Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein have been a formidable Hollywood duo for over 20 years. Having met in film school in the '90s, the pair has written some of the most seminal films in the romantic comedy genre, from Never Been Kissed to He's Just Not That Into You. While the nature of their relationship has changed over the years — Kohn and Silverstein dated for seven years, broke up, and have since gone on to marry other people — the creative energy that fuels their long-lasting partnership hasn't. The way they tell it, they just balance each other out.
With the release of their latest film, I Feel Pretty, out now, Kohn and Silverstein also make their directorial debut. The film follows Renee (Amy Schumer), a young, meek professional who struggles with feelings of insecurity on a daily basis. But a freak spin-class accident makes her see herself as "undeniably pretty." Renee's newfound confidence lands her the job of her dreams, a great guy, and nearly derails her friendships.
MTV News chatted with Kohn and Silverstein about their creative partnership, subverting Hollywood tropes, and dealing with the "frustrating" backlash surrounding I Feel Pretty.
MTV News: You've been working together for over 20 years, and in that time the nature of your relationship has really changed. So I'm curious: What's the bedrock of your creative partnership?
Abby Kohn: We really have done the whole journey together, from meeting in film school and Marc being the star of my first Super 8mm, black-and-white non-sync movie to selling our first script and asking ourselves, "Are we even going to be able to make this our career?" We've done it all together — every meeting we've ever had, every great-news phone call we've ever had — in a way that nobody else could.
Marc Silverstein: For whatever reason our joint sensibility works. It creates something else that is viable. I can't quite describe why it works, but it does. It's the push-and-pull of what she likes and what I like and the weird checks and balances that we go through to produce something else entirely.
MTV News: What are those common sensibilities?
Kohn: We meet in the middle on our favorite movies and filmmakers. But then Marc will see a movie and say, "I loved it. I think you will hate it." Because he's more tolerant of... weirdness.
Kohn: And I'm more tolerant of a little bit more cheese.
Silverstein: Together, we mitigate the too-weird or too-cheesy of each other into something that works. It's really funny. Our agent will send us something and we'll be like, "I'm not interested in doing that at all." And he's like, "Yes, but if you can figure out how to be interested in doing it, it will be really good." That's how we work. We're always in a constant process of convincing the other person that what we want to do is a good idea. One of us is resistant and the other is always cheering it on.
Kohn: Or coming up with a new way to pitch it that actually makes it more interesting to that person and, in return, to yourself as well.
Silverstein: And the world. I think Abby's responsible for how our movies are so acceptable, and I'm responsible for the fact that they're not exactly like all the other movies in that genre.
MTV News: So who had the idea for I Feel Pretty? Because you had been working on it for years.
Silverstein: It was Abby's idea first, for sure.
Kohn: Then I pitched it to Marc.
Silverstein: I wasn't resistant at first, but I was like, "Can we sustain that for a whole movie?"
Kohn: From the very beginning, I was like, "We must never see what she sees." That was in the first three sentences of the idea.
Silverstein: I like that we never see it because then that's different. And then I got super excited about doing a version of that scene you often see in movies like this, where they go tell their friends that they've changed and they have to convince them that they're still them, but in this movie her friends just look at her like she's crazy because it's obviously her. That's funny to me.
Those weird, specific scenes are my favorite scenes, like her meeting [her love interest] Ethan's character in the laundromat and the funny miscommunication of how that happens. Or towards the end of the movie when he thinks they're role playing and she thinks he can't recognize her. For me, I'm really interested in playing out the tropes of a movie like Big...
Kohn: But putting a whole different spin on that because nothing has changed.
MTV News: And Big is in the film.
Silverstein: It's in there because we wanted people to know that we knew what we were doing.
MTV News: This also marks your directorial debut, which means you were responsible for every aspect of this film. I know there was some pushback from producers on the idea that you never see Schumer's Renee as she sees herself. How did you navigate some of those tough conversations?
Silverstein: It was hard!
Kohn: I think we did a lot of great collaboration, but if you're going to helm this ship, and you wrote it and directed it, there's going to be moments where you feel like you really need to stand firm.
Silverstein: We were also super lucky in having Amy's full creative support. From the jump she was like, "You can never see that."
MTV News: How did you react to the initial backlash to the premise when the first trailer dropped? Because I think the concept here is really hard to advertise. Some people online thought Schumer's character was the butt of the joke.
Silverstein: It was super frustrating because once you've seen the movie, you know that it could not be further from the truth.
Kohn: It's exactly the opposite of that. So that was really frustrating. I had lots of long conversations with those people in my shower. [Laughs.] But I think it's really a referendum on past Hollywood movies that have been kind of tone deaf, and now they are assuming a certain thing.
MTV News: The death of the romantic comedy has been written about for years. As writers of some of the most seminal films in the genre, what's your take on that? How has the rom-com evolved?
Silverstein: When people talk about it, they're talking about 27 Dresses or How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days — those kinds of movies where it's strictly like girl wants guy and there's an obstacle. The goal of the movie is to get this couple together, and that has kind of gone away. For many reasons, but I think the plotting is difficult to do now in the way social media works and the way people are meeting each other.
Kohn: Maybe people used to enjoy the predictability and now they resist the predictability.
Silverstein: So the way it works is that you're pushing the romance into different kinds of movies. We see our movies more as character comedies. Never Been Kissed is about a girl who goes back to high school for a job thinking she's going to kill it and ends up being the same loser she was the first time. There's a romantic element to it, but the movie is not about that. It's the same with I Feel Pretty; it's about Renee's journey with a bit of romance... I do think there will be a down-the-middle romantic comedy that succeeds again. If someone can crack that, it's a super satisfying type of movie. Maybe we'll try it.
MTV News: I love how you subvert some of these tropes in I Feel Pretty. Ethan is a very atypical male lead in that his insecurity is this idea of hyper-masculinity. It makes him uncomfortable.
Silverstein: It's me! I am Ethan.
Kohn: Marc doesn't do Zumba, but the idea that Ethan does was in the very first draft of this movie. Kudos to our producers for letting us have that character.
Silverstein: And Rory [Scovel] just bought into it. He's so funny at it, and it's endearing. It felt like a very real thing that I struggle with as an insecurity, and we were very specific in the writing of the movie in giving everybody their own insecurity that wasn't about looks. Everyone has their own Achilles' heel that they feel like is holding them back. For a man, that's what it felt like for me, the trends and norms of masculinity are so in flux that it is hard to get ahold of how you're supposed to act.
MTV News: And having a man who's turned on by a confident woman with a larger-than-life personality is also underrepresented on screen.
Silverstein: That's also me!