Filmmakers Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein break through convention with ‘I FEEL PRETTY’

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

I FEEL PRETTY is not the movie you think it is based on the trailers you saw.

Seasoned writers/ first time directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein have assuredly taken great craft and care not to make the film many have condemned for being tone-deaf and body-shaming. Instead, they’ve made a film that seeks to empower women to reclaim their confident spirit.

After Renee (Amy Schumer) hits her head during a rigorous Soul Cycle class, she is magically transformed (albeit only in her mind) into the gorgeous, self-assured woman she’s longed to be – but has actually been all along. Her shift in perspective transforms her life, giving her a more satisfying career, a caring boyfriend (Rory Scovel) and, better yet, a never-ending wellspring of confidence. Her character journey revolves not around her looks, but about figuring out how to tap into her hidden strengths.

I spoke with the affable filmmakers over the phone from the film’s press day in New York City about everything from their films’ common thread, to writing the perfect meet-cute, to the online controversy over the film’s message.

What made you want to make the jump to directing  your first feature and why now? Were there any fallacies you encountered?

Abby Kohn: We wanted to do this for a couple of years and finally took the time to put a few months aside and write something we really wanted to make ourselves. Were there any fallacies about what we thought it would be like?

Marc Silverstein: Not really. I think it was actually better than I thought it was going to be. It’s more satisfying seeing a movie from beginning to end than I thought. It was a really great experience.

Do y’all find it easier to write for less characters than it is to write for an ensemble? 

AK: That’s a good question!

MS: It’s just different. It’s like two different styles of writing. Writing those ensemble movies is like writing short stories. It’s really the way you’re breaking…

AK: The multiple story arcs, you mean?

MS: Yeah. The way you’re breaking the plot is a totally different way than a story that needs to sustain over a hundred pages.

AK: I feel like those multiple story arc pages are a bit of a sleight of hand. Because it’s a long movie, they think of the story in a certain way, but if you break it down, some of those stories are four scenes. Because they’re part of a larger movie, they feel more epic. When we’re breaking down these scenes, it’s amazing how little each one can get. That’s more of a skill of really distilling what the beats absolutely have to be for that story versus, if it’s a one story arc movie, being able to sustain that. That’s a whole different ball of wax how to keep it interesting and how to maximize your concept throughout the whole second act.

MS: And also just the puzzle of the multiple story arcs – of time jumps and where people are, of nights and days. It’s a lot.

The balance is very hard to achieve.

MS: Also, you have to make every story worth watching. What you don’t want is the “Oh. We’re back to this story now?!”

AK: Right. Just waiting it through to get to the one you do like.

Both this and THE VOW deal with brain injuries and NEVER BEEN KISSED has this idea of going back to repeat something again. Is there something to this theme of “regression as progression?”

MS: Yeah. For sure! I think all of these stories are about all these walls and blockades we put up in our mind and how we’re prisoners to that type of thinking. These are just high-concept ways of breaking down that barrier basically. Resetting yourself so you can get a different perspective. I think that’s a really good thing you caught there. I think we’re interested in how people prevent themselves from doing things – the cycles and the traps they get caught in. Trying to find an interesting movie in a high-concept way to illustrate how if you can get beyond that thing, your life can be different. We are definitely interested in that concept. 

One of the things I loved about this movie is that, after Renee hits her head and is looking at her body with fresh eyes, we don’t see a body double from her POV. Let’s talk a little bit about this good call.

MS: That’s part of the reason when you asked ‘Why did you want to direct this movie,’ that’s why. Literally that part of this movie is why. We couldn’t be more clear in the script that you don’t see anything different. There’s nobody else there.

AK: In the script, she looks in the mirror, says, ‘I’m beautiful,’ and we have in capitals: NOTHING HAS CHANGED. She says it again. It says it again: IT’S EXACTLY THE SAME. It’s part and parcel.

MS: But people would read it – not even studio execs, but friends of ours – and immediately would be like, ‘But you’re going to see someone else in the mirror, right?’ ‘NO! Nope.’ I think we’re just trained in movie vernacular that that’s what’s going to happen.

AK: That was as much part of the concept as her hitting her head.

MS: Right. It was more, honestly.

AK: Like in NEVER BEEN KISSED, she goes back to high school and what if you’re the exact same nerd you were before. That’s the second half of that pitch, but this is the same. You hit your head and believe you’re beautiful, BUT we never see anything changed. For us, that was an equally important part of the process.

MS: I do think trepidation all around, except with us and Amy, that is was going to work, until we shot the scene of her waking up and looking in the mirror and then everyone was like, ‘Oh! We’re good. You get it. It’s clear.’ I don’t think people on our team thought we needed it, because we need it. We were more nervous if people would understand what’s happening if we don’t show it. We were confident from the get-go that people would – and her performance makes it crystal clear what’s happening.

Yes. In lesser hands, they would absolutely cut to a body double.

MS: For sure!

AK: 100%

MS: And then you ruin the entire movie.

AK: You are so, so very right.

Amy Schumer and Sasheer Zamata in I FEEL PRETTY. Courtesy of STX Entertainment.

This film begins on such a sad note. I really wanted to cry for Renee. Did that take a while to modulate how sad you could go without people going, “Oh my God?!”

MS: [laughs] Yeah. A little bit.

AK: And we had choices, but we felt we wanted to show people that this isn’t exactly the kind of movie that you thought – and that’s okay because we’re going to take you there.

MS: There was a bit of making sure we have enough laughs in the beginning, but we keep the tone realistic. We really set up someone who has a good life and has good friends and doesn’t have as much of a reason to be as down on herself. We didn’t want to set up that typical “movie sad sack.” We wanted to really try to dig in. She’s just lacking self-esteem and the world isn’t working out the way she wants it to, but when you watch those scene independently, it has nothing to do with how she looks. It’s just her perception of the world is colored.

A lot of this was shot outdoors on the streets of New York City. Did any passersby get overzealous and interrupt the shoot?

MS: Not specifically. Shooting on the streets with Amy was…It was our first day…

AK: I just didn’t realize…I grew up in LA and fans and photographers don’t line the streets like it’s the Golden Globes. But in New York, it is that.

MS: They are very co-operative letting you shoot on the streets, but also don’t do anything to block it off for you.

AK: I was just unprepared for the amount of people that would be there watching. Didn’t understand it.

MS: It was really hectic. You can’t hear anything. It was quite a rude awakening to our first scene as directors.

Let’s discuss writing the perfect meet-cute. I loved the dry cleaning pick up in this. How difficult is it to nail? 

AK: Again, our concept lends itself to comedy and to her assuming.

MS: It’s one of my favorite moments in the movie. It’s so dumb and so funny.

AK: It’s fun to hear the audience figuring it out what she’s figuring out.

MS: That was a function of how we structured the entire second act of the movie, which is having fun with the concept. What would someone brimming with confidence that no one else in the world ever has, what assumptions would they make about daily occurrences, or how an interview should go. That was the fun of writing that whole second act.

Did Michelle Williams come to set with that voice and the physicality? When she’s trying to be relateable at lunch with Renee is gold. 

MS: The voice is written in the script as high-pitched vocal fry, but what she arrived with was better than anything we could’ve imagined. She definitely approached this part with the focus and intensity that she approaches all her parts. the voice was already nailed down…

AK: …but the physicality was so great. Awkwardly resting her head to the side on her palms, finding all that stuff, trying to approximate human behavior is so fun.

MS: She was so game. Once we locked into that thing, as Avery living that sheltered life without much close human interaction or friends, she was like, ‘Oh this is someone who sees how people should interact,’ and try to get in on it in a way that doesn’t quite work.

There’s been some controversy brewing online over the trailer and film’s message. When you watch the movie, it’s not at all what people are saying. I was wondering if we could address this?

MS: I think the controversy is based on what they thought the trailer was saying. If you see the movie, you know that’s not the case. It’s also a bit of a function of past Hollywood transgressions and how insensitive movies in Hollywood have been in the past.

AK: Like an assumption that we’re as tone deaf as maybe other movies have been without having the full story, which obviously is completely opposite of…

MS: …the movie we all set out to make and the movie we did make.

AK: No one who’s seen the movie has been unclear about the message not only of body-positivity, but about a non-judgmental idea that it is absolutely about not how you look. That’s the point – that you don’t have to change anything about how you look, but having confidence in who you are already can change everything. That’s really what it’s about and runs completely antithetical to some of those comments about the trailer.

I FEEL PRETTY opens on April 20.

Header photo: Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein direct Amy Schumer in I FEEL PRETTY. Courtesy of STX Entertainment.

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