Jennifer Westfeldt‘s romantic comedies are funny, warm, and daring. In Kissing Jessica Stein, in which she co-wrote and starred, she played a supposedly straight woman who embarks on a same-sex romance. Her follow-up, Ira & Abby, was a rom-com farce about an unlikely pair who get married on a whim. Now Westfeldt makes her directorial debut with Friends with Kids, opening in theaters today.
Westfeldt and Adam Scott star as Julie and Jason, longtime friends who decide to have a baby without any of the usual relationship trappings. They’re friends with two other couples (Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig are one, Chris O’Dowd and Maya Rudolph the other) who have doubts about the arrangement because they’ve seen how challenging kids can be. Friends with Kids is more than a reunion of the Bridesmaids cast. Westfeldt’s characters are at a different stage of adulthood, and she explores their lives with nerve. I recently had a chance to chat with her about the writing process, the state of romantic comedies, and how her characters’ lives resemble the lives of her friends/co-stars.
*MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW*
When you begin writing, do you come up with the situation first or the characters?
That’s a good question! I’ve only done this three times in ten years, so I don’t know if there’s one way that it happened. With [Friends with Kids], I wrote the first half of the movie – about sixty-five pages – really quickly four years ago, then I put in a drawer and didn’t know what to do with it. I got a bunch of acting jobs, and I forgot about it [laughs].
Two years ago, I took it out again and it occurred to me what the main kernel of the idea was, which was to show an ensemble of tight-knit friends, looking at how friendships and dynamics change when children enter the picture. Obviously, this alternative arrangement between me and Adam’s character would create a ripple effect throughout the group, creating feelings of insecurity or being judged. When I went back to the script, the Vermont dinner scene was born. I realized that the consequences had to be darker than when I wrote the first half.
I was surprised by the dark turn at the Vermont dinner. Was it difficult switching from comedy to a scene where characters say ugly things?
All three of my films had some dramedy, a mix of tones, in them. But since this one is about a child and bringing a life into the world, the stakes had to be higher. It couldn’t be just funny throughout. My hope was to show a swath of difficult transitions into parenthood, with every couple having a different arc. Chris and Maya are sort of the hero couple. They represent good couples everywhere, with their high highs and low lows, yet we never worry that they won’t make it. Kristen and Jon’s characters were the reverse. They’re the hottest, sexiest, most enviable couple, and they’re relationship suffers the most. With [Adam and me], we’re the Selfish Singles who think we can have our cake and eat it, too. The [dinner scene] had to get dark in order to merit the subject matter, which is complex. I didn’t want to be light about it.
Did you leave a lot of room for improvisation?
I wish we had more time for improvisation, especially with these brilliant actors. But on an indie shoot, you have no time and no money – sometimes we would have two or three takes, and that’s it. There was some room for improv in the one-on-one scenes, but not in the group scenes like the dinner. I’d say about 10 percent was ad-libbed? It wasn’t as much as I would have hoped.
Given your exploration of difficult topics, what do you think about the state of romantic comedies nowadays?
I know everyone’s always saying, “Romantic comedies are so tired,” but the ones I respond to always mix tone in the way we’ve been talking about. Even going as far back to The Apartment, one of my favorite movies, [Shirley Maclaine] is trying to kill herself, and in the next moment there’s buoyant, snappy dialogue. Obviously, I could only aspire to be in the same league as Billy Wilder, but the best ones always have comedy and drama. As Good as it Gets, Rushmore, and even Tootsie have heart and truth, too. I do think some [romantic comedies] are formulaic, but I think we’re starting to see a shift. Bridesmaids, which had a lot of character development, was a huge success. That bodes well, I think, for pushing the envelope.
At the end of Friends of Kids, I noticed parallels between Jason’s speech and the one at the end of When Harry Met Sally.
Oh, yeah? Where?
As they explain themselves, both Jason and Harry say, “It’s not because I’m lonely.”
I don’t know, I guess I’ll have to go back and look! But in our film, the crux of Jason’s speech is about how he and my character have got it all wrong. What you’re talking about is more of an aside because in Friends with Kids, my character (and a lot of women in the audience) have a hard time believing anything that he says.
Have men and women been responding differently to the film?
We knew the very end would be divisive, and it definitely has been. This movie is really trying to examine how definitions can evolve, whether it’s love, family, commitment, or even passion. We stand by our “Fuck the shit out of me” ending, but a lot of people have been shocked by it. When you start a movie with these two [friends] – they have a locker-room, no-holds-barred way of speaking that’s brutally honest – she responds to him [at the end] because what he says is so visceral and raw. They’ve always loved each other, there’s no question about it, but they’ve never quite had that other piece. It’s a love sonnet in their language.
Did you draw any inspiration from your own friends or family?
Not for the characters in particular, but I definitely got ideas from watching people in my world have kids, especially in the last four or five years. When I talk to girlfriends who are candid with me, they all say, “This is the richest, deepest, most inexplicable love I have ever known. I never could have imagined it, but having kids is also the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.” They seem to be more surprised by the latter point. No one tells them it can be so difficult and cause such a strain.
What did your girlfriends think of the movie?
They really responded to it! From the very first draft through the very last cut, I constantly canvassed my friends with kids. I want to make sure that it was resonating and that it felt fair, too. Some comments along the way definitely informed choices that I made.
Do you remember any of those comments?
Let me think… some of Adam’s speech in the end, in terms of what he says and how he says it, was shaped by comments my friends made. Women in particular had problems with what he says to my character when they meet for dinner. I guess it’s one of those moments that is hard to even imagine coming back from. Friends advocated for abandoning [Adam’s dialogue] altogether, but I can’t. That’s life. People are often are different places: the timing is off or they don’t feel the same way about each other.
When you were canvassing your friends with kids, was it really just an excuse to get back into their lives?
[laughs] Adam always jokes in the press that [our shoot] was the most consistent time he and his wife, Naomi, have gotten to spend with [me and Jon] since they’ve had kids. We joked, “This whole movie is a ruse to see more of them.”
You were friends before?
We’ve been friends for almost fifteen years. We were at their wedding, and we missed them once they had kids (at first). It’s an interesting thing to feel out of sync with your peer group, I guess. For a while, you miss the one-on-one time, but then they do eventually reemerge and you say, “Welcome back!”
Thanks for talking with me!
No, thank you!