Though Olivia Wilde has been the “pretty girl” in “Tron: Legacy” and “Cowboys & Aliens,” her brains and sense of humor have been allowed to shine in films like “Her” and “Drinking Buddies.”
Her true talents explode in her feature directorial debut “Booksmart,” a “Sixteen Candles” for a new generation; opening Friday, it’s among the funniest and best movies of the year.
Wilde, in town with lead actresses Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever for the SFFILM Festival in April, says she latched onto the script — which had been around since 2009 — as soon as she read it: “I had a lot of ideas of how I wanted to crack open the story a little bit. It could lean into the humor a little more, and it could be a little bigger.”
Yet she says she wanted to hang onto the “genius idea it had from the beginning,” which was a friendship between two young women who were smart, and proudly so, but not necessarily concerned with their social standing.
Dever, 22, says she first read the script — about best friends Molly and Amy, who decide to party at least once before high school ends — years ago, when she herself was finishing high school.
“I kept saying, ‘It’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen!’” says Dever. “A script like this doesn’t come along for women very often. We’re rarely given the chance to be funny, because people think we can’t be funny.”
Finally, Feldstein and Dever were cast and things started clicking. “I was so excited to make it that I just kind of started making it, and then everything followed suit,” says Wilde, who already made some short films and videos. “I tend to think that anything you make should feel that urgent, like I have to tell this story or I’m going to explode!”
“Booksmart” is filled with dynamic flourishes, including singing and dancing, a stop-motion animated sequence and an astonishing Steadicam shot that captures the film’s emotional turning point in one long take.
“That was my dream shot,” says Wilde. “You can dream about how a shot may look, but you’re kind of expecting it to fall through. But this one looks even better than in my dreams.”
The movie’s delightful opening scene has the girls heading to the last day of school, each doing their version of a silly, happy dance before getting in a car.
“They just kept doing that!” says Wilde. “There used to be a scene with lots of conversation in the car to kind of establish their friendship. We shot it and I watched the dailies, and I wasn’t completely getting it. And then I saw how they would dance and kind of talk, and it told everything you needed to know.”
“It’s my favorite part!” says Feldstein, 25. “You think you’re going to see a movie about smart girls and then it starts like that!”
The initial preparation for the film included Wilde, production designer Katie Byron and director of photography Jason McCormick going to all the locations, where Wilde and Byron acted out every scene.
“So we have a book of me and Katie playing Molly and Amy, which is very funny,” says Wilde. “It’s us at school, us at the party, us fighting. So I had a pretty clear idea of what it could be, but only to the point where I could stay open to the ideas that the actors had.”
As shooting loomed closer, the actors were brought to actual locations for rehearsals. Dever and Feldstein got to rearrange their characters’ bedrooms. “All the Harry Potter stuff in the front,” says Feldstein, grinning.
Wilde describes acting pet peeves, such as showing up to the set and being told where to stand and what to do. “So I thought, as an actor, what would I have loved to do, and let me try to do that for them,” she says.
And her initial idea for the movie’s final scene was made great after Dever and Feldstein made a simple suggestion.
“That’s way better!” Wilde remembers thinking. “It was so exciting! And it is my favorite, favorite moment in the film. I love it so much!”
IF YOU GO
Starring: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte
Written by: Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Katie Silberman
Directed by: Olivia Wilde
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes