An Interview with Robin Schiff
Robin Schiff is a writer and producer. Her credits include, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, Grosse Pointe, Almost Perfect, and Loverboy. I spoke with Robin about her time in the improv group The Groundlings, the inspiration behind Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, and the most challenging aspects of the screenwriting process.
You were a member of the famous improv group, The Groundlings. How did you get into the group, and how did it feed into your writing?
I first went to the Groundlings as a fan in the early 80s, just to see the show. It felt really underground. This was before it caught on big, which was really in the late 80s. But at the time, it had amazing people in it, some of whom went on to become writers and others became famous, like Paul Reubens and Phil Hartman. I kept thinking that looked like fun and I’d like to try it, but I was a combination of scared (that I would suck) and lazy (west Hollywood was far from west L.A. where I lived) so I never followed through. Then, one year, I was in therapy and I was depressed and my therapist said that I needed to find a way to get out of the house, but I had no interests or hobbies. Later that week, I went to the Groundlings to see the show and I decided to check and ask about the school. A class happened to be starting in a week! I felt caught, like this time there were no excuses — I couldn’t get out of it. So I signed up. It was the best thing I ever did.
I learned everything I know about writing comedy from doing those shows, collaborating with the other performers, and working with a teacher and writer I met there named Billy Steinkellner. One of the things I learned from improv (and specifically Billy) was to play the reality of the scene. If you push for the comedy, or over-rely on jokes, it’s not only hard to sustain but it’s just not as interesting as going for the emotion and playing it real. If you have a mind that sees the humor and absurdity in the world, it’s still going to be funny. I don’t consider Romy and Michele to have any jokes in it. It’s all character humor, funny because of who the person is and the way they’re saying what they’re saying.
I once heard a heroin addict describe the first time they shot up as thinking “I am home.” After my first laugh in the Groundlings Basic class, I was home. I became obsessed with improv and sketch writing, but it felt like a hobby, not a vocation, and certainly not training for anything. Even though it was never my goal, I was good enough that I wound up in the main company and performed for 2 1/2 years. I didn’t pursue performing because frankly, there were better performers than me, and I didn’t want my writing to be limited by my range (or lack thereof.)
When I started there, I was writing movies (I hadn’t been produced yet but I’d been making a living writing for years) but while I was there, I realized I was a comedy writer. I also realized that I wanted to work in TV. And that’s where I’ve spent most of my career. I also wrote a sketch while I was at the Groundlings that was the inspiration for a play I wrote called “Ladies’ Room” (which took place entirely inside the ladies’ room of a pick-up bar), that ran in L.A. and was where I created Romy and Michele. So that indirectly leads back to The Groundlings as well.
Is there anyone in the industry who has really inspired you?
Really interesting question. And off the top of my head, I can’t think of an answer. Inspired me in what way? Do you mean other writers or actors?
What was the inspiration behind Romy and Michele's High School Reunion?
As I mentioned, Romy and Michele were characters in my play, but they were basically just like two lowlife club girls who were out looking for guys and didn’t censor what they said in front of the other women in the ladies’ room. And they were gross. Ultimately, they didn’t meet guys but they didn’t care because they had each other. A run in the movie that came from the play was:
[Michele] I HAVE THE YUCKIEST TASTE IN MY MOUTH FROM THOSE TAQUITOS.
[ Romy ] OOH.
[ Michele ] I HOPE I DON'T GET INDIGESTION.
'MEMBER THAT TIME I BARFED FROM BAD MEXICAN FOOD? IT WAS SO GROSS.
[ Romy ] OH, MY GOD, I HATE THROWING UP IN PUBLIC.
[ Michele ] ME TOO!
The first night of previews for "Ladies’ Room", Romy and Michele entered and they got entrance applause. The audience immediately recognized these girls from the way they were wardrobed and loved them before they even spoke. That had never happened to me before. (The play was Lisa Kudrow’s first job ever, playing Michele — and I met her through the Groundlings when I asked my friend Tracy Newman if she had anyone in any of her Groundlings classes who could play Romy and Michele for a backer’s audition of the play. Lisa was also in the second production of “Ladies’ Room", in San Francisco, years before “Friends.” And the woman, Mona May, who did the wardrobe for that production wound up doing the wardrobe for the "Romy and Michele” movie.)
One of my agents submitted the play to two female Touchstone Pictures executives (Alex Schwartz and Gaye Hirsch) as a writing sample, and they fell in love with Romy and Michele on the page. They also flew up to San Francisco to see "Ladies’ Room" there. They called me in and pitched doing a Romy and Michele movie to me, describing it as a female Wayne’s World.
Romy and Michele were way more one-note in the play (as well as the funniest characters in the play) but I wasn’t sure if they were dimensional enough to be the center of a movie. But selling a movie to Touchstone would be a big opportunity for me, so I wanted to figure out what situation I might put these characters in. I thought of stuff like “Romy And Michele Go To Japan” and “Romy And Michele Go To College.” Then, one day I think, "it’s about two girls who don’t realize their lives have amounted to nothing until they fill out the questionnaire for their high school reunion.” Thinking about those two girls being Romy and Michele made me laugh out-loud. That was the initial one-sentence idea, so it wasn’t “two idiot best friends go back to their high school reunion, and, wanting to impress everyone, lie about their accomplishments.” That’s more like the plot of the movie. You can see it started in a more emotional place.
Also, as I was developing the story, my partner and fellow executive producer, the brilliant Barry Kemp, (who’d financed the San Francisco production; and was a writer himself, having created the long-running comedy series “Coach” and “Newhart”) suggested that, to dimensionalize them, we could give them a backstory that they were outcasts in high school. This made them underdogs. And also set them up as two girls who actually wanted to be quirky and different. They could have conformed in high school, but they didn’t. They wanted to be accepted for who they were, but they weren’t. So we like them for being themselves, and they also start out as underdogs. This backstory changed everything. And helped me as I continued to develop the movie.
(An example of playing the reality of the scene, and not pushing for humor, is the questionnaire scene in the laundromat. The actresses play this as a devastating realization — and because of who they are, because this is the first time in 10 years this has occurred to them, it’s funny -- but it’s funny partly because they’re playing the pain of it. The two actresses are perfect. They could camp it up, but they go for the emotion and play it real, through the lens of the characters.)
To circle back to the Groundlings, when I pitched the movie to the president of Touchstone/Hollywood Pictures, David Hoberman, my improv and performing training gave me the experience and confidence to recreate the characters for David in his office, which really helped him understand them and see how they could be funny. We sold the movie in the room. Then it took 5 years for it be written and rewritten — including a year where they replaced me with another writer whose draft was subsequently thrown out — so it wasn’t quite so smooth after that. I think one of the reasons they didn’t make it during that time was they didn’t get how it was funny since it was character driven and didn’t have jokes per se.
But also during that time, Lisa Kudrow became world-famous for being on “Friends” and she became a big reason why the movie was made. They wanted to partner her up with a movie star, and Mira Sorvino was the toast of Hollywood for her work in “Mighty Aphrodite” — for which she was nominated for an Oscar. I think it also helped that “Clueless” was a hit; and because of how the young female audience drove “Titanic” to be a massive hit, for a brief time, Hollywood was after the teen girl audience. I think they thought Romy and Michele was that, and not anything that adults might like. What has amazed me over the years is that kids as young as 8 respond to the movie — and a lot of them are being turned on to it by their grandmothers! I think a lot of us regret that Janeane Garofolo’s character says “fuck” so many times because it gave us an R rating, which cut kids out at the time. But, to instantly reverse myself, “fuck” was honestly more true to her character.
What was the writing process like, and what is the most challenging aspect of the screenwriting process?
Getting to work on a new project! That’s the most challenging. Creating something from nothing. All the choices you have to make can drive you insane.
I’ve already said so much above about the process of writing Romy and Michele. First I brainstormed with myself about all the different types of kids you’d find in high school. Our high school (in the Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles) had groups, so I thought of what groups there’d be in Arizona. A lot of the characters are archetypes, but they’re also based on, not people I went to high school with, but my distorted high school perception of who these people were. Then I literally made a list of things that might happen at a reunion, and I was honest about the fact that when I went to my 10 year reunion, I wanted to impress everyone.
Because Romy and Michele are who they are, they could openly panic and just come right out and say “we want to impress people”, which is what a lot of people are thinking but are too embarrassed to express. But we recognize it as true in ourselves even if it’s not this exaggerated.
Then, it was in character for these two fundamentally lazy girls to take the easy way out and lie rather than actually accomplishing anything. (We also had the ticking clock of the reunion being in two weeks.)
Then I brainstormed with myself about what kind of things they could say they had done to impress people. But I realized that couldn’t say they were models or actresses because this would be too easy to expose. (Even though, remember, no Internet at the time!!!!!) But it had to be, as they say in the movie: “something everybody’s heard of but nobody knows who invented it.” Post-its came to my mind seemingly out of nowhere, although I did use them a lot. That entire long scene where they come up with the story for Post-its and the fight where their true underlying feelings come out (“I’m the Mary and you’re the Rhoda”) came to me as I was driving back from a meeting at Touchstone where the executives said that at the end of the second act, the two friends should get in a fight. In my early version, I didn’t have them “breaking up.” Initially, I bristled at the suggestion because it seemed like they’d taken some screenwriting class and were just following some rule they’d learned. But then, the whole fight sequence came to me. (They were right.) By the time I got home, I was able to sit at the computer and write the entire thing. I think it was six pages or something. It was the first thing I wrote, and was pretty much shot as I first wrote it.
It took me a long time to nail the story. But when I finally had the basic plot down on three-by-five cards and it was ready to go… I still couldn’t write it. I just couldn’t picture it somehow. So I asked Barry Kemp for help. I started telling him what I had, scene by scene, and I had a stack of those cards. He must’ve thought, I’ll die if I have to listen to all that.
So he said, “look up. What do you love about Romy and Michele?” I talked about their friendship — and how it was inspired by my friendship with my best friend. One time I was stuck in a plane with no air conditioning on the tarmac with Jeannie (said best friend.) And we start reading the Skymall catalog and making jokes about what items we needed to buy and the time passed and we had fun even though it was a shitty situation. That’s Romy and Michele. They can have fun no matter where they are as long as they’re with each other. But they learn it goes deeper. They mean everything to each other.
I should mention that I was always really fascinated with the idea of female friendship, and also platonic love. And how girls can hurt each other as deeply as men can hurt us, but it’s so rarely explored. That was a big agenda of mine, to show that. It was a love letter to my best friend, and to female friendship in general. How your love for that other person can survive a hurtful interlude, as long as everyone learns from it. And just how among your deepest, most important relationships can be a friendship with another woman.
Anyway, once I realized the movie was really about their friendship I knew how to write every scene. The first 10 minutes is all set-up. It’s all about getting the audience to know and fall in love with these characters. And understand and invest in their friendship. The plot doesn’t kick in until they get the invite to their reunion.
Their friendship becomes strained over time as they lie (which is why they are picking at each other during the “jobs/boyfriends/weight loss montage”), culminating in them saying some hurtful true feelings they have about one another in the fight scene.
Then, they are separated. Even though the next section is the dream sequence, it taps into the emotional fallout of the breakup. The last, “70 years later” scene was meant to show the tragedy of living a life spent without your best friend. After Michele admits she’s missing Romy, Sandy says, "Have you been terribly unhappy with me all these years?” And Michele replies, “No, no. I’ve just been lonely with no one to talk to.” Which to me, says it all.
Then, the last section is them coming together again when they realize that their friendship is more important than impressing anybody, and they lost sight of that. The scene where they make up is all about their friendship. And the last line in the movie is about their friendship as well.
If you were asking about the writing process itself, when I was writing Romy and Michele, which was over 25 years ago, I was very young and I kept crazy hours. If I was in a creative state, I’d stay up all night sometimes. Or ’til 3 in the morning. I would write straight during the day and re-read and re-write at night high (on weed.) Weed always was my drug of choice. Not recommending it to anyone! Just coming clean that it’s part of it for me. It was a big thing at the Groundlings. I live in California. ’Nuff said.
I’m more disciplined now than I used to be. But I have less stamina — 4 hours is a good day for me. I used to go 10 or 12. But I’m more likely to just sit my ass in the chair even if I’m just staring into space. That used to be pure torture for me. It was either: be inspired or fear/ torture. I got so much experience over the years, I’ve written so much, and TV is fantastic because everything you write is produced, and, you really learn the craft of writing. You have more to rely on. But it still has to be original or it’ll suck, and you can’t really teach that. That’s the part that can make you crazy no matter what. Is this any good? Is anyone going to care? etc. That never goes away. Sorry.
I also write using a timer, this method Kitchen Timer method of writing devised by my friend Don Roos (“The Opposite Of Sex”, “Single White Female”, “Younger”) that you may find helpful or interesting.
Did you ever think the film would achieve cult status?
No! It was one of the lowest-testing movies in the history of Touchstone. Barry and I were very unhappy with the directors’ cut, and the test audiences agreed with us. It was muddled and didn’t tell that friendship story it needed to tell. (Example: he left out this run at the top of the movie:
[ Romy ] I CAN'T BELIEVE HOW CUTE I LOOK.
[ Michele ] I KNOW !
[ Romy ] YOU KNOW WHAT? THIS IS, LIKE, THE CUTEST WE'VE EVER LOOKED.
[ Michele ] OH, IT'S DEFINITELY THE CUTEST.
[ Romy ] DON'T YOU LOVE HOW WE CAN SAY THAT TO EACH OTHER... AND KNOW WE'RE NOT BEING CONCEITED?
[ Michele ] OH, I KNOW. NO, WE'RE JUST BEING HONEST.
That run to me was all about establishing the friendship. What was unique to me about it was — you’ve seen a million scenes where girls are running themselves down — but I wanted to show women complimenting themselves as you only can around your best girlfriend. David Mirkin (the director) felt that it made them seem conceited. I felt it made them seem close and authentic.
Because the movie tested so low, they wanted it to be recut. Barry and I had ideas and had so much experience editing in TV we thought David would be collaborative. But he shut us out of the process. Eventually, he was taken off the movie and Barry and I recut the film (for 3 weeks, large portions are exactly as David had it, but we also changed a lot.) We did all the post, music, ADR, looping, marketing and advertising, all of it. It was an amazing learning experience.
But they never tested the movie again, so I assumed it was going to be a big bomb. I was supposed to be out of town for the opening but then they switched the opening weekend. Then the reviews came out and they were amazing. We were all shocked. It really didn’t do that well in the theaters. But it’s sold and is still selling on DVD and streaming. That has blown my mind.
Personally, I loved the final cut of the movie. They wound up giving us another $800,000 for music (for a total of 2 mil) which made such a huge difference. The cast couldn’t have been better. Without Lisa and Mira it wouldn’t have worked. They made it possible with their genius and charisma and chemistry to bring the characters to life. Janeane, Alan, Julia, Camryn, Vince, and Justin all bring so much to the movie. They all nailed the tone, playing it real. (Seeing a pattern: Play it real!) It was quirky, but it had a consistent voice. And I think the friendship story combined with the “accept yourself” message has made it hold up.
But the short answer was my first one: no!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve had, and would you give this piece of advice yourself to someone pursuing this line of work?
Play it real. (joking) (but not joking)
If you are a writer, keep writing. If someone likes your writing but your project isn’t right for them, they’ll ask if you have anything else. Have something else. You’ll also get better and better by doing it. I got my undergrad degree in history and didn’t go to film school. So I learned by doing. Now I teach, but I also still take classes and read books on writing. I don’t take anything as gospel, I don’t slavishly follow any rules, but sometimes I’ll read something about writing as a way of stimulating my brain and getting it going. Anything that keeps you writing.
Find kindred spirits (hopefully, you will have found some already in school) to collaborate with. Even if it’s not officially, find someone you can swap work with. Who’s kind but willing to be honest with you. (Smart is a given.) My favorite thing is what I call “NBF” for non-binding feedback. I love hearing what a super smart, creative person has to say, but if I don’t agree, not having to listen. :) Also, sometimes being a writer, and the life of a writer, can be challenging, and having close friends whom you can be honest with about whatever it is you are struggling with can be invaluable. It can be a solitary life. You need those folks who know what you’re going through.
When I’m writing I try and remind myself: CONFUSION IS PART OF THE PROCESS. Even when you have craft, you have a million choices to make, from choices that’ll affect your whole story, to choices about the smallest character details. Sometimes it’s hard to know which one to make. You just have to wade through the process, to find that core idea (a story about a friendship that’s tested) so you have something to hang it on.
When you are in a meeting with an executive and you get a note you’re not sure about, look interested, say, “Hmmm. Interesting. Can I think about that?” or some variation. So the executive feels heard but you haven’t agreed to anything. That being said, take an executive’s notes very seriously. The note may seem lame but the underlying concern, if you can discern it, could be valid.