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Movies

Reading Between the Lines, Olivia Wilde Hopes Booksmart Is a Hollywood Breakthrough

The rookie filmmaker is using the spotlight from her acclaimed debut to promote gender equality on both sides of the camera.

Olivia Wilde might be riding an exciting wave of new female filmmakers in Hollywood, but she’s not taking the opportunity to direct Booksmart for granted.

She’s using the spotlight to promote gender equality on both sides of the camera, sprinkling talented women throughout her cast and crew. Yet Wilde knows sustaining the current push is about changing attitudes and hiring practices at the executive level.

“It’s about people with power empowering others. It’s something that I took very seriously. It was my job on this set to hire people that I really wanted to give that chance to,” Wilde said during the recent South by Southwest Film Festival. “You can’t hire based on resume. We have to break out of the meritocracy. You have to hire people based on creative ideas and passion.”

Already having established herself as an actress in such diverse projects as Tron: Legacy and Drinking Buddies, Wilde, 35, was ready to direct her first feature film, but she needed a project that offered that critical personal connection.

With her own screenplay still far from finished, the actress came across this raunchy coming-of-age comedy for which a producer friend suggested she pitch herself behind the camera. After she landed the job, Wilde — who had helmed music videos for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, among others — credited screenwriter Katie Silberman for helping her find that voice that brought the material to life.

“We started really developing it to this place where it was suddenly autobiographical in a way,” Wilde said. “You can make it your piece, but sometimes you can’t do it on your own.”

Providing a fresh twist on familiar themes — think of a gender-reversed Superbad, for example — the story follows best friends Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), both social outcasts and academic overachievers who routinely dismiss their classmates in condescending fashion.

On the night before graduation, they share an epiphany. Those same annoying and irresponsible peers are going to college, too, and the girls are the ones who missed out on the fun. So they conspire to make up for lost time with a wild night of partying and debauchery, in a last-ditch attempt to remake their image and, for once, just let loose.

“They’re not funny because they’re a mess. They’re funny because of their intensity,” Wilde said. “It’s a different kind of comedy for women that’s really exciting.”

Silberman (Isn’t It Romantic) became one of four credited writers on the project when she polished a script that first gained attention 10 years ago as part of the Black List — an annual survey of top unproduced screenplays in Hollywood.

“The most fun part of developing it was digging into what made our best female friendships feel specific — to make a story about our best friends, and the way that they’ve inspired us and encouraged us, and all the myriad ways that people can surprise you once you get to know them,” Silberman said. “When you realize you have a first best friend that you kind of have to break up with to move on to the next phase of your life — that inspired a lot of it. That friendship can be so meaningful and powerful.

“Olivia brought so many ideas and such a specific vision as to how she would tell that story. It was a very collaborative process. It was so inspiring and exciting.”

Feldstein (Lady Bird) said she found the story refreshing in the way it toys with preconceived notions about teenage social trends and sends a strong message about inclusion.

“The fact that this film centers on not one, but two smart, capable, funny, wonderful women is really something special,” Feldstein said. “When you have two people who are the smart girl, then the smart girl ceases to exist. They’re just women that are smart. It used the archetypes in order to break them down.

“I’m so used to playing the supporting role. I grew up in musicals, and if you looked like me and sounded like me, you were never at the center of the story. So this was a really big deal for me. I could just look at Kaitlyn and feel comfortable. The two of us were on this journey.”

Dever (Short Term 12) became close with Feldstein in part because they were roommates throughout the production.

“You can’t really fake chemistry,” Dever said. “The vibe Olivia created on set made everyone get along. We really fell in love with each other.”

While Booksmart has been hailed for breaking down traditional gender barriers, its filmmaker said such efforts must continue on a more widespread basis.

“There is movement toward change,” Wilde said. “We hope our little ecosystem will be representative of what the future of Hollywood will look like.”

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