In divisive times like these, it can feel impossible to find anything people can get behind. Even things that should be no-brainers — the climate crisis that all real scientists agree on, for example — are turned into incredibly contentious debates.
So when something comes along that is so dearly beloved, it’s worth taking a look at what went right to unite swaths of individuals behind one cause. I’m talking, of course, about critical darling, Booksmart, which is now available for your repeated at-home viewing pleasure on digital and Blu-ray.
To commemorate her successful directorial debut, Olivia Wilde is helping MTV News break down the ins and outs of creating something that moves the masses, and why it’s up to the younger generations to take the lead.
Find a lens we can all relate to.
At first glance, Booksmart appears to be a film about teens and for teens. Only one of those things is actually true. Wilde merely used the lens of adolescence to grab audiences by their lingering teenage emotions in order to hook them with a greater lesson.
You see, we’ve all experienced those heightened emotions of our teenage years; when every crush, every fight, every report card, every extracurricular felt like a major piece of our existence. That period of emotional development is universally relevant. “At once it makes you nostalgic and also connects you with the kind of core of your own basic fears that maybe have existed since you were an adolescent,” Wilde says.
And once you feel a part of yourself in the characters, it’s easier to place yourself in the lessons they’re learning. “In terms of Booksmart, I wanted all ages to watch it and feel a connection to their own tendency to judge others,” she continues. “I wanted everyone to realize that was a part of their lives and I wanted to encourage everyone to be more empathetic regardless of age.”
Olivia Wilde with Booksmart collaborators Katie Silberman, Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Billie Lourd, and producer Jessica Elbaum at the film's SXSW premiere.
Amplify the talent in the room.
Wilde’s greatest asset is not her wit, charm, brains, or beauty. It’s her ability to bring out those qualities in others, which, it turns out, might be the very best quality of all — especially when you’re seated in the director’s chair.
Armed with a powerful script from one of Hollywood’s most sought after scribes, Katie Silberman, and with performances led by the faces of the industry’s future, Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, and Billie Lourd, Wilde definitely had assistance in creating something that would touch many people.
“I think there's people who go through their lives not collaborating because they think it means sacrificing a certain amount of creative autonomy, and it's not,” Wilde says. “You don't diminish your own participation, you amplify it. You allow for yourself to achieve so much more.”
In fact, it’s the collaboration — guided by parties who remind each other of their brilliance and know when to demand more — that takes a project to the next level. “There's nothing more powerful than an alliance,” she notes.
Wilde’s main job at the helm was to set the tone and then sit back as everyone’s genius took over. “If I have any skill as a director, it's clarity of communication in describing that tone so that people can effectively plug into it,” she says.
But Wilde knows true communication is not a one-sided activity. It also involves listening to your collaborators and reacting to what they’re saying. In some cases, you may be able to convince another party to hear your position. In others, you may learn a new viewpoint. Either way, sounds like a win-win.
“So much of what I love about the film is based on lessons I learned when listening to people,” Wilde says, before doubling down. “Really, it's clear to me that where people go wrong, where people have really frustrating experiences with directing, is when they lose the ability to listen and they kind of close up out of a defensive sort of fear and they say, ‘No, no, no, no, no. It's my project. It's my project. I'm not going to listen because everyone's trying to take it from me.’”
Embrace the evolution.
“I pay attention. I read a lot. I find myself exploring every kind of corner of storytelling. I try to never let myself be boxed in.” That’s Wilde’s approach to allowing for the willingness and openness to evolve as a storyteller and as a human. It’s a necessary evolution to create real progress — not just on screen, through outspoken and ambitious young female characters like Molly and Amy, but in the real world.
That’s why, while some “underestimate the intelligence and the self-awareness of young people,” Wilde sees power in the young activists, like Greta Thunberg, the Parkland survivors, and the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, who are taking control of the paradigm and demanding a different future.
“They are telling their own stories, so they’re no longer relying on an older generation to give them a voice,” Wilde says. “They understand how to own their own voice.” It’s storytelling at its most inspiring, and it’s exactly what drives the whole process to begin again.