The new comedy I Feel Pretty seems tailor-made for its star Amy Schumer, who has built a comedy empire out of finding humor in body positivity. In the movie, Schumer plays Renee, an employee at a giant beauty company who slips off her SoulCycle exercise bike one day, hits her head, and suddenly sees herself as runway model-beautiful. Co-writers and co-directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein — who have co-written a number of movies over the years including How to Be Single and He’s Just Not That Into You — spoke to us about high-concept comedy, finding comedy in the fashion industry, and what it’s like directing a movie together.
I Feel Pretty lends itself so well to Amy Schumer’s brand of humor, and I wanted to ask: Did you guys come up with the idea first and approach her, or did she approach you?
Abby Kohn: Yeah! The script was fully written. Before we approached her, she read it.
Marc Silverstein: And she reacted the same way you did, and said, “This is perfect for my sense of humor, let’s do it!” It was kind of just a perfect marriage. We were super lucky that she was available and into it and totally bought into the idea. And then we had a really good, fun collaborating relationship.
You guys are co-writers mainly. What is it like co-directing a movie together as well as co-writing it?
Silverstein: Luckily, the co-writing helps the co-directing, because you’ve already done a large portion of the work. We already know what the scenes should sound like and look like, because we come up with them together.
Kohn: Over 20 years of working together and understanding our shared tone, that just laid a really good groundwork for our creative collaboration. But definitely, directing posed some new challenges that we don’t have just collaborating as writers. Usually, it’s just Marc and I duking it out creatively in the script, but there’s other creative choices in the mix, and time pressures. There were certainly a couple bumps in the road, but never really creatively.
Silverstein: No, just logistically. Because you can’t work independently. We did this together. We did everything together.
What makes you guys so good at collaborating with each other? You’ve made so many things together over a long time. What is it about both of you that clicks?
Silverstein: I think there’s two sides to it. There’s the creative side to it, which is our shared sensibility, or the voice we created that’s ours as writers is very specific and good, and it’s something that we understand fully at this point in our careers—that we can write as each other. And then I’m kind of lazy, and Abby’s very productive, so that’s good.
Kohn: I would say yes.
Silverstein: And I’m sort of even-keeled, and Abby can be sort of emotional, so it levels out that way.
Kohn: Yes, yes.
Silverstein: I think we definitely complement each other and keep each other on track.
How did you come up with the idea for I Feel Pretty? A woman falls on her head and then thinks she’s supermodel gorgeous — where did that come from?
Silverstein: It’s an idea Abby came up with. We’re always looking at high concepts and looking at things that could be funny. And we love movies like Big and Tootsie.
Kohn: From the very beginning, when I pitched it to Marc, I was like, “But the thing is, we never see it, we never see what she sees! That’s the whole thing.” Not only do we not see what she sees in the mirror, when people look at her she’s always her. How could we have fun with the tropes of the switcheroo movie when nothing has changed? We started to see how you could really play with those tropes throughout the movie, make it really funny, but also bake into that concept something that we really want to say.
Silverstein: And it was also fun to give yourself a challenge. How do you write a woman in the world who thinks something has happened to her, but nothing has happened to her, but keep it believable?
There’s so much humor added when people are reacting around her as well, because nothing’s really changed and she’s acting like it has.
Silverstein: There’s almost two different movies. There’s the movie that Renee thinks she’s in, and then the movie that everybody else is in, which is just the real world. The overconfidence is where the comedy comes from, and the friction between this person who thinks she’s in this switcheroo movie, and the rest of the world.
Kohn: The buy-in for the concept really comes off of their reactions, so we can sell this concept that she believes she’s changed without ever having to show it.
There’s a lot in this movie about the beauty industry and the fashion industry, and how it impacts women’s perceptions of themselves and their body image, but you never go so far as to condemn it. Was that a conscious choice, to include fashion and also elevate it without saying, “This is why people feel bad about themselves”?
Silverstein: Yeah, I think there’s a lot wrong with the way that it’s sold to the public and the impossible standards of beauty that are put out there, but I also do think that there’s nothing wrong with feeling good and looking good. We don’t condemn exercise classes either. I feel great when I put on a sportcoat and a tie. There’s nothing wrong with putting on make-up and feeling like you look nice, but what becomes problematic is when you feel like you can’t live up to certain standards that society is putting on you.
Kohn: And that’s what Renee does in the end — we don’t want to burn down the whole industry. But she does say, “Why are we selling to the 0.001 percent here? We look every which way, and why can’t we all be the face of the line? Why can’t it be inclusive?”
Speaking of the fashion industry, Emily Ratajkowski is really funny.
Kohn: She has a real natural ability. She was so great with Amy, keeping with her, staying in the moment, having the unscripted reaction to Amy’s unscripted joke.
Silverstein: And even before she got on set, when we talked to her she was like, “I want more. Give me some weirder stuff.”
Kohn: She has this effortlessness to her that was really great.
And Michelle Williams is also hilarious. How did she do that weird, high-pitched voice?
Silverstein: We wanted that to be Avery’s Achilles heel, this thing she feels has held her back her whole life. It was written as a high-pitched vocal fry, but the execution was all Michelle. We could not have been more excited about how specific it was and how you didn’t get tired of it. She became this other person.
Kohn: Yeah, she totally embodied this other person, committed to it fearlessly. She took it seriously! She came to set and she was finding this character. She wasn’t gonna play a caricature of a person. She was really fun.
You have a bunch of funny women in this movie, SNL stars, Amy, Busy Phillips. How did you go about putting this cast together?
Kohn: It was important for us that there was nothing wrong with these friends. They are fun, lovely, pretty girls. It’s Renee’s confidence in herself that is the problem. It was important for us to cast girls who were pretty and funny and fun and had a great rapport, so that you want to hang out with them.
Silverstein: And Sasheer [Zamata], who plays the woman who works at SoulCycle, we knew we wanted someone who was funny, but she’s the one whose reactions are the most important in the whole movie. That first scene where Amy gets up from the head injury and looks in the mirror and is like, “Holy shit, I’ve changed,” we need to look at Sasheer and be like she has not changed at all.
Kohn: In the script we just kept putting it in caps, every time she would say something, we’d write in the script, BUT SHE HAS NOT CHANGED. We needed to get that across, and Sasheer does it brilliantly.
Silverstein: And when we cast Rory [Scovel], we just liked that idea that we hadn’t seen this person before in a movie. When she runs into him in the laundromat it’s not like, oh, here’s the male love interest, because it’s the guy you’ve seen in a billion movies. You don’t even know if he’s gonna be in the movie until he comes back. And he’s so funny and their chemistry was so great that it was a pretty easy casting process. It was really fun getting everybody together.
A lot of your projects primarily deal with making women feel really good about themselves, finding insecurities and then saying, this doesn’t matter, you’re perfect the way you are. What draws you to those sorts of stories?
Kohn: That’s a good question. You know, I’m a woman who’s fighting insecurities like everybody else. What I would want and what I would want for my daughter is to be able to live that way and be okay. I think it’s a great thing to strive for. As I’ve had kids and different projects come to us, I care more. What am I putting out into the world? What am I saying with this thing that I’m putting out into the world? Of course, I want it to be really fucking funny, and I want people to enjoy it, but I do care that I’m putting something out in the world that’s good. And that’s a message that I can get behind and feel good about for little girls as well as people who are just gonna go and laugh their asses off.
Silverstein: We’re pretty much only interested in writing movies about people and their relationships. A lot of the tension or drama in a movie comes from people wanting something and not being able to get it, whether it be a guy or a girl or a job or anything. And for us, the most interesting movies are the ones that are about the things that hold people back within themselves. Those are the things they’re battling. Those are the sort of dramas that we like dealing with, the ideas of self-esteem and insecurities. Everything else is external and manufactured. But the barriers you put up are so relatable because everyone has those things in their lives, and everyone wishes they could overcome them. And I think it’s really funny and it’s something that we really like to explore.