On stereotypes (male and female), rom-com formulas, Heath Ledger and doing Katherine Heigl’s bidding.
Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten "Kiwi" Smith got their start as a screenwriting team in 1997, when they sold the teen flick "10 Things I Hate About You" as a spec screenplay. That film helped to propel the careers of then-unknowns Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles, and the pair went on write "Legally Blonde," which was nominated for two Golden Globes and was later turned into a Broadway musical.
Together, their box-office successes — which also include "The House Bunny" with Anna Faris and "She’s the Man" with Amanda Bynes — total over $250 million worldwide. In Friday’s "The Ugly Truth," which they wrote and executive produced, Katherine Heigl stars as a morning show producer whose chauvinistic correspondent Gerard Butler tries to help her improve her unsuccessful love life.
Being women screenwriters in Hollywood … how challenging is that?
Karen McCullah Lutz: I mean, we never have to beg like, "Please, please let us make a rom-com." It might be different if we were trying to write "Transformers."
Kirsten Smith: There have been times where we tried to break out of our genre and had ideas for a big action spectacle or a crime caper or male-driven comediy. But people don’t perceive us that way because most of our stories have been squarely focused on young female protagonists.
That’s stereotyping … yet in "The Ugly Truth," Gerard Butler is a real pig. Doesn’t that play into the stereotype of a male chauvinist?
KML: No, because everyone knows a guy like that. There wasn’t anything we wrote that we haven’t heard a guy say. Most guys do want girls to be skinny and give a lot of blow jobs. So pieces of his character are true — it’s just taken to an extreme.
Do you think about getting men into the theaters while you’re writing?
KML: With this film we did. It’s dirty enough to appeal to men.
KS: Generally, yes, we do write female-driven movies. But we’re always trying to write the best man we possibly can and not make them pussies. That way you can like it even if you’re a woman and you’re naughty and the guy is a complete pushover.
Katherine Heigl has a reputation for speaking her mind — did she weigh in on the script at all?
KS: She’s smart, so she was a voice to be trusted. She had some really fun ideas — which we implemented.
KML: Yeah, she wanted her character to be obsessed with flossing, so we added that in.
Romantic comedies often have same format — the couple tussle but get together at the end. How do you keep things interesting?
KML: As long as you’re entertained along the way, I don’t think you mind that the couple is gonna end up together.
How did you two meet?
KS: We’ve known each other for 100 years.
KML: No, I was working as a film girl, reading screenplays, and Kirsten sent me a query letter about a script she was writing. We had a meeting over drinks and had 900 margaritas and I told her an idea I had. She liked it even better than I did. That became "10 Things I Hate About You." So we wrote it down on a cocktail napkin, and after that, we bonded over teen movies.
KS: We both loved writing about really strong, funny, complicated women — whether they’re 17 or older — and the men who love them.
That first script essentially went on to become a teen classic …
KS: We didn’t even live in the same city when the movie sold — we’d written the script long distance. There was no bidding over it. It was a process to find a place that would buy it, and they optioned it for a small amount of money. I don’t know if we even had the sense to have any expectations. So we started out our career on a very charmed and lucky note.
What was it like working with Heath Ledger on "10 Things"?
KML: He was an old soul. You never felt like you were hanging out with a teenager, even though he was 19 at the time.
KS: Yeah, and he was dating a woman that was 37. So he didn’t seem like your typical teenage guy. He had an incredible spirit and sense of playfulness, an intelligence and a smile that absolutely dazzled. So the time we got to spend with him was just very lucky.
So, two women working together — does that ever get tense?
KML: Scarily, our opinions have become the same. On the last thing we wrote, I don’t think we had a single disagreement. KS: We started writing separately because we were long-distance. The first two or three scripts we divided scenes up. Now we live in the same place and write in the same room, or outside usually. We write with yellow pads and red pens, and then one of us has the lucky job of transcribing everything we’ve written that day.
KS: We’ve empowered ourselves. Before we became successful, we had this dream. But until you’re actually on your way to achieving it, it’s like you’re standing in the back of a large mountain.