Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful creatives in the industry. In this entry looks back to 2010 when we interviewed Easy A director Will Gluck at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The high school comedy is not an easy subject to tackle because it’s been tackled almost as much as Emma Stone’s character in Easy A would have you believe she has. It is one of the many sluts of the film genre world ‐ it’s incredibly attractive because it’s easy to get into bed with, but it’s not like you’re going to impress anyone by going after it. Unless you nail it.
Will Gluck, a man without an average high school experience teamed with Stone, an actress who didn’t go to high school, to try to do just that.
Gluck was decent enough to spend more than a few minutes on the phone with me while surrounded by the insanity of the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about the challenges of being fresh with high school, creating a strong female character, and the joy of sex comedy without sex.
What’s the feeling like having Easy A hit Toronto?
Well, people are really excited about this which is a new feeling for me. It’s nice.
Are you saying the buzz going into Fired Up! was negative or was it just not positive?
No, it was very positive, it’s just that the reviews weren’t that great, and people judged it before they even saw it as opposed to this one where everyone’s going bananas for this movie. So I tend to throw out the highs and lows, throw out the Russian judge. I don’t believe the highs, and I don’t believe the lows.
That’s probably a healthy way to look at it.
What draws you to the world of high schoolers?
It’s very strange because I had several TV shows on the air ‐ I started in TV ‐ and they were not about high school at all. I don’t know the answer. I didn’t think after Fired Up! that I would ever do another high school movie again until I got my hands on the script and thought I could do something special with it.
What you’ve done is to take something that’s well worn and tell it in a new way. What does that challenge look like to you?
I think of that old adage “There’s only six stories to tell,” so as long as the people telling the story acknowledge that the story has been told before, I think people are much more accepting of it. So with this one, I really hit it on the head that the characters know they’re going through a story, know that this idea has been in literature and movies before, and are embracing it. I think it lets the audience off the hook. The characters know this isn’t brand new material here. Let’s just see how they do it.
There is a ton of referencing, but that seems apparent through Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson’s parental characters, too. An older generation that’s gone through the same things.
I think not only have they gone through similar situations, they’ve also seen those movies when they were younger too. The situations that teens go through in high school, their parents went through too. I think the only difference now is social media has made everything much more immediate. In the old days, when a rumor started or a story happened it took a few days or a week to get around. Now it’s literally within seconds. It makes high school even more hyper real.
Do you see a necessity in referencing other movies because of the age we live in?
Here’s my thing on this. Everyone, me and you talking, wherever we go ‐ we make references. Lines from movies, lines from TV, lines from songs. That’s the way we all live our lives. That’s not even now; it’s 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s. The thing is, for some reason in movies and television shows, the characters seem to live in a world where no other pop culture exists. That they’re the only people going through these things. So I wanted to make a movie that takes place in reality. We always talk in movie references, so why can’t characters in movies talk in movie references?
You’ve got a point there. After watching the movie, I thought about writing about films that live in a film-less universe.
Every romantic comedy. At least most romantic comedies. The characters, there’s no movies, there’s no pop culture. You walk down the street and there are no advertisements for media, and the characters think they are the first to go through this boy meets girl scenario.
The movie I’m doing right now ‐ Friends With Benefits ‐ is an updated Hepburn/Tracy movie where the characters are very aware that they’re going through this thing that everyone in the world has gone through before, and they reference movies constantly as well.
Is there a Hepburn/Tracy feel to Kunis/Timberlake?
I certainly hope so. I wrote the dialog ‐ I love hearing dialog that’s emotionally connective but hyper real in that I would love people to speak this way. Kind of funny and quick and smart. Easy A’s the same way. Everyone speaks in the way that I wish I spoke, the way I wish I came across. They make their mistakes, they act very human but they speak hyper human. That’s what Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy do, and that’s completely what I’m going for with Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, and Woody Harrelson.
So like State of the Union or Sea of Grass?
[Laughs] It’s like It Happened One Night.
It’s interesting that you’d talk about imbuing our modern age into a film while touching back to a classic feel.
I don’t want to be the type of moviemaker that puts in references that are old to sound cool and hip. I don’t want to alienate anyone. My scope of references is so tiny. I’ve seen so few movies and TV shows because of my upbringing that I’m the one always going, “I don’t get it. What are they talking about? I don’t know what that means!”
I never want to do a reference that’s not explained in the moment. You’ll notice in Easy A, every kind of reference they do stands on its own. You don’t have to know the reference. Especially the 80s movies. I show clips of the 80s movies, so it’s more of an inclusive reference moment.
Same thing with the movie I’m making now. They watch parts of the movies and talk about them, and at the end everyone’s on the same page. I never want to just do an esoteric reference to show how cool I am. “Look! I referenced It Happened One Night!” ‐ unless I show you what It Happened One Night is.
Sort of like filmic education during a film.
I think “filmic” even sounds too high brow. I just mean pop culture. It’s like talking about baseball players. I never want to be like, “You don’t know who Reggie Jackson is?!” What a dick. It’s more like, “Oh, Reggie Jackson was this guy in the 80s.” So you explain it and include everybody.
That’s refreshingly unpretentious of you.
I desperately [Laughs] try to go through every frame of a movie to be unpretentious.
Find out more about sexless sex in Easy A and possible religious backlash on the next page:
What cinematic high school would you have liked to attend?
I grew up in New York and Tokyo so I attended big city schools which are a bit different. My idea of what I thought a high school was, was John Hughes’s Breakfast Club. That’s what I thought high school was. The gym. The janitor. The hallway.
For this, I wanted to find a high school that replicated that. I wanted to find a small town that wasn’t too far away outside a major city. Ojai, where we set the movie, is an hour and a half outside LA. Just like John Hughes sets his in the suburbs of Chicago. I desperately tried to replicate that, but with a California feel because Ojai is…there are no hallways in California schools.
Which is crucial.
Where are you from?
I’m from Corpus Christi, Texas originally.
Is it the same?
The high school I went to was different from other high schools in the area, but it had no hallways. Only breezeways, and it sort of felt like prison because they had bars and gates.
What’s a breezeway?
It’s an outside hallway.
So it’s outside.
Yup. It’s a concrete walkway with grass on one side and doors on the other that lead inside to classrooms. It’s a lot like the school you used in filming.
So, exactly, there’s no way something like that iconic hallway scene could happen in Easy A so I had to make what I called the Quad their hallway.
And you have The Gazebo scene.
Yes, that was not even in the high school. It was at the town park.
And it’s where the prayer group meets. The group is led by Amanda Bynes’s character who is hyper-Christian. Have you gotten any blow back from that?
I expected some blow back, and I haven’t gotten it yet. I think I will when the movie comes out, but if there were one thing I could do over, that I’m mad at myself for, it’s that character. I never intended to make a statement about evangelical Christians. I wanted to make a statement about evangelicals and zealots. The adjective not the noun.
I wanted to poke fun at people in high school who are holier than thou, they already know everything. Unfortunately, I went more into the Christianity range because, I think, it was easier to just make Jesus jokes.
If I had to do it all over again, I would take the religious part out of it completely and just talk about evangelicals.
You don’t think the character is stereotypical enough to stand as a parody? She’s religious, but she just struck me as the know-it-all of the high school.
You hit it right on the head. They are so stereotypical, but it’s because I called them Christians. If I hadn’t, and people took away that they were Christians, then that’s their own body of knowledge taking it away, but I actually said they were Christians, which was stupid of me.
Always nice to hear a filmmaker taking lessons from their own films.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Trust me.
I enjoyed that part of the movie, although it may be my own prejudice.
What was your thinking going into the movie? You probably didn’t think anything right? That it wasn’t going to be good, just another high school movie.
My expectation bar was raised a bit just because I’m an Emma Stone fan.
She’s effortlessly likable, and I liked the idea of her carrying a movie. The self-referential nature of the class reading “The Scarlet Letter” while this was going on was a red flag for me. That ends up being a minor detail though. Going in, I had better than average expectations.
Did we fulfill your expectations?
For me, yes. I’m impressed by anyone that can innovate. This genre has been done to death, and referencing and admitting that up front helps, but what I liked the most about it is that it’s not a romantic comedy.
Not at all.
It’s a strong female lead that learns a lesson totally different from “I need a man to complete myself.”
It’s not a romantic comedy at all. In no way, shape or form. It’s just a comedy. It’s a movie about reputation. We screened it for the international press in Cancun, Mexico, and we thought that no one would care about it because it’s an American movie. The press went nuts for it because it’s a movie about reputation which is universal. It’s about how we live our lives based on what other people think of us.
For this movie we chose sexuality as the guidepost, but you take out sexuality and put in anything about how we live our lives ‐ it’s based on what other people think of us. What Emma learns, what I hope gets across is what she says near the end: “I’m gonna have sex now, or six months from now, or on my wedding night. It’s not any of your goddamn business. I’m not going to take any self-worth away from what you think.”
That’s what this movie’s about. Sexuality is way to get people in. They’re marketing the sexuality aspect of it, to get people titillated.
There’s no sex in this movie. [Laughs] There’s no nudity in this movie. There are no swear words in this movie. It’s just about how we’re perceived, and that’s what I’m most proud of.
But there’s jumping on beds, hitting walls and screaming which, in high school, was part of my sexual experience I think.
There may have been some of that.
Going back to “The Scarlet Letter” point, people are saying it’s based off “The Scarlet Letter.” It’s not even close. The reason why we did that is that, it’s the same thing with references. We live our lives and we read a book or see a TV show that parallels our lives, we’re going to talk about it. That’s all that’s going on. She’s reading a book that parallels her life, and she’s gonna talk about it. It’s not like this is a movie about a teen who committed adultery and was shunned.
It’s a dumb kid…a smart kid who’s sort of misguided who goes off the deep end.
But she’s strikingly more capable than the girls I knew in high school. More than I was at least.
But that’s what makes her a misfit in high school. Because the most popular kids in high school, the ones that go back and say, “I loved high school,” fit into the John Hughes archetypes. They were the jock. They were the cheerleader. They fit into a mold and crushed it in high school.
People who don’t fit into the mold like Emma have a tough time in high school.
Did your or Emma’s lack of knowledge of high school help or hinder?
Well, it’s funny. Emma didn’t go to high school either because she came out to LA. So this movie was made by two people who never went to real high school. All our basis of high school was based on movies and based on the fact that the actual kids in the movie are the kids that went to that high school. We spent a lot of time talking to them and getting a sense of everything.
So you did a lot of research.
Everyday on set and in prep we spent talking to them because they were all there. The principal was there every day. The students were there everyday, and it was a small high school.
I can imagine it was important to you to create the Hollywood-realistic high school environment.
Yeah, there was nothing that we built in this movie. Every single set from the high school to the stores was real.
For Friends with Benefits, you’re filming right now and taking a Toronto break.
Just 36 hours.
When do you finish?
I finish shooting the end of September.
What does success look like for the next film?
The success is what I want from every movie I make. That I’m proud of it and the people who made it are proud of it. All I want to do when I sign on actors is make a movie that they’re proud of. That’s why on Easy A, every time I showed it to an actor, I was nervous about it. With Friends with Benefits, I’m trying to do what I did with Easy A ‐ which was an 80s movie updated ‐ and trying to be the 50s Hepburn/Tracy updated for now.
Thank you so much for taking the time. Really appreciated. I know things are incredibly busy right now.
It was my pleasure.
Easy A is in theaters Friday September, 17th.
Related Topics: Filmmaking