'Support the Girls': How a Hooters-Style Restaurant Inspired a Feminist Tale
Writer-director Andrew Bujalski discusses the "contradiction" at the heart of "breastaurant" chains, and how he came to cast Regina Hall for his leading lady.
So-called "breastaurants" — eating establishments offering classic American fare and scantily-clad waitresses — have never scored points with mainstream feminists. The requisite skimpy uniforms at chains like Hooters and Twin Peaks, as well as policies requiring women to be fit and to entertain the visitors, create a "strip club lite" environment where objectifying women is normalized, women's rights advocates say.
The film Support the Girls, set in a fictional such establishment, however, likely will win over the women's rights advocates with its complicated take on how women make the best of bad situations. The film, released by Magnolia today, follows a "Double Whammies" general manager who aims to create a caring, safe workplace for her majority-female employees. Lisa (Regina Hall) acts as a cheery buffer between the restaurant's moody, resentful owner, idiosyncratic cast of patrons and her young employees. Over the course of one day, however, Lisa finds herself on the wrong side of the owner and her tenuous grasp over the restaurant collapses, inspiring her employees to revolt.
Written and directed by Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Computer Chess, Results), Support the Girls was inspired by a breastaurant visit that made Bujalski consider a "contradiction" in the experience. In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter before the movie's release, Bujalski talked about how he initially pitched the film as a TV series, how he came to cast Hall, who has won acclaim for the role, and how the film resonates post-#MeToo.
First of all, how did this movie come about for you?
Years and years ago, I wandered into one of these restaurants. I don’t know what I was expecting, but something about it surprised me, stuck with me and struck me as uniquely American and certainly of this culture and of this time. It's not something I could imagine flourishing in any other culture in human history. The fact that, on the one hand, obviously there’s a little bit of raunchiness at the core of what they sell, but when you actually go into one of the places, they don't feel particularly raunchy at all. It didn't feel like a strip club [for instance]: The strip club sells this idea of transgression; when a man walks into a strip club, they're being sold this idea that they're a badass. And it's not that at all. At these restaurants it’s much more about normalcy and projecting a feeling of belonging and telling you that you're all right if you want to ogle these girls and that's okay, you don’t need to feel bad about yourself. And that was really interesting to me: There are so many contradictions wrapped into this that I couldn’t get it out of my head. So it was a notion that I kept returning to over the years.
At one point, my agent said, "You should be out there pitching TV, everyone's doing TV," so there was a TV version of this idea that was pitched around and didn't go anywhere, which I think was a blessing. Because I never felt like I quite figured it out in that form. But then the more years passed, I dusted the idea off again because I felt there was still something about this that I couldn't get out of my head, and maybe I could do it in a movie form, where I'm allowed to end it. Then I could find my way through the story. And that's what I did.
You’re tackling a really specific world in this film, with its Hooters/Twin Peaks-style restaurant. What was your research process for the film?
There's something like a half-dozen chains within 10 miles of where I live, mostly on the highway. So I went to a bunch of those: I'm a vegetarian, so that was a little challenging, but I ate a lot of mozzarella sticks and I drank a lot of beers. Some of it was just that — sitting there, having lunch, and going a couple of times when there were night events, fights or whatever. Then I did get one CEO to sit down and chat with me, which was very helpful. He was also kind enough to help me speak to some of his managers. So most of the research I did was "undercover," just going there to eat lunch, but then I did have the opportunity to go in with a notebook in my hand and be a little more journalistic about it — that was a great help as well. Nothing earth-shattering, just trying to soak it in and steal whatever details I could.
These restaurants seem to be so much about the male gaze and yet your film depicts such a female world. How did you end up making the employees the main characters, rather than the men who frequent the establishment?
Because I was interested in that contradiction, in that thing of "we’re selling sex but we’re not selling sex at all, in some ways we're selling the denial of sex" that was so interesting to me. The way I found my way into it was through the general manager character, through Lisa, through someone who could be aware of both sides of that, but was also an incurable optimist. That's the character that's always fascinating to me and who I'm always drawn to: the person who wills good energy onto a situation regardless of how much bad energy pushes back against them.
I knew that I was coming into this place as an outsider, and my perspective was always going to be that of an outsider: I've certainly never worked in one [of these restaurants], nor am I within the target markets for regular customers being there every day. I would love to see a version of this film made by both of those people, but I knew I couldn’t write that. So it helped me to have a character who was kind of an outsider: Lisa wouldn't necessarily be in there if she wasn’t running the place. But, since it's a paycheck, she finds a way to see the best in it. There's a lot of validity in her perspective. So I needed to be on the grounds with the [employees] — to me, that's where the story was.
Regina Hall has gotten a lot of attention for her performance as Lisa. How did you go about casting this film, and did you have anyone specifically in mind when you started out?
I had some vague ideas, but not a lot and not anything I was sure I could get away with. Regina's was a name that came up pretty early. I knew some of her work, but I certainly didn't know all of it because there's a lot — she's been a hard-hustling actor for quite some time. But I was certainly intrigued by her and I liked her, so we managed to get her rep’s attention and I managed to get a meeting with her. She was wrapping Girls Trip and so I went to New Orleans and had coffee with her. We sat and chatted for 90 minutes and it became abundantly clear she’s a wildly charming person. But, moreover, just in her energy, though Regina Hall is very different than this character of Lisa, I could start to do this director thing in your mind where you start to see those energies overlap or you hear Regina's voice and you begin to imagine some of that in Lisa's voice, or vice versa. And that was very exciting for me.
It was still a gamble; you never know if these things are going to work. But we went for it. Lord knows, it’s a huge job, this is a character who’s not only the heart and soul of the movie, but is also in almost every scene and almost every shot in every scene. But she just kept exceeding my expectations. I knew she was good and then I kept on finding out how great she was. She brought so much to this role. There were times on set where I felt guilty because it’s a difficult role — I’m asking quite a lot, and she just kept bringing it. It’s a real thrill to behold and it's so delightful to see her getting the kind of attention I believe that she's earned.
You’ve had films that have been pretty scripted, and others that have required improvisation from you and your actors. How to the book was the shooting process on Support the Girls?
This one was tricky because there is a ton of choreography in this movie. It moves in a peculiar way that is not quite like anything I've ever done before. There are very few conventional scenes of the movie: Very rarely does the movie slow down enough for two or three people to stand around a room together and hash something out. And as a director, those sorts of scenes, where you can stretch out, play with something and explore, often feel like the most rewarding when you're shooting them. We had only a few of those in this movie because poor Lisa was getting bombarded from start to finish. So many things were just: "Okay, keep walking, you say this to that person, but then this other person comes right in and distracts you, grabs your attention and pulls you away." It was shot after shot like that, which did make it a little trickier to spread out. That said, the movie’s no good if it feels dead or if feels like a lot of gears turning, so we were always looking for ways to keep it alive and to keep ourselves attentive. And it’s a great credit to the actors that while so much of their part was hitting marks and getting the timing right they never lost sight of bringing light to these characters.
The film is so much about workplace environment, and how a good manager can absolutely change that environment. The news has been filled with stories of bad workplace environments for women since last October: How has that changed the way the movie resonates now?
I’m sure [it does], and it’s hard to know. The cultural upheavals that we’ve all been surviving for the last few years has been certainly unlike anything else in my lifetime. It's been a weird journey with this movie because this is something that I began thinking about years ago, and the version that's on the screen is something that I began writing at the end of 2015. So at the time when I started writing, I thought this would be irrelevant to the culture: I thought these were just places on the highway that a lot of people probably don't care about, it would slip under the radar and no one would be interested. Perversely, that’s a space I feel comfortable in. So that was that.
And then the night of the election, I didn’t sleep that night and I had a lot of very dark thoughts, but then one thing that came to my mind at some point was, "Well, I guess that script is relevant now for better and/or worse." Similarly, when we were editing the movie was when the whole #MeToo quake began. And again, we’re sitting there working on this thing asking, "What does this mean for us?" And I don't know: You can never predict what an individual audience member is going to bring to something. I think what was comforting through all of this was that this movie was never about responding to the headline of the day, per se. We’re trying to sell a human story. As a storyteller all you can hope for is that the things that these characters are going through and the foibles that these characters have — because this is a movie that's populated by imperfect characters, though Lisa is somebody that only wants to do good but inadvertently creating messes in every direction — that that would never go out of style. That the human story, hopefully as long as humans stay humans, overall, will be relevant to somebody. But the cultural conversation is moving at an extraordinary pace now. The way we talk about this movie today might not be the way we talk about it a year from now. You hope that you’re building something that is worth more than a week's worth of contemplation.
In a story in the Los Angeles Times, you compared Lisa’s feelings about Double Whammies and that genre of restaurant to your feelings about Hollywood. Have those feelings gotten more complicated since the #MeToo movement began?
About Hollywood? I don’t know. My feelings about Hollywood are just complicated by the fact that I grew up loving movies more than anything. So I’ve always had this very complex relationship with Hollywood where on the one hand, so much of the work that I love and admire has come out of here, but the culture of the business was never one that I found particularly appealing. But within that business, it’s all just people. And of course, as we're well aware and frankly have always been well aware, there are plenty of nasty people and nasty motives in this business, but there are also nasty people doing good work and good people doing nasty work and none of it’s simple. The short answer is that my relationship with Hollywood is what it’s always been. I certainly love a lot of the people and a lot of the movies that come out of it, but the movie business itself I wish were more idealistic than it is.
Several of your films — Beeswax, Results, Support the Girls — focus on small business owners and the challenges they face. Why is that setting so fruitful for you in terms of producing stories?
My wife makes fun of me for it all the time. I’m sure it has a lot to do with indie filmmaking. What I have done for the last 20 years in many ways feels like and resembles small business, so all that resonates for me. Everything we're talking about is the balance of trying to do something that means something to you but doing it within big capitalism—there’s a lot of stories there. That should be relevant to most people's lives that I know.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.