Booksmart was the toast of SXSW, and it’s easy to see why. The funniest of several R-rated laughers that played at the festival last week, we found the film to be ahead of the curve as an incredibly intelligent, raunchy comedy that was more concerned with creating a truthful experience about the high school experience of young women than it was with simply being hilarious—although it was that too. A triumphant directorial debut for Olivia Wilde, the picture lived up to what she told us she wanted it to be the day before its SXSW premiere: a touchstone for the next generation.
“I wanted to make a kind of generational anthem,” Wilde says while sitting down with her cast and screenwriter Katie Silberman. “I wanted to make a film that reminded me of the films that got me interested in filmmaking and acting in the first place. Films like The Breakfast Club, like Clueless, like Dazed and Confused. Those films are really an important part of my life, and I really was interested in creating that.” Also citing how the movie is a love letter to a generation she views as ingenious in its way to be activist and inclusive, Wilde seemed insistent on catching the voice of a new era.
It’s something that her stars, including Beanie Feldstein and Billie Lourd, who remarkably had gone to high school together, think the film achieves for young people.
“I had the ability of going back to our high school three weeks before we started prep, and to talk to this feminist club which didn’t exist when I was there,” Feldstein recalls. “So it was like, ‘The world’s going in the right direction!’ And I was telling them about Booksmart, and I was just looking at these brilliant, amazing teenagers and thinking, ‘My God, we get to make a movie for these kids.’”
The importance of capturing that voice of those young female friendships was also something that all of the actors and filmmakers were asked to tap into by Wilde. Silberman, who is already gaining attention for penning the first good romantic comedy in what feels like ages via Netflix’s Set It Up, noted that focus on friendship is what made Booksmart unique, even as it follows the familiar narrative of two pals going out for a night of wild partying after spending their whole high school careers on the path of the straight and narrow.
“I think one thing that [Olivia] did that helped everyone was encourage [them] to bring their own best friendships,” Silberman says. “We talk about your first best friend is really like your first soulmate. It’s such an intense relationship and it informs all your future friendships.” Silberman even says they’ve had feedback about how folks have reached out to their old high school besties after years of losing touch thanks to this film. For Wilde, it was also a chance to connect further with a filmmaker she’s had an amazingly collaborative and fruitful relationship with.
When asked about directors she’s worked with who were strong influences, Wilde mentioned giants like Martin Scorsese, but also close friends like Reed Morano. Morano had directed Wilde in her feature debut, Meadowland, an emotionally raw indie that helped pave the way for the helmer to work on The Handmaid’s Tale, and which in turn informed Wilde’s own directorial experience now.
“Oh my gosh, yeah. I talked to Reed every day,” Wilde laughs. “And she was like, ‘Goddammit, you’re going to make Breakfast Club before me?! Ugh.’ But she was really inspiring, and I think she reminded me of what had worked so well on her directorial debut, which I produced and I was in, and I was there with her for every minute of that. But she reminded me of the lessons she had learned, and it was perfect that I was making a film about female friendship, leaning on my female friends to help me make the best version of it that I could.”
Wilde also thinks it is those female friendships, which are often underdeveloped in films, especially high school films, that allows Booksmart to be the rare thing in comedies—authentic.
“I don’t think [the characters] care about going to a party,” Wilde says before making a pointed allusion to films like She’s All That. “It’s not about trying to assimilate; this isn’t one of those teen movies where the girls take off their glasses and take their hair out of the buns, and they’re like, ‘Now we’re popular and everything’s wonderful!’ It’s much more about really understanding their own value.
“I think there’s an important part of this where we’re showing women to be truly hilarious in a way that I also think hasn’t been done in a long-time. I think the reason Bridesmaids, for instance, struck a chord is because people were so taken by authenticity between women, and really funny friendship at that, in the way women recognize, ‘Wait, that’s how my best friend and I laugh.’ I don’t think those comedies are usually written for women. Unfortunately now, I sometimes feel they’re written in a guy’s voice put into an actress’ mouth. And we have a different way of communicating. Everyone’s so different, and these characters are specifically hilarious through this very intelligent sort of voice. And so we were able to create situations for them to be hilarious without sacrificing who they are and what makes them different.”
You can watch our full Booksmart interview in the video above and click here to see Olivia Wilde try to remember her first five film/television credits (and then correct IMDb on the one its database got wrong). Booksmart, meanwhile, begins its own party on May 24.