Less than a year after striking indie gold with Easy A, writer-director Will Gluck is back with Friends With Benefits, a wry romantic comedy in which Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis explore the promise and peril of sex sans commitment. Such relationships being apparently all the rage these days, it was perhaps inevitable that other filmmakers might be compelled to address the same subject. (Screenplays may be protected by copyright, but zeitgeist remains very much in the public domain.) And so it is Friends With Benefits’ unfortunate fate to arrive on the heels of another rom-com built around the same premise: Ivan Reitman’s No Strings Attached. It's just a coincidence, a one-in-a-million proposition, but whenever the subject of Friends With Benefits is raised, it’s invariably the first thing mentioned – usually in the form of a glib dismissal, a la “Didn’t this movie already come out like six months ago?”
Which is a shame, because Friends With Benefits deserves to be evaluated on its own merits: It’s funny and sexy and, aside from a shared inspiration, entirely different from No Strings Attached. Razor-sharp and brimming with clever one-liners, Friends With Benefits has more in common with Gluck’s previous film, Easy A, than anything else. In an exclusive interview, the kinetic writer-director (he rarely finishes a sentence before starting another one, making transcribing a challenge) spoke with us about his new film, his backwards approach to screenwriting, that one Scientology joke he came to regret, and yes, that movie with Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman.
Audiences have grown increasingly cynical – if not overtly hostile – toward romantic comedies in recent years. What made you want to wade into such potentially hazardous territory?
The way I look at this movie – and Easy A is kind of similar; so is my first movie – is that I like real situations. I’m not a big comic-book guy. When you have a movie about people landing from planet Neptune, you suspend disbelief. I totally get it. But I like doing things that happen in real life. There’s only like five things that happen in real life to every single person: Boy meets girl, girl meets boy, girl meets girl, boy meets boy, they fall in love, they break up, divorce, whatever, death. That’s pretty much it. We all go through that every day. When you think about it, the way we live our lives, it’s very clichéd. It’s like, “Oh, you’re getting married? How fucking cliché.” But you don’t say that, right? “Hey, you’re doing a movie about a boy who meets a girl?” That’s cliché. Well, I wanna go see a movie about situations I face in my life every day. I don’t jump off planet Neptune and land in an ice cream pit, or whatever it is. That’s what interests me. So as long as the characters who are going through these cliché moments are conscious of the fact that they are going through a cliché moment – they’re not the first boy to meet the first girl, or the first girl to meet the first boy – and they’re seen other references, whether it’s literature or movies or songs, and they comment on them, that to me is realer than anything else.
Who was cast first, Mila or Justin?
They were very close. We signed up Justin knowing that we were going to go to Mila instantly. We did it very quickly, and then we all got together and had a long dinner together. And then we just started. I told them we’ll take the structure that we have now, I’ll re-write 20 pages, and you can come to my office, we’ll read it out loud, we’ll change things. And then we’ll do 20 more pages. Then Woody [Harrelson] came on board and I wrote that character. When I finished, Justin and Mila’s voices were enmeshed in the script, so it was very much them two together.
That’s pretty much the opposite of how it’s usually done.
It is. I always want to work that way. When Easy A came on, I was like, “All right Emma, I’m going to re-do it for you now. I wanna do it in your voice.” Because with these movies, it’s so much about who the person is, it has to be them. It has to be who they are and who they want to play. And I knew Patricia Clarkson was going to play the mother, so I was like, okay, I’ll write it for her. I know what to do with her. I just like having the actors at the very, very beginning, putting themselves out there in the movie. It feels realer to me than just going, “Here are the pages, can you read it?”
What convinced you that Justin had the chops to play the role? Before you cast him, almost all of his work had been in small supporting roles, and in SNL skits.
He’s great at everything he does. If he wanted to open a butcher shop, I’d be the first in line to order a sandwich. Because he has this incredible ability, this amazing, extra-terrestrial talent, and an amazing, extra-terrestrial dedication and work ethic. And when you put those two things together, he can do anything. Having seen him on SNL and spending time with him, I forgot very quickly that he was a singer. And when we were [shooting] in New York City with Mila, and all the people and paparazzi [showed up], I was like oh, I forgot about this part of it. I forgot he was Justin Timberlake. Because he just loosens up in the role and you forget that he’s that other guy. He’s just such a good actor. I don’t want people to think, “Wow, he can be funny”; I want people to go, “He’s an actor. He can do anything he wants.”
Mila and Justin have a lot of sex scenes together. Obviously you can’t screen test for sexual chemistry; is that the kind of thing where you just roll the dice on and hope for the best?
We spent a lot of time together in my office, a lot of time working and rehearsing. They’re both so fearless – I know this sounds like a douchebag filmmaker thing – but they’re both so fearless. I remember the first scenes we rehearsed were some of the sex scenes, and there was no awkwardness. They just wanted to make it funny. All they cared about was making it funny. They weren’t nervous about anything else. And once you see two people who are so talented and will just do anything to make it work, you knew that they’d be great together. And they have very similar senses of humor. They’ve become close friends.
They seem to talk an awful lot during their sex scenes.
I think that, if given the opportunity, that they say okay, in this sexual encounter between X person and Y person, you can say anything that’s on your without worrying at all about your feelings to help the technique of the sex, I think people would be like, “Oh, really? Okay, that’d be great.” That’s really what this is. It’s like, don’t worry about the feelings, you guys are just friends, if this ends miserably, so be it. And the thing that I liked about this movie that makes it different is, we just talk about the sexual acts, in the beginning. It’s not about how you’re going to feel after. I kept saying, “We are playing basketball, guys. It’s one-on-one, I’m playing with you, and that was a shitty shot. That sucked. Let me show you how to do it.” That’s what it is.
That would be really helpful, actually.
Yeah, if you could just freeze time, say anything you want, and then it goes away and you never talk about it again. I think that in year three of this relationship, if we were to come back to them in year three, I think there’d be some talking, some non-talking, some shut-the-fuck-up-I-don’t-want-to-hear-about it. I think it would be interesting to see where they are in year three.
One of the running gags you have in Friends With Benefits is a film-within-a-film, a super-sappy rom-com starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones. Is that a parody of any particular film, or just the genre in general?
I wanted to do a movie-within-a-movie that when you’re watching it, I wanted people to turn to their friends and say, “Did we see that movie? Didn’t that come out in 2008?” So, I made all the art look very [authentic]. It’s very real. The poster looks like other movie posters. Jason Segel and Rashida Jones could easily be in a movie together. They were in a movie together – I Love You, Man. I wanted to make it look like it was a real movie, and Jason and Rashida were awesome enough to do it for us and play themselves in it.
One thing this film has in common with Easy A is an emphasis on a well-rounded cast. What’s your philosophy toward writing and casting supporting characters?
I don’t like having characters as props. I never want a character to be a prop. To me, all the supporting characters are reflections of the main characters. If you’re my friend, and you don’t say anything, and all you care about is my life, then you’re a fucking douchebag. Why am I friends with you, and why are you friends with me? Everyone else has to have their own journey. Everyone. Again, that’s a douchebag filmmaker thing, “journey,” but these secondary characters all have their own thing going on.
When did you learn of the existence of No Strings Attached, and what was your reaction?
The original script of this, these guys had written like seven years ago. So they had Friends With Benefits for a long time. And I know Liz Meriwether wrote F**k Buddies. So I knew it was kind of similar. When you’re actually making a movie and you’re concerned with re-writing it and casting it and producing it, you’re so laser-focused on it – and the odds, by the way, of both movies getting made and getting released are so infinitesimal – that the only time I ever really started thinking about it was in the last couple of weeks, when the press started saying it’s the same thing. And I really just want to say: I like No Strings Attached. I saw it; it was great. This is not No Strings Attached. We’re different movies, different tones. People say, “Wow, it’s like Volcano and Dante’s Peak.” Okay – Volcano and Dante’s Peak happen once in a lifetime. This is about a guy and a girl meeting. This is not the second movie of the year to talk about this; this is 10,000th movie of the year to talk about this. People just hooked onto the titles. It’s just a romance; that’s it. It’s not Volcano and Dante’s Peak.
You have a Scientology joke and Jenna Elfman in the same movie. How did you pull that off?
It was a mistake. I write so much stuff on the fly – I just said, “Justin, say this” – and I forgot. I forgot. And then I forgot to tell Jenna. At the screening, I was embarrassed, and I said, “F*ck, I forgot to tell Jenna.” It was awkward. I felt bad.
Friends With Benefits opens everywhere July 22, 2011.