Set Visit: Kristen Wiig and Paul Feig tie the knot on raunchy comedy 'Bridesmaids'
THOUSAND OAKS - If you look at one scene in the trailer for the new comedy "Bridesmaids," you'll see Annie Mumolo for a quick moment. Mumolo is the co-writer of the film, and she's the longtime creative collaborator of Kristen Wiig. Since Wiig is playing a character named Annie in the film, it would seem logical to ask the two of them, when we sat down on the set of the film, how much of it was based in autobiography.
Mumolo replied, "We originally got the idea after I was in a series of, like, 20 weddings." Wiig laughed, and from the quick look Mumolo gave her, I'm guessing there were a lot of dark laughs shared during that time period, and that the script has been a comic exorcism of sorts for Mumolo.
We found ourselves seated across a ballroom table from Wiig and Mumolo in a room at the Sherwood Country Club at the northwest end of the San Fernando Valley, on a hot July night, with tons of extras waiting outside for a night shoot. It was a small group of journalists, and we spoke with pretty much everyone between set-ups on a scene in which Annie (Wiig) speaks with her friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) in the front driveway of the country club.
Mumolo confessed that being in that many weddings in a short period of time had a cumulative impact on her, and not a good one. She said it was important that she write a film about the real dynamics between women, and about the impact of things like getting an invite for a wonderful sounding wedding she couldn't afford to go to, and how demoralizing that was.
Someone asked Wiig what her perfect idea of a bachelorette event would be, since her character is the one planning it in the film. "A spa day with strippers," she replied, vamping it up to get a laugh out of Mumolo. "Something low-key."
Mumolo said she'd tried to keep her own bachelorette party very low-key when she got married, and sighed. "Of course, we ended up at a strip club. But then we went to a diner afterwards."
Mumolo and Wiig have an easy chemistry when they talk, and they say the same is true of the time they spend writing together. "We wrote so many things together at the Groundlings," Kristen said. "It's never work." This film came together as a deal they made to write it, and for both of them, it was their first foray into screenplay.
They wrote the first draft over the Thanksgiving of '06, and wrote the entire thing in six days. They turned it in to Universal, thinking that's how you were supposed to handle a draft. Just turn in the first rough thing through the word processor. They were using a book to determine act breaks and structure. That's how green they were. And by the time we were sitting together, it was almost four years later. Wiig seemed almost nostalgic for the early drafts. "Annie was pregnant at the time, and we used to have these dance parties while we'd write." Although that six-day first draft isn't really the movie we'll see in theaters in may, Wiig said much of the key friendships between the characters were the same.
I've interviewed Wiig a few times over the years, and she's one of those SNL performers who has made a lovely habit of showing up in movies for a few scenes, absolutely killing, and then leaving again. I asked her if she'd had to adjust to playing a character who carries the whole movie, and who the audience is asked to invest in for the whole film. She said it was a huge change for her, and she's keenly aware of how much more of a tightrope it is to create audience sympathy for someone who is onscreen from start to finish. "I'm the lead in the movie," she said, shaking her head. "Even saying that is just so crazy."
The pressure she was feeling last summer was mostly self-generated, because Wiig seems aware that for any SNL performer, getting to actually write a film you're starring in is one of those opportunities you shouldn't squander. It's a chance to really take control of who you are and how you're seen. She talked about how much support she got in the process from director Paul Feig and from her producer, Judd Apatow.
"I've been very happy. There's a little fear mixed in with that excitement, though."
"She's in every scene." Mumolo laughed at how tired Wiig looked at the mere thought of it.
"Yeah, we didn't think about that when we wrote it." Even so, it sounded to me like both of them were pleased at getting a chance to not only make a film that they wrote, but also to hire other funny women who they felt deserved a comic showcase like this. "These are people we've known for years. Even today, when I see the trucks and the lights, I can't believe we're doing it." They watched many of these women perform in the LA comedy scene and have always wanted to be able to put them all together on something.
With Wendi McClendon-Covey, who most people know from "Reno 911," the role she plays was written for her. WIth Melissa McCarthy, they originally wrote a different role for her, but it evolved so much as they started working with her that they realized they wanted her to play this other character instead.
Ultimately, they have the support to make the movie they want to make, and not a "Judd Apatow" film based on any formula. It sounds like Judd's input is important, and that he's had a huge hand in helping them shape the material, of course, but it's really been about giving Wiig and Mumolo a way to make their movie and to coax their unique voice out of them.
Mumolo had trouble even describing what Apatow's involvement meant to her. "He's like a force. You feel the force." Laughs. "I just mean he's really supportive."
Like the best comedy directors, he's a cheerleader. He wants this movie to be all about setting Wiig up for home runs. He believes she's that kind of performer, and he wants to see her do that in moment after moment. To have someone ask you to be great consistently is a tremendous vote of confidence.
And I think Apatow knows that there's a rap that he only makes boy movies. I don't think it's true, but he's certainly been called out on it, even occasionally by his own performers like when Heigl slammed him after "Knocked Up," so he's being careful not to impose a perspective on the film, but instead is determined to protect the voice that Kristen and Annie are trying to create.
Just before they got called back to set, Kristen said, "I think for women, weddings are very strange and powerful things. Most guys would be shocked if they knew what really goes on behind the scenes." Again, Mumolo gave her look that said that there was way more history there than we were ever going to see, and that this film came from a place of need for them as writers.
Paul Feig working with Judd Apatow can only be a good thing. After all, that combination resulted in "Freaks and Geeks." Feig is one of those guys who works constantly, and who is justifiably in-demand for TV, and if you've read his books, he's just this remarkable, wild voice. And then in person, he's this very genteel and soft-spoken guy, charming and impeccably dressed. I met him on the set of his first film, "Unaccompanied Minors," and we've run into each other over the years since. We ended up on the same picket line a few times during the last WGA strike. And seeing him on this particular set, it seemed like he was more positive than he had been about anything else since I'd met him.
"I like writing female characters and working with actresses. It worked out well for me. I cast Kristen in her first film, 'Unaccompanied Minors,' and knowing this was something she and her writing partner were writing, and knowing Judd was attached, meaning this could be open and honest… it was something I couldn't turn down."
To Feig's way of thinking, It's a film about strong female voices, and every performer is being given room to try to build something very personal. "Women just talking to other women in a way that is honest and real. And the story is relatable to me, the story of a woman having a rough time in her life who latches onto the one good thing in her life, this friendship. And when that wedding comes in, and there's this other woman who comes in, this bridesmaid, and she's cooler and better… that's a dilemma."
It's not a movie defined by the relationship with a guy, although there is one in the film. That's not what drives Kristen and it's not what defines her. That seems like it was important to Feig, and one of the reasons he really liked the script.
We talked about what it is that he as a director has to do when managing a big comedy cast like this. "I'm not such a control freak. I like to let people do what they do. It's about creating a safe environment. It's the same energy in front of the camera that there is when they're not on-camera." He really works to create a feeling on set that just spills into what they're shooting. It's important to him that people feel free to let things happen by accident.
We talked about the casting gold on "Freaks and Geeks" and building an ensemble and how it works. Since "Bridesmaids" is a big ensemble, it's got to be important here as well. "We do lots of improv in the auditions. Improv is very telling. It has to work on a second and third level. Melissa McCarthy is playing this very butchy character, but she's drawing from something real, some other level, and that's what makes it really funny. We bring people back, and we match them up in twos and threes, and we just look for dynamics."
He talked about Kristen and Maya being the center of the casting, since they really are best friends, and that's what Paul wanted for the film. "There's not one person in this cast who I don't think will be starring in their own movies within five years." They were only halfway into the shoot when we spoke, but he seemed very happy about the way things were coming together.
"I've been watching a lot of romantic comedies, and I've noticed that these movies always get very clever with language, and it's not quite the way people talk. We'll do the scripted version first on this, and we'll establish the beats we have to hit, and then beyond that, I'll ask them, how would you express this? And you want everyone in the audience to feel like this is the way people talk, but it's real and it's funny, and coming from the heart."
He sounds well aware of the hazards of the genre, and determined to offer up something different here. Thanks to the announcement that the film's going to play as a work-in-progress at SXSW, it sounds like I'm going to get a chance to check it out for myself very soon.
We'll have a conversation with Maya Rudolph and Rose Byrne, and another chat with the bridesmaids themselves, including Ellie Kemper, Wendi McLendon-Covey, and Melissa McCarthy. All of that before I'm out of here for SXSW.
"Bridesmaids" will be in theaters May 13, 2011.