Will Gluck is a filmmaker with an authentic voice who usually writes the material he directs and creates projects that have something to say about popular culture in a unique way. After Fired Up, his first foray into the high school genre, met with a less than enthusiastic reception, he was wary of doing another high school movie again. But that changed after he read Easy A, Bert Royal’s sharp and funny script about Olive Penderghast, a smart high school senior who acquires a sudden reputation as the campus slut after a little white lie she tells hits the social network sites with lightening speed and takes on a life of its own.
Gluck is currently in production on his next feature, Friends with Benefits, starring Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Woody Harrelson, Patricia Clarkson, and Richard Jenkins. He is also lined up to direct Rehab from a screenplay by Sam Laybourne and has written the comedy Taildraggers about a group of young Alaskan pilots who face off against a local taxi company. On the small screen, he is currently developing an untitled show about the Catskills gas rush for HBO with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo. More after the jump:
We sat down recently with Will at a roundtable interview to talk about Easy A. He told us why Emma was the perfect casting choice for Olive, how his unique approach to directing brought out the best performances from his cast, and why he took aim at the evangelical bible-thumpers and had fun mocking them in his movie. He also updated us on his new film, Friends with Benefits, about the relationship between two friends that gets complicated when they decide to become romantic.
WG: No. When I did TV shows and my other movies, I never try to do it for anybody. I just do what I think is good no matter what the genre is. In the past, it hasn’t been received as well as this one seems to have been received. So no, I never try to hit a quadrant. In fact, not until we really get into the marketing aspect of the movie when they actually say what quadrant it is, I’m like I guess that is for that quadrant. It always confuses me.
Q: Especially with something that’s going to be classified as a comedy and there are a lot of elements to this.
WG: Right, hopefully.
Q: Studios seem very concerned about who they’re going to market this to. Do you get notes during production?
WG: No. First of all, I’m lucky that I produced the movie. So I’m lucky that I give myself notes which I agree with most of the time. But, in the movies I’ve done for Sony, they’ve never given me quadrant specific notes ever. They say “Keep making it. Just make the movie you want to do.” Especially in a comedy because comedy is so tone specific. When they hire someone to do it, whether the tone is correct or not, it’s subjective but they let you do your own thing which is why I love it there.
Q: Emma said she’d been tracking the script. Was there a buzz on the script among people around town?
WG: There was definitely buzz around the script for actresses. There are not that many roles in comedies like this that are completely driven by a young actress, so definitely that group from age – let’s see, what are the youngest that auditioned – I’d say from age 16 to about 30 which is interesting, there were people who wanted to play this role.
Q: When you get a script like this, the good news is you have a great script to start with but the bad news is that it’s all on you. I mean, if this thing goes south, it’s not in the writing.
WG: Well that’s the thing. I always try to make stuff in my tone so what I liked about the script was the story, the characters, the structure and the kind of great message it was sending. But I knew I’d make it my own whether I liked it or not. On set I do a lot of changes so I knew that it would either sink or swim for what I did with it.
Q: Do you consult with the writer about that? Was he on set and did you guys collaborate?
WG: He was on set a couple times. I collaborate mostly once we’ve cast it. Because of the great cast we had, I structured the roles to the cast so that once we get all those people coming in, then I meet with them, rehearse with them and collaborate more with them.
Q: Can you talk about how you assembled the cast?
WG: It was the combination of the utter support of Clint Culpepper who is the President of Screen Gems who put his complete everything on the line to get this cast and the material and a lot of meetings and begging, mostly Clint begging and me begging and Clint saying “Trust me, trust me, trust me.” And hopefully, we didn’t let anybody down.
Q: You said you didn’t get a lot of notes, but were they picky about cast, because this is Emma’s first lead?
WG: It’s interesting, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about that and the answer is an unequivocal no. I always call this movie the little movie that could. It’s probably the lowest budget movie Sony has made. I never got the note “Hey, let’s cast the person who was in this movie or that movie or this person who’s about to break.” It was always when Emma came in and auditioned. To tell the story, I always say I had all the people audition then go home to their laptops and do any scene from the movie into the webcam because that’s the movie. And that day, Emma emailed her iChat to me which is actually going to be on the DVD, whether she knows it or not, and I walked over to the studio and said “Here. Push play. Here it is.” And there was no denying that.
Q: You step into a few interesting minefields dealing with, for instance, Evangelical Christians or teachers who sleep with students. To boldly go into that territory takes guts and often that’s the sort of thing that is soft pedaled in movies.
WG: The teacher sleeping with the student, that happens, especially nowadays. And that’s something I did because I wanted to get a PG-13 rating. There was no question when I took this that it would be PG-13. So that’s something we changed by making him 21 or 22. If he was 17, they would have never allowed us a PG-13. But because he’s 21, 22, it’s legal and I made a joke about that during the whole movie that “She’s 21. I checked, I checked.” So, to me, that softened that part a little bit. But the Evangelical Christians, that’s actually the thing I’m the most angry myself about how I did that in the movie. If I could go back and change it, that’s the thing I would soften a little bit because I never wanted to make fun of or mock Evangelical Christians. I wanted to make fun of and mock Evangelicals and zealots. I didn’t care who they were. But, in doing it, they happened to be Christian, so one of the comments I’ve been getting is why so hard on Evangelical Christians and my response is I’m not at all. I’m hard on Evangelicals, especially when you’re so young and you don’t know what you’re talking about. So, if I could pull something back, it would be the actual religion-specific part of it.
Q: What would you do?
WG: Well I softened it a lot more than it was actually. I would never really reference Christianity. The name of the club in the movie is the Cross Your Heart Club. At one point, it was the Christian Student Coalition. It was right there. So I would pull way back on what it actually is. I did a lot of Jesus tells you. You don’t have to say “Jesus tells you.” It could just be zealotry without… You know, if you know it’s Christianity, it can be there, but you don’t have to hit it on the head.
Q: In terms of casting, it seems like you’ve put together a little bit of a repertory company and you brought some of them back for Friends with Benefits. Even though their characters are different, do you find that there’s a certain comfort zone or trust that’s there once you’ve worked with people?
WG: Yeah, I started doing TV shows and I was called the snowball. It starts with crew and cast. You go through your career and you find people and cast who you love and you go through and keep them and you never want to let them go because you have a great repertory as you said with them. When you have such good actors like Patricia Clarkson, it’s not really hard for her to do a different character. And when you have such a good actor like Emma Stone, it’s not hard for her to do a different character. So, the people that keep coming back, I’m very confident that their roles in this next movie, you’re not going to think it’s the same. They’re good actors who make that very easy. And also, Patricia Clarkson in Friends with Benefits looks completely different than what she does in Easy A.
Q: Everybody has such exquisite timing on their lines and really hits it. Obviously they’re all pros but for me it denotes a very strong hand at the helm. Can you talk about how you were working with the actors?
WG: I have an interesting style which I thought would evolve but it hasn’t and luckily I work with people who can accept that style. When I work, I’m right at the camera so I’m literally six inches away from their faces at all times. I never go to the monitor. I just look at the camera monitor and my favorite part of all of the directing, except for the writing and editing of it, is right when we’re rolling and they do lines and I’ll say “Try this, try this, try this.” At the beginning, some people aren’t used to that style and they get a little nervous, but luckily everyone on this movie and the next movie have accepted that and they really get into it. So, by the time I finish rolling, I might have fifty variations of lines or emotions or all that kind of stuff. I pretty much get the gamut so when we go to editing, I can pick exactly what works for the scene, which takes a lot of trust on the part of the actors because they don’t know what I’m going to do but hopefully [it works]. That’s why I was so scared with this movie with these great actors that I really wanted them to like it when they were done. I was very nervous showing it to all of them and then they told me they were happy anyway.
Q: Everyone has commented on how great the writing is. Was there any improvisation or was it straight from the script?
WG: It was 100% straight. I would say this script is a departure point. Every scene was rewritten during the shooting — every single one – and I don’t do improv in the way that people say “Go, try anything now.” The way I always do it is I stop and I say “Why don’t we try this and let’s try that and try it right now for me.” And then, once we get it and it’s right there, then we shoot it. Again, these theories are based on no success (laughs) but so long as there’s one success, then these theories will hold true. I think that when you do improv when the cameras are rolling, you’re much more concerned with getting something else out than actually giving the right performance. So, if I stop the camera and say “Well, let’s try ‘the governors and athletes.’ Let’s try that line, Stanley. Try it for me now.” And he tries it and it’s great. “Let’s shoot it now.” So then there’s no pressure in having to come up with something. It’s much more mellow, kind of in-between stuff.
Q: The parents were not portrayed as lunkheads that were totally unaware of what’s going on in the real world. Was that there from the beginning?
WG: A lot has to do with Patty and Stanley, the actors playing it. I really wanted to use the parents to show where Olive came from. Olive is an interesting character, and if it wasn’t in the hands of Emma Stone, it’s kind of hard. She doesn’t do some great things. She’s smarter than people. I actually added a couple scenes with Patty and Stanley to do that, and in their scenes, if you watch the movie again, no plot happens there. When I first started to write it and when I went to shoot it, some of the studio guys went “Why do you even need these scenes because nothing happens in them in this kind of movie that’s plot, plot, plot, plot?” But it shows you where Olive came from. To me, it’s like they’re very smart, they know what’s going on, but they let their daughter make her own mistakes instead of telling her [what to do]. To me, my favorite moment in the whole movie is when Emma is sewing the A’s on and Stanley comes in and makes a whole joke about it. “It’s okay, I was gay once. It’s okay.” And he just looks at Emma and says “You okay, buddy?” which is what my Dad says to me all the time. “You okay, buddy?” And she says “Yeah.” That, to me, is the connection. It’s like you’re crazy and I’m making jokes and everything but connection? “Is everything okay?” And she looks at him and goes “Yeah.” That’s all she needed in that part to go. My parents are behind me. They know something is going on but they want to see what happens with it. To me, that’s how you connect them.
Q: Everyone is really smart in the movie and always ready with the funniest line possible. Was that a little bit of a concern at all?
WG: If you watch my other stuff, I always do what’s called heightened reality. My first movie and my TV shows, it’s what I always say. “Boy, I wish I talked that way. I wish people talked that way. I wish I acted that way.” Even Friends with Benefits, it’s a little heightened reality. That’s what I like.
WG: The other thing I always say to people and it’s something I’m very conscious of is “Humans don’t speak that way.” I started in sitcoms. That’s where all my training came from because we’re writing constantly. It comes from television. It really does. When you people have a set up joke and the joke is set up straight and the words are just well written, I always say “C’mon, humans don’t speak that way.” In fact, there’s one line where Emma holds up the sign that says “terminological exactitude,” that big line which was Bert’s complete line in all the stuff, and then I added “which of course is my obnoxious way of saying lies travel fast” because humans don’t speak that way. But, if she spoke that way and if she comments on the fact that she speaks that way, I think to the audience it’s a relief. Okay, she’s saying big words, SAT words in high school that girls always say, but she’s acknowledging the fact that she’s kind of being heightened. So, as long as people acknowledge the fact that it’s kind of heightened a lot of the time, and you stop and take a breath. It is a fine line and believe me, I spent months and months and months in editing figuring out the line, and a couple of things I look back in the screening of it the other day, I think “Oh man, I want to kill myself,” but it’s a fine line.
Q: When you look at screwball comedies from the past, it seems they have what this movie has. It’s sarcastic as hell and then ultimately sweet. How do you use sarcasm without being too cynical?
WG: I love very dry, sarcastic stuff but I also really love playing emotional moments and the movie I’m doing right now is like that, too. I think what’s happening – now and again my theories are based on a career of mediocrity – but nowadays in comedy you get up to a moment that’s about to be a real moment and they always back down from it because I always think whoever makes the movies is afraid that their friends are going to make fun of them for being pussies. Right? That’s my theory. But I think that you can do the moment, kind of make fun of the moment with the characters, and then actually continue the moment. It’s the kind of big relief moment. You go “Wow, this is an emotional moment.” And then the characters in the movie talk about [the fact] that it’s an emotional moment and then you continue to have the moment. My other idea is that people in movies and TV seem to be completely dumb to what’s going on in the real world and relationships. People in real life know a guy or a girl they see walking down the street, and they think “Well, that’s going to end badly because she’s married and he’s…” But in movies, it’s like “Wow! What’s going to happen? I have no idea what’s going to happen as they go through life.” That’s why I put so much pop culture in my movies because we speak about pop culture all the time. But, for some reason, movies exist in a world where there’s no pop culture. You know, there’s none, they don’t talk about any of it. But all we do is talk about movies. So if I put in stuff like the whole thing about the 80s and I want my movie and where’s my movie? At the end, Ken Badgley gives Emma a movie moment like he does but he knows he’s giving her a movie moment. At screenings, you see everyone laughing when you see it. A big huge laugh when you see the lawn mower and then emotion when he does this. So you get both and I really love playing those moments when it’s like hairs on your skin but it’s also funny because you have your cake and eat it too. It’s funny. You’ll see different groups of people laugh at different things or respond differently. It’s fun to watch.
Q: About those pop culture references, is that another minefield to step into because when you drop somebody’s name, is that a guy you might want to work with?
WG: No, I’ve done that forever in all my stuff. No, because we do it in life. We do it in life so you have to continue and in fact, in Friends with Benefits, Richard Jenkins plays the father of Justin Timberlake and we’re doing it right now and there’s a scene. Friends with Benefits is a much more emotional film and he’s has Alzheimers so he forgets things all the time obviously, and there’s a moment where there’s a character – it’s a cameo and I can’t say who it is – who forgets who he is. He doesn’t know who he is and he thinks he’s somebody else because he’s got red hair and he calls her Julia Roberts and Richard Jenkins says to this guy “I love you in Eat, Pray, Love.” Richard and I had a big discussion about whether we wanted him to do that and we still haven’t decided what to do with that little moment.
Q: That’s a “take you out of the movie” moment potentially.
WG: Kind of, if you get it. If not, you don’t. I keep trying to do that so you never – if you get it, you get it. If you don’t, it stands completely on its own.
Q: In a recent film, there’s a scene where Sigourney Weaver shows up and there are a lot of comments about how great she looks and the kid says “Yeah, you look computer generated.” Okay, now I’m seeing Avatar.
WG: Right. But here’s my response to that. Everyone knows who was in Avatar. By the time this movie comes out, who knows if Richard Jenkins is in Eat, Pray, Love?
Q: That depends on box office numbers.
WG: Not even, though. Because if you stop and ask ten people who’s in Eat, Pray, Love, they’ll go “Julia Roberts, Julia Roberts, Julia Roberts and that guy who was married to Penelope Cruz.” Right? That’s my theory anyway. (Laughs)
Q: Do you have the experience that if it’s a good movie, even if it’s not targeted to you, it’s still a good movie?
WG: Yeah, I don’t care. My favorite thing about this movie is I didn’t want to go. I’d been to millions of screenings of this movie and I didn’t want to go and the guys just love it. They didn’t think they would love it but they absolutely love it. People ask what quadrant. Is it for the under 25 women? They’re going to be buying the opening tickets. No question. Mid-30s males who grew up on 80s movies? They’re going to love this movie. I made it for me. So, to answer your question, I don’t make it for a specific quadrant even though it’s about something however. I hope everyone goes to see it and they’re not turned off by it.
Q: In terms of working to keep it a PG-13, a lot of the stuff that’s geared towards a younger audience is skewing towards an R rating or crossing over into the R. At least you had in mind that you wanted teenagers. It’s a story about teenagers but it’s also a story that parents of teenagers or people who are in the adult world could appreciate.
WG: In screenings, we’ve had a lot of anecdotal comments like fathers went with their daughters and they drove home and it was the first conversation they ever had with their daughter about sex on the way home and I’m like wow, that’s great. And the best thing is we had a screening in New York which I went to and there were 400 people in the audience – it was a college age audience at a Q&A – and a girl stands up and she says “I’m 18 years old and I’m a virgin and I just want to let you know that it’s so awesome that she’s a virgin and she doesn’t care about it and she lets the world know it’s okay to be a virgin.” This is in front of 400 people and there was like dead silence and then everyone just starts clapping. People are applauding virginity. So I was very conscious of wanting to keep it sweet. I think when you take a movie like this and you make it R, it gets…this is like a sexless sex comedy because you never see any sex. So why show sex? The sexual act – thinking about the sexual act, the telling about the sexual act, after the sexual act, is so much more important than the actual sexual act – just in time. It’s like of the whole sexual act, you probably spend 95% of the time thinking about it, talking about it afterwards. The actually sexual act, especially when you’re 17, is minutes. It’s never attractive. It’s not fun. It’s scary and it’s like taking an elevator ride. So, if I eliminate that and just focus on the beginning and the after, that’s what sex in high school is about. I don’t think anyone says “Wow, the best sex I ever had was when I was 16 years old.”
Q: It also addresses the issue of social media and the influence on teenagers. Do you see this accelerating what already is happening?
WG: Well that’s the shot. That’s what I did with those shots. I think about 5 years ago, when rumors happened, it took a while to get around and time heals everything. So that helps rumors. But now when something happens, it’s instantaneous. And the other thing that’s happening is it’s not only instantaneous but it legitimizes everything instantly. If you see something written, you think it’s real and that’s what’s completely changing everything and you can’t take it back.
Q: When does your other film come out?
WG: July 22nd. I’m not finished shooting yet.
Q: Is that the fun part for you? Or the editing? You talked about going back and forth on different scenes.
WG: Shooting is the most fun part. That’s where it comes together for me hopefully. Or not. (Laughs)
Q: I like that you’re up there with the actors instead of in video village because we keep hearing a lot of directors say “Oh, I saw it on the monitor” instead of seeing it in their eyes.
WG: It’s not only that. To me, the big difference is when you yell cut and then you have to walk over there and deliver a note, it gives it much more import as opposed to “Hey, try that.” It’s just much more intimate, I think.
Easy A opens in theaters on September 17th.