By Stephanie Schaefer
Whenever I have a bad day and need a pick-me-up I head to my stack of DVDs organized neatly in a pink case. The collection of romantic comedies is an instant mood lifter, like chocolate without the added calories. These cinematic treasures have gotten me through break-ups, final exams, job rejections, and everything in between. After all, sometimes laughter is truly the best medicine.
Screenwriter Kirsten Smith has written the majority of rom-coms stored in my pink case, including the teen classic “10 Things I Hate About You” and the international phenomenon “Legally Blonde.” Her resume also includes “The House Bunny,” “She’s The Man,” and “The Ugly Truth”—just to name a few.
Naturally, I jumped (or should I say bent and snapped) at the chance to interview Smith about Elle Woods, writing for Hollywood, and the future of the rom-com genre.
Stephanie Schaefer: I read on your website that your first published work was poetry. How has being a poet influenced the other genres you write?
Kirsten Smith: Poetry is all about economy of language, creating an arresting image, capturing an emotional truth, painting a specific character, and trying to understand what makes them tick. This is all true of writing for film as well.
SS: You’ve achieved great success in the industry, writing hit films like “Legally Blonde” and “She’s the Man.” Did you always have dreams of writing for Hollywood? How did you get your first big break?
KS: I worked in a video store in high school, so I was a movie junkie from the time I was about 10 years old. When I was at Occidental College, I got an internship at CineTel Films, a small production company. I read probably close to 400 scripts there and did coverage on them—writing a synopsis and an analysis of the characters, story, and dialogue. After I graduated, I was in residence at MacDowell Colony writing poetry and doing odd jobs back in LA and my boss Catalaine Knell offered me a job doing coverage. That led to a full-time job as a development executive. Catalaine gave Quentin Tarantino his first rewrite job and she was one of the first people to champion Robert Schwentke and a number of other filmmakers—and she certainly did the same for me. She really taught me about script structure and development and always reminded me to keep writing. At that job, I would read lots of blind query letters from writers, and if they sounded interesting, I’d request a script. I really liked one writer’s ideas and requested four of her scripts. She was probably like, “Really? Four?” She lived in Denver and when she came to LA, we met for drinks and had a blast. We started writing a script on cocktail napkins that night. It didn’t sell, but then we decided to write a teen movie based on a classic story. That led to us writing “10 Things I Hate About You,” which got us a manager, and found some fans in the industry like Ron Yerxa and Albert Bergher, and finally was bought by Mark Vahradian at Disney. When I look back, there were lots of little “big breaks” that were strung together to equal a career.
SS: Elle Woods is one of our generation’s most lovable heroines, proving that a woman can be powerful while wearing head-to-toe pink. What drew you to the character?
KS: Elle came from the imagination of Amanda Brown, who wrote the novel upon which the film was based. We were immediately enchanted by her drive, her optimism, her blithe humor, and her blind faith.
SS: In Cate Blanchett’s recent Academy Award acceptance speech she spoke out against industry executives “clinging to the idea that female films with women at the centre are niche experiences.” Have you found this gender bias in the business? How have you overcome it?
KS: I have usually found power in my femininity, or tried to, and I’ve overcome any weird situations by humor and joy. In terms of continuing our work trying to sell female-driven stories, it did feel frustrating that after “Bridesmaids,” studios weren’t clamoring for more female ensemble comedy, but I noticed that recently, there’s been a resurgence in the appetite.
SS: Who are your favorite female characters—both from your own works and the literature of others?
KS: I love” Amelie,” Tracy Lord in “The Philadelphia Story,” Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids,” Margot Channing in “All About Eve,” Nikita in “La Femme Nikita,” Samantha Banker in “Sixteen Candles,” Angela Chase in “My So Called Life,” Cynthia Gibb in “Modern Girls,” “Hanna” (played by Saorise Ronan), Linda Fiorentino in “The Last Seduction,” and Madonna in “Desperately Seeking Susan" and “Truth or Dare,” of course. Courtney Love is one of my favorite characters even though she’s technically playing herself. In terms of our own ladies, I love Elle and Paulette in “Legally Blonde,” Shelly and Natalie in “The House Bunny” and Kat in “10 Things I Hate About You.”
SS: What projects are you working on currently? Can we expect a new romantic comedy from you in the near future (please say yes!):
KS: The paperback of my novel Trinkets, which is a teen girl buddy dramedy, just came out and “The Expendabelles”—which is the female installment of "The Expendables" franchise—will start filming this summer. It’s been a dream because it reunites us with our “Legally Blonde” and “Ugly Truth” director, Robert Luketic. And we’re working with another of our favorite directors, Andy Fickman, who directed “She’s the Man,” on an ensemble comedy called “The Exes.” We have a romantic comedy script called “The Panic Zone”—subtitled “35 and single is the new fat”—that we’re trying to find a home for, but romantic comedy is sort of a maligned genre at the moment. It will come back though, and when it does, we’re ready.
SS: What advice can you give to young writers who hope to break into the entertainment industry?
KS: Read tons of scripts. Read Deadline or Variety or The Wrap so you can keep pace with the trends. Outline your favorite movies as you watch them so you can teach yourself structure. Put yourself out there and don’t be afraid of rejection. People will tell you “no” all the time. You will get knocked down, but like Chumbawumba says, you will get up again.
SS: What’s one interesting fact that most people don’t know about you?
KS: I listen to music and have a solo dance party in my bathroom once a day.