Interview: Friends with Kids’ Writer-Director-Star Jennifer Westfeldt

Actress and writer Jennifer Westfeldt made her mark on the film scene in 2001 when she wrote and co-starred in the indie romantic comedy Kissing Jessica Stein about a young, straight woman who, frustrated by her dating opportunities with men, falls into a lesbian relationship.

In her latest comedy, Friends with Kids, Westfeldt is once again exploring alternate relationship choices, this time involving parenting. She not only wrote the script, but makes her directorial debut while starring as Julie, a thirty-something single woman who decides to have a child with her platonic best friend Jason (Parks and Recreation‘s Adam Scott). Julie and Jason’s plan confuses and frustrates the married couples in their life– including most of the cast of Bridesmaids: Jon Hamm (Westfeldt’s real-life partner for 15 years), Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Chris O’Dowd—while the arrival of their son complicates Julie and Jason’s attempts at romantic relationships with others (Megan Fox and Edward Burns).

A few weeks ago I and several other film writers sat down with the delightful Westfeldt in Chicago to talk about the film, new forms of family and parenting, directing a movie for the first time, and of course what it’s like to walk down the street with Jon Hamm.

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The film has a lot to say about marriage and having children. How do you think our generation has changed the nature of marriage?

Jennifer Westfeldt: I only write a movie once every five years or so, but all three films I’ve made are these subversive rom-coms where I’m asking, ‘Why can’t we do it a different way, why does it have to be the status quo, why can’t we change the rules if the rules aren’t working for us?”

But above all I want the film to be relatable. Adam and my characters started with the kernel of what it’s like to be out of sync with your peer group, wanting to be part of the experience but not really part of it. And that feeling you have of losing your friends a little when they first become parents and you don’t have as much in common all of a sudden and you’re not part of their day-to-day experience. You can’t be comparing notes about “Did he sleep through the night? Is he colicky? Is he this, is he that?”

It’s obviously a game-changer to have children and it’s a life-long one, so the goal was to show the different ways people deal with this profound life change. I was interested in exploring how the transition to parenthood changes the friendships, the romantic relationships, and then the ripple effect through a group of friends when this alternative arrangement is chosen by these two singles, thinking they can kind of beat the system and still have it all.

So do you think it’s really possible for men and women to be platonic friends and have this deep of a connection where they would conceive and raise a child and still just be friends, as your and Adam’s characters try to do?

Westfeldt: It’s funny. The film’s not autobiographical or anything, no one’s really based on anyone in my life in particular, although we wrapped this film about year ago in February of last year and my managers, who are a man and woman and best friends and business partners, sat me down a few months after we wrapped and announced to me that they were having a baby together. I was like, “Wait… what?! You didn’t have to ‘do’ the script!” And they had the baby yesterday.

Before writing, did you have certain types of characters and situations you wanted to address, or did they develop organically as you wrote the script?

Westfeldt: Because I’m an actor first, once I have an idea I want to explore I think about for each character what arc would make sense to me, and what wouldn’t. With Kristen and Jon’s characters, for example, I wanted to show one couple that really falters under the strain of having kids, especially in the first year, and that if there’s a crack in the foundation of the relationship, it will be magnified by that pressure and that challenge and that lack of sleep—which is a form of torture. Whereas Chris and Maya’s characters, they really were meant to embody sort of the “hero” couple. They’re so wildly likable as actors, and they’re meant to kind of be this anchor. You know good couples can get angry with each other and the next moment they can be completely loving with each other.

Megan Fox’s character is the free spirit who doesn’t want kids and she’s great with that. And that’s threatening to those of us in the film who might be feeling a lack of freedom at that moment. I think Eddie Burns’ character represents the only one who is 100% un-conflicted about being a parent–he’s really happy with his identity as a parent first and foremost. Everyone else is struggling and straining to get through the transition and figure out the new normal.

Speaking of that “new normal,” given the growing number of non-traditional families today, what do you think are the common foundations necessary?

Westfeldt: I do think we’re in a time where there are so many alternative family structures out there, and I think the important foundation in terms of having a child is love and shared values and commitment to that child. That can take a lot of forms, and the definition of “family” is different for everybody. But having a child with a best friend with whom you have shared history and whose values you know and who you’ve known for decades—it doesn’t seem like the worst idea to me.

I wanted to explore the notion that this group of friends is family to each other. I’ve seen a lot of that in my life, just because we’re in a time where everyone is scattered to the four winds, everyone lives all over the map. That’s not how it was when my mom grew up—she had her grandmother, and her aunts and uncles and cousins, and everyone lived on the same block, in the same cul-de-sac, that utopian ideal about childhood. I don’t think that is the case anymore. I think we’re all over the place.

What was it like to direct for the first time, especially since you both wrote the script and were the lead actress?

Westfeldt: That was not in the plans. I did not intend to direct this. In fact, as we were trying to get the movie off the ground we were talking a lot of different directors, including one very high profile director who was interested in doing it for a bit. He shall remain nameless, but when he went back and looked through the script and realized just how many days of shooting babies and toddlers and kids would be involved, he thought better of it. About halfway through our shoot, I was like, “Nice point he makes, nice point.”

And then for a long time, we thought Jake Kasdan was going to direct it, and I was thrilled because he and I have kind of circled each other for many years trying to work on something together. But he was still working on Bad Teacher and they were in post and we didn’t quite know when he was going to be finished. And you know with any indie film, if you’re lucky the stars align and there’s that one moment when the cast you want is available for three weeks or four weeks. And when that happened it was the dead of winter last year, the worst in New York in 40 years, and Jake wasn’t finished yet with Bad Teacher.

So Jake along with John Sloss, one of our executive producers, and Jon Hamm—my Jon—and a lot of other people encouraged me to step in and direct it myself. It was the only way to get the movie done and not lose our cast. Given that, I decided to do it, but really only with tremendous support from the producing partners. Jake made a deal with me that he would be on set every shooting day to have my back and be at the monitor when I was on camera, which he did and was amazing. And Will Rexer my DP was an amazing collaborator and partner in crime. He was endlessly patient with me–we prepped so much, and he really filled in my gaps and helped me with this really steep learning curve, so I felt prepared by the time we were on set.

I was really very involved creatively as a producer on the first two films, so I was used to going home and watching dailies and that sort of thing. But I wasn’t used to going home, watching dailies, having seven conference calls, doing the shot listing, looking at the weather and re-planning the next day’s shot listing and never having one moment to prepare as an actor. Changing clothes with someone holding a sheet up in a corner of the set because I couldn’t leave because I needed to be talking to the crew. It was more that I could have ever imagined. It’s an endless job, you’re never done. But at the same time I was excited for the challenge. I feel like you should try everything once, right?

You’ve assembled such a tremendous ensemble cast.

Westfeldt: I was just so insanely grateful and still feel like pinching myself, blessed that they all wanted to do this. On an independent film, there’s not a lot of money, there’s no frills, no trailers, nothing fancy. And it was the dead of winter, and there were babies and kids were every day on set. So it was not a very glamorous set-up for these wonderful talents. In way, there’s a purity about that because everybody is there because they wanted to be there and they want to be part of the story. You don’t always get that on high-paying jobs–sometimes it’s a mixed bag. So that felt great and pure and fun, almost like we were putting on a play.

You’ve been with your partner and co-star Jon Hamm long before the whole Mad Men fame hit, so what’s it been like observing that phenomenon?

Westfeldt: Part of the amazing success of Mad Men is the element of fantasy about it–everyone thinks of these characters as iconic and certainly his character in particular. It’s harkening back to a different time, a less politically correct time. But the truth is Jon’s not a lot like Don Draper—he grew up with a single mom and a lot of strong women around him, so he’s a great guy, a sweet guy. But what goes along with that character is that sex symbol status.

I remember when Kissing Jessica Stein came out and a lot of people were responding to it. The kind of recognition I would have is people would come up to me on the street and be like, “Oh, my god, we sat together and table 9 at the wedding together!” And it would take a solid 10 minutes for them to realize that they had seen me in a movie and thought we were friends. Whereas when people see Jon, they faint or scream “Oh my god!” It couldn’t be more opposite in terms of the ways that people perceive you based on the roles you play and the work you do.

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Friends with Kids opens today in select theaters across the country.

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“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

--Virginia Woolf
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