'Wine Country' Writers Share How 'SNL' Training Led to Amy Poehler Comedy

Courtesy of Netflix; Todd Williamson/Getty Images; Maarten de Boer/Getty Images
The women of 'Wine Country' (Inset: Liz Cackowski and Emily Spivey)

Emily Spivey and Liz Cackowski recount how they approached making the Netflix movie, "sort of like 'Grown Ups' but for the ladies."

Following a group of close friends who come together in the Napa Valley to celebrate a 50th birthday, Wine Country is directed by Amy Poehler and written by former Saturday Night Live contributors Liz Cackowski and Emily Spivey.

The comedy features longtime collaborators Poehler, Spivey, Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch and Ana Gasteyer in the ensemble cast, along with Cherry Jones and Paula Pell. Jason Schwartzman plays a seafood aficionado and fulfills one of very few male speaking parts.

Ahead of its May 10 release on Netflix, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Cackowski and Spivey about their writing process on Wine Country, comedic background and the memorable lessons they learned working on SNL that proved to propel their careers forward — from repeated rejection, to getting to the heart of a scene in an effective manner, the necessity of collaboration and the need to not be too precious with one's work. 

So we hear that a real trip and 50th birthday celebration for Rachel Dratch inspired this story to take shape — were you on that trip or privy to the experiences of those who attended?

Spivey: Yes, I was on that trip with Rachel who was turning 50 and Ana Gasteyer and Paula Pell and Maya Rudolph and Amy Poehler. We had the best time and it was so funny and we laughed so hard, that after the trip we started talking about it as a movie script — sort of like Grown Ups but for the ladies. Then we brought on our friend Liz, who knows all the women too from Second City and from Saturday Night Live. Liz, Amy and I took it from there writing the script for the girls.

The film portrays relationships that are refreshingly real in their messiness. In developing the script, did you draw inspiration from the existing bonds that the actors shared and build upon conflict that had really occurred?

Cackowski: We definitely used so much from everybody’s real-life experiences, it was very collaborative; we would check in with all of our friends about things that they wanted to express in the movie [and we asked them] "what do you want your character to go through?" Everybody was drawing a lot from their own lives. It was a "write what you know" situation.

Was there a lot of improvisation on set?

Spivey: It was weird because the scenes were so ginormous and there were so many people in each scene, we kind of had to stick with the script otherwise things would take forever. In two-person scenes there was a little bit of improvising, but weirdly, for a bunch of improvisers, we did stick to the script.

CackowskiTo me a really nice compliment is when someone says that it seems improvised and we’re like, no, actually we wrote that! Hopefully it does feel real and loose and as if people are just talking in that moment. Emily and I were on set every day, she’s in the movie obviously but we were also co-writers on set, so if there was something new or alternative jokes we wanted to try, we would write those and try them out on set. It wasn’t a Best in Show situation, [regarding] improvising.

Did you have any fears about the actresses' SNL spotlight distracting from the actual story?

CackowskiFor me, not a concern, maybe because we just know them personally too and they are our friends; it was so nice to be able to write for people you know so in our eyes they’re not just these famous ladies from SNL that you don’t know.

SpiveyWe have a text chain and I talk to those girls literally all day every day so it didn’t feel like anything except just, like, being in a sketch troupe writing for your friends. The only thing that was a little odd was writing people as heightened versions of themselves. That was a tricky and interesting thing to do.

What is it like having a (virtually) all-female cast in the Time's Up era? Was this something you were aware of? Did it drive conversations on set?

Spivey: We really just wanted to tell our story and then in turn tell a story of female friendships that have been around a long time, and I think it was only after the movie was made that Poehler realized that not one male character spoke to another male character in that movie. We love that, but that wasn’t on purpose.

CackowskiI felt the excitement and the luckiness of getting to go to work every day with so many women and have a collaborative experience, but to be fair, we already had that at SNL so we were lucky in that way; years and years ago, we had these same women working together. It felt like more like a reunion than it did brand new or the start of a new era. I hope other women get to experience this as they go forward in their career.

Spivey: Getting everyone together was what was so exciting. Our hope is that women will watch this and see themselves being celebrated and know what it feels like to celebrate these lifelong friendships. I’ve known Maya for like 25 years now and spiritually it just feels so good to have these women in your life.

Cackowski: I guess one thing I felt excited for in a new way was that Netflix did greenlight a movie that’s about women in their 40s and 50s with an all-female cast, talking about what it’s like to be that age. That part felt like, "hell yes"’ Years ago, when we would pitch stuff, [the studio] would go, "Oh, it’s for two women? Hmmm…"

Can you elaborate on your experience pitching female-centered projects or securing writing positions with regard to how the industry is changing?

CackowskiThis is just specific to me, but I’ve always written stuff that’s female dominated or with a female lead, and it wasn’t so much like "Can one of them be a man?" — although once it was and it was a two female-driven comedy — but like, one was a soccer-mom type of show and instead of that being something for everybody [to enjoy] it was like, "That should probably be on Oxygen [channel] or something for Moms." [The thinking was] if you’re going to do a mom character, probably only 40-year-old women want to see that as opposed to, if it’s funny, it’s funny for everybody. For me, a show I’ve loved recently that shows that there has been a change is PEN15 — older actresses playing 12-year-olds and the female friendship of that age. When I see that I’m like, "Yes, that got greenlit too. Okay, great." There’s hope that more female-dominated and female-centric shows, movies and content are being created.

Is there an aspect of the female journey that you feel hasn’t yet been investigated yet in cinema?

Spivey: Well, what I liked best about Wine Country was seeing women of a certain age the struggles they’re going through whether it’s menopause, divorce, the children go off to college; things that aren’t dealt with that much, especially in a comedy. It’s important that when you get to be a certain age that you don’t start to feel anonymous or that things aren’t for you or about you. Amy and I always talked about how we wanted to make the sort of movie that felt like the ‘70s, I’m hoping it has that kind of feel where you can tell smaller stories about people’s individual experiences. I also hope that everyone can enjoy it, that it’s not just a movie where people go, "Oh, that’s a chick-flick." I think dudes could sit down and enjoy it as well — we’re all just people.

What compelled you to pursue careers in comedy, and what has been the most rewarding or surprising aspect of working in this industry?

Cackowski: I grew up watching SNL from a young age and thought it looked cool, then my older brother started improv so I got to watch him do it and thought, "That looks cool, too!" From a very young age, it was something I wanted to do. We had a video camera growing up and I would do dumb videos with my friends, and then I just kept going for it.

Spivey: I saw Gilda Radner on SNL when I was 6 or 7 and was already memorizing [the character] Roseanne Roseannadanna. I was your classic fat kid in middle school and I realized you could get people to like you if you made them laugh, so that became like a drug — the heroin you’re addicted to — then when I moved to LA for graduate school I started doing The Groundlings and it became more of an obsession. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to do nothing but write comedy.

Cackowski: We both are from different improv groups; Groundlings and Second City, but I think when you take improv classes, there’s such an exciting feeling that there are other nerds out there — there’s this nerd circle.

Spivey: You find your people, that really is what it is. Liz and I were lucky enough that some of our people went to SNL, then we went to SNL, and it just kept rolling which has been fantastic. It’s hard work though.

Were there formative experiences you had on Saturday Night Live that prepared you particularly well for a comedic career?

Cackowski: When Emily and I found each other and started writing some sketches together, we would just giggle and giggle and one of our favorite sketches was when Will Ferrel came back to host and it was something really specific that we both loved — when corporations hire somebody to do content for them, like MC’ing a corporate function —

Spivey: Corporate comedy.

Cackowski: Yes, writing that together from start to finish was so joyful. And for me, I had never met Ferrell before and I was a huge fan, seeing him do something that we wrote was a super cool moment.

Spivey: What I learned there, along with Poehler, is that if it takes too long you’re doing it wrong. Improv teaches you this too; just get to the heart of the scene and write it as fast as possible and not overthink it. Often times when I’m stuck I think about those nights writing with Amy when we decided to just keep jamming it and have as much laughs as we can instead of laboring over something. Working that way was really rewarding to me and helped a lot with my confidence as a writer.

Cackowski: Also, every week there’s a ton of rejection there and it makes you much stronger. It makes you learn that rejection is okay and you’re going to come back next week and try again. Everybody writes sketches — there’s about 40 to choose from and only about 8 make it to the show.

Spivey: [It’s important] not to be too precious with your words and your work. Learning how to fully collaborate with others is so, so important. That may have been the biggest lesson I learned from SNL because it really is a pure ensemble and you cannot be precious with your work. You have to be a good collaborator, that’s how the best work comes out.

Other than PEN15 that you mentioned, are there other shows or movies or creators that you feel exemplify powerful comedic storytelling?

Cackowski: It sounds like I’m mentioning all our friends’ stuff, but I love Forever which Maya [Rudolph] is in and I love what Amy created with Russian Doll.

Spivey: I love Broad City and Shrill and also think Forever and Russian Doll are phenomenal.

Cackowski: I know I said PEN15 before, but that show was making me laugh out loud, call my old best friend and talk with her, and it even made me cry a few times.

Can you share an unexpected moment from behind-the-scenes of Wine Country?

Cackowski: Jason Schwartzman would come so crazily prepared and that really tickled me. In one scene he’s chopping up seafood for his paella, and he came in having researched squid and having things to contribute, like adding in the difference between cuttlefish and a squid.

Spivey: Behind the scenes of the movie also became the movie. It was weird, like a hall of mirrors.

Cackowski: There was the original trip, then going back up there to shoot the movie about the trip, and now people are going back again to do press about the movie about the trip.

What are you working on now?

Cackowski: We have written another movie for Netflix, but I think that’s all we can say about it…

Spivey: I’m working on a cartoon for Fox called Bless the Hearts that has two female leads. It’s a King of the Hill-like cartoon that takes place in North Carolina. Kristin Wiig and Maya Rudolph star in it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.