The director of “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” chats with us about his favorite on-set memories 20 years later
April 25th, 2017 is a special day in history. It marks 20 years since we first heard the question, “Do you have some sort of business woman special?” It marks20 years since we first met the fashion forward underdogs and best friends, Romy White and Michele Weinberger, in the film written by Robin Schiff.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, we spoke to David Mirkin, the director of the beloved cult film.
Mirkin, who you may also know for his decades of work on The Simpsons, talked with this Romy and Michele devotee about his favorite on-set memories, the magical chemistry of Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino, and that Will Ferrell cameo we never got to see.
HelloGiggles: In March, I went to the 20th anniversary celebration of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion held at the Palace Theatre in Los Angeles. Mira Sorvino and Robin Schiff were there and talked about how they would love to make a sequel — and, of course, the audience went absolutely insane. What are your thoughts on a sequel?
David Mirkin: I love those actors so much. They’re all just so amazing in that film, so I would never turn down an opportunity to work with them again. The trick is always that it has to be an idea, and a concept, and an execution that lives up to the original. We all really love the movie and care about it, and only want to do right by it. So that’s always the trick. But if the project is right, then we’re all there. Because it was just a lovely, lovely time filming that movie.
HG: Did you anticipate Romy and Michele‘s cult status when you were making the movie?
DM: My philosophy is always, I love film so much. And all I’m ever trying to do is make films that affect other people the way films affected me when I was growing up, and still do when I watch great films. To me, it’s always about the passion, and to do something very unique and strange and weird and kind of twisted, because that’s what I like. I try to make films that will move me in the way the films that I love move me. (laughs) And those are generally twisted and odd.
And that often creates a passionate following if you do it right…I really push to have the very best actors when I’m making a movie. I tell all the casting people — not only do we want really funny people, we want terrific actors who are also incredibly funny. So performances have a complete depth to them, a reality to them even though they’re absurd simultaneously. And that can really hit an audience.
And as I was seeing everything come together — it was a very long rehearsal process, we took two weeks — and it was basically Lisa, Mira, and myself in a room for those two weeks going over the characters, going over the scenes. And even beyond that, it was almost like a therapy session where we would have confessional conversations with each other. Creating an atmosphere where anyone can try anything, say anything, do anything, and feel safe in that environment.
And it’s also an environment — which is what I hoped for — for Lisa and Mira to bond and become friends for real outside of the movie. Because then, I get all kinds of unconscious subtle stuff on screen that shows how much they like each other and how much they’re actually bonded in addition to the characters they’re playing. So all that leads to something that can be watched again and again and again, and you always see new things. And there’s a depth to performance, and a subtlety going on in the filmmaking and the performances that you can watch over decades. (laughs)
HG: Do you have a favorite cut scene from the film?
DM: It couldn’t work within the context of the movie, but all by itself, it was hilarious. I was a huge Will Ferrell fan; he was becoming a huge star at the time. And he so kindly agreed to do a cameo for one scene…Right when Romy is found out to be lying about the Post-it notes, and Christy and the girls realize she lied because Heather blows her cover, and Mira starts to cry — the other thing that she had planned to do to impress Christy and the girls was show them that she had a cell phone…She had arranged for a waiter to call her on the cell phone so she could seem to be getting a very important phone call. And Will Ferrell was this waiter who she made a deal with.
He was hiding behind the curtain and calling, even though she no longer wanted him to call because things had already gone so terribly wrong. And Will is hilarious playing this waiter who keeps trying to call her even when she doesn’t want the call to come through.
But the audience felt so bad for Mira — Mira is such a terrific actor (laughs) — that when she got upset, it just destroyed the audience. I couldn’t keep her that upset for that long because the audience couldn’t recover. So I had to shorten the time she is crying and upset, and therefore, I lost an incredibly hilarious performance by Will. And if we ever get to do a Blu-ray that has all the extras, that will be in there.
HG: As the director, was there something you added to the movie or the storyline that you particularly love?
DM: In general, I made the dream sequence much more surreal. I wanted it to get more and more surreal as you figured out it was a dream. I added Sandy having plastic surgery since he is very rich — I added that line that the very first thing he bought was a new face. In the dream sequence, originally in the script, he would just come up to Michele and they just would meet standing there. But I thought, if he’s rich, he’d also have this huge limousine. And it would really be funny if the limousine hit Lisa and shot her into the air. That was an addition.
…It was always a matter of making these girls a bit deeper emotionally than they originally were, and show them really taking care of each other and really loving each other. In the original prom scene, you see Romy waiting to dance with Billy, and then it cuts back to the present and Romy and Michele just talk about it, how they stood there all night and he never showed up.
But I figured it would be a lot more emotional to see him not show up, to see Romy break down. And then see Michele go, “I’ll dance with you, Romy,” and then they dance to the Cyndi Lauper song, “Time After Time.”
So when I added that song there, that affected the dance scene later on. In the original script, that dance at the reunion wasn’t an emotional dance. It was just a John Travolta, Saturday Night Fever disco dance — a fast song. I realized it would be great to put the Cyndi Lauper song there again when they all dance together so it could be incredibly moving, but at the same time silly and stupid. (laughs)
One idea, leads to another like that. It added a much deeper emotional throughline, and showed the girls taking care of each other multiple times.
HG: As you’ve mentioned throughout this conversation, Lisa Kudrow’s and Mira Sorvino’s chemistry is so key to the staying power of the movie. Could you sense their chemistry right away? Did you have to do anything to strengthen it?
DM: The way I cast people is, not only do they have to be amazingly talented and funny, but I have to feel that we have great chemistry individually. If we’re going to be working together, I want us to literally have a friendship, an easygoing manner. I had that with Lisa immediately — I had been a fan of hers from before, and then was a huge fan of hers from Friends. I had met with her and knew how much fun we had together, what great laughs we had right away.
I met Mira for lunch because she was interested in the film and script. She was coming off an Oscar win for Mighty Aphrodite at the time, and we had great chemistry at that lunch. And I was able to figure that was going to translate over well with Lisa. We had a lot of similar ways of looking at things and dealing with things. And it was true — when we did those two weeks of rehearsal, it absolutely worked perfectly. They became true friends quite quickly.
HG: When you look back on filming Romy and Michele, is there a favorite memory that comes to mind first?
DM: There are so many favorite memories, but I had such a great time shooting that dance sequence. I rehearsed them to death on that with my choreographers, so they were so ready to do that dance. I had set a lot of time aside ‘cause I thought it was gonna be very time consuming. But they had rehearsed it so well and were so prepared that even though it was a complicated thing to shoot, it was shot very quickly and very easily. I knew how funny and sweet and moving it was even as I was shooting it…But I shot so many angles, they were working very hard by the end to do it over and over like that (laughs), but they were great the entire time.
The actors on that film, every one of them, they were amazing troopers. It was not an easy film to shoot because of so many crane movements and a lot of camera tricks — it was not a normal comedy. But they were all so game for that.
HG: The movie has such a distinct aesthetic in terms of colors and sets. What inspired the look of the movie?
DM: It was a matter of taking what I loved about LA, and because these girls came to this town with an idea of what they wanted to be, I kind of wanted them to have achieved that. Until they looked at their lives, they still had kind of achieved a lot. They were having a good life in LA. Because I knew they liked fashion and were interested in fashion, I wanted them to look like they lived in the pages of a fashion magazine. I wanted it to look like they lived in the pages of Glamour, InStyle, something like that. So all the set design and all the clothing coordinated with that idea to look like a magazine about the lifestyle of Los Angeles.
And that was lots of primary colors and pastels. Color everywhere they went. That’s why, even when they’re doing their laundry, the washers and dryers are bright orange. Everywhere they went, there were great splashes of color that would interact with the outfits. That was enormous fun to work on with Mona May, our costume designer, and Nate Burke, our production designer.
HG: What do you think Romy and Michele are doing now?
DM: You know, that’s something we discuss a lot. We’ve discussed the idea that they might have gotten married at some point, and even went through a point when they drifted apart. They might be now out of marriages and re-exploring their relationship after time apart. (laughs) I’ve always thought they could have become hitwomen and accidentally were constantly killing the wrong person and getting in arguments about that.
That’s the major, major question — what exactly are they doing today. It’s an interesting thing to think about.