Bachelorette is perhaps one of the raunchiest and brutally funny films of the year. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, and Lizzy Caplan as a trio of friends begrudgingly acting as bridesmaids in their high school friend’s wedding, the three women spend a manic 90 minutes boozing, drugging, and attempting to relive the best years of their lives while trying not to acknowledge that they’ve become stagnant and broken in their late twenties. But it’s all from the brain of writer-director Leslye Headland, who adapted the screenplay from her stage play, that this disastrous, debauched night has its origins. Rather than going for the typical, Hangover-style treatment of a bachelorette party, Bachelorette takes a hard look at the gluttonous cultures of weddings and femininity. I spoke to Headland about adapting her play for film, it religious roots, and its feminist overtones.
I read the play last night, and I wanted to talk about its origins. It was part of a series of plays you’ve been working on?
The Seven Deadly Plays. Bachelorette was the second play I’d ever written. I was doing them in order, the order they appear in the Divine Comedy: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. What I like to do when I’m writing one of the sin plays is to think about the old idea of the sin. What’s the thing we feel comfortable judging and pointing our fingers at, and what’s the sort of sneaky, new idea that people haven’t really tuned into yet? With Bachelorette, I thought of these really thin, beautiful women, who if you saw walking down the street you’d think, “These girls have their lives together and it makes me feel bad about myself.” I wanted to examine how they are gluttonous through drug addiction, materialism, sexual voraciousness, eating disorders—literally take, take, take, consume, consume, consume. Then there is their friend, Becky, who is moving into adulthood. She’s the one who appears to be the gluttonous one, who you might point at and say she has a problem because she’s overweight. You might feel better about yourself and move on. But she’s the one who’s getting out of the prison that these characters have created for themselves.
What was the response to the play?
We did it at Second Stage in 2010, and the Q&As were like riots. There were these old subscribers who freaked out; they were really angry at me and the play. At first, I was like, “Whoa, why is this upsetting people so much?” In a way, that’s good; you want your work to get a reaction, to have people either think it’s great or think it’s the worst. But I was not prepared for how divisive it was going to be. Luckily, I’ve had enough time to expect that with the film. I don’t read reviews, but I’m telling you now: they’re going to be divisive. There will be the people who love it and really care about it and get the characters and will really champion it, and there will be people who just think it’s trash because that’s exactly what happened with the play. But what’s also happened with the piece, both as a play and as a film, is that the audience it’s meant for always finds it. Ultimately, it will touch people and become their movie, not my movie, the same way that movies have meant something to me because of the first time I saw them.
The film is quite different from the play, especially in tone. You’re much more brutal to the characters in the play. Even Becky comes across as very manipulative, whereas in the film she’s much more sweet and neutral.
We could have made In the Company of Men, or Tape, or Hurlyburly. I came into the project thinking, “I’m going to make one movie, and I’m going to make the movie I want to make.” Fingers crossed, I’ll get to do more, but most female filmmakers don’t even last three movies. What I decided was the strongest thing about the play was the characters, so I asked myself, what movie would these women want to be in? What movie would they fit in? And once I did that, I was like, “What plot are we going to use?” Because the play doesn’t have one. Look, I’m really proud of it but…I even saw it in DC recently—a great production of it—and there’s some stuff that does not work. So I wanted to figure out how I could improve upon it. But I also didn’t want to soften it up.
You have to be more broad on stage, and you don’t have enough time to examine the subtlety of things.
It’s so true, yeah.
I think the film has some small touches that really made those characters more fully realized. I read the play after I’d seen the movie, so I recognized familiar lines and moments that didn’t have the same build-up as in the film.
I think that also that’s another good way of putting it. I had a broader canvas to actually do some stuff with with these characters and—
And put them into action.
Yes, and improve upon it. As you can tell from reading the play, the dress is such a missed opportunity. Literally, I watch it and I’m think, “So did they fix the dress? Did we make a decision on that?” You know, I don’t think that makes it a bad play; I just don’t think it was ever answered. But it’s the beating heart of the movie. It’s like, in every scene, something terrible is going to happen to the dress. This is your ticking clock; you’ve got to get it done by this point. But in the play it’s like, “I don’t know, maybe…New York City fixes it?”
A lot of the reaction I saw to the trailer questioned why there has to be another female-driven comedy about a wedding. Was that a convenient event to center the film around, or was there something you wanted to explore about wedding culture?
I find some of the reactions to the film really fascinating. What always comes up is how they’re such bad friends for ripping the dress. No one says, “It’s so interesting that you had these women destroying a symbol of femininity that seems a bit outdated!” Everyone’s like, "Oh my God, I can’t believe you made them ruin the dress.” I really grossly misunderstood how people care about wedding dresses. I thought everyone would get it, that this was a big metaphor for what was going on, this whole culture that’s being sold to women, and how silly it is. I mean, nobody looks good in white, and there’s this poor girl squeezing herself into this idea of femininity and goodness, and she doesn’t need to because she’s already that way. Weddings seem so absurd to me. It’s just not at all what I want; I’ve never wanted it, I don’t understand how is this the defining moment of your life. I could understand the birth of a child, but spending all that money? What do you think the average that an American white female spends on a wedding? A semester of college or whatever, depending on where you go. One day for that much money. So to set it there just made the most sense to me.
Not to put myself on the same level, but most of the filmmakers that I really love have subverted genres. Those are the guys—and I say “guys” because most of them are men unfortunately—that I lean toward. Here’s Tarantino’s war film, what’s going to happen? How does Kubrick make a horror movie? I wanted to make a wedding movie that wasn’t like the typical wedding movie. If you think of wedding films from the last ten or fifteen years, everybody knows exactly what’s happening at the end of the movie. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them. You can totally say, “That’s a clever line or that’s a clever obstacle or that’s a great performance,” but at the end, they get together, there’s usually a speech about why they love each other or why they’re such good friends, and then it’s over. With my characters, I just wanted them to do the right thing. I didn’t want them to talk about it; I didn’t want them to apologize. I wanted the audience to have to sit through what owning up to your mistakes is like, because that’s what the characters have to sit through.
I think that works in the film really well. In the play, on the other hand, Regan [Kirsten Dunst's character] is completely humiliated and broken by the end.
She had to be completely destroyed. She has to be destroyed in the play because each play has a company man—a character that has been so consumed by the sin that they only see in the last five minutes of the play how lost they are. With film, however, you don’t really want to see someone destroyed. No one wants to be sitting there wondering about the esoteric thoughts that I have about being a woman and drug addiction.
Well, you’re a little easy on them in the movie, but at the same time they’re learning from their mistakes without completely changing. But I think that works better in the film because it still has that uncertainty to it. They’re still friends, they’re still fucked up, but they’re at least aware of it a little bit more.
Right, there’s not this huge change but there’s definitely not the punishing vibe of the play. I think as an artist, whether it’s what you do or what I do, when you start looking back you’re fucked. It slows you down. And it’s a little hard to sit through the play now. I’ll probably feel the same way about the movie some day where I can see the things I did wrong and think of all of the things I have learned. But the play was born out of such pain and fear about what was going to happen to me, what was going to happen to all of us. It’s sort of why I called it Bachelorette. There were a couple of people that encouraged me to change the title because the wedding genre, and then of course when Bridesmaids opened we were four weeks away from shooting. But the reason I called it that was because I was like, “We’re fucked. This is the only word we have for these people.” Like, they don’t even have a name. Think of a movie title like Swingers. That’s such a great title, and those guys are trying to be cool but they’e not, and then there’s the swing dancing and it all makes sense. But I couldn’t for the life of me think of one good moniker for these women and who they are that wasn’t punitive. You know what I mean, like Sluts or Bitches, and who would see a movie called that? All we’ve got is this feminized version of this male idea, that’s, by the way, a great thing if you’re a man. If you’re not married and you’re a straight guy, the world is your fuckin’ oyster, but if you’re single and you’re a woman and you’ve got something going for you, it’s just so sad you’re not married yet. It doesn’t make any sense to me. But what do I know? I’m sad and alone.
Speaking of Bridesmaids, your movie is obviously being compared to that based entirely on the concept. And there’s this idea that Bridesmaids and Girls have cornered the market when it comes to female-driven comedies. Have you encountered that and was that a roadblock when it came to producing and publicizing Bachelorette?
Imean, I do know what you’re saying, and it’s nothing about Kristin [Wiig] or Lena [Dunham], but I think there is this tinge of like, “Okay we got it, you’re funny, relax.” It’s like, don’t get too excited, ladies.
“Women” sort of turned into a trend that was going to eventually fade away.
Right, like, we’ve got a female auteur already, she’s over here. Whereas like you look at the revolution that happened with film in the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls era or what happened in 1999, and you don’t see everyone going, “Ugh, I don’t get it.” Instead of thinking of comparing women to each other or a female auteur’s work to another female writer’s work, I would like to encourage people to maybe just embrace this for something that’s even bigger than just the “trend of women.” This actually might be what everyone keeps bitching about. Instead of going, “Well you don’t fit into…, we’ve already got that…,” have an open mind. As a huge film nerd, all I ever hear is how they don’t make good movies anymore. That is the conversation I have after having sex with everybody. It’s like, I’m wiping come off my stomach and I have to hear about how nobody makes good movies anymore. Jesus Christ, dude, maybe it’s happening right now, and if you weren’t so worried about cornering the market on it, you could let people sort of flourish in their creative spaces. I don’t know. If they don’t, who cares? That’s a really great note to end on.