'About Last Night' Writer on Reimagining Movie for a Black Cast (Guest Column)

Leslye Headland - H - 2014
Associated Press

The "Bachelorette" screenwriter, who's white, on her "diarrhea-level" anxiety about writing the remake and why John Legend is funnier than Phil Collins.

"Impressive but not threatening. It’s the John Legend of penises." This is how Joan describes her new lover Bernie’s, um, equipment at the beginning of the remake About Last Night, opening this weekend. It was one of three jokes I changed when I rewrote the script for a black cast. It used to be "the Phil Collins of penises." If you ask me, John Legend is funnier. 

When I was hired to write Screen Gems’ remake of About Last Night, I was nervous about a lot of things. How was I going to capture the bittersweet romantic comedy of the original 1986 film written by the awesome Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue? What about the acerbic no-holds-barred sexual frankness of its source material, the play Sexual Perversity in Chicago by the immortal David Mamet? And if that wasn’t enough pressure, I also had never written a studio comedy! My only credits at the time were some plays and one season as a staff writer. Luckily I had some incredible support in the form of producers Will Gluck and Alicia Emmrich at Olive Bridge as well as Scott Strauss and, my fearless leader, Clint Culpepper at Screen Gems.

FILM REVIEW: About Last Night

Despite my diarrhea-level anxiety, every time I sat down at that wretched laptop I said, out loud: "Don’t write jokes, Leslye. Write people."

A few months after I turned in my draft, Clint called me to tell me he had cast Kevin Hart, Michael Ealy, Regina Hall and Joy Bryant as the four lead characters. He asked me to do a rewrite now that casting was set. I asked what he wanted me to change. The only note was to make the secondary characters (Bernie and Joan) equal to the two protagonists (Dan and Debbie). A pretty cool directive given that the “best friends” in romantic comedies are almost always commenting from the sidelines. It was a nice way to change up the old formula. 

Anything else? Nope. Clint said: "I want your voice. These are your characters. And you are the only person who knows how to write them." There was no discussion of changing the characters’ lifestyles or any of the storyline as a result of casting black actors. I had written a script. The studio had decided to go with the strongest cast for that particular script. That cast happened to have black actors. 

I heard some very interesting reactions to the casting, specifically from white people who work in the movie industry. While I was doing the rewrite, I got dozens of really mean jokes, most of which I don’t feel comfortable putting into writing here because they were sometimes racist and always hurtful. The most clever one (still lame) was: "How’s your David Blamet script going?" It was like my script was suddenly not as good or less than or just plain not cool because of the casting. Whatever. Those people suck.

This was all happening while I was promoting a film I wrote and directed, Bachelorette. The questions I was repeatedly asked during that press junket were about the trend of "Women in Comedy." Now the trend is "Black Films Perform at the Box Office." This kind of marginalization represents the same narrow-mindedness that sparked the racist "jokes" I got during my rewrite. When anyone marginalizes the success of a female-driven comedy or an urban comedy, there’s something more sinister at work. 

These types of comedies are treated as fads because the stars of these films and the protagonists they portray would usually be sidelined in mainstream cinema. So if the success of films like Bridesmaids and Think Like a Man lead to more films with female or black leads, well, crap … that might mean more scripts that represent minorities as people. Realistic, sympathetic or compelling PEOPLE. Instead of banishing them to one-dimensional joke-machine supporting roles to the white male characters.

I saw the final cut of About Last Night at an advanced word-of-mouth screening in the same theater I went to every weekend as a student at New York University. I was alternately laughing and crying throughout the run time. Laughing because the performances were so spot on, so wonderful, so joyful and funny. Crying because I was so touched and grateful. While there is a fair amount of improvisation in the film (I mean, when you have that cast, you IMPROVISE!), a large percentage of the dialogue is what I wrote. 

It touched my heart that they all stuck so closely to my script. It meant those brilliant actors trusted the characters. Characters that were around long before I got there. It meant the filmmakers, including the wildly talented director Steve Pink and force-of-nature producer Will Packer, believed in the story. A story that has survived and morphed for 30 years. And it meant I had lived up to the promise I made myself every time I sat down at that wretched laptop: "Don’t write jokes, Leslye. Write people."