Following his life into the ‘love zone’

Chris Bender, a producer of the romantic comedy “Just Friends,” insists that the story isn’t based on his life, though the similarities are hard to escape.

“I would say at this point, it is inspired by it,” says Bender.

Ryan Reynolds stars in the film, which opens Wednesday, as Chris Brander (hmmm, Chris Bender ... Chris Brander), a sweet, overweight high school senior who is in love with his best friend, Jamie (Amy Smart). When he finally gets up the nerve to tell Jamie about his feelings, she says she loves him “as a brother.”

He leaves humiliated, moves to Los Angeles, loses weight, gets a high-paying job at a record company and becomes a chick magnet. A decade later, Chris lands back in his hometown, where he reconnects with Jamie and vows to win her affections.


Adam “Tex” Davis’ script evolved considerably after Bender first sold it to New Line in 1998. “It followed the pattern of what was going on in my life, to a certain extent,” Bender says.

Seven years ago, Bender was in the “friend zone” with a woman named Christi Dyer. They met in 1994 when he worked in the mailroom at New Line and she had a job there in marketing. “I was the third wheel who would listen to all of her problems, and we would have platonic sleepovers like in the movie.”

The first few years the script was in development, the comedy was intended as an anti-"When Harry Met Sally,” where the guy was not going to get the girl.

But the script took a different turn when Bender met a friend from high school who was dating a woman he had been just friends with when they were teenagers.


The couple’s happy ending inspired a rosy shift in the script. “The movie developed into a story about a guy who was getting out of the friend zone with a girl,” Bender says, though a happily-ever-after ending was still not in the cards.

This was 2001 -- the year Bender began dating Dyer. She was living in San Francisco and was having boyfriend problems. “We happened to be in New York for a week on [separate] business trips and we were supposed to go to dinner one night,” Bender recalls.

“I grew up in New Jersey and most of my friends were in New York and she never really had been in my world with my friends. Being out of L.A. and in this world allowed her to see me in a different way.” They held hands and flirted during their time together. “It was an incredibly romantic week,” Bender recalls.

Dyer flew back to San Francisco, broke up with her boyfriend at the airport, moved to L.A. and within a month she and Bender were dating. Needless to say, the “Just Friends” script changed once again to reflect Bender’s happiness at moving out of the friend zone. And this time, the hopeless romantics in the audience will be happy.

Bender and his wife had a daughter, Emmy, eight months ago. “I am hoping it’s a good omen,” he says. “The baby was born the day we wrapped production.”