From the set of the Sisters movie with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler
There was a time when comedy duos were a regular thing–Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Lewis and Martin, Hope and Crosby–and audiences would flock to all their movies based on their comic timing and chemistry. Who knows if Tina Fey and Amy Poehler remembered any of those duos fondly and were trying to recreate that magic, but ever since they co-hosted “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live” in 2005 and 2006, they’ve become a comedy duo that can’t fail. While each of them went off to lead their own hit sitcoms after leaving “SNL,” “30 Rock” for Fey and “Parks and Recreation” for Poehler, they have regularly reunited for the right opportunity, whether it’s the 2008 comedy Baby Mama or their two outings co-hosting the Golden Globes.
Everybody loves it when Tina and Amy are on screen together–because they have such good chemistry they might as well be sisters–which may be why it seemed like a no-brainer to greenlight their latest comedy Sisters (previously called “The Nest”), a comedy which originated from former “SNL” writer Paula Pell and got Pitch Perfect director Jason Moore on board to helm.
In the movie, Fey and Poehler play sisters Kate and Maura, who return to their original childhood home in Orlando, Florida, because their parents are about to sell it. Once there, they decide to throw one last house party, inviting everyone they run into from their past for one crazy night. The big difference this time is that Kate, who was the wild party girl in school, is letting her mild-mannered divorced sister Maura have all the fun, having met a new guy on the trip.
Last summer, ComingSoon.net went out to Gold Coast Studios on Long Island to check out the duo’s latest comedy, as they shot the beginning of the party scene that would make up the second half of the movie and was being described as a “teenage party for 40-year olds.”
This party brings together some of the funniest people around, including some from Fey and Poehler’s past and some less likely surprises. The cast includes the likes of Ike Barinholtz (Neighbors), former “SNL” cast Bobby Moynihan, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch, actors like John Leguizamo, John Lutz from “30 Rock,”and fresh up ‘n’ comers like Greta Lee (“New Girl” and “Inside Amy Schumer”) and Samantha Bee (“The Daily Show”). WWE Superstar John Cena also takes on his second comedic role of the year (after Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck) as a tattooed drug dealer.
During the visit, we met the film’s mastermind, Paula Pell, who gave us the history of how she came up with the idea for Sisters and how the project came together. “I have a journal from when I was 13 and my sister was three years older than me and she was the stone-cold ‘70s fox, tall, and I looked like a short Polish farm woman, so our journals were wildly different. Hers was always like ‘Mom and Dad went camping and I went to Bill’s—they don’t know it. P.S. I might be pregnant.’ And mine was like, ‘I changed the grid on my rock tumbler today. Amethysts are really shaping up. Put it in a tie pin and drew a picture of my beagle, It’s very hard because it was three colors but I’m very pleased with it.’”
“I had been carrying that around for a long time when we talked about many different things that it could be, be if it was in a little book or part of a little off-Broadway show or whatever,” she continued. “I was in a meeting with my agent Michelle Bone at WME and we had been talking about that journal and I had been kicking around movie ideas I had. I knew that I wanted to write something between sisters or best friends, and she was like, ‘That could be the sisters right there in the movie,’ so I really giving her credit for connecting the two in terms of a feature script, taking this journal and using those two girls who were very different growing up. My partner, her Mom, was getting ready to sell her house, kind of out from under the kids, and they were kind of all freaking out like, ‘This is where we grew up’ and just that feeling, so I kind of combined a whole bunch of stuff.”
It was pretty obvious to Pell that Fey and Poehler would make the perfect for the Sisters movie, as she told us, “Tina produced the movie from the beginning when I sold the idea, so she and I have been working on it for a long time, but we always knew that Amy would be a terrific sister and other half of her. The deeper that I got into it, it was pretty clear it would be them.”
Those three factors helped director Jason Moore make the decision to come on board, making it his first feature since 2012’s Pitch Perfect. “Paula Pell has this really specific vulgar but sweet tone that I really was attracted to,” he told us during the lunch break. “It was actually the same reason I was attracted to ‘Pitch Perfect’ because Kay Cannon has a similar tone, kind of outrageous but grounded. It’s just sort of responded to and when you add Tina and Amy to the mix, it was just a combination that felt like ‘Oh I like this tone and it makes me laugh.’”
Although they did shoot some of the movie in Florida, the interiors were built on the soundstages in Long Island, so they had more control of the space and Fey could be closer to home. The day we were on set, they were filming a particularly populous scene with most of the party attendants already on hand. They were being addressed by Fey and Poehler’s characters, who had gotten all dolled up for the party and were giving a big speech to get things going. It was a little like one of those historic battle epics where a general or commander on horseback addresses the troops, but they were varying the speech each time with new lines as they played off each other.
“The young you is still living inside of you. Don’t you wish you could be carefree again?” she questioned the gathered partygoing, claiming they would soon be “Balls deep in fun” to which Poehler chimed in with lines like “Where did them balls go?” “Those of you thinking of leaving, forget it!” Fey tells them claiming she will be their “Designated Party Mom” (because in fact, the former party girl Kate has agreed to stay sober so her divorced sister Maura can have fun for once).
After the speech is over, more guests arrive and first up, it’s Greta Lee’s Hae-Won, Kate’s Korean manicurist whom she invited to her party and whom arrives along with her posse of similarly trashy-dressed Korean women. Lee spoke in an exaggerated Asian accent as she took jabs at how Fey looked all dolled up for the party and Kate realizes they had been making fun of her in Korean every time she went to the spa. Kate announces them as the “Korean Pussy Squad.”
In between takes, we got to walk around the set and see that they built an entire backyard to the house complete with a patio, swimming pool and jacuzzi, surrounded by exotic trees like one might find in Florida. We also had a chance to check out Kate and Maura’s childhood bedroom, which looked like what every teen girl would fantasize about if they lived in suburban Florida during the ‘80s.
Over the course of the day, we would talk to most of the cast who were on hand, but we’re going to start off with the full sit-down we did with Fey and Poehler towards the end of the day. The two comedians have gotten so used to being interviewed together they would often continue each other’s thoughts.
Q: You two have both done stuff on your own but people love it when you come together. Can you talk about how you arrive at the decision to do something together like this?
Tina Fey: The Globes was one for sure, like when that came up, it definitely was something, for me, the appeal of it was doing it together.
Amy Poehler: Sure.
Fey: We had no interest in doing it separately, but for us, it’s the only way we get to spend time together.
Poehler: Yeah, I think we try every seven years to do something together.
Fey: It would be like the “7 Up” series. Watch us, see us age. (laughter)
Poehler: We’re both going back and forth between doing our own stuff and coming together and it is nice to feel that feeling that people like us when we’re together, because we like when we’re together.
Q: I know you’ve been working on this for a while as a producer, but what was it about this project that you both agreed, “We have to do this” and talk a little bit about where it all came from.
Fey: Paula (Pell) had this script idea, that was sort of loosely based on her and her own sister, inspired by her actual journals from her middle school years and up which she found hilarious. So she had been working on the script for a long time and then I was working with her, and I didn’t know if I’d be in it at all, but then I got really excited about the idea that we could do it together and switch, play the less expected parts at the beginning of the movie.
Poehler: Yeah, and then the chance to work with Tina again and Paula and Jason, who I had met through these guys and who I instantly thought was awesome. So all that. Sometimes, you can feel or see how a movie can… how you can do it. Sometimes it’s just like seeing, “Canthat work? Will people buy that? Can we do that?” And all those checkmarks.
Q: We see you guys tweaking the script so much as you do multiple takes. As you film a scene that’s more adlibbed or improv-ed, when it’s over, do you get a feel for “Okay we might be able to use that take” or “This elevated the film in this way or that?” How does the improv play into all of this?
Fey: I think it livens things up right away.
Poehler: Yeah, I think because we’ve worked on TV shows for so long where we’ve been fortunate to have a lot of control, we do kind of know what is a waste of time and what can be, “Oh, that’s useable.” We know enough luckily after our time shooting a lot that we know, “If the camera’s not on you, don’t waste everybody’s time.” Or simple things like, “Oh, that’s a funny improv but it might be off-story.” I know that we have had fun improvising just because it does keep things fresh, and Tina and I really do know how to play off of each other so instinctually, and I think we like to keep the crew laughing always.
Fey: There are also so many people in the other parts in this movie who are improvisers, who are so funny that it’s been really a delight to perform with them.
Poehler: You’ll also be seeing that right now as we turn around on all these people.
Fey: Also it ends up that this funny stuff comes into us on Post-Its, which is a very Paula Pell technique, she’s trademarked.
Poehler: You should talk about that more because it’s really good.
Fey: Yeah, so some of it is improvisation but some of it’s still just coming from the writer. In this film, it’s very common where you’d get the new joke and no one else has heard it yet.
Poehler: Jason would come up and hand you a Post-It and on it will be a joke and you get to giggle and Tina will know that I’m going to say something and you’re the only one who says it. Sometimes when you’re doing a comedy, the director will yell out “alts” and then the director gets the first laugh.
Fey: So it’s already not as fresh.
Poehler: Yeah, so it’s really a generous way for Paula to continuously prove that she’s the funniest person on the film.
Fey: An absolute joke machine.
Q: You both worked with Paula on “SNL” and both your TV shows so how has that dynamic changed doing a feature film? Usually, the writer is more in the background, but this is her story and script.
Fey: I do think it’s a little bit atypical in that a lot of movies the writers aren’t (on set), but Paula is for sure such an integral part of the ongoing development of the script and all the new jokes, so she’s here every single day.
Poehler: And we got to work on one character. We’ve all written stuff together at “SNL” that’s very temporary and at times, pretty disposable. It’s fun to think about the idea of the arc of this film. “What happens to the characters, what’s the story we’re trying to tell?” A film is really only as good as the story. You would hope that it’s funny as you’d hope a film to be and you also care about what happens to these people for at least two hours.
Q: You two are playing sisters and you do have that history together so does playing sisters easier or is it harder with your joined history?
Fey: I think our shorthand that we have with each other makes it easier, but the one thing that’s funny is that neither of us have a sister. We both have brothers, and we were talking the other day that if we were supposed to take a bath together, we would ask people, “Would you get in the bathtub naked with your sister?” and you’re a bit…
Poehler: Yeah, we were trying to figure that out. I’m personally a little obsessed with sisters. They’re exotic creatures to me and I love being around them and watching them interact, it’s like a special language. I think that Tina and I are chosen sisters. I think we are a chosen family, so it’s been kind of fun to experience that thing that I never got to experience in my life. We have a moment in this film where we first see each other and where we just kind of pick on each other like eight and we find that can be really sisterly and very specific to that relationship.
Q: We saw your bedroom and all the distinctly ‘80s posters, like the Michael J. Fox specifically. How much was that you giving notes about what should go in there and how much was it you just walking in for the first time and going “This is amazing”?
Fey: They did ask us, “Who do you think your character would have in there?”
Poehler: We got to send a “dream list” and I have to say that I feel like I have to take credit for the Michael J. Fox poster. I sent Michael J. Fox and “Out of Africa.” I think my character Moira is really into “Out of Africa.” That being said, I think we were blown away by how amazing it looked. It’s so nostalgic for us to get in there and we keep finding ourselves going into that bedroom when we have time to rest when we’re shooting. We end just getting into our beds.
Fey: Yeah, it’s very nice. (laughs)
Q: You both play women that are from Florida. What’s the secret to capturing the Orlando woman?
Fey: Constant spray tan. (laughter)
Poehler: Well, we’re kind of playing two women who aren’t where they want to be, and there’s this funny, great thing in Florida where there’s old and new. There’s this great retirement community and our parents, played brilliantly by James Brolin and Dianne Wiest, who truly just feel like my parents most of the time. They have the lives we wish we had.
Q: This is an R-rated movie, so knowing that it’s R going in, how much does that change the energy on set knowing that you can say and do pretty much anything?
Fey: I think we were thinking that the impulse is to curse so much that you’re realizing that you’re cursing more than any natural person and you have to dial it back. But I’m definitely going to show my penis. (laughter) I keep it in a Tupperware.
Poehler: (laughs) I think we’re doing some fun stuff that we’ve never gotten to do before and like a physical action stuff that I like, but I don’t know if we think about it when we’re doing it but it’s fun to not have to think about it.
Fey: Especially since we’ve both done TV. I mean, I like the boundaries of network TV. I think you have to work a little harder when you have to show a tit.
Poehler: But if you want to show a tit, it’s nice to know you can.
Q: Can you talk about the way from when you first got involved in the project and the story and structure to what we’re going to see on screen, how much change to the characters?
Fey: That I don’t know. We’ll have to see.
Poehler: Yeah, it’s so far away.
Fey: But I think the spirit of it has always been the same. Like any screenplay, things you like in one draft are your favorite thing, but Paula is also very fluid in that way coming from our “SNL” background where a lot of times you go, “That was my favorite thing on Wednesday and I’m ready to part with it on Friday night.” We’re not too precious about it.
Poehler: And things change once we cast people like when we cast Ike Barinholtz as Moira’s love interest and it’s just like, “Oh, I see. This changes this kind of guy and they’re going to have this kind of chemistry.” We start casting people and seeing what the movie is, but it really was always this simple idea of sisters not in the right place. Parents are trying to sell the house from underneath them. They throw one last party to try to get back to when they felt most alive. Everyone’s trying to change the person of who they were in high school.
Q: Paula knows you both so well and for so long so she can tailor stuff to your self, so how much do you think you’re drawing from yourselves and how much do you feel you’re having to become these characters?
Poehler: Well, Tina and I have a huge ritual to get into character, right?
Fey: Yeah, we have a hot box on wheels. We get in there together and wrestle each other. And then the sun comes up and they call us. I think for me, this is a very different character than I usually get to play so you go, “What do we have in common, where do we overlap?” And Paula’s been able to help us find them.
Q: Having played an iconic character on TV is it more nerve-wracking to play this kind of character?
Fey: No, it’s fun and I’m really counting on Amy to carry the movie (laughter) so it doesn’t really matter how well I play it.
Poehler: Yeah, and I’m kind of in a different movie in my own head, like a documentary.
Fey: I try to be a slightly different character every time and I make the editor (figure it out).
Q: Do you feel like the characters are reversed with you being the wild child and you being the more straight and narrow?
Poehler: What’s fun about the film is what happens about midway through is that they kind of encourage each other to be different. So there’s a moment where Tina’s character Kate decides that for once I’m going to be responsible for tonight and Moira decides to really let loose, so it’s like everybody’s wish fulfillment in the film. Everybody kind of gets to be the person they didn’t get to be. There’s a really great scene that Paula wrote where Moira and James (played by Ike Barinholtz), they’re in bed kissing and they’re talking about what kind of youth they are. They’re pretending that they’re captain of the football team and she’s a foreign exchange student–studying blow jobs or whatever–and that idea of going back in time. I think it’s fun to watch Tina-slash-Kate struggle with trying to be responsible, to grow up finally.
Later in the day, we’d watch another scene where Amy greets Ike’s character James to the party and as she makes small talk with him at the door, Fey makes faces and hand motions behind her sister and dances crazily in the background. It’s certainly going to be interesting to see how this party is edited together for the final movie, because it certainly seemed like director Jason Moore had his work cut out for him.
You can watch a new TV spot below and we’ll have more on the film in Part 2 of our set report later this week. Sisters is scheduled for release on Friday, December 18.