My recent interview with Bachelorette writer/director Leslye Headland is officially one of my all-time favorites. Our talk ran the gamut from gushing over destroying theater sets in her daring Seven Deadly Plays series to discussing her new TV show Assistance, again adapted from one of these delightfully dark pieces of theater. With Bachelorette out on DVD and Blu-ray March 19th, we revisited the very divided public reaction to her wicked observations of girl-on-girl jealousy, and whether she would ever reunite the cast.
She also had plenty to say about Assistance, her upcoming show starring Krysten Ritter as an entry-level assistant who really, really wants to get on her boss’ good side. Headland’s answers are refreshingly honest and unabashed, and, regardless of your own dreams of being a writer or not, will get you excited at telling the dark kinds of stories people usually shy away from.
Natalie Zutter: Have you found that the time between theatrical release and the DVD coming out a year after Sundance, it’s made public reaction quiet down a bit—or are people getting enraged all over again now?
Leslye Headland: You know, it’s terrible, because I don’t really read reviews, I don’t know if this is a good thing to do… I didn’t really get involved in the public conversation about the movie, I only really had personal conversations about it. I think because no one will [say] to your face, “I fucking hated your movie!” Most of them have been really positive. Some people were like, “It was very cool, it was very you” or like somebody will randomly recognize me. I was at a bar over Christmas break—this girl, maybe she followed me on Twitter, she said, “I’m going to a friend’s wedding and we’re gonna do that dance the girls do.”
I always sort of hoped the movie would be a Heathers or a Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion or Swingers—just something that became part of language between friends and specifically between girlfriends. So a public outcry was just not something I was ever—not that it’s not interesting, I just didn’t really pay attention to it. I just know that on a personal, one-on-one level, it seems like it’s sort of doing what it was supposed to do, to ingratiate itself into people’s lives. You can either relate to some of the characters or not. It’s just sort of this living, breathing thing.
NZ: It definitely seems like it’s just as fresh now as it was six months to a year ago.
LH: I hope so. It feels like that only because it didn’t feel like this big, you know, thing where there’s this huge reaction. It was almost like a trickle-down effect. It had this success on Video On Demand and iTunes, which was awesome; then it came out, which was awesome. Little by little, I get more information like “I saw the movie, it was great.” It feels more word-of-mouth, which is more exciting to me as an artist. The last thing I want to do is shove it down people’s throats.
I think it’s because I’m so used to having done play versions of these things before, I was very used to people being bifurcated about my stuff. So I wasn’t surprised about people at Sundance. I’m so used to it that I don’t really get into the conversation anymore.
NZ: Can you tell me more about what it was like starting out through theater? I saw your play Assistance at Playwrights Horizons in 2010 and loved it.
LH: Even when I was just starting out doing blackbox versions of them, there were people who would walk out and people who were crying in the first row. As a budding writer, I was like, “I don’t really understand what’s going on.” Especially when you’re younger, you’re like, “People either like it or they don’t, I’m either a good writer or a bad one.” I learned early on it’s not that simple. Your work is gonna—I would rather people hate my stuff than be bored. I think that’s the worst thing. I would just curl up and move back home if I were boring people.
NZ: So when you’re early in the writing process, are you already thinking about pushing your audiences, or does that come later?
LH: Yes, absolutely! I was actually talking about this with Annie Baker [who wrote Circle Mirror Transformation]. It’s funny: We’re so different in our writing styles, but we’re so similar in our personalities. What I love about her work and why I think she’s absolutely brilliant and a much better writer than I am, is that she’s really comfortable with the pause. She’s really comfortable with letting the story cook and letting the audience float into it. She creates these worlds that feel incredibly immersive. Whereas my go-to is almost like a choreographer I’m like, “Kick!” and “Now things fall from the ceiling!” and “Now we’re moving over here!” Almost approaching my stories from a spectacle point of view. I think that comes from doing theater in Los Angeles, where everyone hates theater. I just want to keep everyone interested!
NZ: So now you’re adapting Assistance into a TV show. Was that easier after turning Bridesmaids into a movie?
LH: What I try to think is, what TV show do these characters want to be in? In [Assistance] the play, you never see the boss; it’s about this other stuff. Nora and Nick’s story is a two-hander: It’s about what changes happen to them, how they grow and develop and evolve as a work partnership. When we were starting out writing the pilot—I’m working with Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, who produced my movie—we decided very quickly that you need a main character. You can’t do what you do in theater, where “It’s a bunch of people, decide who’s the main character!” We settled on Nora, now it became, if I gave Nora her own show, what would it be about? Now I have a point of view, as opposed to the playwright’s view of looking at the characters and seeing it from almost this diorama or bird’s eye point of view.
Now you’re going, “OK this is a story about this particular girl and how she looks at the rest of her life.” I get to play dress-up, so to speak. If we could go anywhere—we don’t have to stay on this stage—what’s her version of the guy who’s sitting across from her, and her boss, and her boyfriend, and the rest of her life, and who else is in it. So that’s sort of the first step into it; the rest of it is sort of breaking story, following structure, taking notes, whatever you do whether you’re working on a television show or working on a studio movie. What I like to call the “job” part of writing.
NZ: I know the feeling! I have friends who say, “Oh, all you do all day is watch movies and interview celebrities,” and I have to remind them—for all the perks, it’s still hard work and not always fun.
LH: That’s actually what I think Assistance the television show ends up being about. Whereas the play was this existential, angsty… That’s what I was interested in writing about—being stuck in those entry-level jobs for a long time and trying to figure out, in a Godot ish sense, what you’re gonna get out of it. Whereas the pilot is more about what you were talking about, why I think it’s gonna be very relatable. Yeah, she gets to do what she loves to do, but it’s still a job. And she’s gotta figure out a way to not let the day-to-day reality beat down what her dream and her optimism is.
The boss sort of becomes the personification of growing up and what the reality of living your dream actually means. Bachelorette was very much about the same thing. Sure, getting married is awesome, but you don’t fade to black after marrying the guy and everything’s OK. That’s what those girl shave to learn: You’re not gonna be OK if you have a boyfriend or not, if you’re thin or not; you have to be OK whether or not you have those things.
NZ: In Assistance the play, never seeing the boss adds to that drama. But you’re not going that route with him in the show, right?
LH: No no, he’s a proper character in it. It’s funny, I took a cue from two shows that obviously it’s not like, but they’re similar in that sense: Entourage, which obviously takes place in the movie industry; and The West Wing, which takes place in a high-pressure work situation for the most important boss in the country. I read that early versions of the pilots didn’t show Vince and didn’t show Bartlett. In our initial conversations, Adam and Will and I talked about, “Do we not show him? Maybe we don’t?” You know what, other people did this and they ended up having to rewrite him. [Note: Alfred Molina was recently announced as playing the role of Nora’s boss.]
NZ: I had a playwriting residency last year for a one-act where I never show the male lead’s sorta-girlfrend. My director joked, “Sweetie, unless it’s Waiting for Godot, you gotta show the character everyone’s talking about.”
LH: A lot of people felt that way about Assistance, too. That goes back to the bifurcation: A lot of people loved and appreciated that you never saw him and it worked, a lot of people said, “You have to show him.” That instruction you were given is probably not wrong, but I would also say to aspiring playwrights, If you want to do it, if you think you can do it, do it. Don’t let people tell you that you can’t break the rules. Because look, you might not make millions of dollars or anything, but if you’re willing to take the risks, why shouldn’t you? I think if you’re willing to fail, you’ll succeed bigger down the line. I’ve fallen on my place so many fucking times.
There were people that hated Assistance because you didn’t see the boss. But honestly, so many amazing things keep coming into my life, [and] I have to believe it’s because I’m willing to put myself out there as an artist or a writer. I also feel like it’s just a little bit of what you’re willing to do.
NZ: I know you’re busy right now with adapting Assistance, but have you ever considered writing a whole new piece specifically for any of the Bachelorette ladies?
LH: Oh, for sure! Kirsten [Dunst] and I always talk about it. What I would love to do is do a Magnolia—where I wrote a completely different story and everyone played the complete opposite of what they played in Bachelorette: Rebel’s just a huge cunt, she’s a bitch, it’s like a completely different world and characters. I love when PT Anderson did that between Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Orson Welles did it well, that theater company mentality of going back and working with the same people and not doing a proper “sequel.” I loved working with all of them; we’d have just a great time. I was just saying, I think it’s funny when you’re working on something darker—we all loved each other and were so happy—we were so friendly and almost like a family, both for Bachelorette the play as well as a the movie. It’s so funny, then you do this thing and it was so upsetting. If you knew how much love went into upsetting you, you’d be shocked.
NZ: [Spoilers for Bachelorette] I have to say, as a writer, I loved how we kept getting teased in Bachelorette with Kirsten’s character Regan trying to stick her fingers down her throat to purge, only to be interrupted each time. Then, when it looks like Katie’s (Isla Fisher) OD’d, Regan is the only one who can save her, with the fingers trick.
LH: It’s funny, when I was writing the script I was like, I don’t want to do a cheesy moral or a moment where Kirsten has a big monologue where she explains why she’s changed. But I did want her to change! Otherwise why are we watching this story? I thought, I wonder if maybe the moral of this story—beyond “Fuck everyone”—is “If you could use your powers for good instead of evil, you’re not that far away from being a good person.
All of that stuff you don’t like about yourself, is probably stuff that could help someone else. Like sharing your experience with them, it’s physically manifested in doing this thing. She’s not afraid of the darkness; it’s what helps her to confront an actual crazy dark situation. So even the most hopelessly cynical and self-loathing person like Regan—who I completely relate with—even she can be incredibly, while not unicorns and sunshine, can be very magnanimous and helpful when she wants to be.
NZ: Right! Especially since the movie opens with her bragging about helping cancer kids.
LH: I wanted to start with that joke. There were some permutations where we didn’t, and McKay always pushed it: “I think you gotta start with this joke, it sets her up in a perfect way.” Which is just, your insides versus your outsides. And only a person who is just completely dead on the inside would spend brunch bragging about how they’re helping people. No one fucking cares. But I love her so much.
NZ: This sounds silly, but I’m just so jealous you got to work with all of these talented folks!
LH: [laughs] And you should be, I felt that way when I was doing it. There was one day on set—this ends up being a compliment about me, so I apologize ahead of time—we were shooting the rehearsal dinner scene, so all eight of them were in one room. We were in-between takes, the actors were milling about, and I said out loud to no one in particular, “How did I get all of these people in one movie?” Adam Scott, who happened to be within earshot, flippantly said, “You wrote a really good script.” I was like, “Oh, thanks.” Really it was a dream; they were all people that I was genuinely excited about working with, and I had been big fans of at the same time.
And Krysten Ritter, who’s starring in my [Assistance] pilot, is someone I saw in Broadway, saw everything she was in. For years I’ve been watching her going, “This is one of my girls.”