About this series: Before it was a movie, it was a screenplay. And before it was a screenplay, it was a terrifyingly blank page. "Revision History" tells stories about one of the least understood, but most creative, stages of filmmaking: the writing (and constant rewriting...) of the screenplay.
The movie: "Fun Mom Dinner," a comedic romp about a group of mothers who undergo a night of mischief and bonding.
The writer: Julie Rudd, a first-time screenwriter who had previously worked on PR for movies.
Julie Rudd always wanted to be a writer. An English major in college, she calls writing her "first dream of what I wanted to do." After college, though, her life took a different path. It was hardly a bad one: she got into film PR, she married a movie star (you know him, he shares her surname), "and then I had a family and stopped working — or should I say, started the hardest job of my life."
Once her two kids got a little older, though, Rudd found the writing dream bubbling up. "Somewhere around 2013, I had a very simple idea," she recalls. "I just thought it would be great to write a mom movie, a love letter to moms." When her kids first started going to school, Rudd had had trepidation about meeting all the other moms. "Am I gonna like these moms? Am I gonna fit in? Am I gonna want to hang out with moms?" she recalls wondering. The answers to all those questions, after a bit of an adjustment, was yes. "I was really surprised that, in my forties, I suddenly found myself with an amazing group of friends. They understood my day-to-day struggles of parenting, and I felt known in a way that I found surprising."
In February 2013, a few months after she had the idea for a mom movie, Rudd found herself in a car in LA with her old friend Naomi Scott, a film producer. "I said, ‘I have an idea for a mom movie,' and literally within 30 seconds of telling her the idea, she was like, ‘I’m in. Let’s do this.'"
Rudd lives in New York, Scott lives in LA. So the two began setting up regular FaceTime calls to "hone the generalities of the idea," says Rudd. "‘Should it be five moms? Maybe five is too many.’ So we settled on four." Rudd started sketching out who each of the moms was: "I wanted one to be divorced, I thought one should be reluctant to be in the group, and one should be overzealous to be in the group." One, too, would have her marriage in a crisis point, or at least at a low ebb.
Then Rudd and Scott riffed on the shape of the story. She knew she wanted to introduce the moms, get them to dinner, then have some "crazy stuff" happen, and end with them bonded together.
After almost a year of brainstorming—living with the characters, taking notes on her computer and in a Rite Aid notebook—the story was mostly in place, even though not a page of script had actually been written. Now the question was: Who would write the script? In the film world, just because you come up with the story doesn’t mean you wind up writing the actual screenplay.
Rudd floated an idea, even though it made her nervous: "What do you think about me actually trying to write this script?"
Scott said, "Sure."
Through the spring of 2014, Rudd got in a schedule: every day from 9:30 to 1:30, while the kids were at school, she would write. She did that for four months. But then the school year ended, and Rudd was stuck on page 75, about three-quarters of the way through the movie. Rudd struck a deal with her kids that the mornings would be "TV and iPad time," while Mom would have writing time. (There was also a babysitter in the picture.) The kids honored the deal, and finally by July of 2014, she had a completed draft.
"That part of it, the writing of the script, came easier than I’d thought," says Rudd. "I thought, ‘What do I have to lose?’ I never thought I was going to be the writer in the end." She says that at this stage, she merely thought of what she was banging out as "taking a stab at it, even if it’s just this terrible document to give to a real writer."
By the end of the summer 2014, she finally had a draft. She shared it with her husband’s agent and manager, Blair Kohan and Aleen Keshishian, who over the years had become personal friends. "I basically said, ‘I would love for you to read this, I know I’m the wife of a client, but I’m just asking one thing: Just tell me, is it viable?’" Their responses were enthusiastic. "And then Naomi [Scott] and I gave it to some funny, really smart people that we knew, and all the signs pointed to: You should keep going."
It seemed like Rudd was going to be the screenwriter after all.
Rudd spent a little over a year tinkering with the draft to get it in shape for shooting.
"My first instinct was that it should be a caper," says Rudd of the screenplay, "and the moms solve it with all the crazy things they have in their bags." Across several iterations of the script, the climax was motivated by one of the moms having her phone stolen. In an early draft, a few of the moms use the "Find my Phone" feature to chase down the phone — only to wind up on a boat with a gang of phone-smuggling bad guys. It all erupted into what Rudd recalls as a "Coast Guard, action-y sequence."
After sharing the script with the writer Hadley Davis, whom Scott and Rudd chose to have a fresh set of eyes on the script, Davis questioned whether that scene fit the tone of the rest of the movie. "So I had the idea, maybe it should be less sinister than that," says Rudd. "What if it was just some high school girl who had stolen the phone?" The idea struck her as funny; it also jived well with a theme that had emerged in the script: the way John Hughes movies had informed Gen X’ers ideas of romance. Many a John Hughes movie ends with a high school party; having a high schooler swipe one of her character’s phones enabled Rudd to play with that trope, too, which persists amusingly in the finished film.
By April 2016, the Australian director Alethea Jones came on board as director; by that summer they were shooting. "Fun Mom Dinner" has a comedic dream cast built around a core foursome of Molly Shannon, Katie Aselton, Toni Collette, and Bridget Everett (Rudd and Scott managed to wrangle their husbands, Paul and Adam, to appear in the film as well). And soon, Rudd discovered the joy of doing on-set rewrites for a brilliant ensemble.
An especially funny scene in the finished film involves a budding romance between Molly Shannon, who plays the divorced mom, and Paul Rust, who plays an endearing nerd she meets in a karaoke bar. The script didn’t go too deep on their flirtation, but now that they were on set, an idea for a scene came to Rudd. Shannon’s character confesses that she puts on HGTV when she’s lonely at night; Rust’s character confides he has the very same obsession. ("I watch a ton of HGTV," explains Rudd.) Soon, they’re finishing each other's aperçus about "Love It or List It."
Recalls Rudd of her final screenwriting lesson: "I realized, ‘God, it’s really great to write when you know who you’re writing for.’"
"Fun Mom Dinner" premiered at Sundance last week; Variety called it a "cheerfully scatty, diverting adult comedy." Momentum Pictures and Netflix acquired distribution rights even before the premiere.
Rudd couldn’t be happier about it. "Writing a script, having this happen, is like my princess-little-girl-dream-come-true," she says.