Jennifer Westfeldt Interview

07 January 2009

Two unknown actresses wrote their own ticket (and their own script) for the bi-curious romantic comedy 'Kissing Jessica Stein'

Two unknown actresses wrote their own ticket (and their own script) for the bi-curious romantic comedy 'Kissing Jessica Stein'

(Some questions in this interview have come from another journalist present for the Q&A.)

They met in an acting workshop in 1997 and developed a rapport that turned into a sketch comedy writing partnership. Five years later Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen have seen what began as an off-off-Broadway night of vignettes they wrote about the New York dating scene become "Kissing Jessica Stein," a big screen romantic comedy about two straight women who decide to give lesbianism a whirl and fall in love.

The actresses adapted the screenplay together, using as their jumping-off point a sketch about "two Laura Ashley girls at a day spa negotiating how to become lesbians." One character evolved into Jessica (played by Westfeldt in the film), a neurotic Manhattanite who is fed up with men but more than a little nervous about testing the waters of sapphic romance. The other became Helen (played by Juergensen), an art scene libertine who places a Women Seeking Women personal ad that draws Jessica in with a quote from her favorite author.

The result is an idiosyncratic twist on the romantic comedy, full of naturally chatty, infinitely quotable one-liners and warm, charming characters that could well become the first great gay date movie that has undeniable mass-market appeal.

Even before the film's many festival successes, this writing-acting team was already being headhunted as contributing scribes for HBO's "Sex and the City," and Westfeldt landed a role in ABC's sitcom "Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place." But at the moment they're both still so excited about seeing this movie become a reality -- to the point where they're flying around the country doing interviews! -- that they can't think about much else.

Q: So after all the years of developing these characters and their lives on stage, were there moments on the set when it just felt like this was coming to life in a whole new way, in real apartments and real offices and on real streets?

JW: It was just so exciting to be shooting this film because we'd been in development for so long! We had performed the play, then we'd been with a studio for two years (the movie was in development hell at the now defunct Gramercy Pictures), then we raised money to do the indie version. Every step of the way Heather and I were either performing the play or performing these elaborate readings of the screenplay for 20 people, 80 people, 100 people in a theater to beg for cash. But yes, to be in a real New York City cab, to not have to create the hustle and bustle, to make it come to life! Plus, we're actresses first and foremost, so we'd been wearing all these other hats -- producers, writers, begging for cash, re-writing, location scouting and all this stuff -- and on that 23-day shoot in New York it was mostly about being actors. We were just acting for the first time, and it was like, woo-hoo!

HJ: One other exciting thing when we were finally able to roll film was hearing our characters really come to life. Not just, you know, in a reading room with scripts in hand, but on a set. And there's some character we've been writing for years as a real-life person talking to us, interacting. It was thrilling!

JW: The apartment that was Jessica's apartment in the film was actually a good friend's apartment that I'd always thought was a great, beautiful space to shoot in. Then after the art people got through with it, they had transformed my friend's apartment into this crazy, cluttered, Post-It Notes and things, and books everywhere! And I was like, this is great! This is great! And, for example, the pamphlet scene -- to have the art person to have put in all this lesbian sex (information and images) so I could actually go through it and be embarrassed. All this stuff became movie magic.

HJ: Although, as I recall, this was a neighborhood where they shoot a lot of films and I guess the residents are not psyched about this now. They hate the film people when they come in now, and one of our crew told some guy we're "making movie magic," and the guy said, "You can take your movie magic and shove it up your ass!" It was not very nice.

Q: Well, it's New York!

JW: Other people were much friendlier. And also, we had for so long envisioned New York as a third main character in this story, and when we were with the studio they wanted us to shoot in Toronto, and we were like, [worried] oh no! New York is New York! The pulse of New York is so particular. It was just luscious to be shooting in New York. It's the most beautiful set in the world.

Q: Well, that definitely worked. It felt very much like being right there on the street. [Changing the subject when Westfeldt fixes a fly-away hair on Juergensen's head...] Do your boyfriends feel like fifth wheels when you all go out together?

JW & HJ: [Giggling.]

JW: We're just laughing because our boyfriends are both here for Valentine's Day weekend. We all just had lunch, then we were like, "So what are you boys going to do today? Are you guys gonna go shopping and do you nails while we do interviews?"

HJ: There have been times during the last three or four years when it seemed like we were definitely seeing more of each other than we were of our boyfriends. I'm sure they felt the same way. When the four of us go out, we're so delighted to see them! But I think they definitely get their fair share of attention.

JW: I think they're probably both happy -- and so are we! -- that this movie's finally coming out. It's been four and a half years of this craziness.

Q: You're going to be going into withdrawal...

JW: I know, I know!

Q: ...Once this thing is in theaters and once some of the box office returns come back and you know it's a success...

JW: [Gasps] Oh! Knock wood! Knock wood! [Knocking on the table between us] From your mouth to God's ear, as my grandmother would to say.

Q: Well, when you know one way or another, when you two are on the downside of the work for "Kissing Jessica Stein," what are you going to do with all that energy you've been spending?

JW: I know! I feel like we've been raising a child and it's going off to kindergarten! It's this weird feeling. We've done ever bit of this process -- everything! The phone calls, the fund raising, the photocopying, the hole-punching for the script, the highlighting of actors' lines and the readings to raise money -- it's been like that! So the fact that other people are a little bit in charge now -- the bottom line is, they are doing the faxing and we're getting emails. "You guys won an award in Miami," and we're like, what? We weren't at the festival, we didn't have to fill out the application, someone just let us know we won an award!

HJ: It has a life of its own now, which is thrilling. But also there's that panicked feeling of like, "What do you mean we won an award?" or [as if to their "child"] "Who dressed you in those shoes?"

JW: It feels funny to have anything happen without our knowledge. Anything!

HJ: Yet at the same time, we're really ready to move on to new characters, new scripts and new projects. So in a sense, that's thrilling. It's a new chapter. But it's bittersweet that this is ending.

Q: At what point did the stage work become the idea for a film?

JW: Well, you know, when we did the play, the play was originally intended to be a night of vignettes about the dating scene -- Mars and Venus and all that. And we only had, by the way, six and a half weeks to do it because I was about to shoot my first TV show. (Then) it got pushed back two months. I was hating L.A., I was missing New York, Heather and I had met and talked about doing a night of our writing a year before, and I was like, "I'm coming to New York. I have six weeks. You wanna do that thing about the writing, and the thing, and the night of the sketches and blah, blah, blah?" It was that random and low-key.

HJ: But as we progressed through these vignettes, the one story of these two women became more and more interesting to us, and all these other vignettes about dating, we realized, were glomming together to create the precursor to these women having this relationship -- and that became the play.

JW: So it became the lynchpin for a narrative rather than a night of scenes. (A skit about) two girls in a day spa negotiating how to become lesbians -- some of the dialogue from which is now in the pamphlet scene in the movie --became the...glimmer in our eye.

HJ: Right. Then it was like, the play itself was cinematic. People left the play saying "that felt like a movie," which was interesting to us. We didn't intend that. Then we realized, when the play ended after six nights, there was interest, and we thought, hey, maybe we could produce this as a film -- and as a movie we could expand it and open it up.

JW: All the sort of pieces were in place to make it a film, like we had filled in the blanks in our heads but never written them. So the first draft of the screenplay -- which we wrote on my Christmas break from the show at my parents' house in Connecticut -- was like 165 pages! We had so many things we wanted to get in...and we couldn't wait to get at it, 'cause there was so much unfinished in the play.

Q: And some of those other vignettes, I assume, became the blind date montage and...

JW: And there were many, many more of those in the play.

Q: I believe it! It must have been hard to get out the red pen.

HJ: Some of our favorite moments are on the editing room floor because they just didn't help the pace of the whole.

Q: Well, that's what DVD is for, right?

JW: Exactly! Oh, cut scenes!

Q: One more question: Do you feel like this is a pivotal moment in your careers now?

HJ: Yes!

JW: I hope so!

HJ: Well, four years ago or five years ago when I was struggling in New York and I couldn't get arrested, and I'm writing and I'm acting and nobody seems to care, I wasn't sitting in a conference room talking to reporters! It's nice.

JW: And I feel that I've had a lot of luck in TV and I've always worked in theater. But what I've learned in Hollywood pretty quickly is that it is a name game, and the parts you're going to get at the beginning of your film and TV career are kind of supporting The Guy and not that juicy, and I don't want to wait around. So if I have to write (good parts for me) that's what I'll do! But yeah, it could be pivotal. I think for us it's pivotal anyway, just to complete it. It feels like a success to get (the film) done and get it bought and get it out there. We've already had so many great people enjoy it or have it speak to them. It seems to have hit a nerve even in a limited way at festivals and whatnot.

Q: Well, may your mailboxes be overstuffed with scripts.

JW & HJ: Thank you! Thank you.


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