Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein star in “Booksmart,” the story of two BFFs who spent all of high school studying and decide it is time for one wild night to make up for all they missed before they leave home. It is directed with endless affection and delicious verve by Olivia Wilde. Dever and Feldstein told RogerEbert.com about creating on- and off-screen chemistry, un-safe words, and what makes female friendships essential.
Your characters have the opposite of a safe word. They use “Malala” as a kind of “let’s not be safe” word.
BEANIE FELDSTEIN: It’s sort of like a, “Please listen to me; follow my lead,” type of word.”
KAITLYN DEVER: Yes. “Trust me; go with my flow.”
If you were going to try to come up with a word like that for your friends what word would you pick?
BF: For my friends? Stephen Sondheim.
You were working with Olivia Wilde who had a lot of experience being a teenage girl but not much experience directing. What was important about her perspective?
KD: Olivia is one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with, really. I’m not just saying that in interviews; I truly believe that. She’s got an incredible mind. She is so inspiring and she really, really had such immeasurable passion for “Booksmart.”
I first read the script four years ago and then she came on about two years later and Annapurna had loosely attached me to the project. It was the first time that this ever happened to me for a leading role and it was huge for me. And then Olivia came on. I remember meeting her for the first time and she had so many ideas. She basically said, “High school is war.” And she was so passionate about Molly and Amy’s friendship. And then she told me that she wanted Beanie; Beanie was her dream Molly.
BF: I read this script about three years ago reading initially to play a role that doesn’t even exist in the film anymore. I love the script and I was so taken with these two women who are the center of this comedy. There’s so much warmth and heart.
I got a call from my agent: “Olivia Wilde wants to have lunch with you” and I was like, “Come again? Yes! Name the time and the place and I will make myself free.” She was like, “And I want you to play Molly” and I was like, “Wait, Molly is one of the two right?” She said, “Yes, it’s you and Kaitlyn Dever” and I was like “Oh, my God, from ‘Short Term 12.’” I was a huge fan.
Olivia as a director is the most collaborative, positive spirit. She just emanates warmth and intellect and she’s so cool. That’s why the film is all of those things; it’s simply because she is all those things. She shared her vision so openly with everyone and was so inclusive in her filmmaking.
She directed every actor individually as they needed to be directed. Olivia has done theater, she has done film, she has done music videos and so she understands every way to approach acting. So some of us, like Noah [Galvin] and I, come from a theater background and she knew how to talk to us. Kaitlyn and Olivia had both been acting forever so they had a completely different rapport. Victoria Ruesga and Nico Hiraga are very new to acting and so she could speak to them and direct them however they needed to be directed. She had such specificity with the way she approached every single person on the crew and the cast. There’s no one better.
You did not know each other before and you had to play girls who could finish each other’s sentences. How do you develop that chemistry?
BF: Olivia organized a lunch for the three of us. We hugged for 20 minutes before we decided to sit down and have our food. Olivia brought up the concept of us living together. She was like, “Oh yeah, that would be great, what a pipe dream,” and Kaitlyn and I were like, “No, we’re very open to that!” It’s kind of crazy because we’d known each other for 20 minutes but we could tell we had a mutual passion and an understanding of this story. We both understood that Molly and Amy are the center of the heartbeat of the film and “Booksmart” doesn’t work without those two girls being such a truthful depiction of female friendship. They’re obsessed with each other, they spend every day together, all day together, so we wanted to really get to know each other and really develop our own rapport and our own trust and our own friendship. Living together was the perfect way to do that because we were just with each other all the time.
The movie is unexpectedly sweet and really does not let the audience feel like it is making fun of the girls, even when they are making mistakes.
BF: What I love about the movie is the humor comes from positivity. It’s not like “I’m going to rip you down with this joke” type kind of comedy or humor. It’s such a positive depiction of female friendship, which in my experience has only ever been that. They’re never competitive with each other. Also the humor of the film comes from how beloved they are and how smart they are. Their whip-fast rapport is where their humor within the film is generated. I love that it’s just a movie that brings people together through comedy instead of tearing each other down, which is a very different style of humor.
Where did the idea for having the girls wear matching jumpsuits to the party come from? It is so funny that they think they look very cool in them.
KD: I think the great thing about this movie is that on high school movies that I grew up on when a girl is getting ready to go out to that party she has to really change herself or make over herself but we didn’t do that. April Napier, who is our costume designer, is incredible.
BF: We had our fittings together always which I thought was really cool. I’d never done that before and I think that’s how that idea came to be. If we were separated it wouldn’t have happened. April and Katina Danabassis and Coral Cunningham were the wardrobe team on “Lady Bird,” so I got an email from Olivia asking if she should have them on “Booksmart.” I’ve never sent a longer email in my life. I was like, “April is the only person who can do this movie. You have to pick her.” I was so excited because April’s vision is so subtle but the way she tells the story through clothing is so expert. And Kat and Coral are two of the coolest girls in the world. They have their finger on the pulse like what would be cool by the time this movie comes out?
Amy and Molly are so supportive in this film, which is great because very often in the media we see women undermining each other.
KD: Gosh, I think that female friendships are almost one of the most powerful relationships you can have. Some of my best friends know me the most. They know everything about me. When I think about “Booksmart” and Molly and Amy’s relationship I think about how my best friends really shape who I am. And a fight with your best friend is probably one of the worst feelings in the world. It’s heartbreaking.
BF: They’re the family you choose. It’s really powerful. Making this film made me think about how your friends are the first decision you get to make in your life. Like when you’re 3, 4, and 5 your parents tell you where to go, what to wear, what to eat, what you’re doing that day but you get to say, “This is my pal in the sand box, this is who I want to jump rope with.” That’s really a powerful thing. And then to continue to choose that person year after year after year is no easy feat. So I think friendships are kind of magical. So many movies tend to show women competitive with each other but every relationship I have with my best friends that are girls is like they’re your cheerleading squad. There’s a true magic in those friendships and if we’re a part of capturing that and cementing it in film, that is so exciting.