When writer-director Gene Stupnitsky was inspired by a real-life Craigslist post, he teamed up with Jennifer Lawrence, one of the most acclaimed and most popular actresses of her generation, who’d always wanted to make a comedy and stepped in as star and one of the producers of No Hard Feelings.
The project snowballed when Lawrence and her friend Gene Stupnitsky had dinner and talked about how much they would love to work together. Stupnitsky, a former co-head writer for The Office and writer/director of the hit comedy Good Boys (Stupnitsky’s feature debut) was also looking for his next project and shared his inspiration: a real-life Craigslist post (a classified advertisements website) that producers Marc Provissiero and Naomi Odenkirk had found: Some overprotective parent actually posted an ad seeking a young woman for their shy, inexperienced son, to seduce him – to not only be his “first,” but to transform him from a high school nerd to a cool college kid with confidence. The ad suggested the parent would pay handsomely for a job well done.
“That made me laugh extra hard because we were having martinis,” says Lawrence. “I said, ‘Whatever you write, I’d love to read it.’ And then I read the funniest script I’ve ever read.”
In No Hard Feelings, Maddie (Jennifer Lawrence) thinks she’s found the answer to her financial troubles when she discovers an intriguing job listing: wealthy helicopter parents looking for someone to “date” their introverted 19-year-old son, Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman), and bring him out of his shell before he leaves for college. But awkward Percy proves to be more of a challenge than she expected, and time is running out. She has one summer to make him a man or lose it all.
Turning Words Into Action
“Everyone can recognize the generational shifts at play,” says Stupnitsky. “I think there’s a desire from some parents to get them out of the house and have them have some real-world life experiences,” he says.
To help him develop the project, Stupnitsky brought on producer Alex Saks.
“It’s probably the most intimate development process I’ve ever been a part of,” she says. “There were pieces of Maddie’s character there, even before I came on board. And every time I read a new version of the script, it was like unwrapping a present. Gene and John are always pushing for better, funnier, smarter, more grounded in character, and that’s why the script is as good as it is – they just don’t settle for what works – they always strive to push it further.”
“My first question was, ‘What type of parents would do this?’ My second question was ‘What’s going in the life of a woman who responds to it?’” says Stupnitsky, whose co-writer John Phillips came with the idea of making it “helicopter parents, and that is when everything fell into place,” he continues.
Specifically with Lawrence in mind, Stupnitsky and Phillips wrote the character of Maddie
“She’s a spirited, kindhearted, fun-loving, bold, funny lady,” says Lawrence, “but she’s also desperate. She is desperate to save her mother’s home, but the taxes keep going up, and it’s getting harder and harder for locals to maintain living wages.”
When the opportunity with Percy arises, her financial difficulties have reached a breaking point. Now, Maddie has one summer to get the painfully uncool 19-year-old to come out of his shell – or she’ll lose everything important to her. “She is trying to hold onto her house, which was her late mother’s house,” Lawrence explains. “She feels so certain that holding onto the house is the only way to hold on to her mother.”
Opposite the socially awkward son, Percy, Stupnitsky and Phillips worked to create a character specifically for Lawrence’s talents.
“How would she bring a different energy that Percy doesn’t have?” says Phillips. After watching Lawrence’s performances in other films and her fearless guest-host tenure on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show, Phillips and Stupnitsky saw a screen persona taking shape. “We realized that she has a certain energy to her. Her laugh and her reactions are unique. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, which is always very funny to watch, and she has a certain aggression to her. There’s something really bro-y about Jennifer that we really liked – and something a little scary. Gene and I are terrified of her. Those are all things we tried to bake into the character of Maddie.”
“As a friend, Gene saw her incredible comic timing, which hadn’t really been shown in her work,” says Saks. “She’s hilarious in person, and Gene’s idea was to bring audiences a version of Jen that only her close friends had seen. When you saw her performance on set, it became a no-brainer, but until then, no one saw it the way that Gene did.”
At the same time, it was clear to the writers that Lawrence – an Oscar®-winning actress – would also be able to bring the character nuance and depth. “Comedic set pieces can’t just exist on their own,” explains Stupnitsky. “You have to learn something about the character. They have to change through it. Maddie starts off pretty selfish, immature, and angry; by the end, there’s a certain balance and a peacefulness to her. Because she has to go slow and get to know him, she learns about herself as well. This is a coming-of-age story for both of them.”
“Percy really forces Maddie to take a look at herself and the way she has treated people,” says Phillips. “In modern dating, through all the apps and everything, it’s so easy to ghost people – to not be accountable to them. That was an idea we are very interested in exploring as well.”
Indeed, as Odenkirk says, it’s not just a matter of Maddie fixing Percy. “At the dog shelter where Percy works, there’s a poster on the wall that says, ‘Who Rescued Who?’” she says. “For me, that’s thematically on point.”
With a wild, spirited, slightly unhinged character in Maddie, Stupnitsky, and Phillips shaped Percy opposite her to be sheltered, awkward and introverted. “In some ways, he’s the soul of the movie,” says Stupnitsky. “He’s a sheltered kid going to Princeton, very, very smart, very sensitive. He’s had a tough time at school. His social life is online, like a lot of kids – lots of friends on social media and through the video games he plays. But he mostly lives in his room, and he needs to get out of there and into the real world.”
When Maddie enters his life, Percy isn’t looking for a quick fling – he wants a meaningful relationship. “He’s an idealist, a romantic,” says Phillips. “He believes in love and needs to feel a connection before he can be with someone.”
Percy’s problem is that he takes it too far – he’s so wrapped up in his own mind about what a relationship should be that he can’t appreciate what’s in front of him. For this reason, Stupnitsky and Phillips knew from the beginning that the story couldn’t just be about Maddie closing the deal with Percy, because that’s not what Percy really needs. As they explored the characters, they drew up a Maddie who thinks she’s going to teach Percy how to be cool – how to party, how to drink, how to talk to girls, and yes, how to have sex – when what Percy really needs is the self-confidence and maturity to come out of his shell in his own way.
The filmmakers thought that the role of Percy might be difficult to cast – and indeed, they conducted an extensive casting process – but one candidate kept rising to the top: Broadway breakthrough Andrew Barth Feldman. “When Andrew walked in, we all knew immediately that he was the one,” says Lawrence.
Stupnitsky was immediately impressed. “We saw Andrew on the second day, and right away, I thought, ‘He’s so good,’” says Stupnitsky. “He just nailed it. He nailed the comedy, he nailed the emotion. We went and saw a lot of other people – but I was relaxed because I knew we had Andrew. It was clear, he was always the one.”
Feldman says it was a part that came naturally to him. “Gene said he was up late many nights wondering whether this kid existed,” says Feldman. “And for better or worse, in many ways, I am this kid.”
Because Feldman is also an accomplished singer – having performed the lead of “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway – Stupnitsky could shape the character of Percy around his talents as well. “John Phillips sent me a video of him performing, singing, and playing piano in Midtown,” says Stupnitsky, “and I thought, ‘Wow, we have to get this into the movie.’ It added to his character – he’s someone who plays and performs, but not in front of people – just in his room. It adds to his shell and to his introversion, and she helps bring that out of him. When he sings to her, and there’s so much happening on Jennifer’s face – it’s unexpectedly poignant and beautiful, and my favorite scene in the movie.”
Stupnitsky says that the chemistry between Lawrence and Feldman started strong and only got stronger through production – and that relationship, that feeling of trust and give-and-take in a fellow actor, encouraged bold, risky performances from both of them. “In his audition with Jennifer, they had amazing chemistry,” he says. “There’s something that was going on in their dynamic that I wasn’t even fully aware of. From day one, their connection was so strong – she could put herself out there, and that would force him to go out as well, to meet her, If she pushed him, he’d go there.”
“Jen is down for things that other people would not be, for sure,” says Feldman, “things that are intimidating for me to even think about. I couldn’t do so much of the stuff that she’s doing in this movie in a million years. Even when she has been afraid, she shows up, and she works really, really hard, and she does it.”
Feldman agrees that with Lawrence leading by example, he was encouraged to break through his own boundaries. “Every single day, I had to do something weird with my body, like having Jen dance on me.” In another scene, Stupnitsky and Phillips threw out alternate lines to plus the comedy. “Jen had me on her lap, and she was bouncing me. They had her say, ‘Are you my bouncing baby?’ And first, they had me say, ‘I don’t know.’ And then it was ‘Yes, I’m your bouncy baby.’”
In each of these scenes, the balance was to make the comedy wild and outrageous, but also grounded and real. “Percy lives within, but resents, the bubble that his parents have created for him,” says Feldman. “It is a very sheltered life that he leads, playing video games and scrolling on his phone and numbing himself… it’s a compulsive lifestyle that he’s very afraid to leave. When Maddie finds him, she does everything within her power to pop that bubble.”
In a bit of serendipitous luck, filming No Hard Feelings was a homecoming of sorts for Feldman. “We shot so much of this movie down the street from the house that I grew up in, on Long Island, in the Five Towns, Nassau County,” he says. “I stayed in my childhood home during filming. I used to go to the laser tag place where we shot a scene. Our base camp was where all my county choir concerts were. It felt like my life was collapsing in on itself in a beautiful way. It really felt like a homecoming in a lot of ways.”
Gene Stupnitsky (Director / Written by) is a Writers Guild Award winner and six-time Emmy nominee. Stupnitsky co-created Amazon Freevee’s breakout hit “Jury Duty.” Previously, Stupnitsky worked on the NBC comedy series “The Office” for five seasons, rising to co-head writer and co-executive producer. He also executive produced the Emmy-nominated HBO series “Hello Ladies,” which he co-created and wrote alongside Stephen Merchant and Lee Eisenberg. On the feature side, Stupnitsky co-wrote and produced Sony Pictures’ Bad Teacher, which grossed over $215 million. Stupnitsky made his feature directorial debut with his original screenplay Good Boys, co-written with Eisenberg, and produced by Seth Rogen for Universal. The movie was the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of the past five years.
John Phillips (Written by / Executive Producer) performed at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York before appearing as an actor on “Arrested Development,” “New Girl,” and “The Office.”
He wrote the screenplay for Dirty Grandpa (2016) and was an on-set writer and associate producer on Good Boys (2019).
Hailing from Glens Falls, NY, he attended Yale University, where he was a columnist for the Yale Daily News and the director of The Fifth Humour, Yale’s oldest sketch comedy group.