"Sleeping With Other People" Is Reviving And Sexualizing The Romantic Comedy
Leslye Headland, the writer-director of the Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie film that just premiered at Sundance, discusses the state of the rom-com, the "misogyny" of Woody Allen, and how she wrote an uplifting movie while depressed.
PARK CITY, Utah — Screenwriter, director, and playwright Leslye Headland killed it at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012 with her profane, outrageous movie Bachelorette, which went on to be an important step in the VOD revolution.
This year, Sleeping With Other People, her second feature as a director, also made its debut at Sundance. And when Headland sat down with BuzzFeed News two days after its premiere to talk about the film, she was feeling "amazing." The day before had been a different story. "I felt like a disaster. Oh my god," she said. "As a filmmaker, you just pour your heart and soul into something. And then suddenly, it's gone."
Sleeping With Other People tells the story of Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie), who share a meet un-cute during college, lose their virginities to one another, and don't see each other for years. When they reunite in their early thirties, Lainey is essentially stalking Matthew (Adam Scott), a cold, engaged OB-GYN with whom she has occasional sex. And Jake now occupies the hazy space between toxic bachelor and sex addict. They decide not to sleep with each other, and instead become best friends — the sort of friends who text late at night, divulge secrets, take Ecstasy together, and, in one particularly memorable scene, share masturbatory strategy using a water bottle and the coinage "dirty DJ" in reference to a clitoral stimulation technique. Yes, they are in love, but it takes them time and growth to get there.
During an interview in Park City, Headland talked about how no studio wanted to make Sleeping With Other People, the state of the romantic comedy and why we need them, her post-Bachelorette crash, and why she feels Woody Allen is her "film dad that I've been let down by." She is a fast-talker, and a prolific one, and by the end, publicists were standing over us to try to keep her on time. (Note: It did not stop her.)
Sleeping With Other People is very different from Bachelorette. Did you deliberately shift gears as a writer?
Leslye Headland: Bachelorette came out, and I went into this, like, horrific depression. I was really depressed. Like, I couldn't leave my house, I would say, for at least a month. I was really only going to the deli and coming back, and ordering food, talking to only a few people. I just couldn't get out of bed. It was really scary, actually. And I'm not quite sure why. The response was great. They were like, "You've made history! Everybody loves it!" I don't know — something happened. I had this awful romantic stuff happening in my life a little bit after that.
I went away probably six to eight months after the movie came out on iTunes and made this big splash or whatever. I knew I wanted to write something for Jason, and I sort of had the vague idea of a platonic relationship between two people that were seriously damaged. And so I went to Big Sur, and I wrote the script. And I was absolutely shocked that it was a romantic comedy.
As you were writing it, you were surprised?
LH: As I was writing it, I was like, this is a romantic comedy! I think it was so odd that I was in such a dark place and such a positive movie came out of it. I think it was because I was so desperate for love. I had my heart broken so irreparably. Like, I will never be the same after this breakup that I had. It's too convoluted and stupid to get into.
Feel free to get into it.
LH: A lot of it's in the movie. It's all in the movie, I think, looking back on it. But once I realized that it was a romantic comedy, and I was reading all about how the genre was dead, and blah blah blah, I was like, I think I really need this. I think people really need this. I think we need to say it's still out there, man. Even if you're fuckin' a guy that's engaged, even if you fucked up every single relationship you've ever had, you still need love. And you actually deserve it.
A movie we talked about a lot when we made this was The Apartment, which is, like, my favorite movie of all time. And this is basically the same movie. People say, "It's a lot like When Harry Met Sally..." I'm like, "It's also a lot like The Apartment." When people say, "She's having sex with an engaged man?" I'm like, "In 1960, Shirley MacLaine was fuckin' a married dude. It's 2015. Let's all just acknowledge the fact that this stuff happens."
I think I created the story because I needed love in my life. And I was going to create characters to have it, because I didn't have it in my own life.
Did it work?
LH: It did work, actually. I feel so much better now. I'm dating again. I've gained back some weight, which is really nice — I wasn't eating, I wasn't sleeping. I was totally a mess. I wrote a love story because I was like, I'm not sure I believe love exists anymore. And if I can write this story, and if I can get everyone to buy it, that these two people fall in love with each other — people, not characters — if I can make them as real as humanly possible, if I give this out to the world, then I might feel some of it for myself.
People don't have to like it for me to feel the love. You can not like it; you can like it. Same thing with Bachelorette — some people were like, "This is garbage"; some people were like, "It's my favorite movie." It's fine. It's that if I send that vulnerability out there, then I get so much back from the universe. In so many different forms.
Going back to When Harry Met Sally..., which is an obvious comparison, that movie was as mainstream as it gets. Rob Reiner directed it, Nora Ephron wrote it, and Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal — huge stars — were in it. And here we are at Sundance, in the independent market, with your movie.
LH: What's funny is that I couldn't make that movie at a studio. Like, I tried to. They didn't want to. There are very explicit sex scenes in it. They would never allow that bottle scene in a studio movie. The Adam Scott character, they would say we have to get rid of him completely — he's too creepy, it's too weird. I don't understand. Why is she having sex with him? We need to make sure that she's sitting around, completely asexual, and just waiting for the right guy. I actually really love Silver Linings Playbook, and that was made independently as well. But still, even the way they treat that female character, her sexual dysfunction is going to be solved by the right guy. Which, in my film, I don't think is the moral. Her dysfunction and the pain that she's in is solved by her learning to love herself. And he teaches her how to do it, quite literally, with the bottle scene. I think the film is probably a lot more subversive than it is at first glance. People were like, why does she have sex with that guy? It's like, is she just going to wait around for Jake to get his shit together? What's funny about the film is that a lot of it was subtler things, like the fact that we don't slut-shame her. And the fact that we don't glorify Jake's behavior.
There is a lot of sex in Sundance movies this year. I'm curious what you think is happening?
LH: I was asked this question before, and I didn't really answer it properly, so I want to actually answer it properly. I sort of rambled, like, Fifty Shades of Grey — like, I don't know what I said. Why do I think that independent films are exploring sex? The first thing that occurs to me is to be clinical about it: When you see a rash of something, or a deluge of something, it's because there's a hole that needs to be filled. When I was promoting Bachelorette, the hole was women in comedy. The hole was "Why don't we have more R-rated female comedy like Bridesmaids?" I don't know if it's necessarily triggered by other work, but maybe people feel like sex could be more explored than it has been.
I mean, my financiers were great, but they had the same concern that anyone putting money into a movie would have: Is this too much? Does this make people feel uncomfortable? Is this going to make them check out of the story? In my romantic comedy, sex can't be the reward. Sex is something that everybody deals with on a regular basis, sometimes on a daily basis. It can range anywhere from you're in a committed relationship and it's a healthy by-product of your relationship, to you're on Tinder and you're just trying to feel something. Or it can be what Alison Brie has with Adam Scott, which I absolutely had right before I wrote this thing. I was just completely devastated. I thought, Oh, gosh, I put my whole self out there for this person and they literally are treating me as if I were a light fixture to just turn off. Oh, I don't really need this right now — click. So I guess, on a cultural level, there's probably a hole there. Now I'm making hole jokes! There's probably a space there that people felt like they wanted to fill; there's a conversation that wasn't being had.
The publicists are lurking. At the Q&A yesterday, you mentioned a number of movies that had influenced the film, but you didn't mention Woody Allen. Have we gotten to the point in romantic comedies in general where we don't have to mention Woody Allen, or —
LH: I hope so!
Is there just a cultural creepiness now to him where you don't want to mention him?
LH: Well, yeah, I think that's really what it is. My brother, when he saw the movie, because he came to the final mix, he said, "Wow, it's like a Woody Allen movie, except everyone's age-appropriate!" Obviously, I don't know Woody Allen personally. I grew up idolizing him. Love & Death is the first movie I remember watching. It was a huge movie for me. Annie Hall was a huge movie for me. I was even quoting Stardust Memories last night when my assistant was giving me the weather report about the reviews. Like, "I don't want to make funny movies anymore! They can't force me to!" He's so a permanent part of my identity as a woman, as an artist — a weird artistic father figure, in a way.
But I have to say, when all of that stuff happened, I read not what people were accusing him of, but his actual reaction over the years — the transcripts, and that kind of stuff. And there's a patriarchy there and, I'm just going to say, a misogyny there that is really upsetting as a female artist. Of course that scene with them on the boat is pure Manhattan, even staying in those wide shots. It's really hard for me. And I think that girls have such close connections with their fathers, and I did — I was a total daddy's girl, and have mountains of daddy issues. And he feels like my film dad that I've been let down by. You know what I mean? He will always permeate my work. There's no bigger fan than me. But it's disappointing. And it's also disappointing to see him so — god, now I'm getting in the danger zone. [She turns to one of the publicists.] But I'm going to say it, Dave!
Dave, she's gonna say it.
LH: I'm gonna say it. I'm gonna go controversial. I think the thing that's so frustrating as a female filmmaker — and everyone treats me with respect that I work with, my crew treats me with respect, my cast respects me so much. There's no one spitting in my face and kicking me in the shins and trying to get me to fail — but culturally and socially and critically, the fact that he can put out a movie every year, and it's met with horrifically beautiful responses, and I'm fighting for my audience. I write one complicated character — and it's like, "He writes women so well." Yeah, he does. But so do a lot of other people. So do I. I also write men really well.
I'm not trying to compare myself to him. But it does get a little frustrating when these guys that I grew up idolizing, like Scorsese with Wolf of Wall Street, and Woody Allen with Blue Jasmine — yes, of course, it's good. They're masters. But everyone's rushing to defend Jordan Belfort, and my girls were flushed down the toilet. The fact that those guys are so venerated, they can do no wrong with the boundaries that they push. And I just feel like, as a female filmmaker, my choices are always sort of being questioned.
This interview has been edited and condensed.