the worst winter in New York in over forty years! My DP Will Rexer was also a great partner. He was endlessly patient and generous with me. He spent so many hours in pre-production fielding questions from me. We watched films together, spent a lot of time shot-listing, blocking out scenes, making sure I could translate my thoughts to a crew clearly. It was a steep learning curve for me and I wouldn't have necessarily chosen it, but I was ultimately happy for the challenge. But I don't think it would have been at all possible to juggle these hats without an incredible team supporting me.
What is your writing process?
I am not sure I have a writing 'process', as I have only done this three times in ten years! But on this one, I wrote the first half of the film quickly, about four years ago, then put it in a drawer, got busy with acting jobs, and forgot about it. I picked it up again about two years ago, finished it in February 2010, wrapped in February 2011, now it's coming out in March 2012… ten years after Kissing Jessica Stein came out and five years after Ira & Abby came out. There's been a lot of weird coincidences on this project. When I picked it back up, I guess I just reconnected with the original idea that interested me, the group dynamic, how this alternative family choice that Jason and Julie make ripples through the group of friends and makes everyone feel jealousies, insecurities, judgments, and how it makes everyone re-examine their definitions of love and friendship and family and even physical attraction. That's when the Vermont dinner scene was born. The night I finished the first draft, we had a table-read at our house to hear it out loud and see if we had anything. A group of actors came, as well as screenwriter friends, and we all stayed up til about 2 am talking about the ideas in it, what resonated, what didn't. I continued that reading and workshop process for the next few months. It was after one of those readings that Mike Nichols came aboard as an EP.
Adam Scott was great in the film. How did you decide he was the right guy for the part?
Adam came and read the role at our house the very first night I finished the first draft -- we had a group of actors and sat around our dining room table, pasta and wine and a cold table-read. Adam was fantastic, as I knew he would be, and after that I honestly couldn't picture anyone but him playing this role. I didn't want to make the movie without him. I think the film is really about Jason, and we needed an actor with tremendous range to pull it off. That's Adam. I've known Adam for fifteen years, and I've seen him in almost everything he's ever done onstage, on TV, on film. I think he's just as good as it gets.
Did you toy with any alternative endings? Or was that the only ending you envisioned?
We definitely discussed other endings and I took a few stabs at other endings during the process. But the ending we have is one that Adam and I both believed in from the start and stuck with. We stand by our last line!
As it has a rather abrupt ending, is there any thought to do a sequel?
No thought to a sequel as yet. Not sure what that would be!
Did you encourage improv on the set, especially with comedic actors like Wiig & Rudolph?
I wish we had had time for more improv on this shoot, given the unbelievably talented comic actors we were so lucky to have. But when you are on an indie, up against it every day and not sure if you'll even make the day, it's hard to find time for too much of it. It was easier in the two person scenes then in the group ones, just given how many people you have to cover and the time constraints with our budget. But there are definitely some improved moments that made it into in the cut, maybe 10% of the film?
How involved were you with selecting the songs for the film? I loved how you expanded what was happening in a scene with lyrics from artists like Jenny Lewis and Ella Fitzgerald.
I was involved with every music choice. I fought for every cue and made personal appeals to the artists, since our budget was so tight and we couldn't afford many of the tunes!
What you are working on next?
My next project is a pilot I am attached to co-star in with Alan Ball executive producing. I am teaming up with another writer to write the pilot based on an idea and treatment I sold a year ago. It was put on hold when Friends with Kids got greenlit. They have been very patient with me! So I am happy to be diving back into that next.
Friends with Kids opens in theaters tomorrow.