Interview: Leslye Headland Crashes the Party with “Bachelorette”

The delightfully outspoken writer/director discusses the love of movies (and the ex-boyfriends) that led her into filmmaking, her debauched debut film about a bridesmaids' party gone awry and why...
Isla Fisher, Kirsten Dunst and Lizzy Caplan in Leslye Headland's film "Bachelorette"

When Leslye Headland approaches, the sensation is not all that different from watching lightning strike. With a lithe frame and blond streaks running through her brownish tresses, the physical resemblance is there and yet it’s when she begins to speak that one truly begins to feel the electricity.

Naturally, that current runs all the way through her debut film “Bachelorette,” ostensibly a comedy about a group of high school friends reuniting for the wedding of the black sheep of the group. But although the premise accompanied by its copious amount of debauchery invites comparisons to “Bridesmaids” and “The Hangover,” “Bachelorette” is a decidedly different animal and a particularly feral one at that. Certainly, the vials of cocaine the gal pals snort and the occasional suicide attempt set out Headland’s intentions to go further that what’s come before, yet it’s the first-time writer/director’s desire to get beneath the frivolity of the festivities to reveal a time of introspection for the young women, which along with the aggression of the humor adds a little more punch to its punchlines.

Featuring a cast heavily stacked with actors beloved in supporting roles such as Lizzy Caplan, Rebel Wilson and Adam Scott as they’re all seemingly at the precipice of bigger things and references to Facebook stalking, it’s both a film very much of its moment and one that’s time has come. On the eve of its release in theaters, Headland took the time to talk about the long road to her debut, involving both her work on the stage where “Bachelorette” originated and the acclaimed FX series “Terriers” as well the unlikely influence of her ex-boyfriends from film school.

I’ve got to say upfront I couldn’t wait to see this film, partially because of the cast and also because you wrote on “Terriers”…

Are we going to talk about “Terriers”?

I was going to try to work it in.

Let’s work in “Terriers,” if we can.

I didn’t realize until the other night that your episode “Manifest Destiny” was directed by Rian Johnson.

Yeah, Rian Johnson. I actually learned a lot from watching him on set for this. That’s the cool thing about Shawn Ryan is that he was like, “You guys should all be on set for your episodes and you should watch the directors because some of you might be directing someday and you should watch what the producers do because you might be producers someday.” So I got to see fuckin’ Rian Johnson, who is one of my favorite directors. It was really incredible to see the way he ran the set, the way he just didn’t stress out about things, just the way he set up scenes and shots and all that. I look back on that and I’m like…really, that was my episode? The kismet of that is ridiculous. (laughs) It’s like who’s life is this? I don’t know.

I was going to ask about the overall influence of working on that show in relation to this, but what seems like it might’ve been of specific import would be how you build crescendos, since that’s such a specialty of “Terriers” co-creator and “Ocean’s Eleven” writer Ted Griffin and “Bachelorette” is all about that build.

Ted does that where it’s like, “And then something fucking happened…’ and it’s so satisfying. That was ultimately too what I wanted to do was with each segment of the film, whether it was the first act set-up or the break into two with the dress rip or once the girls split up and you start to go into the darker territory and then of course, that last half-hour [where it’s like] now, we’re going. [snapping fingers]

I definitely learned that from watching Ted’s other films, but also watching him write on “Terriers” and what he did with those characters, but also Tim Minear, who also wrote on that show and basically ran the show. But the other thing that Ted does too [that I was trying to get was] that same vibe that he does with his couples. For a lot of Lizzy and Adam’s dialogue I would listen to those Gretchen-Hank conversations (played by Kimberly Quinn and Donal Logue on “Terriers”) or Tess and Danny Ocean in “Ocean’s Eleven” (played by Julia Roberts and George Clooney). There’s some romantic about people who resent each other. It’s like how do you make resentment romantic? So that first scene with Adam and Lizzy sort of was very influenced by like, “You know what your problem is? I only have just one.”

So many times, the romantic relationships in movies are just so boring. And not only did I luck out to have a “Party Down” reunion, which is like one of my favorite shows of all time, [but] to have that chemistry — that saved it. But that relationship could’ve gotten sappy within those first two scenes that they’re in. You would’ve gotten, “Oh, I know they’re going to end up together,” so I really lucked out to have the actors that I did because they knew not to play into that and they knew they weren’t playing like lovers. They were playing people with a real serious history with each other and a very specific chemistry that worked just for the two of them.

It’s interesting to hear you say that because what was so intriguing about the film to me is how organic these relationships seem as you learn about them throughout the film. The characters may not have naturally gravitated towards each other and while there’s some nostalgia there about their shared history, they may have been brought together more by circumstance.

It’s like they were all in prison together.

Was that something you actually thought about much while you were writing it?

I don’t know if it was intentional because that makes me sound like a better writer than I am. It’s more just coming from the playwriting world because usually in plays, it’s two people sitting in a room talking, so you’re usually working backwards in your relationship in some way. Sometimes, for example, these people just met that night and then they learn things about each other. But what you’re learning about is their history, so as you move forward in the play chronologically, you’re actually moving backwards for the characters. You’re getting deeper and deeper and learning more and more about what you said because all you have is people’s experiences and memories and feelings. You don’t have set-pieces in a play, you don’t have a huge plot in the play, for the most part. You have a little bit of a plot and intrigue, but you don’t have the mechanics of a ticking clock necessarily, like this film does.

How did you feel about adding that stuff to make it into a film? I’ve heard you talk about building in a certain unreality – you were talking about the strip club scene where there’s an innocence to the strippers and their interactions – and it seems like a film like this would need to be dangerous to be funny, but safe enough to be fun and to have a certain magic.

That’s a great way to describe the change from play to movie. It would just be no fun to write a bunch of people in a room being dramatic and having their hearts ripped out. If you get the opportunity to make a film, which nobody gets…do you know what I mean? It’s insane how small a group of people that I am in having a movie that was made, so for me to have that opportunity, I wanted to make a movie I wanted to watch. I didn’t want to make something that was a good representation of a theater piece.

I wanted to make a movie that was any of the movies that I loved watching like Bogdanovich or Almodovar or Scorsese. There’s elements of realness to them, but they’re all movies. When you watch Tarantino, you’re [know] that guy loves movies. That’s like the number one thing you get out of his films is like he loved making this movie, he loves movies in general, and he’s seen a lot of them and I hope when people would watch my film, that they would feel the same way.They would feel like this girl loves this movie, she loved making this movie, she loves watching other movies and she stole a bunch of shit from those movies to make this one. [laughs]

How did you actually get bitten by the filmmaking bug?

First movie I ever saw was “Love & Death” and that was it. That’s the first movie I remember consciously seeing as a human being and [I thought], “That’s awesome. What do I have to do to do that?” As far as really starting to get the drive to write and direct a film actually came out of like seeing what the competition was, which was all the guys that I dated, who were all film nerds. [laughs] I was like Jesus Christ, I could make a better movie than you. This is boring. I would read their screenplays or they would tell me about their movie idea and I was like this is a yawnfest. I was like…oh my God, I mean, I love you and your cock’s amazing, but like no one wants to see your fucking thing about your dad, you know? Like…or maybe they do. I don’t know.

But I just think it was watching a lot of movies [and] talking about movies a lot — that’s why I dated those guys because I love talking about movies. Nothing makes me more excited than talking about…even doing press, I love doing because I love talking about movies, so I guess you’re a fan first and then you’re a critic and then if you’re lucky, you’re a filmmaker. [laughs]

Any interview you’ve done, you usually drop in a reference to a commentary track or a director’s biography. You clearly know your stuff.

I do, man. I’m obsessed. I was a blogger for a while. My first play ever was called “Cinephilia” and it was about these fuckbuddies that get off on Oscar trivia and then reenacting old Warren Beatty movies. I just love film. Even [Adam] McKay on the night before we started shooting called me and was real sweet and said, “Are you nervous? We’re behind you.” And I was like, “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this, Adam.” I had the first day of school jitters, but like I’ve been waiting my whole life to make a film and it might be the only one I ever get to make and I’m going to put every single part of me that I possibly can into it.

If I can ask about one more thing, I think the part that made me laugh hardest was when the needle dropped for the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Slide,” which signals as you called it earlier the “Now, we’re going…” lead-in to the third act of the film where Kirsten Dunst’s character Regan snaps into action. It’s era-appropriate to when the girls would’ve been in high school and would definitely be on her iPod. How did that perfectly ludicrous musical choice come about?

Isn’t that genius? That’s all Jim Black [the film’s music supervisor]. We were redoing the music after Sundance because music was all over there. It was not anybody’s fault except mine. I just hadn’t made any firm decisions and we were rushed, so when we reconnected with everybody to redo the music, Jim was brought onboard and we talked about really sticking to ’90s music. Having that En Vogue cue at a strip club is still the funniest thing in the movie. But Jim had a bunch of options for me for that moment and we talked about what do we use here [for the day of the wedding]? He played me a couple of them and “Slide” was one of them and I died laughing. My editor Wyatt, who’s just the biggest snob in the world, was just like “I hate that the Goo Goo Dolls are going to be in the movie, but that’s some funny shit.”

I just can’t think of a better song to have in there. My friend Michael when he saw it with me, he is just the biggest music nerd and he was grabbing me he was laughing so hard. He was like, “Oh my God, nooooo…” That’s the feeling. Like nooo, nooo, nooo. Going back to the ’90s. We don’t want to be there anymore.

“Bachelorette” is now available on VOD, iTunes, Amazon Instant, and Google Play and opens in theaters on September 7th.

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