Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Jennifer Westfeldt Directs Friends, Kids, Adults
& Films

The director-writer-producer-actor Jennifer Westfeldt with her on-screen co-star Ed Burns on the film set of Ms. Westfeldt's directorial debut "Friends With Kids", which opens in the U.S. and Canada this Friday. 
Roadside Attractions


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Tuesday, March 6
, 2012

"LAUGHTER AND TEARS IN EQUAL MEASURE," SAYS A CHEERY JENNIFER WESTFELDT after learning that a recent San Francisco screening of her new film "Friends With Kids", the first she has directed, is being well-received, with laughs and sounds of sniffles. 

As the film's end credits run several audience members exit the theater where a Q&A with Ms. Westfeldt is due to take place.  A few of them are pleasantly surprised to see Ms. Westfeldt, who was about 20 feet tall moments earlier, now in the flesh right in front of them at five-feet eight.

"Hi, how you are you?  I really liked your film, by the way," says one young man, who wears a big smile.

"Thank you so much," Ms. Westfeldt replies, beaming.

Wearing a backless royal blue dress, the writer-director is immaculate from head to toe, with pristine black-heeled shoes and a dark navy blue form-fitting coat.  She looks exactly as she does in her film: lean, alluring and strikingly beautiful, her open features and face glowing.  Ms. Westfeldt is full of wit too.  The character she plays in her latest film jokes that she's "got very nice hair and well put together," but it isn't necessarily clear that she means those two attributes are separate. 

The loquacious Ms. Westfeldt also includes a cheeky scene in her new film that pings herself.  "Do you always talk this much?," one character asks hers.  "Maybe.  Sorry," Ms. Westfeldt's character replies.

"Friends With Kids", which opens across the U.S. and Canada on Friday, is a comedy for grown-ups.  Written with Ms. Westfeldt's acute, sharp and wittily-observed perspective on men, women, relationships and kids, "Friends With Kids" is about long-time best friends Julie and Jason, who decide to have a child and keep their relationship strictly platonic to avoid the stress marriage and potential divorce has on kids and serious relationships.  Their married friends who have children make the decision to remain friends easier, as they embark upon dating separately.

Ms. Westfeldt plays Julie Keller, a late thirty-something whose biological clock is ticking.  Adam Scott is Jason Fryman, a crude, insensitive man of 38 who has been in and out of bed with a number of women over a short period of time.  "Friends With Kids", like the previous romantic comedies Ms. Westfeldt has written and starred in ("Kissing Jessica Stein", "Ira & Abby"), is set in New York City.  The new film takes place over several years.

The director's off-screen partner Jon Hamm, the actor, whom she has been with since 1997, has a part in "Friends With Kids" as a disaffected husband mired in a miserable marriage with an equally frustrated and exasperated woman (Kristen Wiig).  They, he laments, used to have sex any and everywhere.  Kids interrupt that routine.  (Mr. Hamm, a producer on "Friends With Kids", appeared opposite Ms. Westfeldt in "Kissing Jessica Stein" and "Ira & Abby".)

Ms. Westfeldt, who lives in Los Angeles with Mr. Hamm, does not have children, so for her screenplay for "Friends With Kids" she sought counsel from a variety of close friends.  "Adam has been a dear friend of ours for fifteen years, and he and his wife are parents, so I talked to him.  He was great with the advice he gave, and there was never any doubt that I wanted him to star in this movie."  She mentioned that Ed Burns, who has a small role in "Friends With Kids", was also helpful when it came to kids.  "They would all tell me, 'no, this is right,' and 'this isn't', and 'they wouldn't do this in that scenario,' and I would keep asking them, 'how about this situation, and this one?'"

"Friends With Kids" is a moving chronicle of the truth of friendships and the definition of family and its elastic meaning in the 21st century as societies shift and technology advances.  One of the film's characters, Alex, played adorably by Chris O'Dowd, tells his wife Leslie (Maya Rudolph) that best friends having a child and not getting married "is not the worst thing I've ever heard."

Ms. Westfeldt, who has familial roots in Sweden and co-wrote the critically-acclaimed and popular 2002 film "Kissing Jessica Stein" with Heather Juergensen, would be inclined to agree with Alex's outlook on the changing shape of families.

"I'm an Aquarian, and I don't know -- I've always, I guess, had this feeling, you know, why can't things be done a different way?  Why not go against the grain and see where things take you?  Why not try things another way?  Why not throw out the rulebook?"  Ms. Westfeldt's philosophy of adventuresome spirit and daring was embodied memorably by Abby, her character in "Ira & Abby".  Abby, carefree, spontaneous and lively, is a gym instructor who dissuades Ira (Chris Messina) from signing up for a membership at her gym, then within minutes asks him to marry her.

In addition to writing, starring and directing her latest feature, Ms. Westfeldt co-produced her new film, and has as much screen time as an actor in "Friends With Kids" if not more, than in either of her previous major starring roles on the big screen.  Of the many screenwriters at work today, Ms. Westfeldt is one of the best at penning vivid, relatable everyday characters, intelligent, articulate well-meaning daydreamers with high aspirations who boldly chart their course until a cold smackdown called reality hits them hard. 

Hard might be a good word to describe the experience Jennifer Westfeldt had directing "Friends With Kids".  "There were shots that we got by the skin of our neck.  Some scenes, like the confessional in the restaurant, we got permission to shoot, then all of a sudden didn't have permission -- just before we're about to shoot, and there was a point where I thought it wouldn't happen, and then that we would only get one side of the restaurant and nothing more.  Some nice people helped out.  I'm so thankful for that."

"Directing an independent film," Ms. Westfeldt added, "is not easy." 

Of New York City, where the Connecticut-born Yalie lived for a number of years, coming back to the Big Apple last year for the film's six-week shoot, leaving behind the sun and warmth of Los Angeles, Ms. Westfeldt commented: "it was a colder winter than usual, freezing your fucking ass off in January filming in the dead of night with snow and ice on the ground."  She says this, and laughs, and when someone asks her why New York City for all her films she looks as if she will say, "why not?"

Instead, she tells this story: "I got offered these grants to film the movie in Detroit.  They wanted me to film in Detroit.  'Come to Detroit, they said, and you will get these discounted rates.'  I said, 'no'.  I've got nothing against Detroit but I'm not filming my movie in Detroit!'"

One of the biggest technical challenges for the director was a ten-minute scene involving all eight of the film's main characters including Megan Fox, Ms. Westfeldt and Mr. Burns, himself a director.  The scene was shot in one day.  "That's ten percent of my film," she affirms, mentioning that she had to juggle her hats and keep the scene, which takes place in a cabin, alive and energetic.  Fitting enough, it's the film's best scene, one that rises with tension, well-executed with sharp editing.

Several years ago Ms. Westfeldt began writing the script for "Friends With Kids", then "just put it down." 

"I couldn't find the rhythm or shape of the story.  It was like I hit a wall.  I just didn't feel that I could sustain the story as I was writing it.  It didn't feel right," Ms. Westfeldt said.  "I needed to get away from it for a while."  She became busy with other projects, including stage and television work in the interim.

Four years later Ms. Westfeldt resumed writing "Friends With Kids".  Everything came together.  "I do a film once every five or six years, so I guess it made sense that things would happen the way they did," she joked.

The "Friends With Kids" cast came together very quickly, and those readers who saw the "Bridesmaids" connections (Hamm, Wiig, Rudolph, O'Dowd) may think it was by design.  "We started shooting about four or five months before 'Bridesmaids' was released in theaters (last May).  All of [the actors] happened to be available, and I'm so glad they were," the director said.  She was also thankful for child actor Owen Bento, 3, whom she said was well-behaved throughout his time on the set. 

"Friends With Kids", which is funny as well as brutally honest and blunt in characters' withering commentaries, harkens back to the kinds of 1960s and 70s American adult comedy-dramas that regularly got made as mainstream Hollywood films.  "Carnal Knowledge" (1971) comes to mind.  It just so happens that that film's director, Mike Nichols, came on board as one of the executive producers of Ms. Westfeldt's film. 

"I thought, 'Mike Nichols?  This is insane.'  I couldn't believe it.  I was excited that he would even think about having anything to do with my film, and it was great and really kind of him to lend his support.  He was wonderful and very valuable,'" Ms. Westfeldt recalled.  She also sang the praises of filmmaker Jake Kasdan, also a producer on the film, whom she said gave lots of time away from his family and his own film projects to assist Ms. Westfeldt when she needed some advice and help.

As with "Kissing Jessica Stein" and "Ira & Abby", in "Friends With Kids" a fade-out ends the movie, creating a sense that life goes on, and that the onscreen characters living it either progress or stagnate.

During the post-screening Q&A someone asks whether "Friends With Kids" will have a sequel.

"Well, a sequel," Ms. Westfeldt begins.  Her sly, polite smile spreads to a grin.  "I invite you to come up afterwards, and I'd love to hear your ideas about that."

Director-writer-producer-actor Jennifer Westfeldt last year.  Uncredited photo

"Friends With Kids" opens in the U.S. and Canada on Friday.

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