[This story contains spoilers from I Feel Pretty.]
In this era of Hollywood revivals and reboots, there’s still one beloved throwback genre that hasn’t yet been dusted off for 2018 audiences: character-driven comedies from the ‘80s like Big, Tootsie and Working Girl. At least, that’s according to writer-directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein — who released their latest, and first title they helmed, I Feel Pretty, in part to fill the void.
Kohn and Silverstein are perhaps best known for writing romantic comedies like Never Been Kissed, He’s Just Not That Into You and Valentine’s Day as well as the more dramatic romance The Vow. With I Feel Pretty, the pair worked within the switcheroo comedy genre in part to subvert and update it for 2018. In the film, aspiring and insecure cosmetics entrepreneur Renee (Amy Schumer) hits her head during a spinning class, wakes up with the belief that she has become ineffably beautiful and reaches major life goals. When the mysterious spell breaks, she must come to terms with the fact that her appearance never changed at all.
Molly Ringwald recently wrote an essay in The New Yorker reckoning with how the ‘80s John Hughes classic The Breakfast Club, in which she stars, features sexual harassment and inappropriate writing. Kohn and Silverstein similarly scrutinized slightly outdated fare to refit it and tell the story of a woman’s reckoning with her self-confidence and subsequent empowerment.
Before I Feel Pretty‘s release, The Hollywood Reporter chatted with the longtime creative partners about ‘80s movies, subverting audience expectations and the state of the rom-com in 2018.
When did you two begin working together and how did you end up working on so many romantic comedies?
Abby Kohn: We went to grad school together. We both did the MFA in production at USC, and we literally met on the first day of the second semester of the first year, when you have to partner up to work on your second-semester project. We partnered up and we’ve been working together ever since.
Marc Silverstein: It’s been a long time.
How did you end up doing so many romantic comedies?
Kohn: We made a short together as our de facto thesis at film school that was a 25-minute romantic comedy. In film school we really found common ground in the filmmakers that we admired — the Jim Brooks and Cameron Crowes and Woody Allens. There weren’t a whole lot of people like that in film school that wanted to work in that genre, and we just found a creative meeting of the minds in our love of the character comedy, romantic comedy. I know some people might feel like a romantic comedy might be a stepping-stone to other things, but the idea of the character comedy, the comedy that’s really funny but also has a real emotional center to it, is really what we want to do.
How did I Feel Pretty first come about and how did you end up with directing duties?
Silverstein: Going back to the beginning 20 years ago, we were in grad school for directing in the production program. We just happened to get work writing immediately out of school so that’s what we did, and as time and years went on, nothing felt like the right thing for us to do; it also meant taking time off from the job that was paying us. So the time when we would direct kept getting pushed further and further into the future, although we were always keeping our eye on stuff we liked. So [we thought], we need to set aside some time to write something for ourselves to direct and take full ownership of it — not sell it to a studio, not write it for anybody else — for ourselves and hold on to it and attach ourselves as directors. So that’s how we did it.
Kohn: When we wrote it, we knew that this was going to be the one that we wanted to direct. When we went out with it, we knew that there was a possibility that, people knowing that this was a package deal and that we would direct it ourselves, it wouldn’t sell, but we were OK with that. We really knew that it was going to be us directing this one or we were not going to put it out there.
Silverstein: In terms of the idea itself, we were kicking around what kind of movies we love, what kind of movies are not getting made as much anymore. We really love that ‘80s comedy of Big or Working Girl or Tootsie, that vibe of movie that we grew up on, which are not really getting made anymore. We thought, [let’s] sort of use those tropes and poke fun at those movies but also get at the real emotional core of the films.
Did you intentionally subvert the tropes of any of those films in your script or in the production of I Feel Pretty?
Kohn: Definitely, as Marc was talking about, even the trope of the big switcheroo comedy. We really tried to have fun with those scenes that everyone expects and turning them on their ear. The scene you always have in those movies, the scene where the person who has changed comes and says, “I gotta prove to you it’s really me,” in the scene in our film, [Renee’s friends] obviously know it’s really her.
And then there were choices that we made not because there was something we wanted to turn on its ear, but because we wanted this to be about an empowered woman. There could be a case to be made in ending the movie on a kiss with Rory [Scovel, who plays] the character Ethan. But we really wanted the last shot to be not on getting the guy. We wanted the last shot to be Renee’s character really digging herself and feeling herself. We totally understand why people would call it a romantic comedy, but for us the romance is not the main story, the main story is this character, Renee, learning to love what’s already there about herself and what she can finally recognize.
Silverstein: Also I feel like the choice of the way we portrayed all of the supporting cast was pretty specifically geared toward not giving you the version of that character you would see in the movies normally. With the guy characters, Ethan as a romantic lead is not your typical dashing guy that you would expect, he’s got his own insecurities and that makes him more attractive in a weird reverse way. Also, we didn’t want to play the [usual] beat of the Grant character [played by Tom Hopper], who usually ends up being an asshole or a villain at the end of the movie, where the choice is made for her, he’s a dick. We were like, well, he didn’t have to be a bad guy, just not the right guy for her.
Kohn: Or the Michelle Williams character. We don’t need a bitchy foil; we don’t need a woman to be a bitch in this movie; it’s not necessary; so we made a choice to not do that.
Silverstein: Also the portrayal of her friends, Vivian and Jane, was very constantly geared toward making us understand that Renee’s perception of their lives is what the problem is. In a normal movie, it’s like the sad-sack version of the friends and they have no fun. These two girls are fun and, like, pretty dope; Renee is the one that’s holding herself back in her head. All of those ideas were pretty conscious decisions to steer away from the typical versions of those characters.
Given your experience working on these movies, did you end up mining some of your own Hollywood experiences for beauty-related comic material?
Kohn: I mean, constantly. A lot of what informed this idea comes from that. The universal idea of, like, I don’t want to buy my makeup at the Barney’s counter, I want to go to Rite Aid because I’m not wearing the right outfit and I’m not going to get dressed up to buy concealer and I know they’re looking at me – all those kinds of things that Renee feels I have felt. Whether it’s from the media, whether it’s what your parents told you when you were growing up, we’ve formed these ideas that have laid the groundwork for insecurities. And I think it’s important to acknowledge that, but then to also say that we really believe in the end, you don’t really need to change anything, it’s not about changing anything other than your belief in yourself.
Silverstein: I would answer the question about specifically working in Hollywood. There is a parallel between the world we create and the world we live in out here. The vibe of a lot of the offices we go into — the feeling of beautiful people everywhere, at every position, it does feel overwhelming for sure; it’s a bit of a barrage. That definitely played a part in the creation of that cosmetics world in that office and that whole vibe that she feels she could never fit into.
There’s obviously been some early backlash to I Feel Pretty, with some saying that the movie body-shames Amy Schumer. Were you surprised by the criticism?
Kohn: We felt like that was clearly a trailer-lash. The things that people were saying and projecting on our movie happened to be untrue. We felt, and we feel, real confidence in the message of the movie, and the hope is that people will judge the movie as a movie and not as a 15-second clip and then their own assumptions about the movie.
If you could send a message to some of those early critics, what would it be?
Silverstein: See the movie; that’s it. You don’t have to like the movie at all. There’s thousands of opinions of everything.
Abby: We’ve been really lucky with the studio that so believes in this movie that we’ve done hundreds of word-of-mouth screening and we’ve gotten none of those comments from people who have seen the movie. I think that’s all we need to say is “See it.” I think it’s important thing for young and old women, too.
Schumer’s character works in the cosmetics industry and ends the film on a message on how accessible cosmetics can be empowering to women. There’s also a school of thought that sees cosmetics marketing as helping to fuel female insecurity. How did you settle on the cosmetics framework and on that final speech?
Silverstein: I think that idea is actually the needle we tried to thread. I do think that there has been a standard of beauty that’s put out there — cosmetics being one of the culprits of that in terms of the advertising, but also generally magazines and fashion. The movie was never a takedown of those industries or anti-capitalist or wanting to do things that make you feel pretty or beautiful: I don’t think we have any sort of on-the-face objections to the idea of makeup. But In terms of the images that are portrayed and the advertising that’s done, I think the point is to have a more inclusive, kinder, gentler version of that where you’re selling things that don’t make people feel bad about themselves. And it’s a fine line.
Kohn: Absolutely. You’re not trying to leave people out of the cosmetics or fashion or anything, it’s really about inclusion. And that’s a lot what she says in that final speech is that the problem is when they say, “This is the face of this line” and then anybody’s who’s not that face is not included. She’s saying, “We’re all the face of the utopian makeup line.” That’s [the difference between] trying to put the conventional beauty on everybody as opposed to saying we all want to feel beautiful and we all should be able to feel beautiful in our own way.
Plenty of critics are saying that Williams is a breakout surprise in this movie — not many of us have seen her in comic roles. How did she get involved and how did you know she could do comedy?
Kohn: We happen to know Michelle — Marc’s wife, Busy, is her best friend — and so we know her outside of her really brilliant acting career. We know that as a person she has a lightness and a humor that I don’t think a lot of people see. So we knew she could do this part. What was such a brilliant thing for us to watch is to see how she approached Avery like you would imagine Michelle Williams would approach any role. Michelle Williams does not come and do a caricature. We had written that Avery has a strange voice, but the creation of that voice, we didn’t know what it would really sound like until Michelle took ownership of that. Or her physicality that she brought to Avery, which was the physicality of a girl who grew up in a rarified environment and who is approximating human interaction. All of that was so fun to be a part of and watch Michelle craft what I feel is a brilliant character as opposed to a caricature.
There have been so many stories in the last few years calling the romantic comedy dead. What is the state of the genre in your estimation?
Kohn: I don’t know about “dead,” but I think for a long time romantic comedies were movies that people wanted to go to because of their predictability, because you knew exactly what was going to happen and there was comfort in that. I don’t know if that is really a thing anymore. But the idea of a comedy that comes out of character and characters that we can identify with and movies that can be funny and also hit an emotional core, I don’t think that those are ever really dead. I think everybody wants to laugh out of recognition of things that they really know and also feel a cathartic experience of things that they know. If those speak to the human condition, then I think there is a place for character comedy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.