A comedy taps that wraps the camaraderie of friendship around a sisterhood challenge to society’s ageist attitude
Book Club is a definitive choice for Bill Holderman’s directorial debut. A film about women in their 60s breaking both self-imposed and relational barriers – carried by a cast of Oscar- winning legends – is an atypical choice for a younger male director who co-wrote and co-produced it as well. Even better, he co-wrote and co-produced it with his friend and colleague Erin Simms, an intrepid female filmmaker, who like the narrative’s characters, is emboldened to break any “no.” It’s a debut for Simms too – the first film she wrote and produced.
Four lifelong friends have their lives turned upside down to hilarious ends when their book club tackles the infamous Fifty Shades of Grey.
Diane (Diane Keaton) is recently widowed after 40 years of marriage. Vivian (Jane Fonda) enjoys her men with no strings attached. Sharon (Candice Bergen) is still working through a decades-old divorce. Carol’s (Mary Steenburgen) marriage is in a slump after 35 years.
From discovering new romance to rekindling old flames, they inspire each other to make their next chapter the best chapter.
Taking a crazy chance by a first time director and first time writer to make a movie about women played by legends – determined to say yes to life renewed when society screams no – eclipsed that “What if” Mother’s Day idea Simms posed to Holderman years ago to a joyful climax neither could have anticipated.
“The log line of this film is four women in their 60s reading Fifty Shades of Grey. It leads them to question where they are in their lives. It opens up a conversation between them that leads to significant changes,” reflects Simms.
“The movie was really borne out of a conversation of knowing different women in that age range and how different they could be. Bill and I knew some women that were operating as if they were as vibrant and amazing as they’ve always been and we knew some women who were sort of reaching an age and just shutting down, allowing that to be their reality. I just don’t think that’s the way that it should be. I get that life can be hard. We all are a product of the things that happen to us.
“I think getting older is beautiful. We shouldn’t be looking back, trying to be younger. You look at younger people now and you think ‘You’re going to be old one day. We are all going in the same direction.’ Why not be your best self all the time?
“You look at Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen. Of course they are stars and super successful. But they are also living their lives to the fullest, accepting of who they are in the world. Wouldn’t it be nice to have more regular people – the rest of us – feel that way too?”
“It was weird,” says Holderman. “I think the decision (to direct) came because I didn’t want to have someone else do it. It wasn’t ‘I have to do it because I have always had this dream to direct.’ I wasn’t one of those eight-year-olds who was running around with a camcorder – ‘I wanna be a filmmaker!’’ Yeah, no, I wasn’t that kid. It was more like, ‘if this is gonna fail, I want it to be my failing and I want those decisions to be mine. I think I was frustrated having those extra layers in projects before, where if I have an idea or vision for something I don’t have the ability to execute on it because it’s someone else’s movie. On this one, there was just no one else I wanted to do it with. So…Default.”
There’s a little more to it than that.
Simms says one has to go back to the very beginning:
“Bill and I worked together for a bunch of years for Robert Redford at his production company. I was doing development and Bill was a producer running the company. Then E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy came out. So Bill decides to send his mother the trilogy for Mother’s Day, which I thought was completely insane. How could he have that kind of relationship with his mother where…where sex is even a topic?! That’s just wrong on every level. Then he tells me his mom is totally open, that she’s ‘active in that area.’ (Think Vivian.) I thought that’s hysterical so I sent my mother the trilogy for Mother’s Day which is, you know, sending it to the opposite kind of woman. (Think Sharon.) She thought it was hilarious. And then, I decided well why not just top this off and I sent it to my stepmother, (Think Carol), who has been in a very long-term marriage, has way too much dopamine in her brain, happy all the time, life is grand. I mean, three very different women. Anyway, the next morning I was like `What about?’ Now Bill is going to say, ‘Erin always claims she came up with the movie.’ Well I did. I came back the next morning and said, ‘What about a book club with, you know, women of a certain age and they’re reading Fifty Shades of Grey?’ It was instant… that’s what we’re doing! So it’s all Bill’s mother’s fault.” He can take credit for that.
Simms added that the films adapted from the books hadn’t been released, “so it was a very different time when we started to write our script,” the characters inspired by women in their lives they deeply love. “Back then we tried to quote as little as possible from the books because everyone said to us there is no way E. L. James will ever give you guys permission to use her book, which really just reminds you – don’t listen to other people. Well, she loved the script and told her publisher to let us use the (book) covers. We are big fans of E.L. James.”
Simms continues: “So, we had sold the movie (previously) and they held onto it for two years, didn’t do anything and wanted us to cast younger which, for me, is THE massive taboo. I was very upset. I mean, if you wanted us to cast younger then you didn’t understand our movie. That was the first thing. The other thing was, ‘Why are you guys using Fifty Shades of Grey?’ Again, if I have to explain… We got the movie back and decided to stay in control of it, to see how far we could get. I knew that Bill had so much experience as a producer working with Robert Redford. He really hands-on produced Redford’s movies, did a lot of writing on the movies and was right next to Bob the entire time. I knew he was ready to step up although nobody had any reason to believe he could.”
He could and he did.
“I have a mother who has her own business; she runs it by herself and pushes herself to be up to date on everything – art, news, music; Always pushing to be relevant and to sort of challenge people who question it,” tells Holderman. “So I was always a little skeptical of this being my first movie for ‘several reasons.’ The pressure that I felt in terms of delivering a movie about women was mitigated because I had these actors represent the characters. My job was to make it true to what the script intended, to work on the script, and work with them on the script so that it feels like it has a truth to it. My job was to deliver on that truth. Their job was to bring the character. The only way I could sleep at night was to know that they were going to get me through this.”
Despite Saks’ and Simms’ belief that Holderman was always up to the task, “there were a lot of challenges. We were making an independent film in a studio genre. We had a studio crew,” notes Saks. “Wrangling a huge cast is always a challenge and we had a lot off incredibly talented actors. Bill is a first-time filmmaker but he’s produced so many movies and the crew we surrounded him with was topnotch.”
That includes Director of Photography and multiple BAFTA Award winner Andrew Dunn (Tumbledown, Edge of Darkness, Threads). “He and I met over Skype,” tells Holderman. “He was the number one choice on our list. We sent him the script. He read it. We set aside 30 minutes and we ended up Skyping for 90. Afterwards, I was like – done. I didn’t talk to another cinematographer. Then I panicked – ‘Oh God, what did I just do? I didn’t do my due diligence.’ Everything you learn as a director is: do your due diligence. But with Andrew and his resume, he was the number one choice. I was head over heels. I don’t know how we would have made the movie without him. Everyone wanted to work with him. The crew we got was remarkable because they all showed up for Andrew. He has this calm, centered beautiful spirit and it put an energy over the entire production.”
But being a first time director wasn’t an easy pitch with talent the caliber of this cast.
Holderman knows the film has the potential to resonate with more than just fans of the book; the audience for his film has a history with these genuine, warm and funny actresses – watching their films over the years with their best friends, children, on date nights, etc. Now with the journey of these characters, that audience gets to realize the beauty of getting older means the pressure is off, the filters have dropped and they don’t have to take themselves or anyone else so seriously anymore. And yet, they do. They wake themselves up and thus everyone else into realizing they may be seasoned (like all of that fine wine they drink) but another fabulous adventure awaits. The past is just prologue for what’s to come.
Co-Producer Alex Saks fell in love with it. “I grew up watching movies like The First Wives Club, When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail. (Directors) Nora Ephron, Rob Reiner – that’s fun for me. Bill likes to make fun of me because I literally watch The First Wives Club all the time. But I think that’s what this movie can be and what Bill wants it to be in terms of something that is about female friendships that is timeless and classic. The jokes and humor are not only relevant and timely, they’re transcendent.”
Both films also share a leading lady – Academy AwardÓ Winner Diane Keaton.
“We wrote the movie for Diane,” notes Simms. “I mean, the character’s name is Diane, it was always Diane since the beginning and I never really thought past ‘What happens if Diane Keaton doesn’t say yes?’ I never went there. When Diane read the script, she was like, ‘Well, I understand why you guys came to me.’ ”
“Well first of all, it was actually something that I had the opportunity to read. It wasn’t like you get a lot of scripts coming your way all the time!” quips Keaton.
“Her name is Diane, and that means a lot to me,” says Keaton. “And the way she’s written, feels right up my alley. It’s funny. Funny is great. Funny makes you feel better. The characters, we find them united and it remains. I mean we’ve got future blows to deal with, without a doubt, but we have each other, and so that’s really important in this movie. It’s well written by Erin Simms and Mr. Holderman. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had.”
“The meetings with the actors were hard because Bill had to convince them to take a chance with him,” says Simms. “So many legends, so much happening and a tight schedule. It was tough.”
She would find out the meaning of tough when she pitched the script to Jane Fonda. “At the end of working with Redford, I had put together a movie called Our Souls at Night,” which starred Fonda and Redford. “I knew Jane from that project so I just emailed her and said, ‘Hey, got this script do you want to read it?’. She read it in like two seconds. She’s so amazing. We wrote the movie for Diane but we also wrote a role for Jane and called the character Jane at one point. I sent it to her and 24 hours later she came back and said ‘No. Pass.’ It was heartbreaking and I don’t know why Bill and I didn’t give up. We rewrote the character. At one point, it was her and her gay best friend; at another point she was obsessing over a married man. We had so many storylines. Eventually we realized this character is propelling everyone forward, she’s further along in the journey of embracing sexuality and confidence. She has the reverse storyline. Once we hit on that, the story came together. Two months later, I still wanted Jane but Bill thought there’s no chance. I don’t know what came over me. I just emailed Jane ‘Hey, we rewrote the script for you. Loved your notes, super smart. I know it’s pretty obnoxious for me to ask you to read this a second time. If you feel like it, read it.’ I don’t advise anyone to do that. Jane always responds and when she reads the script, she gets back to you. I didn’t hear from her so I just figured it’s over. Then I got this email one morning in bed. She said, ‘I’m in.’”
There was just one problem. Simms failed to tell Holderman or the other producers she had gone to Jane and the script was out to other talent. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. It was great news but I was also scared. But then it sunk in with them: we got Jane Fonda. They were through the roof! Then Jane realized Bill was a first-time director and was like, ‘Well, why don’t we get someone more established who’s done this a bunch. You guys wrote the script and you’re producing the script. Let’s bring on a director.’’’ But Simms held her ground and asked Fonda to meet with Holderman first. She did. “Once she met Bill, you’ve never seen anybody more committed, more supportive, more grateful, more awesome. Jane does her due diligence. You’re not going to manipulate her but she’s really fair. She saw that he could do it.”
While plenty of challenges were yet to come, Holderman was amazed and dazed by his good fortune with such a celebrated lineup of talent.