Will Gluck experiences the benefits of success

It's noon on a warm July day, and filmmaker Will Gluck is worried that he's become a cliché.

The 39-year-old writer-director behind the new romantic comedy "Friends With Benefits," starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, is wondering whether he should have hung a framed poster for the 1948 Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn movie "State of the Union" in his sparsely furnished new office at Sony Pictures.

The poster, a gift from Kunis, is a bit of a gag, Gluck says — the actress knows how much the boyish-looking New York native detests Hollywood-types who display old movie posters in their offices.

"It's the cliché Hollywood thing to do and I've always railed against that," he says.

Gluck is never one to shy away from pointing out platitudes — he freely does so in his new film, set to open Friday, which comes as the follow-up to last year's breakout hit "Easy A." Both movies showcase a savvy comic voice that owes greatly to the Tracy-Hepburn school of whip-smart repartee delivered at breakneck speed.

Gluck honed his skills during more than a decade in television, working for such veterans as Mitch Hurwitz ("Arrested Development") and Darren Star ("Sex and the City") and running his own productions, including the short-lived Fox comedies "The Loop" and "Luis."

"My film school was running TV shows," says Gluck. "Instead of paying USC, I cost Fox a lot of money in failed TV shows."

Although he made the leap to features with 2009's "Fired Up!," Gluck remained below the radar until "Easy A." A contemporary twist on "The Scarlet Letter," the $8-million teen comedy helped transform star Emma Stone from up-and-comer to "it" girl and earned Gluck the best reviews of his career.

It also earned him the chance to direct "Friends With Benefits," in which Timberlake plays a hot-shot art director lured to New York by Kunis' seemingly confident headhunter. Each has recently ended a bad relationship, so the friendly duo swears off anything complicated, choosing sex as their extracurricular activity of choice.

If the premise sounds familiar, it's with good reason. The January release "No Strings Attached" paired Ashton Kutcher and Kunis' "Black Swan" counterpart Natalie Portman as attractive twentysomethings who attempt a physical relationship with no emotional consequences. Both films feature protagonists with parent issues and quirky supporting casts.

Gluck is hopeful the comparisons will stop there.

"It's a real struggle for me," he says. "I wish there was more space between them. The thing that's irking me now is people are saying we're remaking 'No Strings Attached.' We're not remaking it. The two movies were being made at the same time."

In fact, it was the pressure of the looming production of "No Strings Attached" that spurred Sony's Screen Gems division to fast-track "Friends With Benefits," a script that had been originally written for Warner Bros. almost a decade ago. Screen Gems President Clint Culpepper says the studio chose to begin production quickly for fear that it would lose their title to the competing Paramount project.

What specifically separates the two films is Gluck's unique comedic tone, according to Culpepper. He describes the worlds Gluck creates in his movies — places populated with bright blue skies and rat-a-tat dialogue — as "a hyper reality, where real characters deliver clever witticisms. Even the most supporting roles are fully developed characters."

It helps that Gluck and his cast intensely workshop the scripts. "Easy A" wasn't written by Gluck, nor were the original drafts of "Friends With Benefits." (Keith Merryman and David A. Newman are the writers on "Friends With Benefits"; Bert Royal wrote "Easy A.") But Gluck sat with his two leads over a period of months and would present them 20 pages of the script, which they would intensely debate and rework on Gluck's laptop. The three would depart, and Gluck would return a few days later with 20 more pages.

Timberlake describes Gluck's way of working as not entirely dissimilar to the approach favored by David Fincher, who directed him in last year's drama "The Social Network." "He just likes to keep it moving," says Timberlake of Gluck, speaking by phone from New York ahead of the film's premiere. "While their movies are totally different, they are both hyper smart and their minds move at such a quick pace. I appreciate that. I like being pushed in that way."

Gluck's movies include plenty of references to other films — in "Friends With Benefits" he even inserts a faux romantic comedy starring Rashida Jones and Jason Segel into the mix. The idea, he says, is to make his characters feel like they come from the real world.

"In real life we talk about movies, we talk about pop culture," says Gluck, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two daughters. "We say, 'I've seen this movie before.' Life is cliché and I like commenting on that. In movies, the characters often act as if they are the only boy to have ever liked a girl."

The filmmaker does exude a kind of witty yet down-to-earth charm, which Culpepper attributes to good parenting. "The difference is a good mama. He's a good boy. It's why actors love him."

Gluck is still tight with his family. His father, Peter, a prominent New York architect, appears in every one of his productions, mostly credited by the stage name Lance Kerfuffle. His mother is a published academic and professor at Columbia University. (Kunis is reading Carol Gluck's book "Japan's Modern Myths" in the film.)

Gluck recently landed a two-year overall film and television deal at Sony Pictures, and that has him picking out office furniture, hiring staff and essentially "running the Burger King" as he likes to call it. His laid-back attire — black Nike sweatshirt, dark blue jeans, sneakers — belies the anxiety that's accompanying his new-found success.

His latest creative endeavor involves adapting Ben Mezrich's ("The Accidental Billionaires") latest book "Sex on the Moon," a failed heist story centered on a young NASA intern who attempts to steal moon rocks from the Johnson Space Center. He's also developing another movie with Emma Stone in addition to producing Screen Gems' "About Last Night" remake

As a newly crowned boss, Gluck's myriad worries now encompass everything from the wall hangings to continuing to get right what got him into the spacious digs in the first place.

"I just want to be someone who keeps working," says Gluck. "I always tell people that after 'Easy A' and being able to make this movie, that I'm the fat girl who came back from summer camp having lost 30 pounds. Everyone thinks, 'Whoa, she looks pretty good.' But I'm the same girl, the same person who did a lot of failed TV shows and a movie that didn't do very well. You have to kiss me quick because I'm going to start eating."

nicole.sperling@latimes.com

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