Olivia Wilde is already known to audiences for her acting and her uncanny beauty. But it’s her newly discovered skill behind the camera that makes “Booksmart,” her feature film directorial debut, such a thorough delight.
The movie centers on two best friends, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), who’ve reached the last day of high school so driven to succeed that they never took a break for fun, so they try to make up for it in one night. As silly as that gets, the film is also a sincere celebration of female friendship, featuring believable characters instead of the stereotypes that have crowded teen movies for decades.
The ingenious comedy has already earned Wilde a number of awards and nominations. Reached by phone the day after receiving the Gotham Awards’ Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director nomination, Wilde considered the relationships she created on screen and off.
The “Booksmart” script had been written and rewritten by the time Wilde came on board to direct it for Annapurna Pictures in 2016. “I really wanted to take the friendship and blow it out of the water, and give them more of an adventure,” she recalls. She brought on writer Katie Silberman to attack the material anew.
Wilde wanted the film to look at the way people judge themselves and one another, to everyone’s detriment. “I asked Katie, ‘How would you bring that into the story?’ And she said, ‘What if all the other students were smart?’” If those kids, whom Molly and Amy looked down upon for seeming to only care about having a good time, turned out to be as intelligent as our heroines, “that would be like a stick of dynamite in their perspective of what makes someone valuable, and that would force them to think about how they’d isolated themselves.”
In assembling her student body, Wilde deliberately cast against type. “I always felt like high school movies didn’t represent the kids I knew or the kid I was, and I wanted to give these actors the chance to play roles that maybe they wouldn’t be expected to play in other films.” They repaid her with portrayals as funny as they are realistic. Even when the scenes weren’t realistic at all.
The movie takes surreal leaps with an interpretive dance fantasy, an underwater sequence and a bad trip that takes a turn into animated Barbie territory. She was warned away from such magical realism.
“When people told me, ‘Don’t be too heavy-handed with style because comedy is best left very simple,’ I thought, ‘Tell that to the Coen brothers.’ ‘The Big Lebowski’ is one of the greatest films of all time. I’d say it’s pretty stylish and wacky and totally bonkers, and it’s brilliant. I want to have fun with this medium, otherwise we should make documentaries or be novelists.”
Wilde directs with the assuredness of a veteran, while working with a number of actors in their first roles. She cites director Amy Heckerling (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Clueless”) as an influence; “she not only presented a very authentic high school experience, but she has a way of allowing her actors to completely own and embody these characters.” Cameron Crowe’s writing style, use of music and “empathetic eye” also inspired her.
At the center of “Booksmart’s” action, Feldstein and Dever are so convincing as longtime best friends, it’s not surprising to learn that the two lived together during rehearsal and filming to get to know each other better. The actors suggested the move-in as a joke to Wilde when they all met for the first time, over lunch. “And then when I didn’t laugh, they said, ‘Wait, do you think we could do it?’ I was furiously texting under the table to Annapurna, ‘You need to facilitate this immediately.’”
They may not have even needed to be roomies to make the chemistry happen. Wilde notes that when the two met, “the moment they spotted each other, they hugged for what truly felt like five full minutes, and then sat holding hands throughout the meal.” She saw it as their recognition that, beyond the roles, “as two women who truly value their female friendships so greatly, they felt that there was a real purpose in this film, and that they were having a chance to tell a love story that rarely gets told.”
Wilde notes that the bond she forged with Silberman is equally strong. The actors, writer and director still meet up at every opportunity — and during the awards season, they’ve had plenty of opportunities. Wilde and Silberman continue to work together as well; they’re currently writing a feminist thriller called “Don’t Worry Darling,” which Wilde will direct and star in; she and Silberman will produce.
“It’s amazing that ‘Booksmart,’ for me, will always be about acknowledging the value of those friendships while creating a new one.”