Book Club‘s Creators on How Fifty Shades of Grey Inspired Their Dream Project
Whatever you did to celebrate Mother’s Day probably wasn’t as great as Bill Holderman’s gift to his mom in 2012. The final book in the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy had just been published, and the Book Club director, co-producer, and co-screenwriter sent the entire set to his mother.
“As sons do, right?” Holderman joked.
Book Club co-producer and co-screenwriter Erin Simms worked with Holderman at a production company at the time and heard about the plan.
“Which I thought was insane,” Simms laughed. “It was just hilarious. We talked about it for a few minutes and I decided I’m going to send this to my mother also for Mother’s Day.”
The novels actually made for a great gift, but it turned out the idea made for an even better movie.
“The next day I said, ‘What about a movie about a book club that is reading Fifty Shades of Grey?’” Simms recalled. “We had gotten into this discussion about our moms and being older and dating. That’s what started the idea. Really, it was Bill because he had that brilliant idea to send the trilogy to his mom.”
“I blame my mother,” Holderman laughed.
Holderman and Simms then purchased their own copies and dove into the Fifty Shades series to begin drafting the Book Club script.
“Mine has highlights and footnotes. I was trying to find great passages we can quote in the movie,” Simms said.
“There was a period of time when we were making the movie A Walk in the Woods and I was driving to and from set. I would listen to them on audiobook and it was a more absurd thing than reading them,” Holderman recalled. “We have definitely done our due diligence on that.”
To truly deliver the story they had envisioned, Holderman and Simms had to assemble four of the most accomplished actresses in Hollywood. What on paper seems like an unachievable dream cast manifested into their real life leading ladies. Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen all accepted roles.
“We wrote this script specifically for Diane and Jane,” Holderman said. “Diane’s name in the movie is still ‘Diane.’ Jane’s name was ‘Jane’ in the script up until a few weeks before we started shooting. As writers, we looked at them as archetypes for these characters, but you never really think you’re going to get those types of people in your movie.”
Holderman and Simms sent the script to Keaton’s agent. And then they waited.
“That took about three weeks, and that was the most torturous three weeks of my life, waiting to hear,” Simms recalled. “I never thought of anybody else but Diane Keaton. I bizarrely just kind of knew that it was going to work out. We wrote it with so much love towards her. It almost would have been weird for her not to recognize that. You know what I mean?”
Simms’ serendipitous premonition turned out to be true. The Godfather actress signed on giving Book Club its first big break.
“Then you get to send a script out saying, ‘Hey, Diane Keaton is attached. What do you think?’ Then it becomes a lot more fun,” Holderman said.
Fonda, Bergen, and Steenburgen came on board, fulfilling Holderman and Simms’ vision. By 2016, Keaton had a starring role in buzzworthy HBO series, The Young Pope. Fonda had launched the phenomenal Grace and Frankie on Netflix. Bergen appeared in Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply. Steenburgen was working regularly on programs like Orange is the New Black. Despite sporting a cast with legendary careers, there was pressure to go a different direction.
“We got a lot of pressure to cast it younger and we got financiers saying, ‘We love this, we’ll give you X to go make this right away, but you have to go after younger people,’” Holderman said. “It’s not the story we ever intended to tell, so we stuck to our guns about what the foundation of this story really was.”
After recruiting a dream leading cast, the natural next step was to ask them who they would like to perform with.
“After we cast the women, one of the things that was really important to me was that the chemistry on screen felt really natural,” Holderman said. “Knowing that these incredible women had these storied careers and had been in the business for as long as they have and they know so many people. You just never know who has history, and if its positive or negative, to be honest.”
Consulting the veteran performers paid off. The supporting male cast developed into a list of names that was equally impressive. Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Richard Dreyfuss and Craig T. Nelson were ultimately selected.
“That was a really collaborative experience with the women and talking to each of them about who they wanted to star opposite of,” Holderman said. “You learn some really interesting things. Like I didn’t know Jane Fonda and Don Johnson had been friends for forty years. Diane and Andy had known each other since Godfather 3. For us we just wanted it to feel really natural on set and on screen.”
“Craig had worked with Mary, Diane, and Jane,” Simms added. “That was pretty great.”
By then, Holderman and Simms realized that something truly magical was happening. Not only had they brought together an incredible cast, but everyone was excited to work on the project.
“You could think of a handful of big, male stars that you could chase after to be in your movie. What I loved was [they] actually, genuinely want to be in our movie, like Andy Garcia and Don Johnson,” Simms recalled. “We wanted men who really do support and love these actresses and are completely fine being younger with an older woman, which does not happen that often in Hollywood.”
“That’s something we really love to play with was to sort of reverse that age gap,” Holderman added. “You see so often older men with younger women and we tried to have a little cheeky fun with making the guys younger.”
“We tried to turn everything on its head as much as possible,” Simms said.
From an outsider’s perspective, the film seems so natural that it might appear it all came together on its own. Holderman and Simms said that notion could not be farther from the truth. The script was sold in 2014 and languished in production before coming back to the writers in 2016. By then, Fifty Shade of Grey had already hit theaters. Simms feared the time for Book Club had passed, but they remained dedicated to the project.
“To us, there was just such a gut instinct and we were so driven to keep going,” Holderman said. “To Erin’s credit, this was a movie that Erin was never going to let die. Literally, it was never going away. That tenacity and persistence is part of what separates movies that get made from movies that don’t.”
“I can’t tell you how many people tried to tell us this is never happening. For me, anyone who said anything negative was like, you’re dead to me,” Simms laughed.
This February, Book Club finally entered the home stretch. The film’s trailer appeared before Fifty Shades Freed – the final film in the Fifty Shades series.
“Making movies is so hard,” Holderman said. “There has to be a theme or something that I really connect with that makes me feel like this is why we are making this movie. This movie has that and always has. We wanted to do a movie that had a very optimistic, hopeful view and had, buried in the comedy and the fun, a message inspiring people to live their true and full lives and not be afraid and not feel like they’re not worthy. That message was that thing that just kept driving us because we still believe in it.”
Just in time for Mother’s Day, Holderman and Simms were able to give their mothers something even more thoughtful than a set of books—the movie they inspired.
“We just loved this movie and it’s landing now,” Simms said. “It’s coming out at this remarkable time for women. For me, it’s just this unbelievable miracle that it turned out this way.”
Book Club opens in theaters Friday.
Featured Image: Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda and Mary Steenburgen in Book Club. Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon – © 2018 – Paramount Pictures