|Interview: Kissing Jessica Stein|
The recipient of the audience award for Best Feature Film at the 2001 Los Angeles Film Festival and the FedEx Audience Award at the 2002 Miami Film Festival, the new romantic comedy Kissing Jessica Stein also screened at the 2001 Toronto and Chicago International Film Festivals. It opens in limited release on March 13, 2002.
AboutFilm's Carlo Cavagna sat down with a small group of journalists to talk about Kissing Jessica Stein with writers/stars Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen and director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, in Los Angeles on February 19th.
Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen
he elevator spits me out on the eleventh floor of the hotel in Westwood. Unsure where to go, I head toward the large Kissing Jessica Stein placard standing at the end of the hall. I'm at most two or three minutes late, but the place seems deserted. As I approach the poster, I nearly plow into three young women coming down a side corridor.
"What are you here for?" one of them wants to know.
"Um…Kissing Jessica Stein," I respond.
"Oh, well, that's us!" exclaims the tallest of the three, who, I belatedly realize, is Heather Juergensen, co-star and co-writer of the movie. Doh. She is accompanied by Jennifer Westfeldt, the other writer and titular Jessica Stein. The third person is, I assume, some sort of logistical coordinator or manager from Fox Searchlight.
We head back the way I came and duck into a small room with barely enough space for the round table in its center. Two other two interviewers are already there, J. Sperling Reich of FilmStew.com and Les Spindle of Back Stage West and Frontiers.
Unlike many actors, the two women are more striking in person than on screen. Though they are in heavy makeup and all "dolled up" (their term), Westfeldt and Juergensen are so relaxed and natural that they quickly put me at ease. They are as fresh and genuine in person as they are in their performances. Their rapport is smooth and easy, just as you'd expect with two close friends who have worked together for years. Throughout the interview, they take each other's thoughts and run with them. Despite their distinctive personalities, they are difficult to tell apart on audiotape. Westfeldt and Juergensen's enthusiasm for Kissing Jessica Stein, a project the two of them have nurtured for some four years, is boundless and real.
The studio's referee calls time at a half hour, and the actors go off to do radio interviews. Director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld enters, fresh from the radio room. With a nearly shaved head, casual dress, and sporting several rings, Herman-Wurmfeld is an affable and open interviewee, declining only to speak about alternate endings that had been under consideration. An openly gay man, he is especially proud of the sensibility he brought to the movie.
Westfeldt graduated from Yale University and starred in more than 25 off-Broadway and regional productions in New York before moving to Los Angeles in 1997, and landing a role on "Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place" on ABC. Other television projects followed, including David E. Kelley's "Snoops," CBS' "Judging Amy," and Fox's "Holding the Baby," in which she was cast as the lead. She appeared in the independent film See Jane Run, and co-starred opposite Tony Danza in the musical "Fiorello!" in Los Angeles. Westfeldt will produce and star in her solo screenwriting effort, Ira and Abby.
Juergensen cut her teeth as a writer-performer with her first one-woman show, "Letters to an Older Man," and writing for sketch comedy and plays with The Actors Consortium in New York and The Groundlings in Los Angeles. Her latest solo effort, "Blackwannabe," is currently being developed for an off-Broadway run.
Film credits include the Sundance award-winning film The Afterlife of Grandpa. Stage credits include "Pale by Comparison" (Ensemble Studio Theatre) and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (Theater 22). Juergensen has written screenplays and teleplays for Miramax, VH-1, and ABC, among others.
Herman-Wurmfeld made his first film, the Slamdance-screened, 16mm, no-budget feature Fanci's Persuasion in 1994. He later directed several plays in San Francisco, including a trilogy of rock operas--"The Cereal Killers" (named Best of the Bay by the San Francisco Bay Guardian), "Possession of Mrs. Jones," and "Suburbia 3000"--as well as music videos for Caroline and Capricorn Records. For his music documentary From There to Here about John Oszajca, Herman-Wurmfeld was awarded Best Music Documentary at the Yahoo! Internet Life Online Film Festival 2000.
His upcoming film projects include the action/comedy, The Yes Man, and The Pushcart War, based on the book of the same name.
Reich: Normally there's fifty of us in one room. This is a treat.
Westfeldt & Juergensen: [in unison] It is? Good!
Westfeldt: A little quality time all 'round!
AboutFilm: So, this is your first press junket-type thing, isn't it?
Westfeldt: Well, I've done it for TV, but not for film, no, so this is all new.
Juergensen: Definitely my first.
AboutFilm: Are you based in New York? Do you know L.A. well?
Westfeldt: We've both been based here for a while…I have a place there and a place here and run around a lot.
Juergensen: I'm based more in L.A., but I go back and forth as well.
Reich: Where are the personal ads better?
Juergensen: I wish we knew!
Westfeldt: A little juicier in New York, a little wilder in New York. The Village Voice has some of the best in the world.
Juergensen: The San Francisco press guy the other day had brought some of San Francisco's finest and started reading them to us, and we thought those maybe even topped New York.
Westfeldt: They were a little risqué, I must say. They were out there.
Juergensen: They had these two white girls hot and bothered--
Westfeldt: I know, I'll tell ya!
Juergensen: --in the middle of our press day.
AboutFilm: How did you meet?
Westfeldt: We met… [little girl voice] … at a theater class!
Juergensen: At a big summer camp kind of thing that an off-Broadway theater in New York--an ensemble studio theater--sponsors. It's up in the Catskills. Actors, writers and directors go up there and converge on literally what I believe is an ex-boy scout camp.
Westfeldt: Yeah, it really is. We were bunkmates, actually. Four to a bunk!
Juergensen: Yeah. And then you write and you direct, if you've never directed, and they encourage writers to act. There's all this crazy creative--
AboutFilm: Did you know immediately that you wanted to work together?
Westfeldt: We just--we identified--we had sort of similar--
Juergensen: Well, I thought she was the best one in the class, and she thought I was the best one in the class!
Westfeldt: It was funny… We were writing on the same theme, because in this 18-hour-a-day theater craziness, there would always be an hour or so for the original material anyone was working on. You kind of felt like an idiot if you didn't have some original work to bring to the table, so by day three, I was writing on a napkin, like--something--and putting it up. It just turned out that week we ended up both writing about terrible dates and men and women disconnecting. We kind of said offhandedly, "Gee, we should put on a night of our writing, just for fun." Soon after, I came here and got a TV show [Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place]. I was about to start when they pushed back shooting two months, and I suddenly had seven weeks off. I was hating L.A. and missing New York, and I basically said, "I'm going to New York." I called Heather, who I hadn't really spoken to since the summer prior, and said, "Remember the thing about the night and the scenes? Any interest?" That was basically the start.
Juergensen: I was workshopping a play that was blocked, and I thought, "That would be great," because we definitely had like minds and chemicals with this idea. Once we locked ourselves in a room and started spitballing, we had all these sketch and vignette ideas, but this one vignette really stood out to us as comedically rich, that of these two women--
Westfeldt: Two girly girls, Laura Ashley-clad, meeting at a day spa to negotiate how to become lesbians--
Juergensen: They were at the end of the rope with the whole Mars-Venus thing--
Westfeldt: The genesis of the entire thing was just this random, silly sketch about these girls in dresses who were hyper-polite and sweet, desperate to become lesbians and trying to work it out with one another. Over the top and far broader and more comedic than, obviously, the film ends up being. As we wrote and worked on this scene-night, halfway through the process we realized that this one sketch was becoming the lynchpin. All of these bad dates and horrible times with men were leading to this leap. Then, we really started taking the premise seriously, doing research, and talking to women… soon, we had written a play.
Heather Juergensen and Jennifer
Westfeldt in Kissing Jessica Stein.
Juergensen: Yeah… originally we were playing many different women on many different dates. Once we realized that the story was about these two women who get together, then all those dates got drawn in…Suddenly, it all was made clear. Those sketches never saw the light of day as sketches. They only became--
Westfeldt: Helped us through a more interesting, deeper--
Juergensen: From a creative standpoint it was thrilling. We just set out just to have fun, and suddenly we had a story, and then suddenly we had a play.
Westfeldt: And--not unlike this--we would have roundtables every couple of days and invite directors and writers and actors to hear what we were writing. Just in that tiny span of six and a half weeks we got so many thoughts and opinions…Gay women would come! Straight women would come! And everyone would stay up drinking wine and hearing everyone's story about, "Oh, my cousin--" or "No, in college--" or "This happened to me--" or "This happened to my best friend--" By the end of this short rehearsal period we had heard unbelievable numbers of stories, all unique, about similar experiences to the one Jessica and Helen have in the film.
Reich: Why not direct it?
Juergensen: We thought about that… we seriously considered it, but we were concerned with how many hats we were wearing.
Westfeldt: Although, we should say that before the indie process we were with a studio for two years, so it was already--
Reich: With that project?
Westfeldt: With this project, but with another director. Certainly at the time it was a coup just to have our film bought and a place to start. That was already a lot to have gained. They certainly would not have let us direct it with the studio. When we went indie it did seem like a natural idea, but we were already doing the fundraising, doing the rewrites, being the actors, being the producers, doing the location scouting.
Juergensen: We knew we would be so tired already when the cameras were about to roll that we thought, if we don't have some time in the last bit of pre-production and on the set when our job is to be actors, you know--because we wanted to turn in our performances… Out of respect for our craft, we didn't want to try to do everything--
Westfeldt: Now that we've done it, we might direct!
Juergensen: But at that time, it was too much.
Westfeldt: It was so many firsts. It was our first screenplay, it was our first movie--you know, everything…producing…our first raising a million dollars. So many things that seemed so impossible to us that we thought, if we don't have someone to stand behind the camera… [laughing]
Juergensen: Obviously the director is the go-to person. Everyone is wandering up to the director with questions all day long, and we couldn't be the leads of this film and also be constantly troubleshooting. We were doing enough of that as it was.
Westfeldt: Yeah. We were already in the middle of a day of shooting, running off to try to raise a share or doing a quick rewrite for budget…literally! We would leave and doll ourselves up to go sit down with some investment bankers and be like, "So, what it's about is…" [laughs] Because we already had these nineteen hour days and if we had to go watch dailies all night… I mean, the point is Charlie was a collaborator who wanted to help us realize our vision, rather than to eclipse it or own it.
AboutFilm: How did Charlie come to the project?
Juergensen: He's Eden's--one of our producers--brother, and he was in the mix as we were beginning to look at directors on the indie level. We found that Charlie was so hungry, loved the script, really wanted to direct this first feature, for him. It seemed like the right match in terms of his energy and his, you know, "doesn't matter what we have to do, we're gonna make this movie." We were asking a lot to find someone who was willing--we already had these fully realized performances. We would do crazy elaborate screenplay readings just to raise money. By the time we were looking for a director, we were so ready to go, and we needed someone who was also ready to go, hungry, who wanted to get on our fast mini-train and be at the helm and drive just as fast as we wanted to go, and understand that it was going to be collaborative. We retained final cut. It was tricky thing, what we were looking for--someone who was just ready to get on board our team.
Reich: As we were walking out of the screening, a lot of people uttered one name. Woody Allen.
Westfeldt: Oh, well that's good! We aspire to that! I hope they meant like an homage and not ripping off.
Reich: People were saying, "It's like a Woody Allen film." I thought of Annie Hall halfway through, because of the quirkiness and the--
Westfeldt: That makes sense. That's my favorite movie of all time. It's the first movie I actually owned.
AboutFilm: [to Juergensen] And what's your favorite movie? Juergensen: I would say, On the Waterfront is my favorite movie of all time, but Annie Hall is in the top five. Also Blazing Saddles is up there in the top five.
Westfeldt: A little of this, a little of that!
Reich: How much of your own personal lives actually made it into this film?
Westfeldt: You know what, we took everything we could use from our own lives, from our friends' lives, from our families' lives. Heather and I were kind of getting to know each other as we were worked on this, which was neat. I would say, "That's funny, I--" or "That's interesting about your--" or "Maybe that's better for Jessica, so let's use that--" or vice-versa.
Juergensen: "Sexy/ugly" came up that way. We were driving up to Connecticut to Jennifer's parents' house--her parents very generously gave us the house once in awhile to write in--and I was talking about guys, and I just tossed out "sexy/ugly." "Oh, I don't mind a guy who's ugly if he's sexy/ugly," and Jennifer--
Westfeldt: I was like, "That's--a joke!"
Juergensen: --and she literally jotted it down. So things like that would happen, where we would check in with each other. It was nice. It was like a mirror, and that's part of what's great about partnership, because you really can always be watching.
Tovah Feldshuh and Jennifer
Westfeldt in Kissing Jessica Stein.
Westfeldt: For example, Tovah Feldshuh's character, everyone always asks me if she's based on my mother. Well, I always say, it's really based on Tovah…with a little bit of my mother thrown in, because Tovah's been like a second mom to me for eight or nine years. I've known her for a really long time, so we've really been wanting--gunning, really--to play mother and daughter in something. She's such a particular character in life…so juicy.
Juergensen: We got a few good ad libs out of Tovah, I'll tell you!
Reich: There was that one hard scene she had to do…one take…on the porch. It seems like she may have flubbed her lines there, but somehow saved it. I didn't know if that was intentional or…
Westfeldt: No, it's the performance. That's some people's favorite moment, when she gets choked up and can't utter… It's a big moment.
AboutFilm: How did you find Scott Cohen? [Cohen plays Jessica Stein's ex-boyfriend Josh]
Westfeldt: We just cast him. Our casting director. Juergensen: Yeah, we read a lot of guys for Josh Meyers. He just seemed to have the right mix of masculinity, artistic…shadow side…
AboutFilm: "Denby" on NYPD Blue is how I'll always think of him.
Westfeldt: I know, right? But we also, to be fair, we were down to the wire. We were supposed to shoot during the summer, and some other people we had in mind were maybe interested, and then had other jobs starting… We were so lucky to find Scott. We really found him at the eleventh hour.
Juergensen: He's a really great balance of dark and-- He emerges in the film likeable, he's a good guy… but there are some moments there, throughout, when you're like, "Whoa. This guy is freakin' me!"
AboutFilm: He's not likeable at first. You realize he--
Juergensen: That's right, we needed someone who could provide that mix.
Westfeldt: Not unlike Jessica, he's a very flawed character. By the end, he's really grown. But it's a tough thing to know you're going to be unlikeable at the outset, and I think it's interesting, in the story, if a character is flawed and unlikeable and learns something, which hopefully they both do.
Reich: Is there any kind of like…gloating now, at this studio that put it in turnaround?
Westfeldt: Aw, you know, I don't think it's so much gloating, I don't know…
Juergensen: I think we made a different film than the one we would have made there. They were great to us.
Westfeldt: Yeah, the studio was fantastic. Generally, I would say it's not like a gloating so much as… There's a frustration that good scripts are let go… unknown actors who are talented are passed over. There's all this talent out there, and if it's not part of the machine, if it's not one of the five names that you've already seen ten times this year… Every day there are projects you would die to see on screen if someone was allowed to realize the vision, and we'll never see them on the screen because of the system. So, I guess, for us… we're delighted that we've made it, and I think we both have an acute sense of how many people are also out there whose projects have been shelved. The thing is, we got in the hands of a really great studio--
Reich: What was the studio?
Westfeldt: It was Interscope. They were amazing. The director they hired was amazing. We learned everything we needed to know about screenwriting from them, in a way. We were put through the paces; we rewrote it; we took it apart and threw it back together; we did it with several more characters; we did it with this kind of a family or that kind of an ending; we structured it every which way. Because of their generosity, we learned what the tone was that we wanted, what the real voice we had was… It might have been different from what the director or the studio wanted. We sort of wanted an amalgamation between a mainstream comedy and something that was quirky and off and obviously didn't have stars [laughs]. I wouldn't have done it differently, in a way.
Juergensen: Yeah… At the time it was painful because at the time we saw the sand slipping through the hourglass and we felt that we were in, quote unquote, development hell. But, looking back, we can now see that all that time, what it did was not only give us physical time and space to work on the script, which is critical, but sleeping time… marination time.
Westfeldt: Yeah, marination! [the word is the basis of a joke in the film]
Juergensen: We were focusing on themes and character and really starting to understand what our story is about. As the months tick off, you do get a deeper understanding of something you felt you completely understood.
Scott Cohen in Kissing
Westfeldt: And there were some ideas of theirs that we took and ran with that still remain in the final version of the film. So, we owe them much. It was difficult but good, and I think that at the end of the day, rather than a gloating, I feel grateful to everyone involved. All the people involved in the [original] play. The director of the play, the actors in the play… All the actors over the years that we used in countless screenings to hone it… the people at the studio, the director at the studio, all the people who invested, all the people who then got on board, Charlie and Eden and Brad [producer Brad Zions]… We've had, along the way, so many different configurations of people just…there to help us throw it out and work on it.
Juergensen: I feel that somehow it's a testament to the story because, even from the early stage of the play, people really responded to this story…just the premise, or maybe something about our chemistry and what we put into it. People just…it wasn't just that they wanted to support artists who are struggling and trying to make it happen--
Westfeldt: Which is great--
Juergensen: Which is a big part of it, but there's this other factor where a lot people would say to us, "We want to see this made; we want this story to be told." Maybe it has something to do with people's desire to take risks and take leaps and try things and go for it, and accept the blame if it doesn't work out.
Westfeldt: We were very blessed.
AboutFilm: How did you keep it fresh, though, after a four-year process, keep the performances fresh, keep--
Westfeldt: We're from the theater; you gotta do it eight times a week, you know! [laughs] Heather and I have such a good rapport, working on this as actors, that we'd always make it slightly different. There was always a different "Oh!" or a "Mm!" or a thing--whatever we would act would be slightly different every time, I would say, just the inflection or the moment or the rhythm…
Juergensen: Both in the writing itself and also again in the understanding of the piece… If a month went by, or two months went by since the last reading, the work we would have done in that time, it's like going through a new mini-rehearsal process, so that the next reading you have, you're like, "Oo, I'm juiced about that new scene, because that really explains that thing that we never really dealt with." It's like building a building, and the scaffolding keeps going up higher and higher.
Westfeldt: Yeah. It's interesting, but one of the funny things about committing it to film after working on it for so long was… on one hand we were so excited that, "Oh! It's going to be on film! It's going to exist, forever now!" On the other hand it was, "Huh? Hey? What? I get one take? I've been doing it for five years and that's the best I can do?" and, okay, we're losing the light and we're running out, you know?
Reich: Well, I imagine your investors are very happy.
Westfeldt: So far. They don't have all their money back yet, but [knocks on table]
Juergensen: We hope that at the end of, whatever, a certain number of box office returns they will have all of their money back, and a little more. I hope a little more.
Westfeldt: I hope so, too.
AboutFilm: Is this being released beyond New York and L.A.?
Westfeldt: Yeah… six cities the first weekend, and eighteen the second weekend, and then we'll see.
Reich: So where do you go from here? Do you just act? Just write? Or do you do both writing and acting, or do you put directing into the mix?
Westfeldt: We should shed the labels!
Westfeldt: Well, all of those, I hope… I would say that we're both actors first, and we wrote out of acting, so it would be phenomenal if the Ang Lees and Steven Soderberghs of the world wanted to cast us in things. That would be… you know, just great. But beyond that, I think we've learned that we can do it all, and that's empowering. I don't think either one of us would have thought we could accomplish what we have now. Just the actual logistics of learning how to edit and fundraise and produce and direct and cast and act… all of that stuff.
Juergensen: I feel like what's nice if you write is you can create something where you have someone in mind, and sort of slip them in. I don't know what the future holds, but I do hope that we can produce stuff that's fun and exciting and creative and that brings people together that we want to work with.
Westfeldt: And I think there's so few great women's roles that if women don't write them, where are they going to come from, honestly? There's five or six women who are on that star list, and they get all the juicy parts kind of handed to them, and everyone else… there's not that much left. You have to create those things if they don't exist, and I think more people should because there's an audience for it, I hope.
Reich: In the three reviews I read, all three reviewers were just assuming that you were both gay. They just kind of said, "Well, 'course they are." How do you respond to that?
Westfeldt: Oh, well, we're both straight, actually. We're a little bit ashamed to admit it.
Juergensen: We're sorry!
Westfeldt: We're a little tail between our legs… I'm sorry…
Juergensen: Yeah… Actors can hopefully get into the mind and life of anyone.
Reich: My girlfriend's favorite quote is actually, "Oh, so you're the lesbian!"
Westfeldt: I love that they're quoting us… it's so exciting…
[hubbub… silly questions… laughter… they exit]
Charles Herman-Wurmfeld directs.
[Charles Herman-Wurmfeld enters. Introductions.]
Herman-Wurmfeld: This is an awful big table for three or four of us.
AboutFilm: Okay… Can we begin by talking a little bit about how you came to this project? Heather and Jennifer said that you knew them personally.
Herman-Wurmfeld: Yeah. How I came to the project… Why don't we start with… In 1997, I was living in San Francisco, producing and directing there. I had done a trilogy of rock operas, a 16mm feature, and tons of theater, and I was still broke, and I felt like I was going nowhere. So, I got on my bicycle, and I rode to Los Angeles. It took me about ten days. My sister Eden was living in the Fairfax district and going to UCLA Producers, and Jen and Heather were living down the street. At that time, they were at Interscope and making their movie inside the studio system. They found out that there was an unemployed director crashing on his sister's couch down the street. We met, and they said, "Would you be interested in looking at our script? We'd love some input." So I said, "Sure, I'll read the script," you know… you never know when you get offered to read a script what it's going to be, and…
I loved it. I really loved it. I responded personally, and I thought it was an important story, and I thought it was a socially interesting story, and it was something that would create debate. And, I thought it had something that I always look for, which is a sense of a character who's struggling to actualize themselves in some sort of way. So I thought it was beautiful. I sat down with them and told them what I thought, and I gave them tons of notes. And they said, "Wow, you really get our story. You really get us. This is great. Thank you so much." And I said, "Please, if you ever want me to read again, I'd be happy to," and they were sort of like, "Wouldn't it be great if you could be our director? Of course, we couldn't get you hired. Nobody knows who you are, and nobody cares. So you can't be our director!" [laughs] So that's the way it went for almost a year, really.
I read a couple more drafts, and eventually--they were involved in the studio system for about 18 months--and eventually they said, "You know what? We don't know if we'll ever going to get to make this movie." And they basically bought the film back, started to make it independently. Even at that point, I was reading the script and giving them notes, and I was hearing from them, "It would be so great if you could be our director." Of course, it was a different god they were slave to now, instead of the studio it was sort of, "We have to raise our own money, so we need a director people know. We need a director who will be fundable, who will be able to command his share of funding for the film, so of course it can't be you, but we wish it could be." And the whole time I'm there going, "I want this! I can do this! I swear to you, I will make a great movie! I see a great movie!" It was a slow process. Eventually, I think they were half funded, and then the pressure started to diminish for a director who could bring cash to the table. I mean, if you have Billy Bob Thornton or you have Doug Liman, obviously your movie is funded just because you have a star director. So, once the movie was about half funded, it became easier to hire me. In the meantime, I was still running behind them, you know, jumping up and down.
Spindle: You know, I wanted to ask you about the ending. I had heard something which may not be true, that you tried different endings. Do you care to comment on that?
Herman-Wurmfeld: Not really. It is true. It is true, but I'd rather not talk about what they were. But we did, in script and actually in production.
Spindle: You went through different options?
Herman-Wurmfeld: Yes. It was all about finding what would be true, what would be sensitive, what would be our well made comedy with heart, soul, and intellect, and embrace the most people.
Spindle: It seems a little backlash has been created by the movie. I was talking to [Jen and Heather] and they said that maybe 20% of the feedback they were receiving was not good and 80% good [from gay and lesbian groups].
Herman-Wurmfeld: Gosh, maybe I'm not hearing it. On the other hand, they may be hearing more of it as the straight writers than I am as the gay director. I come out and say, "I'm the gay director, I'm the person who gave this the sensitivity that it needed to navigate these difficult waters." My feeling is that we've told a true story, and that this true story courageously engages many [difficult issues], socially, politically, and interpersonally.
Spindle: Well, I took it to be more about diversity. The ending speaks more for diversity than it does about this or that or whatever.
Herman-Wurmfeld: You know, none of us had a political agenda with the movie. It was important to me, because I feel that it has implications socially and politically, and I look for that in the stories I want to tell. But it doesn't have a political agenda, and it's really important to distinguish, I think, as artists, between what is, or would be, propaganda, and what is a creative storytelling experience and a laughing comedy.
AboutFilm: Stories that don't have political agendas make political points just by being great stories, often.
Herman-Wurmfeld: They do.
Reich: You wanted to tell a great story, but you also had to make this film. You shot it in what, twenty-three days?
Herman-Wurmfeld: We planned twenty-four, lost a day, and finished a day early. We shot in twenty-two. Then we picked up a day here in Los Angeles.
Reich: How do you lose a day?
Herman-Wurmfeld: Here's how you lose a day: You get thrown out of your location, unceremoniously and without warning. In New York, you have a very very strict permit office that will allow you to shoot only where you tell them you're going to shoot, especially in Manhattan itself.
Reich: Especially now.
Herman-Wurmfeld: Especially now, but this was before. So…that's how you lose a day. We got thrown out of an Yves St. Laurent boutique, and it was our gallery location and our dress shop. The gallery I would say--the one we ended up using--was on a par with the one we had, but the dress shop was just… talk about triumphing over adversity… We found a sweater store across the street. The woman there agreed to have her cashmere sweater shop modified into a bridal shop, and I ended up with that master shot of Jessica standing with Madison Avenue on one side and 84th street I think on the other, and the traffic circulating behind her. I had always wanted it to be a vision of light there. What at Yves St. Lauren was a light above her--we were going to shoot from below--turned into a shot straight on with light and activity behind, and then you have Helen's entrance knocking on the window. It's one of my favorite shots in the movie.
Reich: So much activity that there were people across the street--
Herman-Wurmfeld: Looking in… yeah, gawking. Once the fight happens they get outside.
Reich: So the set was a public place…
Heather Juergensen and Jennifer
Westfeldt in Kissing Jessica Stein.
Herman-Wurmfeld: Yes, well, New York loaned us a lot of extras, and a lot of great locations. [laughs] All those extras are real. All those people are real. I mean, we walked those women--with permits, usually--but we walked those shots through 6th Avenue at eight or nine o'clock, and the passers-by are just… those were all real people.
Reich: Well, a lot of people don't shoot in New York now. They go to Toronto.
Herman-Wurmfeld: Tell me about it!
Reich: There's nothing like making a film in New York.
Herman-Wurmfeld: Well, it's a joy. I wanna make more movies there, and the irony is I'm going to have to fight to do it with bigger budgets. So, I'm very proud of what we did… It--I'm coming to realize--is a small miracle. That's the genius of my sister [Eden Wurmfeld], who is an incredible producer… You know, I grew up making movies in New York. As a kid…I was in New York during my entire childhood. My mother was a documentary photographer and my father was an architect. I followed her around with my Super 8mm camera from age eight or nine. So, on that level, it was kind of a no-brainer for me. I had been in the streets of New York shooting since I was a kid, which is now, like, twenty-five years ago.
AboutFilm: Aside from logistics, what were the biggest creative and collaborative challenges?
Herman-Wurmfeld: Well, those are two questions. Let's talk creatively first, and then bring that back to the challenges of collaboration. Creatively, I think the biggest challenge was--aside from the big giant obvious one, which is that we really had no money and were shooting in the most expensive city in the world to shoot in, or wanted to--so all of the decisions that have to be made, from how are we going to shoot this complicated scene from two points of coverage in less than an hour, to how are you going to do this three-page scene in five minutes because we're getting thrown out of the location and you have to stage the whole thing like a piece of theater. Like, for instance, that Jewish Sandra Dee moment when she says "Jesus Christ, who do I have to blow to get some pussy around here?"… do you know the scene I'm talking about? It's a one-er, and the reason it's a one-er is because we had five minutes to shoot it. So that was where I feel like my skills as a theater director kick in, and I'm moving actors back and forth in the foreground so I can get the coverage I need for a single shot. There's adversity like that. There's also just… I'm sorry, can you say the question one more time?
AboutFilm: Creative and collaborative challenges.
Herman-Wurmfeld: Yeah, yeah, right. There's also just the script itself, which is an unbelievably well written piece of theatrical material. The dialogue is fantastic. The characters are fantastic. What is not in the script is a visual sensibility, which I felt the challenge was to bring to the table, on a small budget, without a lot of coverage, in a city that's difficult to shoot in. Then, also, dealing with… segueing into the writing side, dealing in collaboration with writers who are also the actors, whom I basically have to run everything past, because…I have to get them to do it. [laughs] So, it's a trick. It's not like I can slip it past, and have the producers send the writers to another state and then slip the shots in. I had to convince them to do those things. So, it was definitely a vivacious creative collaboration on that level. Inspiring… difficult… muddy… dirty… angry… silly… you know… inspired.
Reich: You come from a theater background; the actresses come from a theater background, and you shot many long takes. Many directors, especially young directors who are just making their first films, won't do that.… Why long takes? What was it that made you feel that this was the way to go?
Herman-Wurmfeld: The scenes are theatrical by nature, so I think that they lent themselves to long takes, technically. We had an incredible cast of New Yorkers, which was another tremendous resource that came from New York, who were capable of handling long takes, and of taking notes over the arc of a one-minute scene and really shaping the scene. So, I would say, no, it is not necessarily my given intuition as a director to do long takes, but I think this movie lent itself to that.
Reich: Could you have done it with other actresses? Do you think that other actresses would have been strong enough to do the same thing?
Herman-Wurmfeld: Sure, yeah… But I wouldn't have wanted to. Here we had two actors who, honestly, knew the material so well, knew the characters so well because they had created them for themselves. So, they were prepared in a profound way. I like to say, they had a two and a half or three year rehearsal process. It made it possible, I would say, to take certain kinds of liberties that would have been more difficult had it been a more traditional process where you hire your actress and she comes in for her day of work and does her day of work. This was not a situation like this. These people had been working with these parts for two or three years. When they came in to do that day of work, it was the culmination of three years' work. So, on a certain level, yeah, I wanted to turn on the camera and first document that culmination, and then figure out how to make it visual and how to make it work and how to deliver it properly. There was definitely an impulse that I had to let them go… let them do their thing, and see what happens.
Reich: Had your grandmother ever acted before?
Herman-Wurmfeld: No! My grandmother makes her stage and screen debut in Jessica Stein. I'm very proud of her performance. She's available, if anybody's interested! She doesn't audition, though.
Reich: Listening to the soundtrack, I was thinking, the soundtrack must have cost a lot of money.
Herman-Wurmfeld: Not quite. We really did fight to leave the music in. A lot of times, when you make a rough cut, you put in your dream music. That was the music we always dreamed would be in this movie. The music that we dreamed for this movie was what you might traditionally find in a more conventional romantic comedy. And we thought, wow, we're taking this romantic comedy structure and we're really turning it inside out, let's use classic music. Let's take that Diana Krall-style When Harry Met Sally kind of thing and use it here. So we ended up with what was a very expensive soundtrack, which probably would have been throw out had we not tirelessly defended it and insisted and insisted and insisted that it be in there, and eventually we bought it ourselves, basically.
Spindle: Are your ambitions directing, strictly? Or do you see a career acting or writing?
Herman-Wurmfeld: I am a director. In support of my directing, I have studied acting my whole life, ever since college. Towards that end I studied writing, towards that end I've become very interested in music and in performance, but my aspirations and my dreams are all about directing. When all those things come together… it's an art form that actually includes all of those elements. I don't consider them to be disparate but rather connected. I do have some projects coming, like a project called The Yes Man, and an adaptation of one my favorite books from childhood called The Pushcart War.
AboutFilm: Do you have a story that you dream of directing? Is there a story out there, or a novel that…
Herman-Wurmfeld: [laughs] Besides The Lord of the Rings? Well, certainly The Pushcart War. It's been a plan all my life. Three years ago I went to visit the writer with my sister Eden. We were like, "We're a producing and directing team and we're interested in your book." She said, "Oh, it's under option right now, and there's this woman in New York, blah blah blah." And I said, "Well, keep me posted, because I'm interested in this project," and sure enough when this movie hit, people started asking me what I wanted to do, and I started talking about that project the way you guys are bringing it up, as a dream project. Pretty soon I was in touch with the producer, and actually she's in L.A. today, and after this we're taking meetings all over town, today, tomorrow, and Thursday, and we're going to try and sell it.
AboutFilm: Have you discussed any other projects with Heather and Jennifer?
Herman-Wurmfeld: We've talked about it. We've talked about everything from a rock opera version of Kissing Jessica Stein on Broadway to, just, future writing collaborations. I had Heather do an uncredited re-write on the Facts of Life reunion movie.
Reich: Did you direct that?
Herman-Wurmfeld: I did. I had to get on set with Charlotte Ray. She was like my grandma on TV when I was growing up. When the opportunity came, it wasn't the fanciest job with, you know, high pedigrees, but it was just so exciting that I had to get in with those girls, that I couldn't resist. [laughs] How can you say no to The Facts of Life reunion movie?? Even though everyone told me, "Don't do it, it's a big mistake," I was like, nah, I will… I don't intend to specialize in reunion movies, but I think I might be able to if I wanted to, if I set my mind to it. I think I'm done with the reunion genre for now…Although I do think I may have made the greatest Facts of Life reunion movie ever. There were two other ones… There was Facts of Life Down Under--the girls go to Australia--and there was The Facts of Life Goes to Paris.
Reich: Weren't those part of the series?
Herman-Wurmfeld: Oh, maybe they were. So you mean those weren't actually reunions? So maybe I've made the only Facts of Life reunion movie ever!
AboutFilm: Well, then you know it's the best!
Reich: So what is your advice to people who want to make movies?… besides not to.
Herman-Wurmfeld: No, it would not be "don't"! It would be persist. I would say just, persist, persist, persist. Those are my three words of advice.
CONTINUE TO CARLO'S REVIEW OF KISSING JESSICA STEIN
Interview © February
2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2002 Fox and its related entities. All Rights Reserved.
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