An Interview With Leslye Headland


There's seems to be a new wave of woman directors  -- Sarah Polley, Julie Delpy, Lena Dunham, to name a few -- who have put a subversive spin on the romantic comedy, turning out frequently scatological, often hilarious twists on the reigning female stereotypes. Joining them is first time director Lelye Headland, a playwright who has turned one of her stage works, "Bachelorette," about a trio of friends who lose their shit the night before they are to attend a wedding,

into a dark, twisted, sometimes perverse, ultimately affecting farce that wowed the crowd as the opening night feature of the Provincetown Film Festival. That included John Waters, the master of nastiness, who proclaimed the film. "absolutely brilliant." When I interviewed Headland she still seem thrilled by the compliment. Normal 0 false false false MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }

PK: It must have been exciting to get a thumbs up from John Waters last night.

LH: Oh my god! Oh man.

PK: Did you expect that?

LH: First of all I didn’t expect him to be there. Then I freaked out that he was there. Then he asked me a question which freaked me out.

PK: Was the question about…it was hard to hear in the back, was the question about the MPAA?

LH: Yeah, which I actually thought was a really good question because even when I was writing it I was wondering if this is an R, or if some of this would merit an NC-17 because of the…there’s no nudity and there’s no violence, but maybe just ideologically. There’s the sex scene between Kirsten and James and it’s pretty raw and out there.

PK:  And a lot of bodily fluids…

LH: Yeah, a lot of bodily fluids [Laughs]. Like I was wondering if they were going to take issue with that, and it was a good question from him [Waters] because when I was writing this my filmmaker brain was thinking that as well. I wasn’t exactly editing myself because of it, but I thought it was a really good question from him. But yeah, to get his…everything he’s ever done, particularly “Cry-Baby” (1990). I remember watching that when I was in high school, and I was, like, this is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and I love it. Like I loved the marriage of two genres, like that movie was the first time I ever…like coming from loving musicals, that movie was the first time I thought “oh you could put two genres together” and you could make a completely new movie. And I think that was the movie that probably did that for me. So when I saw him stand up I thought he was going to fall over.

PK: It’s probably good you didn’t know he was there…

LH: It was so good nobody told me! I looked at my phone later on and someone texted me “John Waters is here. No pressure.”

PK:  Did you talk to him afterwards?

LH: Yeah, he really liked it a lot, and he loved that I say “cunt” and all the cocaine, and that I didn’t pull any punches. And he didn’t know where it was going to go. And he gave me what is probably the best compliment you can give a first time director, which is you would have no idea you were a first time director.

PK:  I was surprised that it was originally a stage play. It didn’t have any staginess to it at all.

LH: Oh good, that’s like the number one compliment you could give me. That was my concern in adapting it. It was just, a lot of adaptation of plays…most of them are older films when the audience I think was a little more theater savvy in the sense of like the 60s and 70s. You may have even seen some of those plays, and even television was being shot like plays, you were used to that sort of thing. But now it can get really dangerous really fast, really claustrophobic if you’re not moving.

PK: He’s kind of the dean of transgressive cinema. 

LH: And he’s like the king of…cause obviously “Bachelorette” is a very divisive movie, and he’s sort of the king of that. Like, you either love him or you don’t have any idea what you’re watching.

Or you’ll acquire that taste, which I believe is something very common with his work. That you sort of at first are like “Whaaaa?” then “oh my god this is incredible!” You have to be smart, and together, and you know, committed to watching it.

PK: This was originally a drama, not so much of a comedy?

LH:  Well, I never meant it to be a comedy, I thought I was writing a very serious, serious play.

PK: A Mamet play.

LH: Yeah, a very Mamet, David Rabe… But when we first performed it in 2008, people just erupted with laughter. Like the blowjob monologue, as soon as the actress did it people were just dying laughing. I was just like, oh my god…it’s a comedy. I guess it’s a comedy! So adapting it into a film, which I did around 2008, and doing re-writes with Adam McKay, and  Jessica Elbaum, and Will Ferrell, and Gary Sanchez. It was just more honing it, like this is going to be a comedy now.  They optioned the play after it was off Broadway, and we worked on the…I’d written a film already, but we worked on re-writing it and making it tighter and better.

PK: You must have been not happy to see “Bridesmaids” come out.


LH: When I saw it I was like “Oh no!”

PK: Yours came first, though? [the play was produced in 2008] Maybe they were imitating you.

LH: Well yeah, it [the screenplay] made the Black List in 2008, which is like the list of best unproduced screenplays. And I don’t know when they started writing the “Bridesmaids” film. When did it come out?

PK: Last year, I think?

LH:  Yeah. 2011.  Oh God, I don’t even know what year it is.

PK: It’s not that important.

LH:  Yeah, it’s not that important. Like, we can Google that. So I don’t know, I don’t know if they were aware of it. But I’ve always felt like wedding comedies are always around you know, like “The Hangover” (2008)


was out wwhen I was first writing the script. So then it was like, “Oh well this is like ‘The Hangover,’” and I was like “Well, no it’s not.” I think there’s always going to be something there, I think the reason “Bridesmaids” is sort of a bigger, is one the title, obviously, but also that it’s an R-rated female-centric comedy that up until “Bridesmaids” nobody wants to make or put money into. So I think that’s where a lot of the comparisons on paper were happening.

PK :  So do you think it could end up helping the movie reach an audience?

LH:  Oh I hope so! I hope so…one of the reasons I’m grateful for that movie, beyond sort of the title thing, is that it made a lot of money, and it sort of proved that people could watch a female-centric R-rated comedy and pay money for it and it wasn’t this big scary thing. Because the example that kept being brought up when I was shopping it around was “The Sweetest Thing” (2002). 


They were like that didn’t work, this’ll never work. And I was like, that was 10 years ago. I mean all those people who didn’t see that movie are now 18-25. They have no idea what that movie is, what are you talking about. So now the example is “Bridesmaids” and to be able to say, look, that movie made money,  a lot of people enjoy it. You don’t have to be scared to green light other movies made by women.

But this also is something that’s been going on for a while, there was this “New Yorker” article about Sarah Silverman, I think back in 2006…2007 right before her television show. And it was like “Can women do comedy?” And then there was a “Vanity Fair” with Amy Poehler and Tina Fey around “Baby Momma” time and it was like “Can women be funny?” It’s been a conversation for like a long time.

PK: Who was the actress they did the article on…

LH: Oh, Anna Faris!

PK: Yeah

LH: Yeah, yeah, “Funny Like a Guy.”  Everyone in the world sent that to me because they were like…so it’s all really good stuff. “Girls,” Lena Dunham. Like really good. Liz Meriwether with “New Girl,” all that is really good for someone like me. You know like I don’t look at it like competition, because that’s preparing people for the shit-storm that is my movie. You know what I mean [laughs] If this came out five years ago no one would want to see it.

PK: I saw it unprepared and…wow.

LH: Yeah, exactly!

PK: Yeah. It may not be a date movie…

LH: Yeah.

PK: A last date movie. If you want to break up with somebody…

LH: I guess it depends on the kind of couple you are, there are some ex-boyfriends I could see seeing this movie with and there are some I could not.

PK: Was it difficult to get the go ahead to direct this, being a first time director?

LH: No! Actually it was shockingly... Adam asked me to. He said I think you know these characters better than anyone else. I had directed a lot of theater -- I had never directed any film -- And I’m a huge film nerd, a huge film buff, working in a video store. So it actually wasn’t difficult. With the actresses, you could tell they were really excited not only working in these characters but they were excited that a woman was directing them. That it wasn’t going to be like, I don’t know, something else.

PK: It’s  not like a Tarantino movie.  It’s close. But somebody would have to kill somebody.

LH: I used to joke about that. I tried to come up with funny ways to say what it was. I’d say, it’s ‘Clueless” but they’re on  cocaine, If  Quentin Tarantino directed a wedding movie, or a Jane Austen movie on pot. Trying to find different ways to explain that it’s not what you thought it was going to be. You aren’t prepared for these women.

PK: This is one of the seven deadly sins, then?

LH: Yes. I wrote a series of plays called “The Seven Deadly Plays” and this was the sin of gluttony, which was how  the play began. The idea being, when I started writing one of those, I’d take what would be considered to be a classic manifestation of that sin, someone being overweight, and then contrast it with something sneakier, the characters of Regan, Gena, and Katie being these thin, pretty, at first seemingly fine women, and then when they unravel not just with drugs but with materialism, sexual stuff.. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being a sexual woman, obviously, but if perfecting a blow job is the height of feminism...

PK: Are you going to get all seven made into movies?

LH: I don’t know. I certainly didn’t think of that when I wrote it [“Bachelorette”]  as a play.  It was a surprise that that was where it ended up going. "Assistance," which is the Greed play, is now off Broadway. I’ve written six of them so far.

PK: Which sin is the stumbling block?

LH: Pride. It’s a hard one. It’s really difficult. They became more and more -- gluttony, lust, greed, and wrath were really easy to make active. But sloth and envy and pride are actually very difficult to make active, to make them something interesting to watch for 90 minutes. You have to sort of figure out how to make them more dramatic.

PK: Lucifer fell because of Pride. It’s the first sin.

LH: Pride’s tough. I had this Charlie Kaufman-esque idea. It’s not very  interesting to talk about somebody else’s pride. But what if we started talking about my pride and I actually put myself as a character in the play. And sort of do an outlandish version of myself. I mean I can talk about my own sort of pride and how it’s worked in my life.

PK: It would be a change of pace to have a woman exhibiting pride because there are so many examples of them suffering from self-loathing on the screen.

LH: Yeah. I just felt like I think the only reason I wanted to make it a romantic comedy is that I felt there are so’s like, I don’t have self esteem, or I love -- women do stuff that’s a lot heavier than that and I haven’t actually seen that heavier stuff anywhere. I guess maybe if there’s a side character going through something in a drama but usually they’re supporting a guy in some way if they’re going through something intense like ... I’m not saying all my friends are like the characters in this film. Not at all. I have really great relationships with my female friends. But I think the things they are dealing with are a lot more intense than whether they’re going to get that guy or accept themselves. A lot of women under 30 have had abortions, have had eating disorders. It’s just not talked about in a large film like in this one. It’s usually just a side story.

PK: I think this might be the only American film I’ve seen in a long time to even use the word abortion, let alone confront the subject.

LH: I know. That was actually the NC-17 stuff I was worried about  that like, are they going to be pissed off?

PK: Did it go through the MPAA?

LH: Yeah, it did. It got an R. But I was surprised. A hard R. SUPERhard. I can’t help it. It’s a SUPERhard R, guys.

PK: Great advertising.

LH: But, yeah, it isn’t used as like, it opens up the story, but now I’m giving away too much for those who haven’t seen it. I wanted it to come out in that way...

PK: It’s probably a spoiler.

LH: Yeah. I’m terrible in that way.

PK: So you’ve got  Seven Deadly Plays. It sounds almost like a raunchy Eric Rohmer series.

LH: That’s a great pitch. I’d love to turn them into that. Mostly because I love all the characters and all of that. The reason I adapted this is I just love the characters. I love those girls. I think they’re great. I know exactly what they’re going to say and when they’ll say it. They emerged fully formed, all three of them, just kind of like, hey, what’s up. So I would to go into different mediums with them or any of the characters in the plays. Because their great.

PK: They establish their personalities in the first scene. And that’s quite the cast. I think Isla Fisher is one of the funniest women around.

LH: She is. I saw her in “The Wedding Crashers.” That was the first time I saw her in anything. forget the day I saw that because I was like, I love this woman, I think we might be the same person. Because, like, I have never seen a comedic female character like that, ever. And some day she’s going to say my words. It was sort of a deep dream. Years I’ve been obsessed with her. And she read the film and got in touch with me and I was just so terrified and nervous talking to her about it. The initial meetings I was very nervous. But not when I was directing. Because I wanted to make a good first impression. Kirsten told me later, thank God you didn’t tell me when we met and that only other first time director she worked with was Sofia Coppola and it’s not something she does. And  that’s why I was nervous because I was like, I can do this, I know I I promise you that you’ll be taken good care of and we’ll make this movie and it will be great. That’s why I was nervous. But once they were there I was like, this is going to be awesome. I’m working with three of my favorite actresses of all time.

PK: And you had theater directing background.

LH: Yes. And McKay said that too. Because when he asked me to direct the film I said, aren’t you nervous that I never directed  a film and he said, give me a director who can work with actors over someone that just graduated from NYU grad any day of the week .  That you just can’t teach. All the other stuff you can learn. You can learn how to set up a shot. You can get a great editor. You can get great producers and a design team. But if you don’t know how to work with actors then there’s nothing I can do to help you. I had seen the stuff on stage that I directed and knew that was my background. And I just stole from every filmmaker I liked. There were like five films that I had my DP and design team watch. And we just referenced them.

PK: Can you tell me what they were?

LH: Yeah, they were -- I think there were four. There was “After Hours” (1985) for, obviously, camera movement -- keep the camera moving, don’t plop it down like it’s a play, keep following the characters with New York City as a kind of Beast you’re crawling into. The lighting as well. For tone, “The Apartment” (1960) because I think it’s a film that goes flawlessly between comedy and drama. One minute you’re laughing at Jack Lemmon doing a physical bit -- I mean the level of that performance -- I mean Kyle Bornheimer [who plays Joe in “Bachelorette”] reminds me of Jack Lemmon in that film. That sort of highly stylized comedy like when he’s opposite a girl who’s talking about killing herself you absolutely buy it. “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" (1988)  -- any Almodovar film, honestly. For color and texture and also the way he shoots women. Women never look ugly. They may do ugly things or they may be going through ugly stuff but they never look bad. And that was really important to me too. And then “What’s Up Doc?” (1972), which was obviously the very last sequence where we couldn’t use cars because we had a very small budget to do the classic kind of screwball send up at the end but like the last 30 minutes was sort of my “What’s Up Doc?” doubling up on coverage, tripling up on coverage, lots of things going on, the hero being in a hotel, how fast  the dialogue goes in that film.

PK: That’s where the video store background helps out.

LH: Yeah, exactly.

PK: More film directing now?

LH: Oh I don’t think I’ll ever not be writing plays. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was incredibly grateful to have a chance to have made a  film and definitely got bit by the bug. You know, there aren’t a lot of female American auteurs. So I wouldn’t  mind sticking around.

It’s like as good as “Bridesmaids” is it’s a studio movie directed by a dude. The subject matter is similar and which makes sense and obviously the title and everything. This movie is me. You can very much tell that one person made it. Not that hundreds and hundreds of people didn’t help me make it. But it came from one person’s like, vagina, you know.

PK: I think you can tell the difference.

LH: In the same way I push myself to write good male characters ... I think it comes through in “Bachelorette,” but especially in my plays I task myself to write a male protagonist. I think there are some male filmmakers who are good at female characters. Almodovar for sure. Cassavetes. And Lonergan, too. It’s like, how do you know that? In “Margaret,”  those fight scenes between her and her mother ... How do you know that’s how a high school girl thinks? I don’t think there’s some gender...

PK: It’s funny, but of the three directors you mention, one is dead, the other hasn’t made a movie in about ten years, and the other is Spanish.

LH: I’ll try to think of something more contemporary. But then there’s like Kathryn Bigelow who makes one of the greatest action films of all time. You don’t have to have that gender experience to tell the truth about it. It ‘s probably more the difference between an independent movie and a studio movie. That was exactly the kind of movie we wanted to make

[Voice from the crowd] Great movie!

PK: See -- everybody loves it.

LH: Everybody here really like it! And I really enjoyed that because it was such a divisive movie. I don’t think I’ll get that agin.

PK: Well this is Provincetown. It probably wasn’t edgy enough.

LH: Exactly. They’re like, ahh, that was sweet.

PK: It was kind of sweet. It had a happy ending for at least two of the three women. Kind of like Jane Austen. Everyone finds the right person, or nobody. Depending on what they want.

LH: I think by the end all she [Kirsten Dunst] really wants is to be alone.

PK: After “Melancholia” it’s hard to have happy endings.

LH: Oh my gosh. I know. She.. Oh God! I love her so much. I’m going on a tangent now but you know what’s cool  about all thereof those women they’re all really old school the way they work. Kirsten sort of Barbara Stanwyck-y. She can be good or bad. She can go either way. She can swoon with the best of them but she can also be a huge bitch. And Isla, I think she’s up there with Marilyn Monroe. It’s not just being able to tell a funny joke. If you get the chance to watch the movie again watch when she’s not talking. That’s my favorite part of her performance. Or when she’s running and she’s not sure why she’s running but it’s just like, I want to be involved.

PK: You came from a religious background.

LH: Yes, I was raised a Catholic. And I went to Catholic school. And then we moved so I ended up in public school. But Christian, Caholic, yeah.

PK: C.S. Lewis.

LH: Yes. I love C.S.Lewis.  I’m just interested in morality. I think it’s funny that we live in a country that says you can believe in anything you want but then gets really angry when a bunch of women talk about blow jobs. I just like poking around in it and saying, what’s bad? What’s good? And why is it okay for certain characters to behave one way and other characters not to? And if it’s okay for this sort thing to happen in the media if I  put it in a story is it going to upset you. There was the interview where I talked about how in “What Is Christianity?” he [Lewis] said you don’t call a line crooked if you don’t know what a straight line looks like. I get more irritated when people don’t like the movie and say that the characters are disgusting. Because I’m like, oh good, so you figured it out for yourself? What you think is acceptable behavior. And I’m sure you’re living by that every day.

PK: The Narnia books -- I wish they made them into better movies.

LH: They sort of miffed the movies.

PK: You should do them.

LH: Oh God, I’d love to. Actually there are two things of his I’ve always wanted to adapt. One was “The Great Divorce.” And I always wanted to make a lay out of  “Until We Have Faces,” which is his retelling of Cupid and Psyche. I just think he’s really smart -- he’s a bit like Flannery O’Connor who’s a huge inspiration to me. She’s not afraid of anything. She has this great quote where she said people who think I’m did she put it?... that Christian honesty is like the most what’s the word -- I have to look it up. Like I’m done sparring. I’m tired of pulling punches. But that’s interesting too. This woman who was very devout, who had a very short life. Lupus. Her stories -- you’re just horrified by them. I think that’s the point. That’s why I like people who don’t like my movie. I get really excited when people  don’t like it. I feel like, it’s working!

PK: Sorry to disappoint you.

LH: No, no. If people like it... I don’t have children but it’s like people loving your children. It’s like, thank God.

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