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Credit: Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures

How Smart Instincts Led Booksmart Producer to Actress-Turned Director Olivia Wilde

The original Booksmart script started making the rounds in Hollywood ten years ago after writers Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins imagined two straight-A high school girls gone wild the night before graduation. By the time producer Jennifer Elbaum came on board four years ago, the story had been acquired by producer Annapurna Pictures boss Megan Ellison with Short Term 12 star Kaitlyn Dever attached to co-star as wry, gay, Columbia University-bound Amy. But the project had yet to find a director. And that’s where Elbaum came in. “Annapurna needed a comedy producer so they came to me with the script,” she says. “It’s the type of movie I grew up on so instantly I was like, ‘Yes we have to make this.'”

Elbaum forwarded a Booksmart re-write by Susanna Fogel (The Spy Who Dumped Me) to Olivia Wilde of Tron fame. Elbaum had befriended the actress on the set of rom-com Sleeping With Other People and together they’d co-created a pilot for Comedy Central. Elbaum recalls, “Unfortunately that show didn’t go anywhere but as I got to know Olivia, she’s so smart and thoughtful I just had a feeling. I told her: ‘You are a director!’ She loved the Booksmart script and I dared her to pitch [herself as director] to Annapurna.”

Actors Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein with director Olivia Wilde on the set of her directorial debut, BOOKSMART, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit: Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures
Actors Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein with director Olivia Wilde on the set of her directorial debut, BOOKSMART, an Annapurna Pictures release.
Credit: Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures

Elbaum’s instincts proved spot on: With Wilde at the helm, Booksmart earned rapturous applause at SXSW this spring and earned a 97 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes ahead of the film’s theatrical release last weekend. Both leads have been singled out for their sly performances, which doesn’t surprise Elbaum. “Kaitlyn Dever is part of the reason I fell in love with the project in the first place,” says the producer. “She’s so funny and can also break your heart ” Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird), whose brother Jonah Hill starred in the similarly themed 2007 teen comedy Superbad, plays Amy’s intensely competitive best friend Molly. Elbaum says, “When Olivia pitched herself to direct, Beanie was part of her vision for the movie. We were aware of Beanie from Lady Bird and I think Olivia knew her from New York’s theater scene, so it was really Olivia that got Beanie for the part.”

To build out the production, Elbaum and Wilde enlisted casting director Allison Hope, who discovered skateboarder Victoria Ruesga, a non-actress, as an authentic embodiment of Amy’s tomboyish classmate Ryan. Filmmakers enlisted music supervisor Bryan Ling and hip hop producer Dan the Automator to amp up the antic action montages. And Lady Bird costume designer April Napier made sure the characters’ outfits popped on a comedic level, especially when she came up with matching jumpsuits for the girls’ big night out. Elbaum notes, “April contributed these looks for Molly and Amy that really sold the friendship and sold the jokes. Olivia had a very clear idea of what she wanted, but then she lets her department heads do their jobs without controlling too much. As a producer that was a joy to watch.”

Credit: Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures
Victoria Ruesga stars as Ryan and Kaitlyn Dever as Amy. Credit: Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures

While working with writer Katie Silberman (Netflix rom-com Set It Up) on a final “refresh” of the script, Wilde prepared for the hyper-efficient 26-day shoot last summer with two weeks of cast rehearsals. She also suggested that Dever and Feldstein strengthen their bond by rooming together for the duration of the shoot, and the stars were happy to comply. “That kind of chemistry, you can’t fake,” says Elbaum. “That’s the real stuff.”

Credit: Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures
Beanie Feldstein stars as Molly and Kaitlyn Dever as Amy in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, BOOKSMART, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit: Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures

Like the Booksmart heroines, Elbaum went to high school in L.A. and scored high grades. “I really identify with Molly as a character,” she says. “I was a Type A personality where everything had to be perfect.” After college at USC, Elbaum worked in public relations before serving as Will Ferrell’s personal assistant as her pathway to producing. “Managing someone’s life turned out to be really good training for managing the production of a movie,” she says.

In Booksmart, Elbaum helped make a teen comedy devoid of bullies, mean girls and ogre-like authority figures. The laid back high school principal (Jason Sudeikis) drives a Lyft in his off hours while classmates who start out snarky reveal themselves to be pretty nice kids as the evening unfolds. Elbaum says, “I love how supportive and sweet the kids are to each other in Booksmart. When I was in high school we tried to be supportive but it was a little bit of a different generation, right? The women in Booksmart genuinely support each other and I think that’s kind of thrilling.”

The women who made Booksmart shared a similar spirit as the characters in the film. Elbaum notes. “For me, choosing and trusting the right people to tell the story is the fun part of my job, where you’re able to give someone all the tools they need to bring their vision to life. I’ll never forget that first day on set when I saw Olivia working with her crew and directing the actors. In my gut, I knew she was a filmmaker, so to see this woman actually delivering on a level you never dreamed possible? That was special.”

Featured image: Actor Beanie Feldstein and director Olivia Wilde on the set of her directorial debut, BOOKSMART, an Annapurna Pictures release.
Credit: Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hugh Hart

Hugh Hart has covered movies, television and design for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wired and Fast Company. Formerly a Chicago musician, he now lives in Los Angeles with his dog-rescuing wife Marla and their Afghan Hound.

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