Bring up the year's surprise hit comedy "Bridesmaids" and most moviegoers think immediately of the outrageous, über-raunchy food poisoning scene, in which the ladies had to vent their gastrointestinal distress amid the pristine environs of an appointment-only bridal salon.
Whether you think of that scene as the movie's high point or its low point, it's interesting to discover that it wasn't actually added to the script until well into the moviemaking process, when producer Judd Apatow pitched it to the screenwriters.
"He said we needed a much bigger screw-up for the maid of honor, Annie [Kristen Wiig], so that it builds toward Lillian [the bride, played by Maya Rudolph] shutting down on her," said Annie Mumolo, who co-wrote the screenplay with Wiig. The writing duo delivered the scene, but not without trepidation.
"We were very, very scared," says Mumolo. "Not just about shooting it, but before the first preview screenings — I think I lost 10 years off my life just waiting for that scene to play."
Adds Wiig, "We had no idea if people were going to be on board or if they were going to get up and leave."
Anyone who's seen the movie will need no explanation. But for those who haven't, it involves a race for relief after a visit to a cheap Brazilian restaurant in a sketchy neighborhood.
"Reading it, I was like, 'I'm sorry, I'm doing what?'" says Melissa McCarthy, who played the exuberant and sublimely weird Megan. " 'That part about the sink? That's probably going to change.' But it didn't."
Still, McCarthy, who is widely considered a Golden Globe and Oscar contender for the role, says she felt a strange confidence that the scene worked. "Even though what was happening was so atrocious," she says, "it was coming from us, as these characters who were so terribly embarrassed that we were trying to pretend it wasn't happening — and that's funny."
For director Paul Feig, the key to the comedy was grounding it in character. "It's the juxtaposition," he notes, "between what's happening in the bathroom, and Annie insisting that everything is fine while she's sweating and turning white. She just can't admit that she screwed up, even in the face of this overwhelming evidence."
"It bums me out," he adds, "when people call it a gross-out comedy, because that means they're only seeing the surface. It's really about the interactions and foibles and fears of these people, and making that real enough that you empathize and say, 'that's like me.'"
As Hollywood scrambles to find ways to duplicate the success of the mid-May release, which earned critical respect in addition to its more than $280 million at the boxoffice worldwide and is considered a shoo-in for a Globes nomination, it's important to grasp that what made it work so well goes deeper than what first meets the eye.
True, it shone a deserved spotlight on female comedic talent, but these were also performers who shared a specific history and language. "You're seeing real chemistry on the screen," says Rudolph, who has performed often with most of the others, either on "Saturday Night Live" or in the Groundlings comedy troupe. "But we also share a common language and training. We've learned to set up each other's jokes, and to think of comedy as a group sport. That's an enormous strength to go into something like this with."
The improvisation began in rehearsal and never stopped, and by all accounts it was coupled with a relentless work ethic shared by all. "It was the wildest, most open creative environment from start to finish," says McCarthy. "Paul was like, 'Say whatever you want. Keep going, keep going.' If you went too crazy, you didn't get embarrassed. Everybody's goal was just, 'How can we make it funnier? And if it's funny now, how can we make it really, really funny?'"
Which is not to say that the writers were any less important — in fact, Mumolo was on the set until the bitter end. "It was a very intense process," she recalls. "We had the shooting script, and then we had pages and pages of jokes that we'd write during prep and hand to the director. He'd call them out to the actors, and they'd say those lines, and it was like dealer's choice. What possible different angles could we take with this scene? It was constant; it was 24/7."
That process, plus input from Apatow, gave rise to the food poisoning scene and also the scene on the airplane to Vegas, in which Wiig causes havoc when she gets too relaxed after taking a tranquilizer (that scene was also added well into the process). McCarthy's on-the-spot contributions included the bit in which she props up her leg and says suggestively to Jon, the air marshal (played by her husband, Ben Falcone), "Feel that heat? It's coming off my undercarriage."
"I never know if I should be proud of that, or horrified," McCarthy confesses.
The success of the movie was perceived as a game-changer for women in comedy (it also became the highest-grosser to date for producer Apatow), but it remains to be seen whether its effect will be as dramatic as first predicted. "There are definitely more movie scripts floating around that are women-centric, which is heartening," says Feig, "but you want to make sure they're really good. I've read a few, and some aren't what you would hope they would be."
Talk of a sequel to "Bridesmaids" was instantaneous, given the movie's success, but the key participants are sounding a cautious note. "We'd be open to it if it was great, and broke new ground, and wasn't just a rehash," says Feig. Meanwhile, he's signed up McCarthy for an unconventional romantic comedy he's just written called "Dumb Jock," in which she'll be paired with "Bridesmaids" costar Jon Hamm as a love interest.
A bonus for McCarthy, who won an Emmy this year for her work on TV's "Mike & Molly," has been a surge of interest in her film and television writing, which she says she's been working at for 10 years. She and Falcone, her co-writer, recently sold "Tammy," a comedy feature that she'll star in, to New Line, and have set up a sitcom at CBS that they co-created, tentatively titled "Mid-Life."
Wiig, who's still a regular on "SNL," has shot her long-in-the-works feature "Imogene" and has just been cast opposite Robert De Niro in the drama "The Comedian," to be directed by Sean Penn. An interest in doing dramatic roles "has always been there for me," she says, adding that she hopes to also direct someday.
Rudolph is currently costarring with Christina Applegate and Will Arnett in NBC's "Up All Night," one of the brightest of the new TV sitcoms. She says that when "Bridesmaids" opened, the surge of media speculation about whether women were emerging as a new comedy force was like "an interesting debate that we watched go on that we had nothing to do with.
"We've all been doing comedy for years, and I don't think any of us thought we couldn't be in a successful comedy," Rudolph says. "We made a movie for the right reasons — someone wrote something funny, and we used the best people we could think of.
"I'm so used to seeing great things be overlooked," she says, "that I kind of take its success with a grain of salt. But if it provides more opportunities for all the talented women I know — and I know a lot of them — then that's a positive. And that's the only way you can look at it."