When screenwriters Bill Holderman and Erin Simms wrote and produced Book Club in 2017, they had no idea what a revolutionary act it would be. It was a major studio movie with four female leads over the age of 65. The idea for the sequel Book Club: The Next Chapter came almost immediately–before the first film was released in fact, and not from Holderman or Simms, but from actresses Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen, who hatched an idea to set the next film in Italy.
Being true to their word about bringing the cast of Book Club to Italy was always appealing to Holderman and Simms—if not entirely easy. Holderman remembers the moment in Las Vegas when the women hatched the plan. “They ran in from their flight looking fantastic and excited and they go, ‘Hey, we’re making a sequel and it’s going to be in Italy! and I was like, ‘Great!’ and then Erin and I looked at each other like how the hell are we going to come up with the story that gets them there?!”
“It did put us into a box of having to figure out the Italy part of it,” says Simms. “We didn’t really have to, we could have changed it, but there was something about the idea of Italy that we loved, so we just never gave up on it.”
With the location settled on well before any deals were made, the screenwriters faced the challenge of figuring out a worthwhile emotional journey to put these women on. “As a writer, you want to say that it was super easy, that the sequel wrote itself, that the story came to us and then just flowed, “ says Holderman. “I think because of the pressure that we put on ourselves to make a sequel, we didn’t want to do one just because the first film did well. We were hesitant to even go down the road until we felt like we had a story that we were genuinely excited about.”
It wouldn’t be a Book Club movie without a novel to center their story on, and this time out Simms and Holderman chose Paulo Coelho’s odyssey of self-discovery, The Alchemist, after being drawn to its central themes of questioning fate, taking destiny into your own hands and finding opportunity in life’s challenges. “We loved the idea that sometimes by putting yourself out there and opening yourself up to incredible situations, things happen,” says Holderman. “Maybe you get your luggage stolen or maybe you miss the train. You can look at those moments like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this happened’ or you can embrace that if you’re going to be adventurous, there are potential downfalls, but that’s part of the experience, that’s part of the adventure.”
Simms puts an even finer point on how The Alchemist relates to these women at this stage of their lives: “The point of all of this is that you don’t have to get old. Yes, physically your age goes up but you can remain young if you remain interested and interesting. Your life can always feel youthful, but you have to keep learning new things, you have to keep caring, you have to keep wanting new experiences.”
Holderman and Simms were adamant that the sequel didn’t fall into the trap of making their characters appear clueless about how to cope with changing times or resigned to letting life pass them by. Instead, the women of Book Club: The Next Chapter take chances—and make mistakes with abandon. “I’m almost 85 and I like playing older women who still have a lot of pizazz in them because I think it makes younger people less frightened of getting old,” says Fonda. “It gives women hope that there is a life after 60 and it can be pretty great.”
The action of the film kicks off as pandemic isolation lifts, and Steenburgen’s Carol reminds her friends about a trip to Italy they all vowed to take together in their 20s before life got in the way. Slowly but surely, each of the women sign on. Leaving their romantic, familial and career entanglements behind, these women are once again allowed to focus on themselves–alongside the friends who have been with them for most of their lives.
“Bill and Erin didn’t write a movie where all we talk about is how old we are and how we can’t work our phones. They wrote something that’s about much more,” explains Steenburgen. “It’s about facing this moment where more of your life is behind you than ahead of you, and what that means to your soul, the questions that causes, and how that affects your friendships, your love life, and the desire to experience things intensely—because you don’t wanna miss it!”
It was a level of care not lost on Fonda: “Bill has a good sense of what he wants and is very kind and patient with his actors, and his partner Erin, who also co-wrote the script, the two of them together really make you feel safe and seen and cherished,” she says.
For Keaton, beyond reuniting with her trusted director (“Bill’s the reason I’m here and I’m eternally grateful to him for creating all of this,” she says), getting to work in Italy was what made the sequel truly special. “Can you believe we got to be there for two-and-a-half months? I’m ready to move! It was stunning, just stunning to live there. If you have any opportunity for me in Italy, I’m happy. It’s full of incredible people and places that you can’t imagine,” the actress gushes.
And what better place than Italy to take a long-awaited girls’ trip and turn it into a bachelorette weekend when Vivian unexpectedly finds herself engaged just weeks before they’re set to take off. While they may be saying goodbye to Vivian’s single days, the vacation also gives each of the women the opportunity to reconnect with their pasts and question their futures, close the loop on some things and open their hearts to others—and even spend the night in jail. Along the way, much pasta is eaten, more wine is drunk, at least one of them ends up in a wedding dress, and they all find adventure in Italy.
A Rare Ensemble
Based on a real-life incident when Holderman and Simms decided to send their mothers a copy of E.L. James’ then runaway best-selling S&M romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey, the most provocative thing about their first film—which costarred Hollywood legends Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen—wasn’t the frank sexual conversations the women had (although that was certainly fun to see). It was that a major studio movie could be made with four female leads over the age of 65.
So rare was this kind of ensemble that most of the women had never had the chance to act together, despite knowing one another for fifty years in some cases. “If you think about how movies are structured, so often there’s just one leading lady and these four were always that one leading lady in the movie,” says Simms. “They even joke about all the onscreen male acting partners they’ve shared throughout the years, and despite having this shared experience of long, successful careers, it’s astonishing to think they never got to work together like this.”
And thanks to this off-screen appreciation of one another, their on-screen rapport was easy and immediate. “I think part of the deal is that we’re four extremely different people. We’re not like each other in some ways,” says Steenburgen. “But in the deepest ways, in terms of professionalism and kindness and love of acting and the craft of acting, there’s so many things we have in common. The chemistry just was there from day one.”
Earning more than $100 million at the box office, audiences clearly loved the rare treat of seeing these icons together, due in large part to the genuine good time they had making the film. “One of the biggest problems Bill had directing us is that he couldn’t get us to shut up! We’d be waiting for the scene to be lit and we’d be talking and talking and talking. It was hard for him to get us to stop talking and come and do our work,” says Fonda. And Steenburgen agrees: “I think we would drive a lesser man crazy. We enjoy each other so much that there’s quite a lot of chatter. But we’re on time and we basically behave ourselves. We just can’t shut up, and Bill has to put up with that and he’s endlessly patient with us.”
But it wasn’t just the novelty of seeing its leads together that made Book Club work, it was the ways in which Holderman and Simms wrote these characters that felt special. Rather than pitting them against one another—which never felt true to Simms’ experience with her friends—they wanted to write about real female relationships and their stars responded to the material. “There’s this old myth that women are always competitive and there are cat fights. In my experience that’s not really true,” says Fonda. “Of course there’s some women who don’t necessarily like other women but this movie shows women getting along and loving each other and helping each other, and that feels good.”
Steenburgen agrees and says the original film’s themes around deep female friendship resonated with her peers, too. “I’ve now had a few years to hear from people who’ve seen it, and the overwhelming reaction was that they loved seeing women that cared so deeply for each other who were there for each other. They were truthful with each other, but they weren’t mean to each other. So much of what you see depicted on-screen today can be about cruelty or about one-ups-womanship, and this is more about true friendships. I have decades-long friendships and they’re meaningful to me. I think people really liked seeing that.”
Bergen also appreciated that the characters were fully realized, three-dimensional women and not caricatures: I loved that my character was a Federal Court Judge, that she was really a woman of substance, a woman who was very intelligent with a distinguished career. But also a woman who still relied on her friends to give her a release and support from the pressures of her work. And that she also had a sense of humor underneath it all.”
It didn’t hurt that the movie was as hilarious as it was heartwarming. The story follows four friends whose lives each change dramatically after reading Fifty Shades of Grey, when they all decide to go after things they’ve never considered before. Hotel magnate Vivian (Fonda) allows herself to get serious with a man after a lifetime of zero commitments; recently widowed Diane (Keaton) builds a life outside of the needs of her husband and children; Federal Judge Sharon (Bergen) pursues a personal life outside of work; and Carol (Steenburgen) gets to the bottom of intimacy issues in her otherwise happy marriage.
It was a film that gave each of the actresses equally rich backstories and resolutions, but it left room for more: “The first one was sort of about each of our four stories and we only got together in scenes when we met around the book club. We needed more time together!” says Fonda.
Bill Holderman Bill Holderman is a dynamic director, writer, and producer who has quickly established himself as a highly sought-after director comfortable with big-budget blockbusters. Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, he is a graduate of Northwestern University. Before Holderman directed, co-wrote and produced Book Club and its sequel Book Club: The Next Chapter, he wrote and produced A Walk In The Woods which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and became one of the highest grossing Sundance films of the last decade. Holderman’s previous independent production credits include What They Had, and The Old Man & The Gun. Prior to venturing out on his own, Holderman spent 14 years at Robert Redford’s Wildwood Enterprises. As Redford’s producing partner, he successfully guided Wildwood and Redford to some of the most productive years in the company’s storied history, including a wide spectrum of films ranging from Academy Award®-nominated indie hit ALL IS Lost to franchise juggernaut Captain America: The Winter Soldier. He now oversees his production company Apartment Story, alongside his wife Erin Simms (with whom he collaborated on the Book Club films), which is continually developing a variety of new projects.
Erin Simms is a powerhouse producer and screenwriter known for her thoughtful, character-driven writing. Simms co-wrote and produced Book Club and Book Club: The Next Chapter. Previously, Simms worked for Robert Redford at Wildwood Enterprises where she oversaw a variety of projects, including Disney’s live-action Pete’s Dragon, and developed and produced the Netflix film Our Souls At Night. She also served as an Associate Producer for the 2015 Sundance hit A Walk In The Woods as well as the documentary Cathedrals Of Culture: The Salk Institute. Simms now works alongside her husband and Book Club collaborator Bill Holderman as a founding partner of their production company Apartment Story, with an exciting and wide-ranging slate of projects in continuous development. Erin Simms was born and raised in Montreal, Canada where she starred on several TV shows including Fox Network’s Student Bodies before making the official move to production.