Screenwriter Katie Wech is a USC film graduate making her feature film debut with the teen ensemble film Prom. She was a writer under contract with Disney when she heard that the studio was looking for a prom movie with a really authentic feel, and decided to take matters into her own hands, weaving her own prom experience in with those of various people that she talked to, when composing the 14 characters that make up the story. In what sounds like a Hollywood dream story, the script was sold, the film was greenlit, the screenwriter got to collaborate with the director and spend time on the set seeing her vision brought to life, and she’s ecstatic with the final outcome.
During a recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, Katie Wech talked about how her passion for this project growing out of the love story between Nova and Jesse, her process for determining how many characters the film would follow, how everyone remembers their prom experience, the importance of making sure not everyone in the story got a happy ending, her reaction to finding out this script was on the Black List for 2010, and how she wants to tell stories with really authentic characters. Check out what she had to say after the jump:
A group of teenagers find their lives intersecting and their futures taking shape as they prepare for the most pivotal event of their high school careers. At first senior class president Nova Prescott (Aimee Teegarden) is infuriated with Jesse Richter (Thomas McDonnell), who nearly destroys her plans for prom. But, the closer the big day gets, the more she realizes that he may be the perfect date. Meanwhile, secretive seniors Tyler (De’Vaughn Nixon) and Mei (Yin Chang) wrestle with their consciences over how to make the most of their big night, and Lloyd (Nicholas Braun) keeps getting turned down by every girl he asks. As the drama heightens and prom nears, the rest of their classmates attempt to reconcile their anticipation with their growing uncertainty over how the dance will ultimately pan out.
Question: How did this project originally come about for you? Were you approached with this idea, or did you come up with the idea and think Disney was the perfect place for it?
KATIE WECH: I was a writer under contract at the studio, and I had worked for Disney for about a year and a half, at that point. I was talking to one of the executives at the studio and he told me they were looking for a prom movie, but that was about all he told me. They hadn’t really engaged any writers or heard any pitches. It was just one of those things that they were kicking around. So, I took that and ran with it because I just knew that I had a take and I had the characters and it was the project for me. From there, I brought him back a pitch and developed it with a producer and ultimately got it on its feet. I was never in competition with any other writers for the job. It came from me, but it was always for them.
WECH: The heart of it, for me, was always the main character, played by Aimee Teegarden. It was always the notion of a girl who wants to plan the perfect night, who then realizes that the perfect night is nothing she ever could have planned for. That love story was always the beating heart of my interest and my passion for this project. It evolved from there to be this collage of stories that makes it feel more like a universal prom movie with many different angles and perspectives of what it means to be looking ahead to prom, besides just that main girl and her story.
How did you decide how many characters you would have? Did you ever worry about having too many characters and storylines to follow?
WECH: That’s a great question. I saw a bus go by that had our whole cast, wallpapered on the side of it. There were 14 kids on the bus and I thought, “How did I do that?” From the original love story that I knew I wanted to have as the heart of the story, I did a bunch of research and really dug into the prom stories that people would tell me, that captured the spirit of the highs and lows of that night the best, and that were the most unique from each other. That’s how I determined how many stories it would be and with how many couples. I really felt like we had to find a way to make it all work. And then, because prom is this convergence of many, many people’s stories, at any prom, at any high school across America. Every single couple there has a story, so it was really important for me to get as many in as possible without it becoming overwhelmed. In the writing process, it was very complicated, at times. It was like holding a french braid with both hands, trying to keep track of all the stories. My office walls were covered with 3×5 color-coded notecards, to make sure I was tracking everybody’s story and not leaving anybody in the dust. It was hard.
When you were developing the characters, did any of them end up merging together?
WECH: That’s a good question. I would say that we didn’t end up merging anybody, but some storylines changed. The Mei (Yin Chang) and Justin (Jared Kusnitz) story is about a girl and a guy who have been together ever since middle school, and they were going to go to college together and all that, but then the night before prom, she tells him she’s thinking about going to a different college. That story evolved a long way. It started out as a story about a girl whose parents were getting divorced and therefore led to this conflict that she had about whether or not she could believe that her relationship would last. Things like that would happen, where we would have to reframe and refocus a story, to really make sure it was on the spine of prom and the story we were telling. But, I think everybody pretty much hung in there, once I landed on the core cast.
WECH: It’s a Disney movie, but I don’t think it’s a fairy tale. In order to be a contemporary and relevant PG comedy, you have to acknowledge the fact that there are a lot of kids who don’t go to prom, can’t get a date, and have a rocky time. It can’t be super-glossy and saturated. It can’t feel false or idealized. I thought it was really important to try to get as many of the lows as well as the highs into the story, or else it becomes a story for a lot fewer people to enjoy. The hope is that it will be relevant to many different audience members – girls as well as boys, and women and men as well.
One thing I found in my research is that everybody has a story about their prom, whether they went or didn’t, or had a good time or a bad time. People in their 70s, I would ask them about their prom and they could tell me their prom date’s name. Even though they probably hadn’t thought about it in 50 years, it was right there like it just happened. There’s something to that, and I really wanted to try to capture it. I wanted to differentiate it and make it more relatable, which was a challenge. There is a lot of prom material out there. A lot of people might think, “Why do another prom movie?” But, I hope this is the ultimate prom movie that everybody can find something to hook into, even if it’s the smallest side story. Some of the more popular characters that are receiving fan following already are ones that were tertiary characters that I had never seen at the center of anything, but who somehow have become these totems for people. I’m happy to see that happening. That’s very rewarding, as a writer.
How much did you draw from your own prom experience, and did you find yourself more like any one of these characters than the other?
WECH: That’s a good question. I always say that, even if the experience in my stories is not autobiographical and the actual plot is not autobiographical, the emotion is always somewhat autobiographical. I think there’s some of me in every one of the stories. I was the prom planner in my high school. Our theme was “Castles Made of Sand,” the Jimi Hendrix song, which I thought was very avant garde of us, at the time. I was the girl that took on too much and maybe didn’t have as much fun as I might of, if I had let go a little. So, it was fun to experience that again and let my character go down the road that I didn’t myself at 17. I would say I’m closest to Nova. I also had an unlikely romance with the bad boy type, although mine drove a convertible instead of a Commando. He had long hair and turned a lot of faculty member’s heads whenever he was in the room, but underneath it all, he was very sweet and vulnerable, and that’s what you find in the love story in the movie as well. At the end of the day, they’re all just kids figuring it all out for the first time. That’s why it’s great that they get to do it all at the same time, on the dance floor that night.
Was it important to you to make these characters and the story more sophisticated than audiences might typically expect from a Disney film, and make sure that not everybody necessarily got a happy ending?
WECH: That was very important to me. I think my mission, as a writer, is to re-establish credibility for the PG comedy, in the first place. I think it’s gotten a bad rap lately. My favorite movies of my lifetime are PG-rated comedies, from Father of the Bride and Big to Moonstruck and Tootsie. I definitely feel like I want to re-establish some credibility for that. And, coming under the Disney banner, you have to think about your audience and be aware of the fact that teenagers think that Disney is something they liked when they were kids. There’s a little bit of that stigma to overcome to say, “You can come to a Disney movie and see yourself reflected honestly on screen.” That was a big challenge for me and it was really important. That was why dealing realistically with stories that don’t always end happily was absolutely an imperative, in terms of the story I was going to tell, from the very earliest development stages.
Do you do anything at all to keep teenage dialogue fresh and current?
WECH: That’s a good question. I think it’s really important to listen. I had the advantage of going to some high school proms last Spring, when we were doing this research. I also really mine the relationships I have in my life, with kids who are in high school, to be aware of the way people talk and relate to each other now. I didn’t have a Facebook page when I was a junior and senior in high school. It is important to be aware of how that informs the way that people relate and talk to each other, but a lot of it is also just being true to the voice of any character. If they’re well drawn, you begin to hear them and how they sound, and you let them steer. When things go well in the writing, that happens with most characters.
WECH: I was stunned and so flattered. Of the people who read that script, and who read many scripts, that was one that they remembered liking, over the course of a year. What an honor! I read so many scripts that I can only imagine. It was enormously rewarding. For most writers, the way that your writing is received is always first and foremost, maybe even more than how the movie is received. What people think of you on the page, is really what it’s all about. To get that kind of validation from people who really are in this field, reading scripts all the time and who are familiar with what’s out there, it was very rewarding and validating, and it gave me this real boost. As you struggle through the production process, it’s such a grind to try to get anything made and it can be enormously demoralizing, at certain points. It’s really nice to know that you can always go back to, “At least they like my writing! At least I know I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing.” Those moments are so rare, when we can just really feel like we’re on the right track. That was mind-blowing, really. It was a big honor.
What was it like to be on set and get to see this brought to life?
WECH: Being on set was a dream. I was very comfortable on set, dealing with the producer and director on a daily basis, because I got my start in television. That was a very natural role for me, but it is unusual for feature writers to have that much access. I think it was a very productive collaboration, and the movie is better for us all having been able to work together, through the whole process. I just felt like it was my birthday, every day that I was there. It was a delight. It just made for a wonderful, holistic experience to be a part of it, all the way through.
WECH: I’m sure it’s said a lot that you can’t imagine another cast, other than the one that ultimately was in your movie, once it’s finished, but I truly feel like they have made me look so good. I think they’re more than I could have ever dreamed for. As a whole cast, it was truly thrilling to watch each one of those actors be cast in those roles and feel, each time, like they were exactly the right choice.
Did you wish that you could have had any of the prom dresses in the film for your own prom?
WECH: That’s a great question. I had the worst fashion sense for a young girl in Michigan in the ‘90s. I went to a private school where we wore uniforms, so I never went shopping for dresses and I never knew what was cool. That takes a lot of pressure off the day-to-day, but on a big night like prom, you’d like to think you had a little better sense of what to wear. My prom dress was ultimately borrowed from my date’s mother, and it was this very elaborate lace number that would be horrifying if anyone saw it. During the course of this process, people have asked me to see pictures from my prom, and no one will see one shot of me in that dress. It was mortifying. I had a crown of flowers on my head. It was not cute at all.
WECH: It’s the honesty. My memory of watching those movies is feeling like I saw myself and people I knew on screen. Even if my life wasn’t as heightened or extreme as the situations that Hughes especially portrayed, it was just that feeling of relating to it. Somebody was out there thinking of me. That’s how I felt, watching those movies. I just feel like I’m always writing for the 17-year-old version of myself somehow. And so, it started with being honest to that girl and girls like her. If I could generate that same feeling of recognition and representation in my own audience, it would be enormously rewarding. After we had one of the first test screenings for an early cut of the movie, we had some kids in the audience and this group of high school junior girls accosted me in the hallway and were bursting with enthusiasm, after having just seen it. It was such a great moment for me because I felt like, “This is what I’m about.” Whatever the critics have to say, and I hope they say nice things, these girls who said, “That was us, we get it and we liked it,” are what I’m in the business for. You spend so much of your career trying to sell things and get things made. The idea of box office performance and critical reception is really so far from a writer’s mind, and probably should be. But, at this stage, just before the movie is released, I’ve been thinking about those things and it’s very strange territory.
What would you like people to take away from the experience of seeing this film? Is there anything you’d like to say to young people who are stressing out over their own upcoming proms?
WECH: During the production of this film, the casting director said to me, “If I could go back and talk to my teenage self, I would tell her, ‘Don’t spend as much time worrying. It’s going to be okay.’” I just loved that. That is exactly what I would like to tell my teenage self, and that is exactly what I would like to tell all of these kids who are gnashing their teeth, as they anticipate their prom night. It’s really going to be okay. No matter what happens, it’s going to be one of those nights you always remember. That, in itself, is such a gift. The one thing that every story has in common, whether good or bad, is that it’s this cherished memory that lasts a lifetime. Nobody can take that away, no matter if your date dumps you, or tells you that she’s in love with your best friend, or whatever. It will all be okay.
WECH: I feel like I learned so much. As a writer, I learned that the process really works, in terms of development. The collaboration with Joe Nussbaum and his vision, as a director, brought so much more to the script than I could have foreseen. The same was true with the participation of Disney, on the studio side, and Justin Springer as a producer, who had just come from doing Tron: Legacy. Being a part of a team of people birthing this baby, once I had laid the blueprint of the script, was very informative and educational, and it gave me a lot of faith in the project, which was nice. I’m happy to say that I’m a happy screenwriter who thinks that they shot the movie that I wrote and the experience was great. It’s always important to say that because you can find a lot of people who have a different version of how things ultimately went for them. For me, it was just really dreamy.
Had you always wanted to be a screenwriter, or did you just want to tell stories?
WECH: I think it’s more the latter. I loved to tell stories. I was always writing stories, even as a kid. I always wanted to be in the plays and do that sort of thing. Screenwriting started to really appeal to me because the idea of being able to make things that many people got to see became very captivating. How to create something that is universal enough to make many people want to see it was this enormous challenge that I hooked into sometime in college and then became pretty one-tracked in my pursuit of, at that point.
WECH: Yeah, both. There are a lot of interesting projects that I’m looking at, from young adult books to graphic novels that people have sent me. For me, I always have to start with a character that I can really hook into, and then build from there. I have writer friends who start from a world, an object or some kind of concept that they then hone and widdle into a story. But, for me, it has to be a character that I can really sink my teeth into and live with, for months and months. That’s always what I’m looking for. If it continues to be in the teen marketplace, then so be it. But, I certainly love a lot of material that is not necessarily PG-rated as well.
For me, it’s really all about that PG comedy world, and how I can continue to make a mark for myself inside of it, and also continue to push it as something that is worth it for studios to make, market and believe in. If they’re done well, they can be the kinds of movies that we remember forever, which is certainly how I feel about the [John] Hughes movies and the Cameron Crowe movies that we talked about. I think what’s missing might just be that authenticity and honesty. It’s really about drilling down on the characters and the stories that we’re telling, and making sure that we’re being as honest as possible, at every turn, especially with teen movies. It’s easy to fall into certain familiar parameters and archetypes, just because that’s what’s been the accepted norm. We let ourselves get away with things that don’t necessarily ring true. The hard work is to put each one of those decisions through the stress test of, “Is this as fresh and different and original as it can be, or are we just walking in pre-made footprints?” That is always a challenge, but it’s definitely true in teen movies.