Q & A with Screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz & Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith
“The Ugly Truth’s” Screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz & Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith.
As part of ZAMM.com’s ongoing series of filmmaker interviews Martin Grove talks to screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz & Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith about the R rated romantic comedy “The Ugly Truth” directed by Robert Luketic (“Legally Blonde”) and starring Katherine Heigl, Gerard Butler and Kevin Connolly, opening July 24 from Columbia Pictures.
Written by Nicole Eastman and Karen McCullah Lutz & Kirsten Smith, “The Ugly Truth” was produced by Steven Reuther, Kimberly di Bonaventura and Deborah Jelin Newmyer and by Tom Rosenberg and Gary Lucchesi. It was executive produced by Andrea Lamal, Eric Reid, Katherine Heigl, Nancy Heigl, Karen McCullah Lutz, Kirsten Smith and Ryan Kavanaugh.
In “The Ugly Truth” Katherine Heigl plays Abby Richter, a romantically challenged morning show producer whose search for Mr. Perfect has left her hopelessly single. Abby’s in for a rude awakening when she’s teamed up with Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler), an in-your-face TV personality who promises to spill the ugly truth on what makes men and women tick.
Karen & Kiwi (as Kirsten’s known) got their start as screenwriters in 1997 by selling their spec screenplay “10 Things I Hate About You” to Disney. The movie, which was based on “The Taming of the Shrew”, was made a year later and starred two then-unknowns — Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles. “10 Things”, by the way, has just been turned into a comedy series for ABC Family, starring Lindsey Shaw as Kat, the role Stiles played, and Ethan Peck (Gregory Peck’s grandson) as Patrick, the role Ledger played. The series is being executive produced by Carter Covington and John Ziffren with the pilot written by Covington and directed by Gil Junger.
Karen & Kiwi went on to write the hit comedy “Legally Blonde”, the first feature directed by Robert Luketic. They subsequently wrote such screenplays as for the fantasy comedy “Ella Enchanted”, starring Anne Hathaway; “She’s the Man”, an update of “Twelfth Night”, starring Amanda Bynes; and the comedy “House Bunny”, starring Anna Faris. In addition, they’ve both written novels — Karen’s “The Bachlorette Party” and Kiwi’s “The Geography of Girlhood”.
I was happy to have the opportunity to catch up with Karen & Kiwi recently to talk about “The Ugly Truth”.
- Q: How did “The Ugly Truth” come about?
- Karen: Nicole wrote her draft about 10 years ago (and it was) one of those scripts that had been floating around for a while. I think at one point Gwynneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck were attached. That’s when they were dating. That’s how long it’s been. Lakeshore called us up and sent it to us and asked if we wanted to rewrite it and we said yes. That’s how we became involved.
- Q: When was that?
- Kiwi: That was about a year and a half ago. We had made a movie called “She’s the Man” and they (Lakeshore) were financiers on it. DreamWorks had hired us to work on it. We’d never really gotten to know Tom and Gary at Lakeshore (chairman, CEO and founder Tom Rosenberg and president Gary Lucchesi) so we decided one day that we should remedy that. We had a general meeting with Tom and the very first thing he brought up was the script “The Ugly Truth”, which had had so many fans over the years. He said, “We just picked up this project in turnaround. This is a movie we’re going to make and you guys would be great for it.” So we read it. We loved it and we knew how to fix it. We started talking about it and it led to a really great partnership with them.
“The Ugly Truth” premieres July 24
- Q: When you got involved with the project had Katherine Heigl been cast yet?
- Kiwi: No. No one was cast yet.
- Q: I understand from the press notes that you guys played a part in her being cast.
- Karen: That’s right. I love that they’re giving us credit for it. We had met with her before and we’re big fans so when the script was done and we were sitting there talking about which lady should play the part we had Katherine in mind.
- Kiwi: She’s kind of the obvious heir apparent to the romantic comedy goddess throne. So it seemed like a really wonderful and, in fact, an obvious choice. And because we had the good fortune of being at the same agency it worked out really nicely.
- Q: Had you worked with Katherine before?
- Karen: No we hadn’t.
- Kiwi: We had a meeting with her and her mom, Nancy, who’s also her producing partner. We had lunch and we had a fantastic time and vowed to work together. And then when we were done writing the script it seemed like the obvious fit.
- Q: Now we only know what we read in the tabloids so, of course, we’ve read all those stories about how difficult she is. I’m going to guess you didn’t find her that way
- Karen: No.
- Q: So what’s the real Katherine Heigl like?
- Karen: She’s pleasant, talented and funny.
- Kiwi: She’s so skilled as an actress. She just delivers a tremendous amount of variety and comedy. She’s very exact with her comedy. That timing is so innate in her. And she’s also wonderfully emotionally accessible. I think one of the things that I admire about her is her strength and I think that maybe that’s a threat to people so somehow that’s turned into one direction you referenced the tabloids saying. But I think her strength is incredibly inspiring because she speaks her mind. You know, movie stars like George Clooney and Sean Penn and many before them have always spoken their mind and felt no shame in doing so. So I love that there’s a woman who’s speaking her mind and I think we should just celebrate it.
- Q: There’s something of a double standard in Hollywood.
- Kiwi: Yeah.
- Karen: She’s very, very professional and prepared. In terms of working with her, there’s no difficulties at all.
- Q: While casting is important for any film, it seems all the more important with a romantic comedy where if you get it wrong the chemistry just isn’t going to work.
- Kiwi: It’s alchemy that the movie camera captures and it really can’t be faked. So essentially it’s about watching two people on screen together for an hour and a half sparring and flirting and hating each other and kind of loving each other and having this complicated mating dance. I think the casting is the whole deal, pretty much.
- Karen: I always felt in romantic comedies, especially, the mark of the true movie star is when you’re watching that girl on screen you want to be that girl the entire time you’re watching the movie. Like when you’re watching “Pretty Woman”, you want to be a hooker! You want to be her because she makes it look so fun. It’s like you’re caught up in their spell. I think Katherine definitely has that, as well.
- Q: Would you have written any differently if you knew Katherine was going to play Abby?
- Kiwi: I don’t think we would. (The character) was very clear in our minds.
- Karen: She embodied the character so perfectly. I think we added a couple different little tweaks after she was cast, but it was because she came up with a funny idea here and there that we added them.
- Kiwi: I mean, the character of Abby is really strong and she’s flawed and she’s funny and she’s a combination of all these different things. She’s a funny combination, I think, of real strength and then also these moments of hilarious vulnerability. And Katherine’s so great at that — like that is her sweet spot. So Abby and Katie are a good combination.
“The Ugly Truth” premieres July 24
- Q: I’m always asking directors all the ins and outs of how they direct so let me ask you how you guys work when you’re writing. Do you work together in a room?
- Karen: Yes. We don’t have an office. We work from our homes either by the pool or in the living room on the couches, whichever’s comfiest during whichever season.
- Kiwi: We notice that a lot of our male screenwriting friends tend to have offices. It makes them feel like they’re going to a job. I think for a lot of women we know they’re happy to do their work at home. It’s weird. It’s like where’s the comfort area? Where can you feel like you’re being more productive? We work in the same room, which isn’t always what we did.
Probably for the last five years we’ve been writing in the room together. Prior to that we would write separately and then we’d rewrite each other. But we realized it was much more fun when we’d get studio notes and attack the scenes together and then we were like rewriting our shared collective work instead of trying to impose our ideas on the other person. We try to make each other laugh and we figure out the little story beats as we’re going. It’s nice to have that other voice in the mix because it’s very easy to get stuck writing a screenplay. It’s an unwieldy beast.
- Q: When you’re writing, do you work particular hours during the day or in the dead of night?
- Karen: 2 to 7. We work five hours a day, give or take, depending on the day. But we’re creatures of the afternoon.
- Q: And are you writing on a computer or in longhand?
- Karen: We work longhand when we’re out by the pool and then we type it in the computer at night.
- Q: After you get a first draft done do you turn that in or do you just turn around and rewrite it?
- Karen: We usually end up turning in a sixth or seventh draft.
- Kiwi: We each go away after we’ve completed a first draft and we read it separately and then come back together and go through it page by page. We have red pens that we use, which Karen so nicely buys for us. I always steal hers at home. It’s like we’re teachers reading a big stack of essays and we’ve got our red pens out. We just keep doing that over and over until we feel, “Okay, it’s ready to show people.” We tend to give it right to the producers. Some of our writer friends show it to all their friends. But at the point we turn it in we’ve talked about it so much amongst ourselves we feel like we’ve got a pretty good handle on it.
- Q: How did the producers respond when you turned in your draft of “The Ugly Truth”?
- Karen: They liked it. Then Sony came on board and they got Robert Luketic attached and all of a sudden we had a start date.
- Q: Now frequently when directors come on board projects are completely rewritten and new writers are brought in and everything changes or directors rewrite them themselves. I guess that didn’t happen in this case.
- Kiwi: No. We were really lucky because we had the support of our producers, Tom and Gary at Lakeshore, and we’d just been working really closely with them. And it was a great experience for us because they’re a studio, as well. We’d never had that opportunity where the producers and the studio were one and the same. So we went through our drafts with them very closely. Once they decided they believed in it they were really committed to us as their writers and we got to stay involved with the project.
- Karen: We had a great time. We have a great relationship with Robert Luketic, too. He’s very inclusive of us. We get to go to set every day. It’s a happy little family.
- Q: Having worked with him before on “Legally Blonde” must have helped.
- Karen & Kiwi: Yeah.
- Kiwi: We were so excited. We didn’t even know that he was going to be reading the script. I think (Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman) Amy Pascal gave it to him and all of a sudden we heard that he liked it. And then he called us and was saying that he wanted to do it and we were so thrilled because we hadn’t even dared to hope that was a possibility.
- Q: Did you do any rewriting when you were on set?
- Karen: Yeah. Every now and then we’d slip an extra joke in or give someone an exit line if the blocking required one. A few things here and there.
- Kiwi: To producers and directors sometimes having the writer on the set can be helpful.
- Karen: Exactly.
- Q: So what haven’t we talked about that’s important?
- Karen: About Gerard Butler, the biggest new comedy star ever. He’s really funny. We had no idea he was funny.
- Kiwi: We talked about casting and we talked about how strong a presence Katie is and how whip smart she is comedically. So you have to find a guy that’s going to be an equal match to that and that’s a tricky thing to do. And Gerry was just that guy. He’s incredibly masculine, charming, sexy, funny. With that kind of battle of the wills type of romantic comedy you’ve got to have an equal playing field so he really brought that.
- Q: The film takes place in the world of producing morning television programming. Were you already familiar with that world or did you have to learn about it?
- Karen: We kind of made most of it up as we went along.
- Kiwi: Nicole’s script had a really great foundation of that already in place. We didn’t have to go deep undercover anywhere.
- Q: So you didn’t have to go pretend to be interns at “Good Morning America”?
- Karen: That sounds fun, though!