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Leading Legends: Bill Holderman on “Book Club”

Let’s set the scene: Bill Holderman’s driving down a long, long road in rural Georgia, headed to or from the set of "A Walk in the Woods," the 2015 Robert Redford and Nick Nolte film for which he wrote the screenplay. He’s accompanied on this journey not by a local oldies station or the podcast “Serial,” but by someone enthusiastically narrating a scene in which Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele get intimate with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.

“Research!” he says, describing his relationship to the wildly popular "Fifty Shades of Grey" trilogy. “As a writer, you have to do your research.”

Holderman’s research was in service of “Book Club,” the Diane Keaton and Jane Fonda-starring romantic comedy that marks his directorial debut. It’s the story of four longtime friends who decide to tackle the E.L. James novel for their monthly, you guessed it, book club. Keaton and Fonda are joined by Mary Steenburgen and Candice Bergen, each playing a woman who is in some way inspired to change her life as she digs into the titillating trilogy. 

Holderman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Erin Simms, wanted to make a movie in which “women of a certain age” are given rich character arcs, in which they can exist as romantic and sexual beings, in which they can learn and grow and change. He wanted to write them as complex, and in short, treat them with respect—and it all started with the “Fifty Shades” books, a Mother’s Day gift, and those long drives in Georgia. spoke with Holderman about "Book Club" and book clubs, what it’s like to work with four Hollywood legends, the impulse to parent one’s parents, and more.

Which came first as you were dreaming this up: the book club, or the book?

Right after the "Fifty Shades" trilogy came out in 2012 and was catching the zeitgeist, I decided I was going to send my mother the [books] for Mother's Day. I was working with Erin [Simms, his co-screenwriter] at the time, and she was like, "that is the most inappropriate Mother's Day gift in the history of the world I'm sending it to my mom and I'm sending it to my step-mom," so she sent it to her mothers, I sent it to my mom. Then we started talking about our mothers, and these books, and then the next day, [it] was, 'what if they were all in a book club and they were reading this book,' and the idea kind of launched itself, concurrently with the books.

Had you read them before you started?

No, god no! I had only heard about them, and I knew that they were. you know, these sort of titillating books that it seemed like a lot of people were kind of reading on the sly. I thought that was really fun and funny. But I didn't know anything about them beyond that. And then just talking about a book like that, the concept of the book and what it was doing sort of culturally, and women of a certain age having themselves sort of reawakened in a way, was the idea. So I had not read the books, but I have now!

What did you think?

Well, the funny thing is I was reading the first book as I was making another movie as a producer that I had written called "A Walk in the Woods," and I was driving to and from set. Some of these drives were long, and in rural parts of Georgia, and I was listening to the books on audio, which is the most ridiculous thing to do. I kept thinking, if I get into an accident, and I get caught reading ... this is just all bad. This is all bad for me. But, I mean ... you know. They're great.

It's rare to see women of a certain age depicted as sexual beings on film, and even rarer to see them in something that has elements of raunch comedy here and there. Was that something that you were prioritizing when you were writing?

Yeah. We wrote it really, really specifically for Diane Keaton—I mean, her name in the movie is still Diane—and Jane Fonda, and her name in the script up until a couple of weeks before pre-production was Jane. We really were targeting them as archetypes originally, but you know, we wanted it to be cast with women of that age who still had all the sex appeal and still had such full lives, and our relationship with them in terms of their on-screen iconography is still ... They're leading ladies. We loved that idea.

It feels like women of this age—and obviously we talked with the cast a lot about this—they get relegated to these, not irrelevant roles, but they don't get full arcs. They get to be sort of grandmothers, or aunts, or the wacky neighbor. It's like they don't get to have their own story lines and drive their own character arcs. So that was something that was really important to us. We got a lot of pressure to cast younger during the financing process, and we just ... It was just never the movie we wanted to make.

At what point did Jane and Diane get involved?

So Diane was the first in, believe it or not. We had optioned the script back in 2014, and got it back in 2016. And so right when we got it back, we went after Diane and got her on board. It's much easier, once you have a script and Diane Keaton attached, to send it to anyone else! So then we sent it to Jane and Candice. Mary was the fourth and rounded it out. Then [we could] custom tailor the script to the cast. Luckily, that cast was all of our first choices!

It was one of those scenarios where you write it with specific actors in mind, [but] you never think ... I mean it's a huge coup to be able to just send it to them. And then the fact that they read it and respond and want to meet ... It kind of is just pinch-me-moment after pinch-me-moment.

Did that happen with the cast of, for lack of a better term, older male hunks, too?

Well, here's the thing about the men. So once you have this cast of women ... what was really interesting is the men that ended up in movie were all guys that the women really wanted [to work with], but also, Don Johnson is younger than Jane Fonda, Andy Garcia is younger than Diane Keaton  We love the idea of playing with that, sort of the reverse [of what you'd expect with] age. You see older actors playing against younger women all the time, and we loved the idea of flipping that.

But these guys heard about the movie, got their hands on the script before we even got the chance to get it out to them, and were calling us, which is really nice. It's a testament to the women that we had, the actresses that we had. I mean, people really wanted to work with them, which for us, was like—this is not always the way it is, in terms of the casting process.

I was particularly charmed by the Candice Bergen/Richard Dreyfuss pairing. They have off-the-charts chemistry.

So here's the great thing about that! So, Diane Keaton was given the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award ... and Candice was there with Jane. They both already been cast in the movie, and Candace ran into Richard Dreyfuss, and then she called me. She [said], "he would be amazing." And so we sent him. I [thought], "he's an Oscar winner... Really? That would be incredible if we could get him," and we sent it to him, and he read it, was charmed by it, and he said, "Yeah, I would love to work opposite Candice." I mean, it was such a blessing to have the ability to say, "Hey, come do this, and you're playing opposite these incredible actresses." They were all like, "yeah, of course, we'll do it." I mean it was kind of mind-blowing.

It's amazing how much is accomplished in those few scenes, because I was really invested in that relationship.

Yeah! We had him for on set for one day, I think. Is that possible? To me, because they meet online, and we get to reprise it, you feel his presence for more than [those few scenes]. He's her first date, and I think for her it's a significant thing, and it keeps her feeling really positive about the experience.

I was very taken by the scene where Diane finally gets fed up with her daughters very kindly infantilizing her for the whole movie.


The thing that so struck me about it is that I expected it to be a comically oversized blow-up, but instead it becomes this very tender, gentle parenting moment. Where did that scene come from, and what it was like to film?

We loved playing with the role-reversal of the children becoming parents. I think we live in a culture right now where parenting has become so overwrought, and [for] young parents, like Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton's characters Adrienne and Jill, there's so much pressure, and it's such a fear-based parenting model. And as our parents get older, we sometimes shift that and are [interacting with] the generation that we're raising and the generation that raised us, and treating them both as kids.

The arc for Diane was that she's someone who, having lost her husband, didn't think there was another chapter of love in her life. And one of the big themes in the movie is that there is [another chapter], if you're if you're willing to go for it. So that moment wasn't just about putting them in their place, although that was a huge part of it. It was really for her, for the first time, to express that ‘there's a whole world out there, and I'm in love with this guy, or at least I'm [attracted] to this guy, and I want to go see what that's like. I want to go explore that, and you guys think it's over for me, but I'm telling you, I'm gonna go find out what this is.’  

I think culture puts such a pressure on us, and society has such an ageist view of people, that you think that they are irrelevant at a certain point. We really wanted to [refute] that, and refute the daughters' ridiculous infantilization of Diane.

Well-meaning, but ridiculous.

Yeah, thank you! Yeah, very well-meaning and we love them for that. 

There was another moment where I felt like there was a similar amount of compassion for the characters, and it's the engagement party for Tom, Sharon's ex-husband (Ed Begley, Jr.), and his much younger fiancée. They seemed to genuinely be in love, and she wasn't written as a one-note joke.

We wanted to make sure that [Tom] was someone that we understood why they got married in the first place. We didn't want to have this guy be someone who you would never think Sharon would fall for or be with, but we also wanted Sharon to get to a place [where she could see] him in his new existence and [think], "you know what, he actually found someone who's better suited for him, and they actually are a good match. We were playing with the whole [trope of] this younger blonde girl with this older guy. [But] what if they actually are in love? What if Sharon actually sees that and that's part of what inspires her as well?

It's like he's done it, and not done it in the cliché way. He's done it and actually found someone that feels like a great match, and who's loving him, and he loves her. That's something beautiful, and if you give it credibility, it deepens everything that Sharon is going through as well. Ultimately it's a love story, on so many levels, and we liked that Tom ended up with someone who was a great match for him as well, and Sharon gets to witness that, and and release the history of her marriage by saying, 'he's with someone who's great for him, now, let me go explore for my own life. We loved it, but we're biased, by god, we're biased!

What was it like to be in the room and watch four honest-to-god legends just shoot the shit?

I didn't have a ton of time to register the significance of it. But you could feel the friendship developing amongst the four women, and you could really feel the reason why they're all the icons and legends that they are. They are truly, each one of them, not only incredible actresses but like incredible, fascinating [people]. I mean, the stories that they could tell.

As soon as we said, "cut," they would literally just keep telling their stories. And so that energy that they had in their green room was translated directly to set. That was special. You cast, and you don't know exactly what you're going to get, and sometimes you kind of have to force those dynamics, and they have to turn it on for camera. In this situation there was no need to turn it on for camera because that chemistry, that sort of love amongst the group, was super organic. I don't know how we got lucky enough to have that, but it was something special.

And they've all made a real commitment to stay friends, which is happening, and it's kind of incredible. Even doing press with them—I saw Mary the other day and she said, "I just saw Jane, and we're texting ..." I mean, they're really close. It's like one of those true Hollywood stories, but in a really positive light, which you don't always get.

Have you ever been in a book club?

I have not! I'm really jealous of book clubs. I don't know if book clubs are popular amongst men the way they are amongst women. I'm not sure. But I think society would benefit from men getting together and communicating the way it seems like women do. Genuinely. I've not been part of a book club, but I would. It's on my list now. It seems like fun. Apparently you get to drink a lot a lot!

Yeah, a lot.

Are you in a book club?

I am! I'm in a morbid summer book club.

Oh my gosh!

We're going to read true crime books, and then go to the beach.

That's awesome! That's the thing! You can theme out your book club, and do a sub-genre! You can have so much fun with it.

You should start one.

I should. I'm down with book clubs, I must say.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Allison Shoemaker

Allison Shoemaker is a freelance film and television critic based in Chicago. 

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