With a new screenplay by Tina Fey, the iconic high school comedy Mean Girls returns as a classic tale retold in the era of social media and marks the feature-film debut of directing duo Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr.
In 2004, a lighthearted high school comedy transformed adolescent angst into a once-in-a-generation cultural phenomenon, inspiring countless internet memes, an official Mean Girls Day (October 3rd), wearing pink on Wednesdays, and a Tony-nominated Broadway musical.
Twenty years later, Tina Fey, the writer and one of the stars of the original film, brings wide-eyed brainiac Cady Heron, scheming “it” girl Regina George, and her devoted minions Gretchen and Karen back to the big screen, along with perennial misfits Janis and Damian and the entire student body of North Shore High. As a producer and the writer of the upcoming film, Fey has reimagined Mean Girls for a new generation, complete with smartphones, TikTok videos, and even more adolescent intrigue, as Cady and Regina battle for social supremacy and the heart of hapless Aaron Samuels.
Pictured above: Avantika, Renee Rapp, Angourie Rice and Bebe Wood on the set of Mean Girls from Paramount Pictures. Photo Credit: Jojo Whilden/Paramount ©2023 Paramount Pictures.
At 16, Cady Heron (Angourie Rice) arrives at her new suburban American home as innocent as a newborn gazelle on the African plains where she was raised. A lifetime of homeschooling and wilderness adventures has not prepared her for the jungle that awaits her at North Shore High School. Her first cafeteria lunch looks like it might be her last until she is rescued from social oblivion by Janis (Auli’i Cravalho) and Damian (Jaquel Spivey), an endearing pair of outsiders who take it upon themselves to introduce her to the social complexities of teenage life in America. To everyone’s surprise, Cady falls in with the most exclusive clique in the school: “The Plastics.” Over-the-top glamour girls Regina (Reneé Rapp), Gretchen (Bebe Wood), and Karen (Avantika) decide to make Cady over in true Plastic style. But when Cady admits to a crush on Regina’s ex, Aaron Samuels (Christopher Briney), her newfound friend nips the blossoming romance in the bud, and Cady turns to Janis and Damian for help to wage a lowdown, winner-take-all battle against her rival.
The epithet “mean girl” has spread from high school hallways to the floor of Congress since Fey wrote the cautionary tale of female empowerment
This new version, she says, uses the strengths of both the original film and the hit Broadway show as a springboard for an extravagant and contemporary movie.
The original film is still a reference point for young women and girls, as well as their parents and male counterparts, says producer Lorne Michaels, who has been on board for each version. “What was so interesting to see at the Broadway show was that we got a lot of fathers with their daughters ¾ mothers and daughters as well,” says the “Saturday Night Live” creator. “The parents were in their teens when it first happened and they’re in their 30s now. I have a daughter and she has said to me, ‘Dad, know what today is? It’s October 3rd.’ Mean Girls Day is a big deal for several generations. It just has a different meaning for each of them.”
The new film combines fun in the style of music videos from two exciting new directors and a world-famous choreographer with the more emotionally intimate medium of film, according to Fey. “It’s the best of both worlds,” she shares. “With all this great music, we are still able to live with our characters in a close-up, to have new jokes and new moments that will surprise people who love the original and also delight a whole new audience.”
Michaels and Fey have been collaborating since 1997, when she submitted her first scripts to “SNL” and began her run as a writer and later performer on the show. The pair launched the Emmy-winning sitcom “30 Rock” in 2006. Michaels admits he was a bit uncertain about revisiting Mean Girls. “I have what I think is a reasonable bias against anything being remade,” he explains. “But I saw that a different version of the story could have the same kind of impact.”
Finding ways to make the story fresh and unexpected was the priority, Fey and Michaels agreed. It had to keep its appeal for the people who knew the original, while also captivating anyone coming to the story for the first time. “That meant considering the ways that the high school world has evolved in the last 20 years,” Michaels believes. “People of all ages are living on their phones today. Social media is everywhere. Tina did a great job of working all that in.”
Fey was excited by the vision of the directing team Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr., who made their festival premiere at Sundance 2019 with the miniseries “Quarter Life Poetry. They’re an emergent filmmaking duo who are already considered among the most promising creative minds of the new generation.
“Art and Sam talked about the need for the movie to be surprising,” she says. “They had some unexpected ideas for doing that in the right way. It’s been great to see them in their element.”
“We are massive fans of the original Mean Girls,” shares Jayne. “I grew up knowing every word. My friends and I could repeat pretty much every single phrase from it. I was thrilled when this opportunity came around. We saw it as a chance to be a bridge between the original fans and a new younger crowd.”
According to Jayne, she and Perez bring the complementary strengths that were needed for the ambitious new film. “I come more from a comedy writing background,” she notes. “Art comes more from the music video world. Mean Girls melds those things together in a universal way.”
The story was ripe for reimagining, says Jayne. “We wanted to experiment with subjective reality. By that I mean the perspective solely of one character, how they’re feeling, and how that affects what they are perceiving.”
The directors agreed that every scene should have its distinct perspective, always related to the emotions of the characters. “That was our theme,” says Perez. “We started by asking whose perspective we were working from for every scene and every musical number. What was the predominant feeling? Every other decision stems from those questions.”
Even 20 years after first bringing Mean Girls to the world, says Jayne, Fey remains open, warm, and deeply connected to the work. “It has been really humbling to be able to work with somebody like that. She completely trusted us and the way we saw this movie being made. I’ve looked up to Tina for a very long time, so it was pretty surreal being able to collaborate in such a beautiful, respectful way with one of my heroes.”
High school is in some ways the great equalizer in American culture, believes Perez. Everyone remembers the uncertainty and promise of being that age. “We’ve all had an agonizing crush on someone and it seems like it’s everything. When someone betrays you, that’s also everything. The stakes are so high. The ubiquity of cell phones and social media today amplifies it all. People can be nice to your face, but they’re being really mean to you behind your back and everyone knows.”
Reimagining the Music
Composed by Jeff Richmond, with lyrics by Nell Benjamin, most of the music in the film was originally written for the Broadway show but has been completely revamped for the new film. “The music has taken on a very different sound,” says Fey. “We were dealing with a live orchestra on the Broadway stage. This is much more pop and rock instrumentation. We also added two new songs that are a collaboration between Jeff, Nell, and Reneé Rapp, including Cady’s opening song, ‘What Ifs.’” A new single from Rapp and Megan Thee Stallion called “Not My Fault” also appears in the end credits of the film.
The musical elements of Mean Girls allowed the directors to provide deeper insights into the characters’ inner journeys, says Jayne. “High school girls experience these big emotions for the very first time. Music is an emotional experience that gives us a great way to explore that cinematically. The musical sequences are a way to expand and contract time, take the viewer into a fantasy world, and then instantly back into reality.”
Perez was deeply impressed by the way Richmond reworked his music to make it right for the film. “For me, one of the signs of a great artist is the ability to return to the work and imagine it in another context. The music was wonderful for the Broadway show. But he was able to put it into a different palette for the movie and it just kept getting better and better. It’s hard to get these songs out of your head.”
A Timeless Story
Lorne Michaels thinks that there is a simple reason that Mean Girls still holds wide appeal for a diverse audience. “It’s about high school,” he says. “It’s the time of life when you’re the most vulnerable and it’s probably the most common teenage experience. Those four years and everything that goes along with them are the things that we all have in common.”
With all the new twists, inspired updates, and musical numbers that Mean Girls encompasses, the central premise remains constant 20 years later, according to Jayne. “Women need to support women instead of tearing each other down,” she says. “That message was great in 2004. And it will be great a hundred years from now. If we have created a version that connects that message to today’s audience and allows them to have fun, we’re doing what we set out to do.”
Perez emphasizes the timelessness of the story, saying, “If you were a caveman and Tina Fey came to your cave and told you this story, it would still work. Strictly speaking, it’s not a remake. It’s a rediscovery. We want it to remind the audience of what the madness in your head feels like when you’re 16. Sometimes it does feel like madness, we know, and sometimes it’s a beautiful, utopian explosion of color. I hope we captured some of that.”
Two decades after the first film’s release, even its creator has been awed by the longevity of this story and its unforgettable characters. Fey hopes audiences will come to the theater and cheer the sheer inventiveness of the directors and their talented collaborators. She also hopes that they will once again embrace the serious message beneath the frothy surface. “But mostly I want people to enjoy it,” she concludes. “I know people will love this cast. I hope they’ll love the songs and all the moments that make them say, oh, I didn’t expect that!”
TINA FEY is an award-winning writer, actress, author, and producer. Fey is known for creating the iconic, Emmy Award-winning comedy series, “30 Rock.” Before creating “30 Rock,” Fey completed nine seasons as head writer, cast member, and co-anchor of the “Weekend Update” segment on “Saturday Night Live.” As a creative, she expanded to feature films in Spring 2004 as both a screenwriter and an actress in the hit comedy, Mean Girls, which earned her a nomination for a Writers Guild Award for “Best Adapted Screenplay.” In 2015, she and her writing partner, Robert Carlock, co-executive produced and created the hit Netflix original comedy, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” In 2018, the Broadway adaptation of Mean Girls opened at the August Wilson Theater. Written by Fey, directed by Casey Nicholaw, and with music written by her husband Jeff Richmond, the show received 12 Tony Award nominations. In April 2011, Fey released her first book entitled “Bossypants,” which topped the New York Times best-seller list and remained for 39 consecutive weeks.