The prospect of going back to high school isn’t something I ever thought I’d find appealing—but that was before Annapurna Pictures invited me to spend the day on the set of Booksmart. On a hot, sunny day last June, I drove out to Van Nuys for an afternoon at Ulysses S. Grant High School (which has also been home to productions including Freaks and Geeks and Dope) to learn all about the film—which marks Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut. Thankfully there were no math classes or pop quizzes involved, but now it’s time for a little show and tell. We’re so excited to finally share the highlights from our conversations with the cast and creative minds behind Booksmart, not to mention some extra credit (a.k.a. the fun details we picked up on set).
The Overachievers: Molly and Amy
Booksmart stars Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird) and Kaitlyn Dever (Last Man Standing) as Molly and Amy, two best friends and overachieving high school seniors who realize on the eve of their graduation that they should have worked less and played more. They act on this realization in the only way overachieving best friends can: by cramming four years of fun into one night.
Beanie and Kaitlyn were drawn to the project primarily for the girl power both onscreen and behind the camera. “[The script] was unlike anything I’ve ever read before—refreshing for young women. And the fact that Olivia was directing it… the whole package was so exciting to me,” Dever said.
Feldstein was also excited to work with Wilde and to take on a role that marked new territory for her. “[Molly] is so strong. She’s so fierce. That was something I had never really played before and also never really seen before—a young woman who was unapologetically fierce in that way,” she said.
The friendship between Molly and Amy is at the heart of the movie and also was part of the draw for the two lead actresses coming on board. “Their friendship is just so perfect and so special and so loving,” Beanie said. “They’re two girls who are so similar in some ways and so different in some ways, but who really, really love each other.” Kaitlyn added, “They’re really like sisters. They’d do anything for each other.”
So how does one go about bringing that kind of close, sisterly friendship to life? Well, it helps when you live together—which Kaitlyn and Beanie did during the shoot. From running lines at night to making pancakes in the morning, their place sounds like the kind of party we want to be at. “It’s made a huge difference,” Kaitlyn said. “I think our chemistry would be completely different if we weren’t spending 24/7 with each other.”
Naturally, even the greatest friendships aren’t without their complications. Producer David Distenfeld shared some great insight into how the girls’ relationship will evolve over the course of the film. “I think it’s a lot like a lot of people’s friendships, in that sometimes there is a lot of love and there’s still a Type A person and a Beta,” he said. “Someone often drives the friendship, and I think over the course of the movie there’s some self-awareness on both of their sides about what the friendship is, what they’ve been getting out of it, and how meaningful it is now that they’re both separating and going to different schools—and creating their own identities.”
Embracing those identities is essentially what Producer Jessica Elbaum hopes viewers ultimately take away from the movie. “I think it’s that there’s something for everybody,” she said. “No matter who you are, there’s a purpose and a place. Don’t try to be somebody different, because who you are is who you should be.”
The Wild One: Gigi
Of course, no high school story would be complete without an ensemble of classmates—and Gigi, played by Billie Lourd (Scream Queens, American Horror Story), sounds like a standout. (And here’s a little extra credit for you: Billie actually went to high school with Beanie, though their paths didn’t cross until later.)
“[Gigi] is an aura-reading wizard of a character and shows up when you least expect her to,” Billie teased. “She’s super over the top, really rich, and always the center of attention, but deeply kind in her soul. […] She’s out there, in a great way.”
As you might imagine, wild child Gigi doesn’t seem like a natural friendship fit for Molly and Amy—but that doesn’t mean she won’t try. “Gigi really wants to be friends with Molly and Amy, but she’s in such a different world from them that she thinks she’s going to become friends with them by, like, drugging them with acid,” Lourd said. “But they don’t like that, so she should stay in her lane probably. I don’t know, maybe she should get in their lane.”
While their characters might not have much in common, Billie was drawn to Booksmart for similar reasons as Kaitlyn and Beanie: the unique script and Olivia Wilde’s involvement. Speaking of the latter, Lourd said, “Olivia has created this amazing environment where we’re all just really comfortable with each other and really supportive, and I think that’s because a lady is at the helm. An awesome lady, not just any lady. […] She is so smart, so organized, so humble, so beautiful, so kind—she’s just everything and more. I want to grow up to be her. She’s a goddess.”
Lourd had high praise not only for Booksmart’s director, but also for the comedy in-store for audiences—so much so that she even coined a new word to describe it. “I don’t usually laugh out loud, and I read this script and was immediately rolling on the floor. It is so damn funny and authentic and real at the same time. That’s what I love about it. I actually created a word for it: hilarreal—which is hilarious and real. You heard it here first.”
Billie also shared a few words about her mom, the late Carrie Fisher, whom she said “would live for this character.” “The funniest things are the realest things. My mom used to say if life isn’t funny, then it’s just true. That’s this movie. It’s funny and true.”
The Boys: Nick, Tanner, & Theo
Rounding out the main ensemble of students is a hilarious trio of guys: Mason Gooding (Nick), Nico Hiraga (Tanner), and Eduardo Franco (Theo). We had the chance to chat with all three of them together, and it was a great time. (P.S. While one of the girls does have a romantic interest in one of these guys, keep an eye out for some LGBTQ representation, too. The producers shared that Amy is out and has a crush on another girl, Ryan.)
The boys are clearly very close and friendly, and while they didn’t live together like Beanie and Kaitlyn, they mentioned that they did hang out a lot and have some sleepovers during filming. I can’t wait to see how close their characters are to their own personalities, because it felt like jumping into the movie with the fun, joking vibe between them.
Speaking of, let’s talk about their characters. Hiraga described Nick as “the hot guy who everyone crushes on,” including Beanie’s character Molly—as well as Tanner and Theo in their own way. “Theo and I are kind of just sidekicks, two little stooges,” he said with a laugh.
While that may be the case, Nico and Eduardo are clearly bringing their own talents as their roles were expanded once filming got underway. “Before we actually started shooting, the characters of Tanner and Theo were much smaller than they ended up being. Once [Nico and Eduardo] got on set and brought the great humor that they both have, they kind of turned into this whole thing which is great,” Mason said.
The boys also shared their costars’ love and appreciation for their fearless leader, Olivia Wilde. “Olivia is genuinely cool,” Eduardo said. “It’s surreal. These are people that you’ve been before on TV and on the big screen, but genuinely you can tell that she gives a fuck about what she’s doing, and that matters the most. You’ll feel that onscreen.”
Mason and Nico also expressed their appreciation for what Wilde brings to her director role as an actor herself. “When she gives you advice on how to do a scene, since she’s a really great actor herself she can kind of show you herself and it’ll be like, Oh cool, I know exactly what she’s talking about,” Mason said. “She just makes you so comfortable on set, in front of the camera and even when you’re not filming,” Nico added.
The Cool Teacher: Ms. Fine
We’ve all had a teacher we adored—even worshipped—and for Amy and Molly, that’s their English teacher, Ms. Fine. Jessica Williams (The Daily Show, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) is cool/woke teacher personified and has some hilarious interactions with her class in the scene that was being shot during our afternoon on set. After a heartfelt exchange between Ms. Fine, Molly, and Amy—during which the girls say their goodbyes and promise to text and Skype to do the New York Times crossword—another student asks Ms. Fine if she’ll party with them, and she brushes off a rich kid who gives her an extravagant gift.
We can’t wait to see what else Ms. Fine gets up to in the movie. Williams teased, “She has a really great affinity with both Beanie and Kaitlyn’s characters. I think she sees a lot of herself in those two. That’s sort of her journey in the film, is kind of reconciling with her past through these girls.”
Jessica was excited to be a part of the project, which she immediately thought was “delightful and funny and felt very now.” “The reason I wanted to do it was because I wanted to do a film that I wish I was able to see in junior high and high school, and I feel like this film is one of those,” she said. “The girls are really smart. They care about social issues but they also have a lot of growing to do, and that kind of reminds me of me in high school. I feel like it’s sexually progressive as well, which is really dope to me.”
The Director: Olivia Wilde
Finally, we get to the fearless leader herself: Olivia Wilde. After hearing the cast sing her praises all day and watching her work her magic on the monitors, it was such a joy to sit down with Olivia and get her take on all things Booksmart.
Similarly to Jessica Williams, Olivia was drawn to the script because it felt like a movie that she had been wanting to see. “It was a story about female friendship that I connected with very personally. It was important to me to tell a story about seeing people and feeling seen—getting rid of judgment and encouraging everyone to consider how we judge people so quickly and whether or not we do so fairly,” she explained.
Wilde also spoke insightfully about what it was important to convey in the relationship between Molly and Amy—the kind of incredibly close friendship that many of us can relate to from our school years. “[I wanted] to tell a story about female friendship that focuses on how intimate those friendships are—often the most intimate relationships of our lives at that age—and how they typically involve a necessary breakup at some point because you have to grow and evolve. That can be really traumatizing,” she said.
While we’re crossing our fingers that Amy and Molly’s friendship will have a happy ending, one thing that definitely doesn’t sound traumatizing is the vibe on set. Olivia spoke about her approach to setting the tone on set that clearly resonated so well with her cast and crew. “I think as a director I’ve tried to create a set that is a really fertile environment to encourage the most creativity and to allow people to feel safe and relaxed enough to come up with their best ideas—both the actors and the crew,” she said. “I’ve never understood why movie sets so often fall into this really stressful place because that just strangles creativity. I think it has a lot to do with respecting one another.”
As several of the cast mentioned, Wilde’s own experience as an actor also proved to be a great asset in her new role as a director. “Having been an actor for a long time, I can empathize with [the cast] and help them through moments that are sometimes frustrating as actors—whether it has to do with your eye line or working under stressful circumstances,” Olivia said, adding some appreciation right back for her cast. “We’ve had to make this movie in a very short amount of time, so the actors have had to be extraordinarily prepared. Without their level of preparation and professionalism, I wouldn’t have been able to pull this off.”
Here’s one last bit of extra credit for you: that cast includes not only the awesome people we spoke to on set, but also the likes of Lisa Kudrow and Wilde’s husband, Jason Sudeikis. While some people might hesitate to work with—let alone direct—their spouse, it sounds like it was no problem for Wilde and Sudeikis. “Directing Jason is like driving a Ferrari,” Olivia said. “It does all the work—you just point it in the right direction.”
We had a fantastic time spending a day back in the halls of high school for Booksmart—and we’re so excited to see the movie. Olivia Wilde’s goal was to tell “an authentic story about female friendship and to create a buddy comedy about young women” that she didn’t think she’d seen before. From everything we’ve heard, it sounds like she’s accomplished that and more.
Mark your planners—your homework is to see Booksmart when it comes to theaters this spring.
Booksmart hits theaters on May 24, 2019.