'I Feel Pretty' Directors on Making a Spiritual Successor to 'Never Been Kissed' (Exclusive)
By John Boone
Photo Credit: Eric Charbonneau/REX/Shutterstock
I Feel Pretty is not Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein's first movie about a woman whose life is radically changed because of a head injury. The writing duo-turned-directing duo previously scripted The Vow, the 2012 rom-dram in which Rachel McAdams can't remember her husband (Channing Tatum) after a car collision leaves her with extensive memory loss. "We're going to hit it from all angles," Silverstein says. "Real and perceived head injuries."
In their new comedy, Amy Schumer plays Renee, a sheepish cosmetics employee preoccupied with what her life would be like if she were "undeniably pretty." Her wish comes true, sort of, when she falls off a bike during a spin class, hits her head and finally sees herself as beautiful. For anyone who watched The Vow and wondered if McAdams' memories might return if she had bonked her head again, it is hardly a spoiler to say that Renee's magic eventually wears off when she, yup, hits her head a second time. "We got the double head bonk!" Kohn laughs. "That was kind of hanging out there for us ever since The Vow, so now we've come full circle with the double head bonk. The full bonk."
"That was an alternate title," Silverstein deadpans. "I Feel Pretty is catchier." The filmmakers phoned ET to discuss negative reaction to the movie's trailer (some claimed the premise of being body shame-y, for one), Michelle Williams' unforgettable accent and what goes into filming one of Busy Philipps' Instagram stories.
No one who has seen the movie, as far as I've been aware, has found it offensive. Did you imagine at any point that there would be backlash to this? Did you brace for it?
Kohn: Not for a second. Not for a second! Because the movie -- which you've seen, so obviously it's easy for us to have a dialogue about it when we've both seen it -- but the movie is so opposite and runs so antithetical to any negative body image or anything negative about women and self-esteem, so it never crossed our minds. That was such an important thing as we were shooting. The humor of this movie and the heart of this movie were both equally important to us and something that stayed at the forefront of our minds. So, for me, personally, [it] never crossed my mind that it could be interpreted as anything else.
Silverstein: Yeah. And for me, I didn't predict the specific thing of what happened, but I feel like just where we are with online culture, I think everything does get some sort of backlash in some way. So, it didn't surprise me. I just didn't know exactly what it would be. But I do feel like the good news for us is the movie speaks for itself, regardless of what people want to feel or think about it without having seen it. If you've seen it, I don't think there's any question that those worries are not founded at all.
What conversations did you have about balancing Renee's low self-esteem and generally feeling bad about herself with not making fun of Amy's body or appearance?
Silverstein: Since we wrote it, we were very cognizant of that idea from the beginning. The stuff in the beginning of the movie was very purposefully crafted to be centered around her perception of herself as opposed to any sort of reality where she's being made fun of or beaten down because of the way she looks or the way acts. It's only her perception of the world -- this thing that she wishes she was -- that's keeping her back. And then once she gains that confidence, we were very specific in the kind of comedy we were doing, where it was only the comedy of over-confidence. That's where we get our laughs. It's funny to see anybody of any type really walk into a room and say such brazenly complementary things about themselves. Like, people just don't do that. So, that's what's funny about the movie. It's really enjoyable and there's a certain wish fulfillment to be like, "Man, I wish I could just present myself in that fashion to people." Because no one has that self-confidence.
After Renee hits her head, there's a scene where she describes how she sees her body. Did you ever consider showing what she is seeing?
Kohn: That was one of the things -- even as first-time directors where, you know, we really needed to work collaboratively with everyone -- that was one point on which we were not gonna move. We felt adamant that we never see what she sees. Because that's really not what this movie is about. We don't want to show a picture of a sort of approved beauty. It's not about that! And so I think we always wanted to leave it-- Because it doesn't really matter what she sees. What she sees is an idealized version of herself, whatever that might mean.
Silverstein: Right. And I think that helps the audience project their own ideas on to that. I feel like once you nail it down, people are like, "Well, that's not what I see." Or, "That's not what I think." And, for us, it went hand-in-hand with coming up with the concept of the movie, which was not just nothing changes but also, and we never see what she sees.
Kohn: And we never see it. We never see what she sees. We never see what the friends see. It's about confidence!
Silverstein: It was also a way -- because we love movies like Big and Tootsie and were definitely consciously thinking about those kinds of movies when we came up with this, but the modern twist on it for us was to not see it. That was the way to do it in a different way that felt contemporary. So, no. For us, there was never a moment where we wanted to.
Kohn: I mean, we were very adamant about it, and yet, the day on set where we shot the scene where she believes she's turned beautiful, we did breathe a very heavy sigh of release where we were like, "OK. It works. It's gonna work. We got it."
How does the character you wrote change when Amy signs on?
Silverstein: Truthfully and sort of miraculously, not much. She really bought into the script that we wrote and really bought into that character. Obviously, it was an amazing collaborator and she's so funny and had great ideas for jokes. I think the way in which Amy plays the confidence was specific to her in a way that wasn't as specific in the script as written. But it is pretty much exactly how it was for us and it's like she wanted to do it. This was a very quick schedule of her saying yes and us starting to shoot. She read it and was like, "I wanna do this specific movie that's written like this, and let's get to work." It was so lucky and kind of a magical marriage for us that this happened.
Kohn: And then, of course, she brought so much...just, funny. Whether it's bringing jokes or doing bits. I mean, we can imagine what it's like to see someone try to get comfortable on a piece of driftwood that is the seating area at a cosmetics company, but only when you see Amy Schumer do it does it become that kind of funny. Bringing humor to every moment whether scripted or not scripted. The character is really the character we wrote, but the color and the humor and all that just became so enriched by her doing it.
Silverstein: Right. It was our directors to give her those things and see what happened. Like, in the office, we were like, "Let's put a log as a chair! And let's have water around the [conference room] with these steps and see how she walks across it!" That stuff wasn't scripted, that was just production design stuff that we were like, putting Amy in this weird situation might make some really funny things happen.
And so much of the humor is from pushing a scene into awkward, cringe-worthy territory. In terms of how awkward it gets, do you find that on the page, on set or in the edit? Can it become too awkward?
Kohn: [Laughs] I mean, for us, maybe not! We live for those awkward film moments. We love them!
Silverstein: We definitely write towards that, for sure. That's a scripted thing for us. But we were very open to whatever it was the actors, even day players, wanted to bring to their parts. It was not a very strict set. But we also, all of us, Amy included, were super confident in the script as it stood, so we were always shooting the scene and then seeing what we could find. It was a safe place. We knew [the scene] and it was pretty calculated, and then we had some time to have some fun, also.
What was the actual description written in the script for Michelle Williams' voice?
Silverstein: It was...I'm trying to remember the exact description. It was basically like, "It's kind of high pitched and really weird, with an intense vocal fry." That's what the description was.
Kohn: And we love her interpretation. I think we heard it in our heads a little bit more-- I don't want to say Valley Girl, but a little bit of overdone Valley. And I actually feel like that might have gotten grating, and what she did with it was perfect.
Silverstein: What was crazy about it was she was so into it -- and I mean, it wasn't like a Method thing where she didn't ever break character -- but she was doing it so much and so effortlessly that when she would start talking in her regular voice people would just, like--
Kohn: Forget for a moment.
Silverstein: It was jarring because her voice in real life doesn't seem that deep, but when she talks without the high pitch voice--
Kohn: She sounds like she's doing a character voice of an older man. [Laughs] Even though it's just her voice, and now it feels--
Silverstein: We all got so used to the high pitch voice.
Marc, does Busy get to read the script and have the first pick of roles? Or how does that work with casting your wife?
Silverstein: [Laughs] She definitely had read right after we finished. Both of our spouses are pretty much the only people we have read stuff, besides each other.
Kohn: And Busy was an early adopter. Because we were pretty confident that this is the one that we wanted to direct, but as soon as she read the script she was like, "This is it."
Silverstein: We knew we wanted that group of friends to feel lived-in and like three girls who would really hang out and Aidy [Bryant] and Busy and Amy all knew each other before and it felt like a real, natural thing to do. Although I will say, because Michelle wasn't available at the two table reads, Busy did do the high-pitched voice a couple times. That was really fun to hear. She really enjoyed doing that.
If that table read was recorded, I advocate for it to be included on the DVD, because I would love to hear it. You also have Naomi Campbell in this. My favorite thing about Naomi Campbell is that she's become so infamous for being late that she essentially just embraces it. Was Naomi Campbell late to set? And if so, how late was she?
Silverstein: The crazy thing, she was not -- not on our production. She was there to work and could not have been more a part of the team. It was really fun. She was down and was like, "More! I'll do more!" Like, wanted to really get in there and had a really good time with Amy and Michelle.
Kohn: Yeah, wanted to do it, wanted to be directed, wanted to try different things, was uber-prepared. She also looks pretty good. [Laughs]
That's not something she's known for.
Kohn: It's un-believable.
I'm curious: Did SoulCycle have to approve this? Did they give you notes on the script?
Silverstein: They gave no notes. They did have to approve. I'm an avid SoulCycler and we had gone really early on to the people who own it and were like, "Can we do this? Can we shoot in your [facility]?" I was just pretty adamant that it be authentic and I was so relieved when they said yes, because we were very wary of making up a fake thing that felt not real. This just adds a level of reality to it. Because you really want that opening scene to feel like, I've been in that situation -- whether it's SoulCycle or a yoga class or any sort of group exercise thing, where you walk in and you're like, I don't know what I'm doing and everyone else knows what they're doing, and you feel so out of place. [It] was really metaphoric for Renee and her life, how she would move through the world. Like, that's how she always felt.
Kohn: I think it gave SoulCycle extra confidence that Angela [Manuel-Davis], who plays the SoulCycle instructor Luna, is actually a SoulCycle instructor. And not just a SoulCycle instructor, but a revered and renowned SoulCycle instructor in L.A. Her classes, I think, are impossible to get into. I don't exercise but so I've heard. I think having her not only was wonderful for us, obviously, because she could do all of that believably, but for SoulCycle too. It gave them an extra confidence that we were doing what they really do.
This is rated PG-13 when so many comedies these days go for hard R. Was it always conceived that way?
Kohn: It was! And I'm proud of the humor, that we are able to keep it PG-13. I think the message of this movie is an important one and we'd lose a lot of girls and women if it was R. It's great that the message of the movie -- about self-confidence and about body confidence -- can be available to younger girls and younger women.
You wrote your first romantic comedy in 1999 -- Never Been Kissed -- did you have a moment over the years, as studios seemingly stopping making rom-coms, of, "Oh no, our bread and butter!"
Kohn: We're probably morons, because we haven't. [Laughs] Now that you've brought it up, maybe we'll ruminate. But no, we really haven't. I guess because rom-coms sort of were not as popular, but then the romantic drama à la The Vow had a resurgence, and so we did that. We talk about how there are certain kinds of movies from, whatever, the '80s and '90s that we love, but everything is cyclical and we feel like those things can come back.
Silverstein: Yeah, we ride the wave and you just push it around into different areas. This and Never Been Kissed are more character comedies with romantic elements. They're not your straight, like, guy meets girl, girl meets guy and they fall apart for a while and then try to get back together, or whatever. Those have gone more out of style, for sure, but we moved into the romantic drama, we moved into the multi-character story arc version of that movie. You just try to keep it fresh. People want to see stories about relationships, so I think you just have to frame it in a way that seems new.
Kohn: I would say that's true. We've always striven -- strived? Whatever, you know -- to do character comedy and not, in any movie, try to hinge it on getting the girl, losing the girl, getting the girl back. Even to us, that's not that interesting, you know? We feel like in different ways there's always a place for movies with humor and heart in them, and that's really what we want to do.
As writers and now directors of the genre, however the movie might fit into it, how is your approach different now versus the '90s?
Silverstein: That's interesting. I mean, truthfully, between this and Never Been Kissed, not that different at all. When we started this, we felt like this is a spiritual successor to that movie in a way. Because, again, it's a lead character comedy that has a broad, high concept to it, but it's treated in a very real way. And it's sort of kind of the same thing! So, we don't try to change what we do that much. You're obviously changing characters and styles, but I don't really feel like our approach to movies is that different than it ever was.
Lastly, Marc, my office is obsessed with your appearances in Busy's Instagram stories.
Silverstein: They are?! Why?
They like a rare Marc cameo, but they say they're--
Silverstein: They're upset that I'm not in them more?
Silverstein: Oh, obsessed. I thought you said upset.
Kohn: They don't like you! He's trying to say nicely they don't like your appearances and they'd like you to stay off.
No, they want to see more of you!
Silverstein: Yeah, but that's because they don't see me that much. I think this is the right amount, to the point where they keep wanting more, but if we gave them more, they'd be like, "Enough. I don't want it anymore."
Is that something you're actually conscious about, when and how often you appear in Busy's stories? Or is it just that you're there?
Silverstein: It's funny. It's not calculated at all, it just kind of happens. But it's truthfully like, if I'm part of the story, then I'll be in it. But if I'm not, then I won't. It's not calculated where I have to be represented if I'm standing there. I don't. And I'd rather not be, just as a bystander. But if I'm part of what's going on, sure! I don't have a problem with that.
You do it for the integrity of the story. You're not just doing it for the paycheck.
Silverstein: I wish there was one tied to it! But there's not...