THE HISTORY OF KISSING JESSICA STEIN
Kissing Jessica Stein (2001) (originally entitled Lipschtick) began as a play that ran off-off Broadway in the fall of 1997. The play was initially intended as a night of vignettes exploring "dating hell" that Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt dreamt up together at a summer Theater lab. But this night of sketch comedy quickly morphed into something else, when one story - that of two straight women who try 'crossing over' into a hilariously awkward romance - became more and more compelling.
Jen and Heather teamed up with Eden Wurmfeld, who had line-produced the critical and commercial hit SWINGERS, among other independent films and documentaries. The group then found Brad Zions, a former AOL executive, who was in the market for a good project with which to begin a career in film production. After one read, Kissing Jessica Stein (2001) became the script he wanted to back.
Soon after, they attached Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, an innovative theater director, who had just completed an award-winning MTV documentary. They also brought aboard Larry Sher, a gifted Director of Photography. By the fall of 2000, exactly three years since Jen and Heather had written their tiny play off-off Broadway, the newly formed cast and crew were shooting on the streets of New York City.
The film was first featured at the 2001 Los Angeles Film Festival where it received the Audience Award for Best Feature Film. Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt were also granted the Special Jury Award for Writing and Acting.
THE WRITERS, HEATHER JUERGENSEN AND JENNIFER WESTFELDT
ON KISSING JESSICA STEIN
On the genesis of the story:
The movie started as a play in New York. It was a night of sketch comedy, basically. We had an idea for a skit -- two Laura Ashley-clad 'girly-girls' meet at a day spa to negotiate how to become lesbians. It was broad and comic. But the more we explored the idea, the more we began to shed the spoof and investigate the deeper underlying truth of our story. As we did our research and interviewed a wide array of women, we discovered that this scenario was more common than we thought -- in our culture, it seems that women are allowed to explore their sexuality more easily than men, and so they do. Kissing Jessica Stein (2001) became the story of two women who tried this 'experiment' for all the wrong reasons -- Jessica because she's desperate and confused, Helen because she's bored. And they find something that is deeper, truer, and more complete than anything either has experienced before.
With our premise, we knew we were entering the muddy terrain of nature vs. nurture. We did not set out to issue a grand edict about sexual orientation and what determines it. Rather, we were interested in exploring the notion of a sexual continuum. The truth is, there is a unique bond and intimacy that exists between women in friendship -- that leads most of us to ask at one point or another, "How is this relationship different from the one I have with my lover, or boyfriend, or spouse?" And, for many of us, the sole way it differs is the absence of sex. What we've tried to do is put the different views and arguments on this issue into the mouths of our many characters, so that all perspectives are heard and embraced in the story. We hope that each character's journey can be perceived as a unique one, rather than as some generalized pronouncement about sexual identity
On political correctness:
We have no interest in a political agenda with this film -- we wanted to tell a very specific story about two very particular people. That is not to say we are unaware of some of the hot button issues we are touching on. We simply wanted to explore what happens when we drop our preconceived notions of who we are, who we're supposed to be, and who we're supposed to be with. At the end of the day, the movie's about taking a risk and diving into life, rather than saying no based on 'correctness' or myopia or fear. It's what we tried to do as writers and what we asked of our main characters. More than anything, we wanted this story to be about risk, possibility and growth.
On our style:
It was important to us as we told this story that we stayed in the realm of comedy-- we loved the idea of taking the old romantic comedy formula and turning it on its head a bit by playing with expectations and not succumbing to stereotypes. After much work with both the play and the screenplay we began to know our characters very well, and we also knew New York would be a central part of the story. The neurotic Jewish voice, the trendy downtown voice-- these all helped direct the story and the plot.
On doing it ourselves:
As unknown actresses, we were tired of all the thankless roles out there-- the nagging girlfriend, the young mom, the adoring wife-- basically, the "Honey, come to bed" roles. So in order to empower ourselves, we created our own juicy roles. We were inspired by Billy Bob Thornton, Matt Damon & Ben Affleck, Ed Burns all those hungry artists who insisted on being let in the game. We think we're going to be seeing more and more actors writing their own material, particularly with the breakthrough of digital filmmaking and home editing.
We come from the theater, as does our director, Charlie. Charlie understands how to work with writers and he wanted to help us develop and realize our vision. We were an unusual configuration. Usually in Hollywood the writer might not even be on the set. In our case, we were not only on set, but we were starring in the movie and had input in everything from casting choices to location scouting. It was more akin to a play from the glory days of Broadway, where a writer would be involved with the director every step of the way. It was definitely a case of the whole being more than the sum of the parts.
On indie filmmaking:
This movie was a crash course for us, but in many ways it wasn't so different from the "garage theater" we were used to, out of which the play was born. You end up asking everyone you know for something. Jen's mom location-scouted in Connecticut, Heather's mom housed the gaffer, Charlie's mom did the still photography. Friends, family and friends of friends invested money in the film. People offered services, favors, went out of their way for us. There is no way we could ever pay all of these people back. It becomes like an old-fashioned "barn-raising" where everyone (hopefully) takes some satisfaction in the final product and recognizes that they offered a small but integral contribution to it. This is the true heart and soul of indie film-making.
THE DIRECTOR, CHARLES HERMAN-WURMFELD
ON KISSING JESSICA STEIN
Why this movie? As a director I was drawn to this wonderful, character-driven story, and when I saw Jen and Heather in action, my intuition told me they would be tremendous on film. They wrote a soulful comedy full of intelligence and wit. I was fascinated because this was a play that was morphing into a movie just as I was morphing from theater director into filmmaker. My intention was to keep this dialogue-driven script moving and visual without undermining its comedy. I imagined a hurricane of precise and colorful images as counterpoint to the language. I hoped to make this hilarious but theatrical script into a visual and visceral experience.
How did you get involved? I fell in love with the story. I chased the producers and the writers, insisting that they hire me. I banged on a few tables. Eventually, everyone seemed to want me on board but I was a risk because I had not yet made a 35mm feature on this scale. I flew to New York City for a staged reading to keep myself at the forefront of everyone's mind. Also, my sister Eden (one of the producers), with whom I have collaborated extensively, knew I was ready and kept throwing my hat into the ring. It was not long after that that the producing team signed me on to direct.
How would you describe Kissing Jessica Stein (2001)? It's a radical story that defies expectation, turning every predictable outcome on its head. The film explores the ambiguous territory where heterosexual friendship and homosexual attraction meet. Still, it's funny and playful -- a date film for people of all genders and persuasions. But really there's a serious side too. Kissing Jessica Stein (2001) is a contemporary tale of love and friendship that stretches the conventional boundaries of both. This makes it hard to define in any pat synopsis.
Was it hard to direct a film about women? Women are usually more interesting to me than men -- so I think I'm attracted to stories about women. Also, I can relate to the struggle to define sexuality in a world that's all about labels. KJS is close to the bone for me in that Helen's story is similar to my own coming out. When I was 22, I fell in love with my straight (male) best friend and had to deal with the confusion, frustration and eventual epiphany of my identity as a gay person. After much struggle and heartache, we came to accept and love one another as friends -- he was straight, I was gay. So, both creatively and personally, I feel very connected to the story.
How do you hope this movie will be received? In Kissing Jessica Stein (2001), we have struggled to deliver a movie that fosters inclusiveness and debate...Debate in that I hope we have revealed a story previously veiled by the taboos of political correctness. Inclusion in that I hope we inspire a broad audience to face life with courage… to be willing (like Jessica and Helen) to follow their own unique paths toward truth.
ABOUT THE CAST
JENNIFER WESTFELDT: Jessica Stein
Jennifer started her career as a New York-based theater actress, starring in more than 25 Off-Broadway and regional productions. She came to Los Angeles in 1997, and swiftly landed a role as a series regular in TWO GUYS, A GIRL AND A PIZZA PLACE on ABC (now TWO GUYS AND A GIRL). From there, she was offered a development deal with Twentieth Century Fox Studio, and was cast as the lead in another series, HOLDING THE BABY, on Fox. Other television appearances include David E. Kelley's SNOOPS and a recurring role on CBS' JUDGING AMY. She appeared in the indie film SEE JANE RUN, and co-starred opposite Tony Danza in the musical FIORELLO! with the Reprise! series in Los Angeles. Most recently, she starred opposite Chris Eigeman in THE GENE POOL, a pilot under consideration for the fall WB schedule. Jennifer is a graduate of Yale University.
HEATHER JUERGENSEN: Helen Cooper
Heather cut her teeth as a writer-performer with her first one-woman show, LETTERS TO AN OLDER MAN, which premiered at New York’s acclaimed Womenkind Festival. In addition to her dynamic writing partnership with Jennifer Westfeldt, Heather has written collaboratively with The Actors Consortium in NY and The Groundlings in LA. Her latest solo effort, BLACKWANNABE, a show about growing up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, was recently workshopped on both coasts to strong critical acclaim and is currently being developed for an Off-Broadway run. Film credits include the Sundance award-winning film THE AFTERLIFE OF GRANDPA; stage credits include PALE BY COMPARISON (Ensemble Studio Theater), and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (Theater 22). Heather recently completed her third screenplay, a romantic comedy for Miramax Films, and is currently at work on an original movie for VH-1.
SCOTT COHEN: Josh Meyers
Scott Cohen received unanimous critical acclaim for his performance of the murderously ambitious film director in the LAW AND ORDER trilogy "Judgment in LA," as well as for his subtly dangerous portrayal of detective Harry Denby on ABC’s Emmy Award-winning NYPD BLUE. He has starred in two HBO original movies (GIA with Angelina Jolie and GOTTI with Armand Assante) and in the Showtime feature THE WHARF RAT with Lou Diamond Phillips.
Most recently, Cohen has been seen as Max Medina on the hit WB series GILMORE GIRLS. Other small-screen credits include OZ, NEW YORK UNDERCOVER and FEDS, as well as the CBS miniseries PERFECT MURDER, PERFECT CRIME, based on the Jon Benet Ramsey murder. Cohen had a starring role as half-man, half wolf in the biggest television event of the last 25 years - NBC’s epic 10-hour miniseries THE 10TH KINGDOM. Film credits include JACOB'S LADDER, PRIVATE PARTS, THE MAMBO KINGS, A BROTHER’S KISS and KING OF THE JUNGLE. A member of the prestigious Actors Studio, Cohen's stage credits include THE BIG KNIFE and LA RONDE (Williamstown Theatre Festival), JITTA'S ATONEMENT, with Dianne Wiest and Calista Flockhart (Berkshire Theater Festival) and GLIMMER, GLIMMER, SHINE at the Manhattan Theater Club. He will soon play opposite Camryn Manheim in ABC's upcoming romantic comedy KISS MY ACT!
TOVAH FELDSHUH: Judy Stein
For her work on the New York stage, from YENTL to SARAVÁ! to LEND ME A TENOR, Tovah Feldshuh has won 3 Tony nominations for Best Actress, 3 Drama Desk Awards, 4 Outer Critics Circle Awards, The Obie, and the Theatre World Award. Last fall she starred Off-Broadway as Tallulah Bankhead in a piece she wrote called TALLULAH HALLELUJAH!, chosen as one of the 10 Best Plays of the Year by USA Today. For her television work, she received the Emmy nomination for HOLOCAUST, and has starred opposite Tommy Lee Jones in THE AMAZING HOWARD HUGHES, James Woods in CITIZEN COHN, and Bill Cosby on THE COSBY MYSTERIES and THE COSBY SHOW, among many others. She has a recurring role as Danielle Melnick on LAW AND ORDER and recently completed filming the ABC-TV series WONDERLAND. Her films include: A WALK ON THE MOON, for which she received rave reviews, and the soon-to-be-released HAPPY ACCIDENTS (with Marisa Tomei), FRIENDS AND FAMILY, 3 LITTLE WOLFFS and OLD LOVE. Ms. Feldshuh made her cabaret debut at the famed Algonquin Oak Room in her act, "TOVAH: CROSSOVAH! FROM BROADWAY TO CABARET," followed by eight sold-out weeks Off-Broadway with her one-woman show "TOVAH: OUT OF HER MIND!"
JACKIE HOFFMAN: Joan
Jackie Hoffman is currently starring in the sold-out hit THE BOOK OF LIZ by David and Amy Sedaris at the Drama Department in New York. Jackie co-wrote and starred in six revues at the renowned Second City in Chicago, where she won the Joseph Jefferson award for best actress. Since her return to New York, she co-starred in the comedy STRAIGHTJACKET by Richard Day at Playhouse 91, the Talent Family’s Obie award-winning ONE WOMAN SHOE at LaMama, INCIDENT AT COBBLER’S KNOB at the Lincoln Center Theatre Festival and numerous productions for Tweed Theatreworks (most recently CAGED at Town Hall with Lily Tomlin). She has also starred in her own shows, FIFTY-FIVE MINUTES OF PURE HATRED and JACKIE’S KOSHER KHRISTMAS. Films include MO MONEY and FREAKY FRIDAY. Television: TV FUNHOUSE, STRANGERS WITH CANDY, COSBY, SOULMAN, LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O’BRIEN, and DILMOM ON DILBERT.