The world was Imogene's oyster when she was a promising playwright living fabulously in New York City at the start of the film "Girl Most Likely," opening nationwide Friday.
But a layoff, a breakup and a breakdown (don't ever fake a suicide to win back a guy) sends Imogene (Kristen Wiig) back to her childhood home on the New Jersey shore, where her colorful, gambling-loving mother (Annette Bening) still lives with Imogene's shy but sweet brother (Christopher Fitzgerald), along with a shady new boyfriend (Matt Dillon) and a cute, recent college grad (Darren Criss) who has taken over Imogene's old room. Director (and married) duo Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini talked to U.S. News about making the film:
What attracted you to this project?
Robert Pulcini: We had just come off a very serious movie called "Cinema Verite" that we did for HBO. It was a very rewarding experience but it was also very difficult. It was a true story about the Loud family [the subject of the 1971 PBS documentary "An American Family," which is considered one of the earliest examples of reality TV] and there were some legal issues and vetting. It was just a really hard process. It was so refreshing to jump into something that was fun. You get a script and it's got Kristen Wiig attached and she fit into the role so easily, it's just hard to say no.
What was your vision for Imogene, Kristen Wiig's character?
Shari Springer Berman: We felt that Imogene was really relatable because she is someone who isn't quite comfortable in her own skin yet, and I think everyone goes through periods of their lives when they're not feeling quite comfortable in their own skin. She's someone who grew up in a certain place, had a certain family and couldn't make peace with that – couldn't make peace with her upbringing and her family. And eventually through this falling apart, she actually finds a way to accept her family and embrace herself.
Pulcini: I really like when an actor comes and says, "I'm really, really passionate about playing this person." Sometimes I don't really even question why. You meet them and you know there's just some reason they need to do this. And I could tell when we met Kristen that she really needed to play this person for some reason and that excited us. I remember reading the script and we sat down and I said to her, "It's funny," and she says, "Yeah, but I think it's really sad." That immediately attracted me to the material because I thought she's approaching this character in a very real way. She's not approaching this character in a way to get laughs.
What's her relationship like with her mother Zelda?
Berman: That is really the heart of the movie, because we thought of Zelda, Annette's character, as the most embarrassing mother on the planet. Everyone has somebody in their lives close to them, usually a parent, who is mortifying. Zelda is a nontraditional mom and flamboyant person, but we really – and obviously Annette brought this to the character – wanted to show that she was a good person and that she loved her daughter and she loved her kids. It's that tension of how embarrassing she is and how good she is in her heart. And there was really good chemistry between Annette and Kristen – they looked like they could be mother and daughter.
How did you contrast Imogene's life in New York with her life in New Jersey?
Berman: I'm from New York and Bob, he's not from New Jersey but he spent his high school years there and after that in New Jersey, so he had a real knowledge of the Jersey shore and I didn't. We didn't want to do such a caricature like something like "The Jersey Shore" TV show. But obviously Imogene comes from a place that is not high society New York – and she really wants to be a part of this very elite, intellectual and wealthy world in New York City. Her world is bright and loud and brash and full of rides and games and casinos. We actually shot a much more colorful palate when we were in places that were supposed to be New Jersey, and [the New York] scenes we shot in a very muted palate so it was supposed to feel more elegant than sort of garish.
Pulcini: The script had this fun, triumph of the non-elite theme that we liked.
Imogene also gets involved with Lee, the young singer who is now living in her old bedroom.
Pulcini: The whole movie is about her regression in a way. She has to regress in order to take a step forward. And that's what I liked about the script, that she takes up with this guy she might have had a crush on when she was in high school and maybe she didn't get or didn't act on or something. We really liked the way the character was written and it was very hard to cast: Who could do this and play off of Kristen Wiig and still be charming? You really want people to be somewhat invested in their scenes together romantically but you don't want them to take it too seriously.
Because Lee is written as a Backstreet Boys impersonator in the script, we were like, "Who could also handle the music thing?" Someone suggested I look at some of the people at "Glee," and I wasn't that familiar with it. I went on and found this interview with Darren in Rolling Stone where they asked him questions and he sang the answers with his guitar. And I said, "This guy has this happy-go-lucky charm about him that I think would really work."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.