Kissing Jessica Stein
Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen ask me to wait for a second, while they snap a photo with the people who did their hair and makeup for today's press interviews. They pose with big smiles, angled so the poster for their first feature film, Kissing Jessica Stein, is prominent in the background. With this bit of memorializing completed, they inform me that they've been collecting such photos in all the cities they’ve visited during their promotional tour. When I ask if they've been writing names down, to keep track of who's where, they both pause, exchange looks, laugh. Oops.
Westfeldt and Juergensen are very easy with each other, a result of spending lots of time together since they met at a 5-day theater lab in 1996. They've described themselves as feeling, on occasion, "married," though they both make sure to let you know that they're straight. While Westfeldt tends to talk more -- and faster -- they appear to share a wavelength. Their film reflects their comfy relationship: based on Lipschtick, an off-off-Broadway play they wrote a few years ago, Kissing Jessica Stein tracks the evolving relationship between two women -- Westfeldt's Jessica and Juergensen's Helen -- who meet through a personals ad in the Village Voice, in which Helen uses a Rilke quote that appeals to Jessica, almost in spite of herself.
Cynthia Fuchs: I know that Fox is platforming the film, and that you've both been attending screenings to answer audience questions. How has that been?
Jennifer Westfeldt: Last night we had a question we don't usually, about financing the film, which we're happy to talk about because it was the most grueling process. Sometimes we're asked, which is harder, the financing side or the creative side?
Heather Juergensen: And they're both so hard, but the creative part is hard in an exciting way, and the financial is just hard!
JW: Right. That's Mount Everest, and you've got no shoes!
HJ: People think it's easier to get money than it is. We found an angel who invested $500,000, but while that's fantastic, I think people think you find two or three of those people, and you're set. But that doesn't happen.
JW: We had to get together a lot of people, with $2000 chunks; we had like 60 investors. Most of the people thought they'd never see their money again, so in that vein, we've done pretty well.
HJ: And some of them thought of it like a "donation to the arts."
CF: You've been compared to Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.
JW: I wonder how Matt and Ben feel about that comparison. The difference is that they had Gus Van Sant and Robin Williams and a huge budget!
HJ: And that's "indie." They must have had at least $15 million. We made our film for $980,000!
CF: Don't you think that has something to do with boys and girls in the industry?
JW: Yes, I do. Girls have a harder time. There are about 5 or 6 women who greenlight a movie, and many, many more men who can. So when you're talking about being unknown actresses, the roles are one-dimensional: the sweet, young girlfriend who just thinks he's great as he goes through all his complicated struggles. Or the "wife who cries" part. There's not much out there for women, and I don't think Hollywood has much faith that two female stars can carry a movie. There's Thelma & Louise. Maybe Stepmom did okay, but that's the Julia Roberts factor.
HJ: I think buddy flicks are a guy genre, but it doesn't have to be.
JW: Think of all the movies with two guy leads, like Analyze This or Rush Hour. So it's a double thing, we're unknowns, and there aren't a lot of women's roles anyway, even for the known people.
CF: And you had to convince them you could write, as well.
HJ: I think most actors think they can't write. But more actors need to write, because that's where the character-driven stuff comes from.
CF: I know it started as a theater piece. How difficult was that transition?
JW: It was a pretty sharp learning curve, to become screenwriters, but the play had cinematic touches, like flashbacks and montages. So on some weird level, we were thinking cinematically, or that's where our writer-voices went. Our dialogue is naturalistic more than theatrical. Saturday night we closed and I went back to L.A. to shoot a television show [Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place] and Monday morning, my agent called saying all these studios wanted to option Lipschtick. And we thought, "That's ridiculous." You know, maybe five people from Los Angeles saw it. But that's how things work: the buzz travels. And they were all competing for who was going to get in on this. There's a thing in Hollywood where no one wants to miss out on something, if it does turn out to be good, and so it's all total bullshit, in a way.
HJ: But we had only touched the surface with these characters and themes in the play, so in a sense, we were hungry to go deeper. And the screenplay gave us that opportunity. So we went a little nuts, with 160 pages in the first draft. You know, the sky's the limit in film, you can go to any location, meet as many people as you want.
JW: Or you can establish something with one well-drawn picture that might take four pages on stage.
HJ: So in a sense, the transition for us, creatively, was easy, we were ready to go there. But logistically, we had to buy the screenwriting software, and Jen took out all her scripts so we could check out the "Cut To's".
JW: Heather was the mastermind of the manual. She was like, "This is a Slug Line." And I'd be like, "Okay, ANGLE ON, in caps: go!" We were pretty dopey about it, because the dialogue was easy for us, but the structure part was new.
HJ: I remember once someone asked Woody Allen if he was nervous about writing his first script, and he said, "No. I knew what I wanted to see on the screen." So it was like that. We knew what we wanted to see these characters doing and what should happen to them. And so we wrote it.
JW: It should be said that we were with another studio [USA Films] developing this film for almost two years. We became screenwriters, because we had to take notes that we thought were amazing or that we totally disagreed with. So in some ways, just being put through your paces that way, though it's hard and tedious, to be able to execute anything someone says, even though you think it's crazy, is a great screenwriters' workshop. By the end, we knew how we wanted to tell the story and how we didn't want to tell the story. So by the time we left there, we were pretty seasoned. Not that many people do 150 drafts of something.
CF: As tight as the dialogue is, it looks like you're able to think visually: the film is so New York.
JW: Yeah. You get excited when you think, "We can just put this on 6th Avenue!" Or we can see the reservoir. We're both so in love with New York.
HJ: Also, our director [Charles Herman-Wurmfeld] and director of photography [Lawrence Sher] were a very visual team. We would all location scout, but they had a great sense together of how to frame, how to keep shots moving. We had a wonderful production designer [Charlotte Bourke]. The team was good, and complemented our work on the script.
JW: For example, Jessica's apartment is my friend's, the one with the spiral staircase. They had all of these built-in shelves, with their books. And we had in the script that Jessica was kind of a "quote person," and had all these quotes taped up on the walls, and I went there the night before, just to pepper the place with some of my personal things, and the production crew was there, unloading another 800 books on top of my friend's, so there were stacks of books everywhere. So then I thought, "Yeah, maybe she is this cluttered and crazy," because she's kind of an extreme character. When I looked at the set, I thought, this is a world, more extreme than we had even written. I think we wrote, "Cluttered but homey. Tons of books everywhere." And that became TONS OF BOOKS! And as an actor, it was so exciting to see our kernel of an idea exploded like that, to see our Slug Lines, or action lines, made real. And sometimes they came up with what seemed like the total opposite of what we had on the page, and we had to rewrite it on the set, or make it work. You figure it out as you go.
CF: I'm wondering what you think about the question of representation, specifically of gayness or lesbians, on screen. Were you concerned with "positive" images?
JW: We found there's a lot of diversity within the gay community, who want to see different people and ideas represented. We wanted the film to be about individuals, not about groups. So, Helen's two gay friends have totally different angles on what she's doing: one is offended deeply, and the other thinks, "Good for you, go girl." That sort of individuality is something we wanted to show. We didn't want a gay man to have a knee jerk response.
HJ: And we wanted to get away from representing gay women as either butch or femme. But isn't that strange, that without labels, we get nervous? I think some people would say, "Make a choice." But why should we have to? I hear about people who change jobs at 40, or at 60, it's never too late. We don't have a world that supports that.
JW: There's so much emphasis on labels, and we hope the film is about shedding labels. When you do, great things can happen. Whether you get your heart broken, whether it's messy or complicated, you're always going to live a fuller, deeper, richer life, which is what the Rilke quote speaks to. We feel like it's so oppressive, whatever box you put yourself in, whether it's "I'm a Jew from Scarsdale," or "a frustrated writer," like Josh [Scott Cohen]. Or Helen, "I'm fine! I don't need anyone." All of these ways that we define ourselves become this myopic prison. We dare to say, "What if we just drop that bullshit and let people explore their lives without necessarily knowing where the end is?" Everyone asks if this is a straight film or a gay film. It's just a film. It's a people film. It was important to us to show different experiences within the film so that more people have more to identify with. Life is complicated. We don't have any answers; we just have kind of good questions.
HJ: I think also with the subject of romantic love, if you go beyond it, and are operating out of a place of spiritual love, or original love, or whatever that thing is, if you're open to the world, I don't see why you can't love anybody. Or be in love with anybody. There is a biology to all of us, but actually loving someone -- this is what we get into in the film -- then where are you? What label can you use for that? Maybe that's the lesson: open yourself up to as much as possible. Life's short.
JW: Also, the people that we love, whether friends or romantic partners: it's hard to put into words why you love someone. It's "that thing that that person does when his face goes like that" or "when she says it in that weird voice."
HJ: It's intuitive.
JW: And the reverse, when we don't feel comfortable around someone. It's like, "There's an energy about that person I don't like." We all become blithering idiots when we're describing why we like to be around somebody.
HJ: This writer yesterday was raving about our chemistry together on screen, and I said, "Why?" Isn't it odd and mysterious?
JW: People want to rationalize. They want to say, "Well, we have the same interests."
HJ: That's why we wanted the personal ad in the movie...
JW: ... the personal ad is the opposite end of that spectrum...
HJ: ... here's my laundry list...
JW: ... these are the things I would like in a person... Anybody!? It's so contrived, it's ridiculous! Here's this graphic sexual thing you need to be interested in. And Japanese baths! And this philosopher.
HJ: [laughs] Plus, a Mohawk!
JW: [laughs] People without Mohawks need not apply. People are crazy! I think the personal ads dates are a comment on where Jessica is at the top of the film, when she's too judgmental, and unable to open herself up to new things and new people. So she's got a laundry list. You don't have a Mohawk? Well, that's a deal-breaker! People do ask if we think we're men-bashing in the film with those bad dates. But we are seeing those dates from Jessica's point of view. But it's not so strange: we tend to say, "Okay, just misused a word! Whooo-aww. Curtain down!" There's something to that fast and furious categorizing that we do, that doesn't allow us to be surprised by people.
CF: And some language, like the Rilke, can bring you together.
HJ: It's that shared connection.
JW: It's like that thing in Seinfeld's SeinLanguage, how it's hard to make friends in your 20s. When you're kids, anything can connect you: "You like red bikes, I like red bikes, we can be best friends!" Or, "You're a girl, I'm a girl!" [laughs] But when you get older, it's like, "Sorry, all full up, not taking applications!"
HJ: That's why Zen scholars talk about keeping the beginner's mind as long as you can. If you can maintain that beginner's mind, you will see that red bike, or the thing that matters. The adult mind gets so active, so sophisticated, that it just gets in our way.
CF: And still, there are adults who can remain open, say, Judy [Tovah Feldshuh], Jessica's mother, who sees that her daughter is in love with Helen, even though Jessica thinks she's hiding it so well.
JW: That was another thing that was important to us, as writers, that any bias that Jessica was dealing with, would be her own. That was a harder hurdle to leap, instead of, "I can't do this because my parents won't understand." There's a lot of pressure from society, but that's an easy way to get out of things. If you're dealing with bias that's in you, that's a harder fight, or more interesting to us.
CF: And is this also about structure, so that each character can have someone to "share with," Helen with her friends and Jessica with her mother or her friend at the office?
HJ: Yeah, they needed a place where they'd go and check in. Jessica comes from a strong family, and a Jewish family, and there's ritual there that provides structure, whereas Helen probably comes from Smalltown, USA, always felt a little bit different, with an artistic bent. And once she got to New York, that funky, downtown thing becomes her family. She feels more at home with those guys than with her own family.
JW: That was the biggest transition from the play to the film, was making these women opposites. We thought, the more we can delineate them, the more interesting the comedy-drama will be when they come together. We struggled for that, for a long while, establishing their domains.
CF: Does that have to do with comedy as a set of generic expectations?
HJ: There is definitely comedic tension there, but we wanted to explore the themes of the film from different vantage points.
CF: Was there ever a time when it wasn't a comedy?
JW: We wanted to use comedy to earn our poignant moments. It's hard to do relationship stories where they don't seem self-serious, or don't lose their audience. There's underlining: "This is sentimental, don't you see? They're in love!" I think life is peppered with humor and drama and pathos in equal parts, and in even in the worst times, there is always humor; otherwise, we wouldn't get out of bed in the morning. I mean, not only do we have Daniel Pearl, but [Andrea Yates], and that girl found this morning, burned and killed. I don't see how we could walk around the earth if we didn't have ways to make light of our own situation on the planet. It' like David Letterman paving the way after September 11th. We were all thinking, like, how can anyone ever come back to that format? And only Letterman could have like Giuliani and the firemen and Dan Rather. That was a great example of our resilience and need for humor.
CF: Comedy is difficult to do, though.
JW: There's that great quote, by somebody, that "Dying is easy, comedy is hard."
CF: You are Quote Girl.
JW: I am! But it's true, in drama, you need to be present, but in comedy, people laugh or they don't. As actors, you have to play it so truthfully to get a laugh. You have to commit to it. Think of great comedians, just of our day, like Jim Carrey, as well as the three Stooges, or Abbott and Costello or Charlie Chaplin. People dismiss Jim Carrey, but there's a reason he gets paid $20 million. That guy does what nobody else can do. He can make a scene about a PEN! [This, in Liar, Liar.] He can make anyone laugh: I remember being on a plane, surrounded by people who didn't speak English, smiling from ear to ear.
HJ: The other thing is, if you're in a stage production and you're not getting the laugh, people say play it totally straight, and that will often be what turns it. There's technical aspects, like timing, but it's about belief.
JW: What's funny to us is that our movie gets what we call "character laughs," as opposed to one-two-punch comedy. And I'm happy about that. It's my favorite kind of comedy.
CF: You both also seem quite aware of audiences.
HJ: That comes from theater, to an extent. But we both knew we wanted to reach as large a number of people as possible.
JW: And the movie is, to us, about tolerance and inclusiveness. The more people we could appeal to, with universal themes, the better. We wanted to have gay people in it and straight people, and straight men who are not idiots and straight men who are idiots. And gay people with different opinions. So there's a little something for everyone. We find that certain art house films are great, but no one sees them, because they seem to be either marketed or made for one kind of audience. That's a shame. Why is it 2002 before you see a gay-themed mainstream film about two women? Whether our film will be that mainstream remains to be seen, but it's crazy that we're still waiting to see!
HJ: The marketing part of it remains the most tragic part, I think. The movie has to get out there, and the studio needs to position it. It's a process.
CF: So festivals are where you start, for now.
JW: And word of mouth screenings are interesting for us: they find people in offices or in shopping malls and bring them to see the movie.
HJ: And that's better, because at film festivals, viewers love films. At more random screenings, people have no idea what to expect.
JW: We always thought that we might alienate the far left and the far right with this subject matter, but if we could get everyone in between, it would be great. Part of delineating the characters in this way, having Jessica be someone who says, "Yechh, lesbianism," at the beginning of the film, and then begging Helen not to leave her at the end, that's a wide jump for her. But it invites more conservative people to go along with her. That's the most exciting thing, in a way, if you can break down those biases.
Click here to read the Kissing Jessica Stein review.