Katie Silberman likes to describe herself as a Molly sun under an Amy moon with a Jared rising, “but little elements of all of them,” she adds.
The Booksmart screenwriter is calling me from her apartment in Santa Monica, where she is staring at a Jane Eyre poster she stole from Amy’s room, just above the fictional teen feminist’s desk. It now hangs above her own desk in an homage to a film — and an experience — that she calls truly special. These teen characters are so much a part of her that she now talks about them like astrology, which to any Millennial is to say that they are ingrained in her very soul.
But Booksmart is more than a modern teen classic, a tale of two precocious overachievers (played by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) who try and cram four year’s worth of teenage debauchery into one unforgettable night. It’s a touching, frequently hilarious story of female friendship and, essentially, a breakup movie rolled into one. But it’s also what happens when you let women tell the kinds of stories they want to tell. Helmed by actor Olivia Wilde — her directorial debut — Booksmart boasts four credited writers, a handful of producers (including Silberman), a production designer, an editor, a post-production supervisor, and a sound mixer that all have one thing in common: they’re women. “There was something special about designing a teenage girl’s bedroom with someone who had been a teenage girl in a bedroom,” Silberman says.
Below, Silberman talks about how Booksmart honors the teen movies of the past while carving out a unique space of its own, what the actors brought to their roles, and why the film’s most outrageous scene is so essential.
MTV News: I’m curious, what were you like in high school?
Katie Silberman: In so many ways this is a very autobiographical story for me. I would say in high school I was probably closest to a Molly in that I really prioritized school and wasn’t super social. I didn’t really experiment or try or have the kind of wild fun that I think high schoolers should have. And I had convinced myself it’s because I was focusing on school and I was focusing on the future and I was making the responsible choice. Then when I got to college I realized that everyone that I thought had chosen to have fun instead of focusing on their future were just as smart — if not much smarter than me — and doing much better than me in all those ways. It wasn’t responsibility that was stopping me from doing all those things, it was fear and insecurity.
Writer Katie Silberman, actor Austin Crute, director Olivia Wilde, and actor Noah Galvin on the set of Booksmart
MTV News: So much has been said about the authenticity of the film, and that even extends to their rooms. I feel like you would learn so much about Molly just by looking at what’s in their room.
Silberman: Totally. There was a shorthand about the way girls live in their spaces and it’s so layered. I mean, there were so many elements of Molly and Amy’s room that no one will ever see in the movie, but that Katie Byron, our production designer, layered and created and gave such a great texture to. There are all the different posters and frames and awards between the two rooms, and notes between them. And little knickknacks! Molly loved Harry Potter. There’s like a tiny little Snitch hiding in her room somewhere that you should see if you can find next time. It’s so cool.
MTV News: This is definitely a film for the Harry Potter generation.
Silberman: I’m 32, so I kind of grew up with the books at the perfect ages. When Harry was 10, I was 11, and when Harry was 18, I was 20. So I got to grow up with him in a way. It’s become this qualifier in terms of making young people identify those qualities about themselves. Like, am I a Hufflepuff? I’m pretty thoughtful, but I also like academics. Maybe I’m a Ravenclaw. There’s a shorthand too that we understand, like you’re being a little Slytherin right now and I need you to take a step back. I’m also thrilled when someone is a self proclaimed, very proud Slytherin. Noah Galvin, who plays George, is like out-loud Slytherin all day. I love it. He owns it.
MTV News: I love that Molly gets turned on by the fact that Nick correctly identifies her as half Slytherin, half Ravenclaw.
Silberman: We added that after we started shooting because Beanie and I are both such rabid fans. It was really fun when we realized that the thing that would arouse Molly most in the world is someone correctly identifying her house and also that that’s the thing that really for the first time makes her take a second, rethink how she’s been talking and feeling about Nick, that if Nick could recognize that he’s a much different person than she thought.
MTV News: When Molly and Amy arrive at the party, they’re nervous that no one wants them there when in reality everyone is like, “We’ve been waiting for you! We’re happy that you’re here.” I thought that was a really lovely way to subvert so many stereotypes.
Silberman: That’s so meaningful that you noticed that scene because that was kind of one of the most important scenes to us when Olivia and I were developing the arc of this, of how we wanted the night to take place. I was the fourth writer on this project. There were two earlier iterations, one by Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins, and one by Susanna Fogel, who are all really talented writers. And there were differences between the drafts, but at the core it was about two smart best friends. And even that, focusing on smart girls who might’ve been, a tertiary character, a side character in other stories and putting them at the center was such a wonderful way to reframe that way.
And when I came on, that was the big thing I was so excited about was to tell a story with no villain. We were very purposeful about that. I feel like, traditionally, a character like Triple A or even George can play one note in that they’re a villain or they’re an antagonist in those ways. But we were very purposeful about wanting to give everyone that moment of grace at the end where you get to see them for who they really are.
MTV News: And that scene in particular really captured that warmth.
Silberman: I still think that the kindest, the most exciting and warm environment I’ve ever been in was at the end of school, because the nostalgia, that last party is everyone being like, “We’re best friends.” That’s the night that all boundaries, all relationships turn into one and everyone is so fond and affectionate of each other. It distills the journey that Molly and Amy go on, which is that they’re very brilliant obviously, but they’d had so much to learn in terms of how much they had been projecting on everyone else. It’s totally understandable why they think people wouldn’t be happy to see them, but if they had taken the time or prioritized getting to know people and things outside of the classroom, they could have maybe benefited from that their whole high school time.
MTV News: The characters are also so fully realized. There’s not one character who’s a teen stereotype.
Silberman: In high school you’re forced into a lot of boxes, and it’s very easy to make someone one-dimensional because it makes more sense and it’s easier and it’s safer. We were excited about telling a story that revealed the many dimensions of everybody you go to high school with and try to crack open those archetypes and remind everyone to really look at people and see beyond that. In addition to some more specific anecdotes from our own high school experiences that we got to put in throughout and characters from our high school experiences. I think everyone has a Gigi. Gigi is named after Olivia’s real Gigi who I’m waiting to hear from when she sees the movie.
MTV News: Really!
Silberman: Yeah. I had a different Gigi, but she was extraordinary. Someone described Gigi as a magical party coyote, which is the exact right way to describe the girl I went to high school with as well.
MTV News: Was there a character that you were writing that you were surprised or maybe even a little frightened by how easy their voice came to you?
Silberman: I would say it probably should be frightening how easy Gigi’s voice came to me. Who I love more than anything. I would say Gigi and George were two characters that I had so much fun writing. I could have written a thousand pages for each of them even before we started.
MTV News: How much of Gigi is Billie Lourd?
Silberman: It’s always a chemical equation. There are some moments, like the line that she gives on the top of the boat, where she says she lost her virginity in what she thought was a park but turned out to be a graveyard. That’s the kind of thing that was on the page, but when you hear it coming from Billie, you’re like, now I understand the entire character. Now I get everything! She’s 150 percent Billie Lourd. She just infuses it in every way and brings such an unbelievable energy. Also, things like her popping up and seeing Molly at the bar at Nick’s party. That’s something that we came up with on the day, and Billie agreed to hang out all night so that we could film that little scene, which is one of my favorites in the whole movie.
MTV News: The film also honors a lot of the kind of teen movies that we’ve grown up with. In one of the opening scenes Molly’s walking with her lunch tray, but she looks like Alicia Silverstone in Clueless dressed in plaid.
Silberman: Absolutely. They were in our heads the whole time. We talked so much about the movie Clueless. If you’re a young woman of a certain age, Cher is your patron saint in a lot of ways. And that movie in terms of the tone and how much it establishes the ’90s. We talked so much about Clueless, about Dazed and Confused, about Fast Times, about the movies that made us want to make movies. And how we could honor them, not just in terms of trying to do what they did in accurately reflecting a generation while still telling a timeless story, but actually honoring them. What’s so great about Jake Ryan leaning up against the car in Sixteen Candles is that everyone can imagine that feeling of like, your crush, the person you like more than anything, and you walk outside and they’re waiting for you. Our homage to that is at the end of the film; there’s a character waiting outside another character’s home, and it’s that same feeling.
MTV News: The scene between Molly and Amy at the airport reminded me of Lady Bird in a certain way.
Silberman: Olivia and I first realized we had cracked the version that we were so excited to tell was when we realized it was a breakup story. It’s about the end of a relationship as you know it so far, because even if you stay as close to your high school best friend your whole life, which I think is kind of a miracle, it’s never going to be the same as when you’re seeing each other for 50 hours a day, every week. You’re going to move on, you’re going to evolve into the person that you need to be as an adult and you can’t ever be as co-dependent as you are when you’re in high school. There’s a real heartbreak to that friendship ending, even if you don’t think the friendship itself is ending, but that version of your friendship having to end just because you’re getting older and moving on.
MTV News: One of my favorite scenes was the animated sequence because it was so unexpected. How did that come about?
Silberman: That was in Olivia’s original pitch deck when she pitched to direct the movie. So when I came on, it hadn’t been in any previous drafts and she was like, “I have this idea. I want to do a stop-motion Barbie sequence, I think it should be a drug trip.” It was my unbelievably fun job to try and find the best place to put something like that into the movie. What got us so excited about it was that this is a story about such ardent young feminists, and the worst kind of drug trip is the nightmare. And the nightmare for these women would be to be stuck in the body of a Barbie, like the thing they’re most against, this body that they think is not only unrealistic, but literally unlivable. And then the true nightmare is that when one of them’s in it, they kind of like it, they’re like, I might stick around in this body.
It’s one of those things that you can’t see it until it’s done, and so it’s a very easy thing for a studio or a producer who’s looking to cut time or to cut costs to say, “Do we really need that?” And it doesn’t seem like it’s essential to the plot necessarily. But Olivia was so adamant and fought so hard for not only its purpose in terms of the arc and what these girls are learning as the night goes on but also the reason you go see a narrative movie is to take big swings like that.
MTV News: I’m glad she fought for that sequence.
Silberman: Totally. And that’s what made me so excited to want to be a part of the movie. Her original pitch was that she wanted this to be Training Day for high school girls, because she was like, as adults, it’s so easy to kind of patronize to how passionately high schoolers and teenagers feel everything, but when you’re in it, it is that intense. High school is war when you’re in it. So this movie, if it’s truly going to honor what it’s like to be in high school, it has to feel that intense. It has to be bold.