If Woody Allen decided to make a New York romantic comedy about two women in love, one Jewish, heaven forbid one not, he may well have envisaged Kissing Jessica Stein. It may not be the year’s biggest film, but it’s getting enough attention for its two stars Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt, who also co-wrote the script.
Jennifer Westfeldt is Jessica Stein, a single, straight, successful, businesswoman, part of a bonded Jewish family living in New York City, who finds herself not as straight as she thought when Jessica meets and begins an intense friendship with career woman Helen Cooper, which ultimately leads to romance. These two very straight women, both writers and occasional actors, wanted to write something they could be proud of, and the result is one of the freshest comedies of the year. Paul Fischer spent some time with the two ladies to find out why two heterosexual writers came up with this slightly gay comedy that is more than what appears on the surface.
Question: Heather, I’m looking at your writing credits and thinking: This woman co-wrote that silly TV thing, Facts of Life reunion. That and Jessica Stein are like polar opposites.
Juergensen: Well, you have to understand the writing I’ve done in Hollywood is for a pay check and a writer for hire and what we did on Facts of Life was a script doctoring. That means that it was almost ready to go, but it needed some punch up and jokes, so my boyfriend and I did that. But that’s not like the kind of script that I would write normally.
Question: Well neither of you are gay So for a heterosexual friendly couple to come up with this script is a very unusual genesis of what maybe you think this is the kind of script you two want to write together.
Westfeldt: Well I don’t think it’s that far out given that we, basically started with a kernel of how intimate and tender women are together and friendships and I think most of us who have close female friends. I think most of us have that great “what if” about our best friend, what IF we have could have a full-on relationship with our best friend, because we connect in so many ways. I also think when we met, we were both sort of trading war stories about dating and how difficult it is, you know, men and women, connecting, and “men do this, and men do that” the way we talk, it’s all, you know, the chaos of dating. And we just started swapping stories and talking about —
Juergensen: And we’re both riding on the same thing at the same time.
Westfeldt: And one night we decided to do a vignette on that subject. And very organically as you’re spitballing and the way the creative process works, we were tossing ideas around, and this idea came up for the what if to women who are so kind of fed up and they are just kind of at the end of their rope with the men/woman thing, and so they decide to try it with each other. And it was very broad, comedic, and a sketch more or less, but it came out organically true to two chicks talking about dating. And basically this became a play, which was the first incarnation of this story. And this one sketch about these two women, who actually went to a day spa to negotiate how to become lesbians, became the lynchpin for a linear narrative. We thought we were going to do a scene one night, and suddenly we looked at each other and said, “have we written a play here or have we written a play here?” And basically as we worked on that piece, we just became more and more interested in the premise and started interviewing women and doing research and people would come talk to us about their stories. And “oh, this happened to me and this happened to my friend, this happened to my cousin.” You know, we would download all of these stories from all of these different women. And by the time the play went up, it was just a quickie because I had to run back to LA to start a TV show. But we had just started to scratch the surface and we were so interested and we were delighted to get to flesh it out.
Question: Jennifer, are you Jewish yourself?
Westfeldt: Yes, though my dad’s a WASP.
Question: I’m curious to know whether you based any of the material of the opening scene in the Synagogue and the funeral on your own mother, because it seems we all have mothers like that.
Westfeldt: A little bit. I would say, people ask me is Tovah’s character based on your mom. Actually it’s really more based on Tovah [Feldshuh], who I’ve known for eight or nine years.
Question: She’s great.
Westfeldt: Isn’t she amazing? We’ve always wanted to play mother and daughter because she’s always been like a second to mother to me. So I feel like the role is basically Tovah and a little bit of my mom sprinkled in.
Question: I don’t see this as an instantly gay film. I see it more as about friendship. But there is a very political lesbian audience out there. Is there a concern they are going to say, “Hey, this is not how it is. This is too easy. You just don’t become a lesbian.” All those potential arguments could come out. Are you worried about that?
Juergensen: I don’t know if ‘worried’ is the right word as Jen mentioned, we did the research. And we spoke with a lot of women, straight women, gay women. We’ve also now screened the film for gay audiences and the majority of the gay audience is generally who responds warmly to this and feels like it’s truthful. So whether it makes someone angry or not based on the ending or based on what we’re saying about, potentially about choice, or about the sexual continuum and if that exists, what we’re depicting in this story DOES happen in the world. So as artists, we’re painting something that we have learned about or seen out there. I don’t think I’m worried about the gay reaction if it’s negative, I just am aware that for some of them, it will be.
Westfeldt: It’s a divisive issue, certainly this question of whether sexuality is a choice or just a biological fact. It’s an issue. And certainly the extreme sides of the gay community might be offended by the notion that for Jessica, maybe she dabbles in this or tries this, or falls in love with a woman for a time, and then maybe ultimately might be with men for the rest of her life. Whereas Helen has more of an awakening. But it gives ultimately, in terms of all the women who came to us with their experiences over the years, we rewrote this, and developed the project. We saw two distinct types of women. The gay woman who has always known she was gay, absolutely unequivocally, biologically. And a lot of women who might have been fed up with men and fell in love with a perfect human being and it works for a time or it works forever or it didn’t. The woman who has that crossover ability more of a sexual continuum and the woman that doesn’t. And I think they’re both true. So the people who object to this film are the people who think it’s only black and white always.
Question: Right. And they’ll ALWAYS think that.
Westfeldt: I think so.
Question: What about the various love scenes that you two had to embark upon? Did you find it funny more than anything else, or did you find it embarrassing?
Juergensen: At first it was embarrassing.
Westfeldt: There were some giggles from the outset because it was really this was the first time for us. There is a difference with this whole other gender I’m kissing, so yea, there was a little bit of that nervous, like when you’re thirteen or fourteen and you’re kissing a boy for the first time or whoever.
Question: You were both single at the time you did this?
Westfeldt: When we first did it, yeah, well you [Heather] were dating a million guys.
Juergensen: Several people, though I must add that I did not always date multiple men at once, but when Jen met me, I did happen to be doing that, much in our movie, and I thought that was amazing.
Westfeldt: Yea, but then oddly, as we progressed with this project, we both met and began dating guys, who we are still with.
Question: Is he Jewish by the way?
Westfeldt: He’s NOT JEWISH. It’s funny because when I met Heather, I’d just come out of a very long relationship with a Jewish guy. I had just started dating and I had literally thought that dating is terrible: How do people do this? And I met her and she was dating all these guys and I just thought: How are you DOING this? I guess I thought a lot about all those horrible dates and the awkwardness of dating, I’ve never been a dater, but a serial monogamist. I’m so surprised at how difficult a time people have with meeting anyone and just getting through the first ten minutes.
Question: You’re obviously as talented writers as you are actors. Are you juggling the two now or planning to concentrate on the acting?
Westfeldt: I think we both primarily identify as actresses.
Juergensen: Right, and we’d love some juicy roles to just get thrown our way if that ever happens.
Jennifer Westfeldt: One of the nice things about the exposure a film like this brings, is that hopefully people say “oh, I gotta get her in my next film.” And hopefully that person is Steven Soderbergh. Getting to work with the greats would be a thrill.
Juergensen: Something that Jen and I both learned through this process, is that it’s POSSIBLE, you know, if you’re willing to hunker down in front of the keyboard and put in the time.
Westfeldt: You’ll always be assured of great roles because you can create them and create a good vehicle. We’re both working on great scripts now, we always will, on and off in between other projects.