‘BOOK CLUB’ filmmakers Bill Holderman & Erin Simms rewrite the book on creative collaboration

Erin Simms and Bill Holderman on the set of BOOK CLUB. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Break out the Chardonnay and get ready to hang out with your four new best friends: Diane (Diane Keaton), Vivian (Jane Fonda), Sharon (Candice Bergen) and Carol (Mary Steenburgen). They are the legendary leading ladies at the center of BOOK CLUB and they’re ready to relate to you their feelings about life and love.

This hilarious, heartfelt and refreshing romcom gives voice to things we rarely see on screen – specifically anything dealing with a woman’s third act chapter. At the heart of this story are four women caught at a few crossroads in their lives, who find themselves re-invigorated by E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey book series. It’s the product of director/ co-writer/ producer Bill Holderman and co-writer/ producer Erin Simms, who used to work together at Robert Redford’s production company.

I recently spoke to the both of these talents over the phone about everything from the irreverent gift that sparked this film’s idea, to hosting a double entendre-laden buffet, to working with a “catty” co-star.

I feel like this addresses a market that’s sadly missing in today’s landscape and I’m curious about how this all came together.

Bill Holderman: The irony is that when we first started writing this, we did not think about that untapped market, or under-served demographic at all. We were kind of writing from a pure place. Erin will tell you the story of the inception of this little thing.

Erin Simms: We were working together at a production company and it was the day before Mother’s Day. It was in 2012 – right when the book, 50 Shades, came out. He decided to send the trilogy to his mother for Mother’s Day.

BH: As any good son would do.

ES: I was completely blown away by that. I thought it was insane and hilarious and amazing.

BH: She said it was completely inappropriate and then five minutes later sent it to her mom.

ES: I never said completely.

BH: Partially.

ES: The idea of a son and his mom talking about sex threw me for a loop.

BH: Then she sent it to her mom and her stepmom. The next day we started talking about it and Erin said, ‘Hey. What about a movie about a book club of women this age reading it.’ We were talking about our mom’s and their different paths in their lives. From that moment, we really wanted to write a comedy and we just dove into it. It was scenes we were excited about.

ES: I had never written anything. Bill had done a lot of writing. When we had the idea, it was instant and we started. It’s just bizarre. We both had full time jobs and we just fell in love with the idea. Something compelled us – I don’t know what it was. We didn’t have to force ourselves to do the work. We were excited every day to write this movie.

It’s really the character-driven dynamics that really propel this narrative. The books they’re reading are just the background and the impetus to the action.

BH: Completely.

Was that a challenge to keep that at the forefront?

BH: That’s the place where it’s all born. I was thinking of keeping it grounded and real for the characters. What was difficult was serving four unique and full storylines in the same movie….

ES: …and not short-changing anyone.

BH: Yeah. They are all equal leads. The math of that and making sure that, as you tell each storyline, they aren’t stepping on each other and, at the end of the day, the whole movie has some cohesion to it. That at the script level was probably the biggest challenge.

ES: We really came at as each one of those storylines we worked up what was going to happen to Sharon, what was going to happen to Diane, and we sort of filtered the book and the group into that. We knew that we wanted to tell full stories for each of them.

Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda, and Mary Steenburgen in BOOK CLUB. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Did any of the character voices change once the cast signed on?

BH: Yeah. One of the things is that my writing background… I did a lot of re-writing and a lot of re-writing for actors to custom tailor scripts for specific actors. To me, that’s probably my favorite part of the process is understanding their take on a character and fine tuning a role – the dialogue – for that actor. Erin and I did that.

ES: Nothing major though. Little tweaks here and there.

BH: It’s like tailoring a suit. You’re not restructuring it – you’re making it fit. To me, we definitely did that for everybody. When you do that, the actors get more comfortable and, when you get on set, that freedom gives them the ability to really understand what we’re trying to do. If they want to improv or ad-lib from there, we all know that it’s coming from a place that’s rooted in the story we’re trying to tell, which makes it more fun and easier.

ES: We did write Diane for Diane and Vivian for Jane. We were already channeling them.

One of the things I think is so great is that the male characters are sexy because they really support the female characters’ agency. Was it difficult finding men willing to play a supporting role?

BH: Finding men, first off, these guys were incredible. With this movie, we did a few things that are a little bit rare. The men are, for the most part, younger than the women they are starring opposite of. We can tell you that’s not always popular with actors of this age range. It’s a testament to these guys, who were genuinely excited to come in and be supportive and supporting to these women, which is, again, not always the case, but we were so blessed with actors who genuinely wanted to do that.

ES: Andy [Garcia] always wanted to work with Diane. Huge fan. Don [Johnson] always wanted to work with Jane. Craig [Nelson] and Mary love working together – they’d already done THE PROPOSAL.

BH: Richard Dreyfuss wanted to work with Candice. We were a low budget movie. We didn’t have a lot of time. We didn’t have a lot of all of the creature comforts they were accustomed to – or deserving of – and with great attitudes, they knocked it out of the park. It’s a testament to their love of their leading actresses that we had.

ES: But also just actually just being really good men. You hear so many bad things about men in Hollywood and here you have a group of guys, pre-#MeToo, would do anything to work with these women and knew they were legends as much as the general public does and saw this was a huge opportunity for them. They came in with that attitude and they felt lucky to be there – and we felt lucky to have them.

I mean, Andy Garcia left me weak in the knees.

BH: My mother texted me and said for this Mother’s Day, she’d like Andy Garcia. [laughs]

Did you have your cast read through the books?

BH: Jane had read them. As the story goes, Mary skimmed them for the dirty bits. Candice was reading it, but her housekeeper stole her copy. If you can get an answer out of Diane whether or not she’s read the books, more power to you – we don’t know. She certainly read a bunch on set and we enjoyed that. It was not homework they had to do it, but they were all seasoned professionals who do their due diligence. I’ll leave it as that.

Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, and Mary Steenburgen in BOOK CLUB. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

One of the book club meetings takes place over a themed food buffet. There are stuffed grape leaves, asparagus, bananas on the table and Mary’s piping cream into cherry tomatoes. Was that in the script or something the production designer was having fun with?

BH: We worked with our prop department. Particularly with that book club – that was their second book club. At that point they were all getting slightly more taken with the books. So we wanted to try to find as many funny and fun visual cues to that. We had fun creating that. A testament to Craig T. Nelson’s love for comedy, the bananas were at his request. That was not scripted – not planned. He was like, “Hey. I need bananas for this scene.” I was like, “Great!”  We didn’t have rehearsal beforehand so, as the lights were being set, we would run through it, and…

ES: …and he kept opening the bananas! We were like, “No! No! Don’t open another banana!”

BH: Because we were low budget we were going to run out of bananas. [laughs] The actors bring a lot to those visual innuendo jokes that not many people will catch.

What was the cat actor selection like? 

BH: We couldn’t afford to properly audition cats so we had to cast the cat off tape, which was a little uncomfortable. I will say, that cat…

ES: … unbelievable!

BH: This is going to sound like I’m making a joke and I’m not. That cat- its acting… We needed the cat to be tired and that cat could be tired. We needed the cat to stay put – and cats are notorious for being independently minded and spirited. That cat would stay where we needed it. It would look at Candice when we wanted it to look at Candice.

ES: She gave “blue steel” looks to the camera. That cat should be nominated for an Oscar, seriously.

BH: This is my first movie as a director and you learn, “Don’t work with kids or animals.” My first day is with the cat and Candice. If that cat didn’t show up and deliver like it did, I think the rest of the shoot would’ve been much, much worse. That cat gave me complete confidence. I love that cat!

What’s her name?

ES: Paris from Gentle Jungle.

BH: Paris is amazing. She showed up every day as Ginsburg the cat. She was method.

ES: No one was allowed to call her, “Paris.”

You both took new steps in your careers on this film. What did you learn about yourselves in doing so?

ES: That could fill up a book. I always had a lot of respect for writers. As a development executive and producer, everything starts and ends with the written word. Wow was that a hard job! I have so much respect for writers. It gets taken over by the actors and things get changed and sometimes the actors elevate your words. You feel so connected to the actor when you’ve written the words. It’s a very, very cool feeling – like when a mother lets her child out for the first time. I think it’s a really hard job and my hat’s off to anyone who writes a script.

BH: Going from having written and produced before, to directing is not for the faint of heart. The thing that I learned about the process is making sure you have the creative people around you be the people you love and believe in and they believe in you. I had the greatest crew and team on this movie. I had Erin as a producer and co-writer and a D.P., Andrew Dunn, who’s one of the most beautiful souls I’ve ever encountered in this business. It was such a great joy to work with him. You know, in theory, to make sure you’re working with good people, but I learned the value of that. This was not an easy shoot and to have those types of people surrounding you was a tremendous asset.

Working with actors, you’re weary of how that’s going to go. The thing I learned about that process is how much they want to be directed. The collaboration with all the actors became one of the things I woke up and looked forward to each day. That was not what I expected. I thought it was going to be one of those nail-biting experiences. It was that kind of collaboration, being able to dig into the characters and script, and find ways to bring out elements you may not have thought of as a writer that they bring to it. Making sure you provide an environment that you can have that type of creative freedom – even if you are on a tight schedule and tight budget. That was one of those life lessons about staying open to the experiences and options that appear in the moment – that’s where some of the greatest little gems were found.

ES: As a learning lesson, doing all the jobs of writing, producing, and with Bill directing, there was nothing where I didn’t think I would survive. It’s made me respect people in this business who do this all the time a lot more. My goodness. To get to the finish line on these things is actually a miracle. There’s so many obstacles along the way. You have to maintain that vision – you have to never let go. We both had a lot more stamina than we thought we had.

BOOK CLUB opens on May 18.

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