By Monica Castillo
Not every actor who jumps behind a camera can pull it off. That’s no concern for Olivia Wilde, whose feature debut, Booksmart, knocked the roof off the Paramount Theatre when it premiered at the SXSW Film Festival last week. Her creativity and direction shine as brightly as the performances of her young cast, who star in the snappy story about two driven high school girls who impulsively decide to party like they never have before they graduate.
At the premiere, Wilde opened up about her directing journey. “It takes a lot of courage to do it,” she said. “I had to spend a lot of time paying attention and observing. I started with music videos, and I recommend that to anybody in here who wants to direct. It’s a good way to get your feet wet. I just had a dream of making a film like the ones that I loved and still love. For me, in my teenage years, the generational anthems kept me going. It was films like The Breakfast Club, Dazed and Confused, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless. I thought we need one of those for this generation.”
Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever star in Booksmart
Wilde also had some advice for aspiring filmmakers. “I think a lot of times people who want to direct stop themselves because they assume they have to do every job on their own and that’s just not true,” she said. “The director is a collaborator. The job of the director is to create the most fertile environments where people can do their best work. All you have to do is bring the right people together, and then you have to set them free. You’ve got to trust them, and when you’ve got a cast like this, you can totally trust them.”
MTV News spoke with the Booksmart team — including Wilde, screenwriter Katie Silberman, and stars Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, and Billie Lourd — about how they became involved with the movie and how everyone helped to create that ideal environment for the film’s young actors.
MTV News: How did you become involved with Booksmart and build up your cast?
Olivia Wilde: I got involved, gosh, two and a half years ago. I’m trying to keep track of time, but I have no sense of it. It might even be three years ago, when another one of our producers, Jessica Elbaum, told me that I should pitch on this existing script of Booksmart. I read it, and I was so in love with this concept. I want to make it my own. I need a partner to help me personalize it and make it everything that I think it actually could be in today’s climate and with the performers that are working today. I think we could make it really shine.
Feldstein and director Olivia Wilde on set
I found that collaborator in Katie Silberman and she reworked the script and produced the film alongside me. She was the most amazing partner. I should mention Kaitlyn Dever was already attached, which was one of the things that made me really want to be involved because I was like — wait, we have high caliber actors on the scene? I thought how amazing for my directorial debut to be directing such a brilliant actress. Then, I got to put together my dream cast. I got to hire Allison Jones, who is one of the most incredible casting directors on earth and a true collaborator. My dream cast really, truly came together in a way that I still can’t believe happened. Beanie Feldstein came on board after I forced her to meet with me in between two of her Broadway shows.
Beanie Feldstein: And two of your Broadway shows!
Wilde: It was very telling about our personalities because we were both in between shows, and Beanie sat down and had hot water with lemon, and I had six shots of espresso. I thought this was going to be a great partnership.
I was so overwhelmed with gratitude when she said yes and came on board. Then, we got to hire Billie Lourd who was my dream Gigi, and she has created a truly iconic performance. So that’s my journey with this, and I’m very excited to be here.
Katie Silberman: I got an email about a script looking to kind of be reworked and redeveloped. And it was with Annapurna [Pictures] and Gary Sanchez [Productions], and Olivia Wilde was directing and Katelyn Dever was attached. I basically threw my laptop out of a window, I was so excited.
Luckily, when I read it and got to talk to Olivia for the first time, we had a lot of the same ideas about the vision of what the movie could be. I was so inspired by what she already knew she wanted it to be, and I can see the movie she was going to make and what just wanted desperately to be a part of it.
MTV News: As actors, how did you work with Olivia to develop each of your characters?
Kaitlyn Dever: It was a really, really collaborative experience. Probably, one of the most collaborative experience I’ve ever had with another director because I felt so involved. This movie was the first time I ever got to go into the casting office and read with other people. That was such a cool experience. We had a lot of meetings and a lot of rehearsals together, and it made me love rehearsals. Olivia had so many ideas, I was in awe of her. It was a lot of rehearsals at the beginning because we just really wanted to get that chemistry going [between the actors]. The day we met, we were in love with each other.
Feldstein: Kaitlyn and I lived together while we were shooting the movie. The first time we met at the Chateau [Marmont], I came up with the idea of living together as a joke. Then all three of us at the same time, we’re like, hold up, now that will actually be incredible because I’m going to New York and Kaitlyn lives in L.A. So, the more time we could spend together before we started actually filming, we knew we would be comfortable.
Dever: It’s also amazing because when you’re on location for something, you’re forced to kind of hang out with everybody. So we wanted to share space, eat together, have pajama parties.
MTV News: So, like a fun version of method acting?
Feldstein: That was such an incredible part of the process. Collaborating with Olivia was just was so wonderful. I feel like the two of them — Katie and Olivia — are true collaborators. Their friendship and their partnership were so beautiful to watch, the way that they respect and love each other’s ideas. Especially, because our story is about female friendship, and we had this creative team that is centered in a friendship. It was just so special. The two of them were just so giving with how we shaped all three of our characters. And Billie’s character was very different…
Billie Lourd: With a whole different name in the script!
Feldstein: All three of us agree that things morphed and changed, but the heart of the characters are fully the same but with more specificity. Katie wrote me an amazing Harry Potter reference because of our mutual obsession.
Dever: We [Feldstein and Dever] wear matching necklaces. It’s not anything people watching the movie would see, but it was more for us. We knew that we had matching necklaces.
Wilde: It was amazing because as we got to know each of the actors, we did keep evolving with them. I thought that was part of the most thrilling part of it because they were personalizing it and going deeper and bringing so many great questions and ideas. They were being so honest about what didn’t feel right or organic, which helped us so much. With every department head — from April [Napier], our costume designer, or makeup artist, Liz Lash — I mean every single department head, many of them were women, were able to work with these actors. They kept saying to me, “God, your cast just so thrilling because they have so many ideas, and they’re so interesting!” And it was really cool because we got to really collaborate on this together. Billie created Gigi, who is now a character who will go down in history.
Billie Lourd stars as Gigi (left)
Lourd: It was just really cool to be able to do that with everybody. I barely do any rehearsals ever on anything. On this movie, it was so incredible because every scene we got to sit around and talk about for at least 20 minutes or more, and we would talk about the blocking and reading lines. I just felt so comfortable around both of them that I was able to throw out like the weirdest ideas that I wouldn’t have thrown out around other people.
Wilde: Well, it’s so nice to be able to offer that safety, to say go for it. I promise we won’t use anything bad. You won’t get to the good stuff unless you risk the bad. They all were so game that we had enough material for like a 17-hour movie.