Subscribe To Part One Of Our Interview With Prom Screenwriter Katie Wech Updates
I've already subscribed
Screenwriters aren't often included in the interview rounds for major films, especially when it comes to movies like Prom, the glossy Disney project opening this Friday. And though I had been brought to Los Angeles by the studio to chat on camera with the fresh-faced young stars of the film, I also had a chance to spend a fantastic hour chatting with the film's writer, Katie Wech. Prom is the end product of a three-year contract Wech signed with DIsney, working from an office on the lot to punch up other projects and do uncredited work but also develop this multi-stranded film about several different couples at a Midwestern high school planning for the biggest day of a teenager's life. It's Wech's first produced screenplay.
With an hour to talk I asked Wech about virtually everything that went into putting the film together, from knowing that she wanted to write for a PG rating to being on the set every day to planning for a sequel that may or may not already be in the works (you can read more about that here). The conversation was so long, and so interesting for anyone who wants to learn about the screenwriting craft in the context of a major studio, that I've divided it into two segments to run today and tomorrow. The first half, in which we go over the film's genesis, how she threaded all the stories together and her own prom experience, is below; check back tomorrow for her experience on the set, the kinds of characters they didn't wind up including and why, possible sequel plans, and which other high school movies inspired Prom.
Though Prom is very squarely aimed at its young audience and doesn't exactly reinvent the high school genre that John Hughes still defines, it's also far funnier and more honest than, say, Disney's own High School Musical. Writing a fluffy PG movie can be just as difficult, and require just as much skill, as putting together an R-rated masterpiece, and my conversation with Wech demonstrated to me how much innate understanding of film structure it takes to pull off a movie like Prom. See what I mean in this first half of our interview below.
When you started developing this with Disney, did you start from a more concise plot line before going with the collage of different prom stories?
My original idea focused more on the Jesse and Nova storyline which is sort of the idea of a girl who wants to plan the perfect prom, only to discover that her idea of the perfect night is the farthest thing from what she might have imagined. So it started there.
Did you have it PG in your mind even then?
I always saw it as a PG thing. I’m a big advocate of the PG comedy. I really feel like there’s a lot to be said for it and when it’s done well it’s something that a broad audience can see and enjoy. And parents can go with their kids, and kids can go with their friends, and nobody feels like they’re being cheated or bamboozled into something they didn’t sign up for.
I feel like you can tell story without sort of having dirty jokes and solo cups. You don’t need the after party scene, you don’t need a prom dress on the floor, in order to really get what’s memorable and universal about prom. So that was always part of my vision for it, yes. And then as we developed it and when Joe Nussbaum came on to direct, it really sort of broadened into this idea of being a series of stories, more of a Love Actually or something like that, this notion of following a bunch of different kids so that it can ultimately be kind of the ultimate prom movie.
Do you start with a list of the classic high school movie "types" and figure out ways to use them, avoid them, alter them, that kind of thing?
In some ways we constantly tried to steer away from that. We would try to pull back and really unpack that archetype so that I could pick what I thought was really true about the character and do away with what I thought was familiar or stereotypical as much as possible. An executive that I worked with at the studio said, you know, everybody has a Facebook page. Everybody has friends and everybody has the thing they’re into. We aren’t just one thing anymore. And we aren’t determined by one thing. So you have to be I think more rigid about that when you’re developing characters, especially in the high school genre.
Was there one character you had to work particularly hard to keep from becoming a type?
I definitely struggled the most with trying to make Tyler [the popular jock cheating on his girlfriend, played by DeVaughn Nixon] feel like not just a villain. In his version of this movie he is really having a dilemma and it’s a legitimate one, and he wants to do the right thing but he’s also kind of used to always getting his way. But how to make him not just this bad guy, you know. And so it’s about trying to see the story from their point of view. There’s that great story about that guy who plays the doctor who takes Blanche Devereaux away at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire. And he has some friends who come to try to see him on Broadway when he’s in the play. The friends miss the play because of the weather. They find him afterward and they say, “We’re so sorry we missed you, what was the play about?” And he goes, “Well you see, there was this doctor.” So it’s like you kind of have to see the movie from each character’s point of view in order to really root them in something that is true for them instead of just making them a plot device. Because I think that you can smell that when it’s happening and it’s such a disappointment, missed opportunity.
When you're writing ten or so characters who have significant stories, do you start with one and then add on another and create the web? Or do you create a bunch of stories and then link them?
You know, it always starts the same way for me no matter what, if I’m writing a story about one character or an ensemble piece like this, which is that I have to have a very clear spine. And the spine I think that emerged in this development process was that every couple has a story. So from there it became about, I needed to be able to link every story somehow as like a vertebra on that spine. And if I felt like something was superfluous or not directly connected to how I was trying to build each story the way that I had collected those stories in terms of my research, it had to go. Or it had to be reframed. Because there were some universal things that I learned in my research. There’s the guy that got dumped right before prom, the couple that breaks up, the couple that’s been together forever, the guy that can’t get a date. There were these unifying elements that I kept coming across that I just tried to always be driving in the same direction at the same time.
And you went easy on including things like Facebook, or Twitter, or even texting.
You don’t want anything to feel like a trend or a gimmick, and you want it to have a timelessness, but you also have to be aware of what a modern audience is bringing in, in terms of expectations. So how do you find organic ways to deal with things like texting and Facebook and the way information spreads now. It’s a new challenge that didn’t exist in the nineties. Thank God, I constantly thank the Lord that I didn’t grow up in an era of YouTube. I don’t think I would be here today.
We sort of wanted to play that Ali, the Ali Gomez character was kind of a, you know the class gossip, she’s always texting and tweeting. But, how much of it do you need? A little bit goes a long way in my opinion. And it wasn’t central to the story, so that’s probably why you don’t see as much as you might in another version of it.
Even though there's a lot of reality in this world, and a lot of things that feel true, it's kind of heightened-- everyone's dresses look three times better than my prom dress did. How do you balance that buffed-up world with the reality of the story?
There’s movies that should be better than life, that’s why we go to see them, so yes. You want to capture that entertainment value but you want to be able to believe, “I kind of feel like I could be that girl.” I think that’s part of it. I think that’s why so many people are gonna tune in and watch the royal wedding, which is the same day as Prom’s premiere, I think that there’s just, we may not like to admit to it but there’s some part of us that wants to believe that such a thing is possible, even for ourselves.
Do you just use your best memory to write for this teenage audience? Do you have a go-to teenager who you talk to?
It was a challenge because I really wanted it to feel contemporary and not nostalgic. So as much as I could draw from my own high school experience--you can’t set it in the nineties and you can’t, you can’t keep it that narrow. We went to a couple proms last spring so that we could really be among the teenagers going right now, see what that experience is like. But I also did a lot of research asking other people what their prom stories were. And I tried to incorporate as much of it as I could, if not the actual stories, which were not always PG in nature, at least the emotion of it. So that there could be some kind of universal element that could play to an audience of my age, but would also be relevant to that middle school and high school crowd that we ultimately were going to be judged by.
Were those high school proms that you went to different? Was it more the same than you thought?
You know, it was more the same than I thought. Because it was Los Angeles, I would say the biggest difference was that the girls were a little farther along on the developmental scale than I think we were. A lot of them looked very styled and put together in a way that I don’t remember me and my friends being back in Michigan.
And it's set in Michigan, right?
It’s set in Michigan. And it was filmed here, but not in Los Angeles proper for the most part, we were out of the city so that we could capture that feeling of a little bit more of a sort of mid-western place. We really wanted to differentiate ourselves as a move that was sort of not over-glossy, super saturated, kind of like High School Musical had a certain look that was really kind of, we tried to go in the opposite direction. It was always about just trying to keep it real. Which is my association with where I come from.
Did you plan your prom like Nova [Aimee Teegarden's character] does?
I did, I planned my prom in high school. My own prom story is fairly uneventful. I went with a nice boy and had a nice time. But it wasn’t particularly dramatic.
You didn’t go with your Jesse.
Well, I did. I had an unlikely romance with the bad boy character even though I was kind of the planner Nova type with a clipboard on my hip. He was kind of a troublemaker and a rebel, he drove a convertible instead of a Commando. That was the single difference. But he had long hair and smoked cigarettes and things we don’t do anymore.
So you had the nice boy who had a dark side.
Yes, exactly. And that’s how I see Jesse. And it takes a certain kind of girl to pull that sort of likable quality out of him. But there’s a reason why kids with chips on their shoulders have chips on their shoulders, usually. And I think its more interesting to sort of figure that out instead of just portraying the character type that we all know.
So yeah, but we did have a lovely time at our prom. But nobody revealed that they were in love with anybody else’s best friend, he didn’t tell me that he was discovering that he was actually gay, there was no intrigue or drama. It wasn’t really movie-worthy. Which is why I sort of had to amplify my story with research. But one thing that I remember from planning my homecoming dance, which was in the fall, the theme was “under the sea.” And so we had on each table a little glass bowl with a goldfish in it, which I thought was an enormously clever centerpiece, and all I can say is that at the beginning of the night there were goldfish on every table, and at the end of the night, many of the goldfish were missing. And I was told that people drank them.