Jennifer Westfeldt Interview – IRA & ABBY

     September 10, 2007

Opening up in limited release this Friday is “Ira and Abby.” The film was written by Jennifer Westfeldt, who co-wrote, co-produced and played the title role in the indie hit “Kissing Jessica Stein.”

To help promote the film, I recently got the chance to participate in a roundtable interviews with Jennifer Westfeldt as well as Judith Light and Robert Cary, the director. Posted below is the interview with Jennifer, the other one can be read here.

During our conversation we talk about how the project came together, was it autobiographical, marriage, all the great cameos in the film and a lot more. If you’ve been wondering what Jennifer has been up to since “Kissing Jessica Stein,” you’ll enjoy the interview.

And since many of you probably don’t know what the movie is about, you can click here to watch some movie clips that I previously posted or you can just read the synopsis below.

Ira Black, 33, is brilliant, neurotic, Jewish and has so many issues he can’t fit them into 12 years of analysis. He can’t finish his dissertation, he can’t commit to his longtime girlfriend, and he’s incapable of making a decision, even if it’s just what to order at the diner. Abby Willoughby, 30, is a free spirit who’s better at solving her friends’ problems at the gym than selling memberships. When the two meet, the impossible happens: they fall in love, meet each other’s parents and decide to get married, all in a few breathless hours.

And life is good, until Ira finds out that Abby is a divorcee…two times over. Despite even more therapy, Ira can’t help but feel that their marriage was built on a lie. They divorce quietly, while cracks grow wider in their parents’ marriages. Ira’s gorgeous analyst mother Arlene starts a secret liaison with Abby’s charming voiceover artist father Michael, while Abby’s mother Lynne wonders why she’s no longer attractive to her husband and Ira’s father Sy pretends not to notice.

Of course, Ira soon realizes he’s miserable without Abby. He asks her forgiveness and they marry again, this time making more realistic vows. But Ira’s jealousy issues and Abby’s free-floating tendencies lead him to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend. When Abby finds out about their parents’ infidelities, the three couples converge for a hilarious group therapy scene with the eight therapists we have met in the film. Ira and Abby ultimately realize that they were meant to be together. But divorced. Because marriage just isn’t for them…

As always, you can either read the transcript below or download the audio as an MP3 here. “Ira & Abby” opens this Friday.

Jennifer: [referring to recorders] Everyone, come this way with your devices! [laughs]

Question: How much of this is autobiographical? Is any of this based on your real life?

Jennifer: Well, there are some influences, certainly, that are based on my life. My mom and my stepdad are both therapists. [laughs] So I kind of grew up in that world a little bit. And actually, the job that Abby has in the film was my actual job in New York, when I was first in New York and a struggling actress…I actually had that job. I was in that very gym that we actually shot at, and I was the world’s worst sales consultant, and it’s just this hilarious gym. I call it “The Cheers Bar,” because everyone there is not working out…All the machines are constantly breaking, so people would come in and we’d just have long chats, and I would say, “It’s really not worth the money, you should just come in when I’m here, I’ll give you some guest passes, or you can get a job at the front desk once a week and get a free membership.” So it was funny to return to that spot. But no, the rest of it’s fiction, although there are certainly themes in it that have some significance for me.

Q: How were you as a salesperson?

Jennifer: [laughs] I was a terrible salesperson. The worst they ever had. And it just didn’t occur to me that I wasn’t going to make any money if I didn’t sell the memberships. I didn’t care. Like we’d be ordering pizza and having friends come by. [laughs] It was more like a salon than a job.

Q: Can you talk about the genesis of the project and what attracted you to it?

Jennifer: Sure. Well, you know, I’m quite a reluctant writer. I’m not someone who set out to be a writer or really wanted to be. And my first film kind of came together pretty organically. It was just a fun evening of vignettes that we were going to do, and it turned into this play that turned into the film. It never was “I’m going to be a screenwriter!” And so after Jessica Stein, Brad Zions, who produced both this film and that film, kind of said, “So what are you going to do next? What’s your next film?” And I was like, “I will never do this again.” [laughs] I just was so exhausted. It took five years and I think we made $1500. [laughs] And it was just such an overwhelming process, and if you had known at the beginning just how much was involved for the thousands of hours…It’s like having a child, it feels like. [laughs] And I just didn’t think it would ever happen again. And yet he was kind of dogged and kept saying, “What’s your next idea? What’s your next script?” And basically to quote Annie Hall, “I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.” And so I just kind of put him off. And then an idea, I guess, just crept in. The year that I wrote this, my boyfriend and I went to like nine weddings. [laughs] And you know, all of them, we were traveling to exotic places and spending a ton of cash. I always cry at weddings, they’re beautiful, and I’m always moved. And everyone always shows up and it’s always incredibly lovely, and at the same time, we had four of our closest friends getting a divorce at like 28 and 29, which is…you know, depressing. [laughs] And we’re both children of divorce, and there’s just been a lot of divorce in my life and in the lives of most of my close people. And I just tuned out during like Wedding #8, or whatever, of the year. And listening to these vows, “till death do us part” and “foresaking all others” and whatnot, and being aware that it was just entirely a coin toss based on the statistics, based on everything we were seeing in our lives, that everyone is so moved and so sort of idealistic in this moment, and that half of these marriages will end in divorce. I mean, that’s the statistic. So I just sort of kind of spaced out during the ceremony and just imagined a couple that got married and divorced several times where their vows actually degenerated each time into sort of promises that could be kept rather than these pie in the sky things that we’re obviously not succeeding at by and large. And that was the initial idea of the story, and obviously it grew and evolved from there. But I guess it was that. It was the vows and this notion that…You know, in any other business, if it was an investment and you said, “Well, half the time, you’re going to lose all of your money,” no one would invest in a business like that. [laughs] They just wouldn’t. And here we are with this institution, and it really hasn’t shifted much as far as I can tell. I think it has the same vows, same idealism, same everything that it always has. And I just wonder if there isn’t a paradigm that should shift a little or grow and change a little with our changing times, you know?

Q: Were you happy to relinquish your script to a director this time, as opposed to having creative input on every aspect of Jessica Stein?

Jennifer: Well, I was involved with everything. Yeah, I was a producer on it, I raised the money, I had a say in every decision. And so it was similar to Jessica Stein in that it was a real collaboration with the director. And that was very understood that the director was going to come in and join us and collaborate and add his vision and his visual everything, and his interpretations. But I didn’t feel X’ed out of the process in any way. I felt like on both films, we were lucky to gather talented people and be greater than the sum of our parts, you know? And I think that for me, that’s the ideal in film, is to just bring together all sorts of talented, interesting people who have great ideas and find your way together. That’s my ethic about filmmaking. [laughs] I’ve only made two films, but…

Q: Do you think it is better to marry someone you know or is it better to jump right into it?

Jennifer: Well, I don’t have all the answers. I’ve been a serial monogamist since I was 11, but I guess one part of the film I was interested in exploring is that generally in a romantic comedy I think you see people meet cute and then there is a whole courtship and a thing and then they end up together and they end up getting married in the end and so I was interested in just sort of starting at the end in a way or the beginning being the end. I do think that people are delaying marriage more and more in our generation and our times and I think people live together and are together much longer and know each other pretty well, they are in therapy together and all sorts of things happen before people get married and maybe some of that is not good. Maybe some of us are over correcting like if you are having the most romantic times of your relationship several years or many years before you are married I don’t know if that’s for the good. On some levels it is interesting to think if the very best times happen first and then you settle into how you are going to live and grow together and have a relationship what would that be like if those times were when you were married. I don’t know the answer and obviously this was an impulsive marriage in the film that doesn’t work out that well. Abby is a pretty, loony impulsive person but I guess unlike my first film I’m always interested in a kernel of the fantastical of something where somebody steps out of their comfort zone and does something completely unlike them that you wouldn’t necessarily do in life and then trying to treat that fantastical premise in a truthful way after that, because I think a straight woman answering an ad from a gay woman is not something many women would do in their lives necessarily and similarly asking someone to marry you after just a day it is out there a little. I feel – I hope that with both films that that kernel of, I don’t know fantasy or whatever is then treated honestly. You know what I mean, I’m always wondering in life if we are so entrenched in our patterns and the way we do everything we have sort of a “This is who I am and this is how I do things and if any of us ever did do something completely out of character or something completely crazy and impulsive and then stuck with it, what would happen? That’s part of what interests me in the stories I’ve told so far.

Q: This movie is also a paradigm of the therapist actually solving any problems.

Jennifer: I know my mom and my step dad are not looking forward to this being released in theaters…I hope with good fun. Obviously I think their views are incredibly important for many people in many scenarios, but I guess what I’m poking fun at more is therapy as brushing your teeth everyday. I think a lot of people get into this rhythm of go to the gym, go to the therapist. You know there is this idea that it is just something you do everyday or every week or every whatever and I guess that’s what doesn’t really make sense to me. On some level it feels like such a luxury anyway that anyone who has the money and time to just constantly talk about themselves to a stranger and try to figure it out on an equal level, it feels like it is for the rich and the privileged first of all, but it also just feels like to me, at least in my life I think therapy should mostly be there for helping us get through crisis that are specific and nameable and getting to the next place with somebody and not something that is as natural as breathing and constant in your life it seems, I don’t know it seems like something is missing in your life and in your relationships if that’s the constant as opposed to the exception.

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Q: You have a lot of great cameos in this film. How much of that was writing for these comedic veterans as opposed to just lucking out and getting them?

Jennifer: I think it was more the latter, although certainly when certain actors sign up for a film you tried to add lines or moments here or there to highlight who’s embodying it, but you know we got really, really lucky and we just had the most wonderful people and you know when you are making a small indie its you know, not for the glamour of it, so they all sort of came to it with a love for the project and you know you are asking Fred Willard and Judith Light and Frances Conroy and Jason Alexander to have no trailers and to get changed in a bathroom. You know it is very bare bones. Everybody was really excited to be there which was really nice and we got really lucky.

Q: Can you tell us about the improv in the film and how much you stuck to the script or didn’t?

Jennifer: Yeah, I would say there was very little improv in this film. There was a little with Chris on the couch in the beginning, but other than that not much. The odd line here or there we just didn’t have time or money to do a ton of takes. Do you know what I mean and some of the script is really rhythmic so it didn’t lend itself to improv as much as other things that I’ve done like for example with the big therapy scene at the end and we all rehearsed that whole morning because we only had one day and one location and it was like 10 pages long so it just kind of had to be within an inch so there wasn’t any room for improv.

Q: Are you a romantic person?

Jennifer: I think I am. You maybe can’t tell that from this film, but I am a romantic in a lot of ways. You know what I mean and I think that part of this film could be seen as cynical or romantic I hope it ends up being still romantic even if it’s got some darker comedy.

Q: Do you think the couple from Notes from the Underbelly could learn something from Ira and Abby because they are so traditional in their marriage and plans to have a child?

Jennifer: That’s an interesting question. I guess that’s why this is an independent film and that show is not network television [laughs]. I certainly don’t have a network sensibility in my world or my writing or if anything I’m probably a little quirkier or more off than some of the things I get cast as. I guess I just in general feel like with this film I was hoping to get a conversation started even though it is a comedy and its light and it is fun I do not quite understand why marriage and whether its working or how to address our statistics why that isn’t a topic really of conversation. It is not like “Oh, now 70 percent of marriages work.” It is always about 50/50 and it has been that way for a very long time and yet when I was interviewing people when I was writing this film, people who were married the second time, third time I would always say “So, that must have been so interesting for you to go back and do it again. Were your vows totally different? Was the way you approached it different?” and it was “No, it was pretty much the same.” [laughs]. No trace of irony in saying ’til death do us part forsaking all others on the second marriage. I guess I’m interested in how words don’t mean very much to people it seems to me and I’m not sure why that is. Like I don’t really know why, what’s beautiful about a wedding and the whole notion of it to me is sort of in front of the people in your life that you love the most and the community of people who support this match saying all these incredible things and declaring things, but if it fails half the time I just don’t know what…it is kind of a lie, you know half the time it’s a lie. So then they do it again, the same thing that wasn’t true before.

Q: Isn’t there a reason why it is called Holy Matrimony? Because these are pretty nonreligious people they don’t have any God centered marriage to their life. Isn’t it supposed to be a religious commitment?

Jennifer: I don’t know that it has to be? I guess I feel like it is man made in a lot of ways, you know what I mean? The notion of wanting to share a life with someone and committing to someone and deciding to do that so at the end of this movie the younger couple sort of decides that their most truthful way of being together was to choose each other everyday and that’s the most honest way to live for them, but I guess I wonder if there is a way that this institution could shift and evolve to not be unromantic, but to be more successful and truthful.

Q: Do you find that you are more afraid of marrying yourself?

Jennifer: I don’t know. It is funny I’ve been thinking about it so much lately. You know what I mean, because our 10 year anniversary coming up. You know it is crazy. I just feel when and if we marry it would have to be really nontraditional and something very specific to us and who we are and not have any wrote vows. I think marriage and a wedding ceremony…obviously this society is set up to support married people and that’s a bummer. It’s a bummer that people who live together or gay unions aren’t supported the way a traditional marriage is financially and the way you are perceived, all that. It is a bummer, that is just sort of the way of things in our world so I understand why people embrace it. There are a lot of reasons for it. I mean everything from when something terrible happens the first person they call, to taxes to whatever. But I just wish that weddings and the marriage ceremony and all of it could be more individual and more specific to the two people that are involved with it and whatever bond and promise and union they want to make and can make and I just wonder if it did change a little if the statistics would be better. I don’t know.

Q: You mentioned being a veteran of attending weddings. I think you said eight in one year. Are you the type who gets the gift immediately or are you the one who gets stuck with the crappy gift on their registry?

Jennifer: You know with all the like all the close people you usually do the gifts quickly, but there are always two or three where you are like “Oh, wait did we ever? Oh no, what are we going to do?” Usually we’ve just been going off registry recently like off the registry because it feels terrible to be like “I can get you six plates!” I don’t know, I hate it, it also feels so impersonal. You know what I mean? I get the notion that everyone comes together and you get a dish and a thing and then you have a set of dishes, but I just feels like maybe if you could actually present the dishes to the people…it just feels terrible to get a big box with a cup and a saucer, I don’t know. We go off the registry. And sometimes, yes we’ve waited until the end of the year. Maybe that’s good because all the hoopla has died down and then they get a gift again. I don’t know.

Q: Now that you’ve been with your boyfriend for 10 years does your family constantly ask you when you are getting married?

Jennifer: Oh yeah, constantly. No, we’ve always had that pressure, but we live together and we have a dog and a house. I mean we are married you know what I mean. It is just whether or not it would ruin it. We have such a great thing right now it is better than most of the people in our lives who are sort of worried that, you know you don’t want to mess up a good thing and at the same time I feel like I’ve seen so many weddings where it just becomes all about other people and stress and materialism and spending too much money and inviting people that you don’t even like and don’t have anything to do with you because this one will be offended or that one will get upset so that I want no part of and we want no part of so if we do decide to ever get married it would have to be our own thing.

Q: Far, far away.

Jennifer: Yeah, maybe. Yeah, that’s the good thing about a destination wedding only the core people will show up in Greece or wherever [laughs].

Q: Will you show up on Mad Men next season?

Jennifer: Oh I don’t know I think we’ll let Johnny do that. It is so good isn’t it?

Q: It is an awesome show.

Jennifer: It is so amazing, I know.

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