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.
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
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
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”
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
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!
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…
PK: A last date movie. If you want to break up with
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
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
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 many...it’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
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
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
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
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 cynical...how 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
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.