From director Anne Fletcher and screenwriter Kristin Hahn, and based on the best-selling novel by Julie Murphy, the Netflix dramedy Dumplin’ follows Willowdean (Danielle Macdonald), the teenage daughter of Texas beauty queen Rosie Dickson (Jennifer Aniston). Struggling to feel comfortable in her own skin after a family tragedy, plus-size Will, known to her mother as Dumplin’, enters the Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant as a form of protest, and with Dolly Parton as her spirit guide, she unexpectedly finds herself on a journey of self-discovery that teaches her about how true beauty comes from within.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, director Anne Fletcher talked about how Dumplin’ came her way, the appeal of the story and characters, developing the script, what made Danielle Macdonald (who’s tremendous in the film) her Willowdean, how Jennifer Aniston brought Rosie to life, how the drag queens fit into it all, and getting new Dolly Parton songs for the film. She also talked about what’s next for her, as a director, and branching out into TV.
Collider: I very much enjoyed this movie. I just thought it was delightful and sweet, and so much fun.
ANNE FLETCHER: Thank you so much! Those are all great words to hear.
When you first read the script, what did you most deeply and strongly respond to? Was it the themes and messages of it, was it a specific character, or was it a bit of everything?
FLETCHER: It takes me forever to finally read something. If I read something, I know that I’m in it for three and a half hours because I do a detailed reading, and I’m a slow reader. So, I was in London visiting my best friend, and my agent called and said, “They are serious about you directing this movie.” I was like, “Oh, okay, I’ll get to it.” I had brought the script with me to London, and half-way through the script, I was looking at friendships and relationships, and the mother-daughter relationship, and Lucy. It was dealing with all of these great characters. By the half-way point, I got to the computer, as fast as I could, and I wrote, “I have to do this movie! I’m half-way through and I’ll finish it, but just let them know that I want to do this movie. No question about it!” Then, my agent wrote back, “That’s so great! I’m so happy to hear that! Wait until the drag queens come into play.” I said, “How do drag queens fit into this small town in Texas, with these young girls?!” I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. To my delight and my joy, they come in and are a treat beyond comprehension. They become the fairy godmothers.
Ultimately, once I got into it and started reading it, there were so many things going on that I responded to. The main reason I wanted to do it was for girls because I grew up with no movies like this. It does not matter what body you’re born in, you’re amazing already and you should not listen to any outside anything that’s going on. I’m a girl, so I know what my girl experience was, and we hear what society has to say – whether it’s teachers, friends, parents, magazines, movies, or whatever – and we somehow internalize it as truth, and we grow up with this lie that’s embedded in our bodies, which messes with our identity of how great we are, just the way we are, period. We try to fix our hair and our skin, and we lose weight, which is crap. I thought this movie really spoke to that, in a fun way, without beating you over the head with a message.
So, I signed on and started developing the script. The main thing for me, besides Dolly’s music being the heart and soul of the movie, was Lucy. You’ve got Rosie and Willowdean, and the driving force is their grief over losing Lucy and how they function, in the world, without their family anchor and the support that makes their family work. There’s this tiny layer of grief that’s playing in there, which I really loved. It’s not uber dramatic, but it’s there. There were all of these little nuggets of the human girl experience. There’s so much going on. And I really wanted to tell the story 100% from Will’s point of view. She’s a 17-year-old girl who hasn’t had any life experience yet, so it’s really her perception of the world. Even though she’s dealing with her own insecurities, the loss of her aunt, her terrible relationship with her mom, and her best friend, all of these things are going on. Hopefully, it will speak to anyone who feels like they might be on the outside or like they don’t fit into the social norms. Hopefully, it just speaks to everybody.
Had you also been reading any other scripts that you were thinking about directing, at the time, or were you just not reading anything, and then this came along?
FLETCHER: When you do have downtime, your wonderful agent, who’s there to get you work and a job, sends you a ton of scripts. I think I had grabbed five from the stack that I had at home. I was in the process of reading a ton of scripts to see what would speak to me and what I wanted to do next. You learn something from each movie, and you try to apply that to your future, so you don’t make the same mistakes, or you do the same wonderful things that you loved. It’s really about the characters and finding a story that speaks to me. After Step Up, which was my first movie, my agent knew that I really didn’t want to do teens for awhile, and if it was a teen thing, it had to be something so special. Dumplin’ is five movies later, and it was so special to me that I didn’t even finish the damn thing before I said, “I have to do this movie!” As a director, you get submissions and you just read and read and read, until something finally speaks to you.
What was it about Danielle Macdonald that made you see Willowdean in her?
FLETCHER: We were fortunate enough to see a private screening of Patty Cake$ because it hadn’t come out yet, but we had heard about Danielle. Everybody in town had heard about Danielle and the movie. So, it was just the three of us – myself and my two producers, at the time – at the screening and, at the end of the movie, I just screaming at the top of my lungs because I loved it so much. I’m a pretty audible person, anyway, but I thought it was so well done, in part because of her. She’s beyond charismatic. She’s a fantastic actor, and you just want to be inside of her head, all the time. Of course, like with any movie, I saw her and was like, “I have to meet her! She’s so perfect for the movie.” So, I met her and had a five-hour coffee meeting with her because we just fell deeply in love with each other. I was slightly nervous, just for a moment, that maybe Jen [Aniston] and Danielle might like look like contemporaries because Jen is so young and so youthful. I just didn’t know. I had asked for us all to get together, so that I could see the two of them together, and Jen wanted to meet Danielle. I was already at Jennifer’s house, and Danielle hadn’t gotten there yet. We were talking and the door opened, and I saw Jen and Danielle’s faces, and in that second, I said, “Done! It’s perfect! They’re amazing together!” I knew they’d be great, as actors. I have good instincts about people and what their chemistry is gonna be like on screen, and I already knew that Jen and Danielle are beautiful people. I was like, “This is gonna be a match made in heaven!” It could not have been more perfect.