It’s hard to say who’s the hottest mess in Leslye Headland’s feature debut, Bachelorette. In the raunchy comedy, three unhappy singles reunite in Manhattan on the eve of their friend Becky’s nuptials, only to go completely off the rails. There’s Regan (Kirsten Dunst), the icy maid of honor who is deemed scarier than Hannibal Lecter; Katie (Isla Fisher), the clueless party monster; and Gena (Lizzy Caplan), the world-weary, potty-mouthed cokehead. “I think the best thing the film can do is start a conversation, especially about the way people are portrayed,” says the Los Angeles–based filmmaker and playwright, who penned her Heathers-meets-The Hangover script after attending her younger sisters’ weddings and fielding questions from guests about why she hadn’t yet tied the knot. “Like, do we have to have upstanding women star in these films?” Whether or not you sympathize with Headland’s gang of mean girls, one thing’s for sure: After seeing Bachelorette, you’ll never look at a wedding dress the same way again.
The film Bachelorette actually began as one of the plays you wrote for your Seven Deadly Sins cycle.
Yeah. I thought it would be interesting to write something about how ancient issues and personal problems still pop up for a generation that feels like they don’t need to have a moral compass. A lot of people grow up without religion. I found it interesting in my own life that these issues like gluttony would come up, and they are all very different and have been anaesthetized. So I wanted to reinvent each of them. Greed is not about rich people, but about a system that is trying to become rich and latching on to someone powerful. Bachelorette is a classic example of gluttony. We generally go, “OK, gluttony is about someone who is overweight.” I found it interesting to look at very thin, beautiful women who seem on the outside to have everything but who are constantly consuming.
You mentioned the societal pressure placed on women to get married by around the age of 30. Do you think that mentality has evolved?
What I think is funny, and what Bachelorette is about, is how it has evolved. Technically you don’t have to. There a lot of women who have chosen not to get married in that age range, and then a lot of women who choose to have a family on their own. What’s interesting is that there is a dichotomy that exists. There’s that option or the option to settle down and get married and have someone. But the question of the play, and what lingers even in the film, is this: Is this just another thing on the checklist? Is getting married just a thing you feel like you need to get done so that you can have happiness? I think it’s less about something that’s socially acceptable and more about what’s being sold to women. You’re told when you’re a little girl that you can do whatever you want, but then once you get to your late 20s, you’re being sold a particular ideal. And part of that is a romantic ideal. You’re going to get this man, settle down, and have children, but you’re also going to keep working. And that’s something that I check out with these characters.
A lot of people coming to see Bachelorette are expecting another Bridesmaids.
Well, I think the thing that separates this film from another wedding film is that it’s not about the bride. It’s about the people who end up being in the wedding party and the people whose day it’s not and how that makes them feel, and what they choose to do with their time as a result of that. The other thing is that it’s a small independent film, so we got to make a something that’s dark and a little weird that gets to explore what you can’t always explore in that genre. We could make the audience feel like the film was going to round some darker corners about what women are struggling with and make fun of those things. Nothing was too sacred to talk about. What’s interesting about romantic comedies is that a lot of the time the female heroines are very likable—almost who we wish we were. I grew up on Sandra Bullock and Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts—I wanted to be those women. I don’t think you’ll want to be these girls. You might recognize them, but I don’t think you would want to be them.
How would you describe the friendships among Regan, Gena, Katie, and Becky the bride? They seem complex.
I think complex is the right word. I think we’re just used to seeing relationships in the romantic comedy genre that are spelled out very clearly. This is the good girl, this is the bad girl, this is the popular friend, this is the unpopular friend. There are archetypes and relationships between them that you can understand. My experience with my girlfriends, especially ones I’ve been friends with since high school and college, is that at times the friendship can be like a romantic relationship where we have to continually remind ourselves why we became friends in the first place. That happens later in the film. It’s almost like reliving that first day, that first time you made a connection with each other. With my deepest girlfriends those are situations are tough, and the reason why we’re still friends is because they know something about me, they understand me in a way that I wouldn’t feel comfortable projecting to the world. They’ve seen my vulnerability; they’ve seen me at my worst and at my best.
What do you think of Lena Dunham’s show Girls?
I haven’t seen it! It’s not because I don’t want to— it’s because I don’t have HBO and don’t have a television right now. But I read the pilot and loved it, and so many people ask me that when they find out I’m a writer. They’re like, “Girls changed my life.” These 20-something girls are like, “If this show had been on when I was 24, I would have felt so much less lonely, so much less frustrated. I thought I was the only one.” Then they see this show and their like, “Oh, so we’re all in this.” I just emailed Lena and said, “It’s so great that you’ve put this out there, and put it out so honestly.” I just love how she just puts herself out there. I could never have done that when I was her age. I would never have had the fucking balls to do that. At all. Never.
Were you met with any hurdles from the producers because of the blatant drug use and foul language in Bachelorette?
That’s the good thing about making an independent movie. If we had made it with a studio, that would have been a huge problem. If you get rid of those things you get rid of the characters a little bit. I tried a version of it when they weren’t doing drugs, and I was like, “No. It feels like they don’t have that edge, like the thing that makes them different from characters you’ve seen before.
The seed of the idea was what if I wrote [the 1984 play] Hurlyburly, but it was all women? I was like, “I wonder why no one has done that.” And it never occurred to me because people just have a different response to women behaving that way. When we did Bachelorette off-Broadway and I started going to Q&As, some people were outraged. They laid into me personally and were like, “What’s wrong with you? Why would you write this?” I was surprised. I was like, “There are female drug addicts and female sex addicts. These aren’t unusual things.”
After writing the script and then seeing it play out, was there anything that you realized was maybe too much for you?
There is one moment: when the stripper wipes her vagina with the wedding dress. I thought that was just a bit too much. But we got such a response from the audience that I couldn’t help but keep it in. After hearing their reaction, I was like, “I can’t not include this.”
Do you think you included anything in the film that might have been too mean?
I don’t think the Bachelorette girls are mean at all. That’s terrible, I know. I think they’re weak people. I think all of their priorities are in the wrong place, and over the course of 24 hours their priorities get realigned. I always say that people don’t change in one night, but one night can change people.
Which character do you relate most to?
I think Katie, Isla Fisher’s character. I totally understand that feeling of wanting to be taken seriously and not being taken seriously, and just liking someone and not really knowing how to show it. You know, putting on a persona and leaving it on as long as possible and then having it just unravel. I wish I were more like Jenna in the beginning. I think her character is flawed and weak, but really smart and cool and very self-aware. Isla’s character is cursed with no irony and no self-awareness.
What was your most embarrassing first date?
I went on a blind date with a guy to see Takashi Miike’s Audition [a hypergruesome Japanese horror film from 1999]. I hadn’t known what it was about — we’d just heard about it. I was dry heaving, and we were both just trying not to throw up during the last 30 minutes of the movie. We left the theater, and I was like, “I don’t think I’ll ever date anyone again. He was like, “Same. Let’s just call it a night.” I never spoke to him again.
Photography by Marton Perlaki