Bill Holderman and Erin Simms on Book Club and how Robert Redford started their careers.
Book Club starring Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda, and Mary Steenburgen opens in theaters this Friday. I saw the film several weeks ago and was with one of the first audiences to see the finished film. The crowd really enjoyed it and while I am not the target demographic, I think its great to see a film like this one still getting a wide release from a major studio. The day after the screening, I sat down with Bill Holderman, the film’s director/producer/co-writer as well as Erin Simms (co-writer/producer) to talk a little bit more about the idea behind the film and how they both got their start in the industry.
Scott Menzel: Hi, Bill and Erin, did you stay for the screening?
Bill Holderman: No, sadly. We got kicked out…
Erin Simms: Well, we stayed for half of it.
Scott Menzel: Well, for what you did see, how did it feel seeing that your movie received the reaction that it got?
Erin Simms: Well, I didn’t want to leave. He dragged me out. It felt pretty amazing, it really did.
Bill Holderman: I got to be honest with you. I held my breath the entire time.
Erin Simms: Yeah, we looked at each other and we’re like people are responding.
Bill Holderman: It’s one of those things. This whole process, this whole project, has been waiting for that other shoe to fall, do you know what I mean? Somehow we’ve kept on the tightrope and I really don’t know how but we’re so grateful that we did.
Erin Simms: Yeah.
Scott Menzel: Can you tell me a little about your backstories? How did you two get started in this industry? I heard the story involves Robert Redford so I’m just curious to hear that story.
Bill Holderman: Yeah, for sure. Do you want to go first?
Erin Simms: Uh no, you should, because I come in later.
Bill Holderman: You dovetail into the story.
Erin Simms: Yea, I dovetail into the story. How far back are you going to go?
Bill Holderman: I don’t know.
Erin Simms: He was born, and then-
Bill Holderman: I moved to LA from Chicago, and it was right around the time when there was the whole dot com thing happening, and then that exploded. And I really wanted to go do something that was traditional and safe, and smart. And I was like, film is safe. It was the dumbest idea ever.
Erin Simms: Is that really what you thought?
Bill Holderman: Yeah. And I was like, what’s a good, safe, traditional place? And I was like, oh, Robert Redford. So actually, I started as an assistant to his producing partner. And slowly … And they asked me at the interview will you give us a one-year commitment? And I said absolutely not. There is no way I’ll be here for more than a year or even a year. And then I was there for almost 14. And it was one of those places that it kept evolving, and I kept evolving, and it became the foundation for all of this.
Erin Simms: He started to work on developing projects, and then writing treatments. And Redford eventually realized that he had an untapped talent who was working just as an assistant at the time. And so eventually, Bill took over running the company. With Redford. They were partners. I mean, obviously, it’s Redford’s company, but he was his producing partner.
And then they made a movie called The Company You Keep, and I had a whole different trajectory. I started as an actress when I was younger, and blah blah blah. And did all kinds of things. But then eventually, fell out of love with acting, and didn’t know what I was going to do. And realized that I liked working with scripts. So I would assist producers and do the reading scripts and coverage and all that stuff.
Anyway. I moved to Vancouver, because I’m from Canada, and I was living in Montreal and didn’t feel like I had any opportunities there, so I moved to Vancouver, and started at the bottom once again. I decided I’ll just be an assistant to people on set. And I got an interview to be Redford’s assistant on a movie called The Company You Keep, which the trajectory to getting that job offer was pretty crazy because it started on Craigslist, but I’ll leave that.
Bill Holderman: We had optioned the book a long time before this, and it became dormant. It was one of those where we didn’t have any more development money to get another writer to do the script, so I actually, on spec, re-wrote the project and got it green-lit. And then went up to Vancouver to produce it-
Erin Simms: So first interview was with Bill. The next interview was with Redford and Bill. So I got the job just for that three-month period, to be on set as a local hire. But they had just fired their development person, and we all just got along really great. And I said, oh, I also do development stuff. So they offered me a job.
Bill Holderman: And Erin had incredible story instincts. We continued to refine throughout production, so we were like, wow, she’s got really great instincts. And we were looking for someone to bring on to help in the development side of the company.
Erin Simms: And a lot of people were like, he’s not going to be hiring because they had to sponsor me and all. So, I’m like “you’re kidding yourself, it’s never going to happen.” So, I went back to Montreal, waiting for this visa. And didn’t hear from them for about two months. And I had shut down my apartment and everything.
Scott Menzel: So, You were like, I’m done.
Erin Simms: And then one day I got a phone call from Redford, saying, “Pack your bags, you’re coming to Hollywood.”
Scott Menzel: Wow.
Erin Simms: Anyway, we worked together. We developed movies. He did a lot of writing on A Walk in the Woods, and we found that we had really good story instincts.
Bill Holderman: There was a really easy collaboration, and then Mother’s Day came around and I sent the 50 Shades trilogy to my mother, and Erin thought I was ridiculous.
Erin Simms: I was like, what are you even talking about?
Bill Holderman: And then later that afternoon, Erin sent the books to her mother and her stepmother, after we talked about how fun this might be.
Scott Menzel: So, it all started as a joke between the two of you and your families? And you were like, you know what, this is good enough for a movie?
Bill Holderman: Yeah, it sort of did. I sent it to my mom because it was right when the books were coming out and the whispers of what they were. And I was like, she’s going to dig these. She’s going to enjoy this.
Erin Simms: But she’s more sexually liberated. And my mom’s more reserved in that department. So we got into a conversation about that. Because they’re relatively the same age. And then we had the idea.
Bill Holderman: Yeah.
Scott Menzel: So is Mary Steenburgen your mom?
Erin Simms: No, Jane Fonda. Mary is very loosely based on my stepmother.
Bill Holderman: Inspired by, not based on.
Erin Simms: Yeah, we only eventually realized that we were writing our mothers a little bit.
Bill Holderman: And that’s the thing, it was never like, oh, who is this in our lives at all. We were just crafting characters that we loved and concepts and ideas that we loved. And in hindsight, we’re like, that’s kind of reflective of people in our lives.
Scott Menzel: That’s just a fascinating story in general.
Erin Simms: It’s pretty fascinating that he sent his mother those books.
Scott Menzel: Well, here’s the other thing that is fascinating, you both worked with Redford. And now you’re ending his career because you are both attached to his final movie, The Old Man and the Gun.
Erin Simms: Oh. Are we ending his career?
Scott Menzel: He announced that the film is going to be his final one, right?
Bill Holderman: That was a project that came to the company when we were both there.
Erin Simms: Yeah. I don’t have a credit on it, but it was both of us who found the project, yeah.
Bill Holderman: Brought it in and then yeah, I produced that movie, and yeah, I guess it’s going to be his last film.
Erin Simms: I also produced Our Souls at Night, so we have his last two movies. Yeah. Weird.
Bill Holderman: He’s nothing without us. [laughs]
Scott Menzel: [laughing] I only bring this up because I love his work and I love Sundance. Sundance is my favorite festival to go to and I look forward to it every year, even though it got a lot of shit this year because people were like, “it’s not as good” or “the movies weren’t that great.” But it’s the only major festival built on discoveries and I love it, and I applaud him for doing it. And he’s so kind. I’ve met him multiple times. I had an interview with him at the Pete’s Dragon, which is funny, because David Lowery directed that one.
Erin Simms: Bill did some writing on that. He wrote some of Redford’s part.
Scott Menzel: That’s great. So I need to ask how were you able to get all these iconic actresses and actors involved in this film. How the hell did you pull that off?
Erin Simms: I don’t know.
Bill Holderman: We worked really hard on the scripts, and then it started with Diane Keaton. We wrote it for her specifically. Her character name, in the movie, is Diane. The name in the script was Diane.
Erin Simms: And the name in the script was Jane. But Jane ultimately wanted to change her name.
Bill Holderman: Right.
Scott Menzel: To Vivian, right?
Erin Simms: Yeah.
Bill Holderman: But it starts with just trying to craft something that feels worthy of their time to read it. And so we sent it to her and she signed on, and then it becomes a more fun process when you’re like hey, “here’s a script and Diane Keaton’s attached to it.” And then you get to say, “oh here’s a script and Diane Keaton and Candice Bergen and Jane Fonda and Mary Steenburgen are doing it.” And if you have that, the guys call you. And to be honest with you, it’s a testament to these guys. They’re all younger than the women and they were calling us and wanted to be in this movie. And to me, it was really important that the guys that were playing opposite the women were people that they genuinely wanted to work with. So we talked to each of them about who they would want in the film.
Erin Simms: Yeah, we have to really credit Diane for Andy Garcia, because she was really sure of what she wanted. There were other great actors that anyone would say, “oh, I would love to have them in my movie.” But she had an instinct about Andy, and she was right.
Bill Holderman: First of all, he’s such an amazing human being. Such a nice guy and fun and interesting.
Scott Menzel: Charismatic as hell.
Bill Holderman: It’s like charisma for days.
Erin Simms: Right?
Bill Holderman: Yeah!
Erin Simms: He’s so cool and he’s so suave, so on set, I was like, this is great. But once I watched the movie back in the room, you’re like, whoa. Wowzers.
Bill Holderman: Again, I think about the cast beyond the obvious, and it’s Richard Dreyfuss. You call Richard Dreyfuss, he’s an Oscar-winning and an amazing actor. But if you say, hey, you get to play opposite Candice Bergen, it is like, everyone wants to work with these women. And that’s the thing.
Erin Simms: That would be the biggest surprise casting for me because when we wrote the role of George, I never even thought of him. Because we were originally like, can we get Diane Keaton? Then you get to that stage where you’re actually thinking of names like that for these cameos. My mind never even went there, so I was pretty excited to have Dreyfuss show up to do that role.
Bill Holderman: And Wallace Shawn and Ed Begley Junior, these guys are legends in their own right. And it was so fun.
Erin Simms: I love all of them.
Scott Menzel: I apologize, I can’t remember the actor’s name, but I love him. And it’s a shame that I don’t remember his name but he’s the lead guy from the show Casual who’s also in this movie.
Bill Holderman: Tommy Dewey.
Erin Simms: Oh, Tommy Dewey, so good.
Scott Menzel: He’s so good.
Bill Holderman: He’s a scene stealer, Tommy Dewey.
Erin Simms: We just feel bad we didn’t write more stuff for him.
Bill Holderman: Again, you have a role that you plug a great, brilliant actor into, and comedy is just born from it, and…
Erin Simms: He just takes the littlest thing and just makes it great.
Scott Menzel: He’s so good on Casual, too. And he was a lot of fun here too. I really liked him in this movie. It was a very small role, but his line delivery is always so perfect.
Bill Holderman: He’s a great guy to have on set. The thing that we were so blessed with is from top to bottom, the cast in this movie, and the crew as well, but the cast set a tone where everyone was professional, there to work, funny, charming, and friendly. It was one of those sets that you’re just like, wow, is this how it can be? It was really great.
Erin Simms: Yeah, was it Katie Aselton who thought of Tommy? They were friends.
Bill Holderman: Probably. Yeah.
Erin Simms: Just the whole thing. And Alicia Silverstone. Come on.
Scott Menzel: She was my first-ever film crush and ironically, her first movie was The Crush.
Erin Simms: I was the most nervous to meet her.
Scott Menzel: She’s always amazing. I saw her on Broadway a couple of years ago. She was in some weird, Broadway show about the porn industry, and it was so random.
Bill Holderman: That sounds right, yeah. She’s great.
Scott Menzel: So at the screening, and you made a mention of this, and I didn’t know about this going into the film but you made this film independently, and then Paramount picked it up. How did you wind up getting the funding and all that stuff to bring it all together? Was that Redford? Did he help with it?
Erin Simms: No.
Bill Holderman: No, not at all. This was a movie that we’d written on spec, and then we went out to find independent money. And there were a lot of people that were interested if we would have cast younger, but we refused to do that. And so we stuck to our guns. We wanted to cast who we wanted to cast. These are the people we always wanted in the movie. And we found some independent money.
Erin Simms: But it’s sort of reflective of the industry, that the independent money that we found, they really saw this as a very small movie, so our budget was super tight. Even when we got all of these people, people still were scared to spend more money. Because they didn’t know what would happen.
Bill Holderman: The reality is, there are not comps right now. You can’t think of movies that have lived in this space in the last decade. Something’s Gotta Give was 15 years ago. And if you think about 15 years in terms of the industry time that is a long time.
Erin Simms: And also, if Nancy Meyers was showing up on set, it would be a different story. We had a first-time director.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, and her last one wasn’t that big of a hit, either.
Bill Holderman: That’s the thing.
Erin Simms: Are you thinking of Home Again?
Scott Menzel: Yeah.
Erin Simms: Because she didn’t direct that. It was her daughter.
Scott Menzel: Oh, that’s right. She was just the producer on that one.
Erin Simms: Poor Hallie Meyers-Shyer.
Bill Holderman: But it’s challenging. It’s challenging for these types of movies to get made.
Erin Simms: But when you have a first-time filmmaker, you don’t have any proof, right, that it’s going to turn out the way that it did. So I think that was another reason that people were a little bit afraid to really dive in. So the fact that the movie looks as good as it does is because of our cinematographer Andrew Dunn, who was incredible. We were like, from day one, we’re like, oh my god, this looks like a big movie.
Bill Holderman: He’s great.
Erin Simms: Yeah. The crew we got because we were shooting in LA and people were so excited to stay home with their families, and they were really excited to work with Andrew Dunn, and of course the actresses, we got the most unbelievable crew. So it was one of those little miracles. This tiny movie, nobody was getting paid, but all of these bad ass crew members showed up.
Scott Menzel: I wanted to ask you about a couple of the sets, the hotel was The Montage, correct?
Erin Simms: Yes.
Scott Menzel: Okay. The diner scene, I don’t know the name of the restaurant. It’s off Van Nuys Boulevard, by the Burger King?
Bill Holderman: No, the diner is Pann’s, which is down on La Tijera and La Cienega, towards LAX.
Scott Menzel: Ah, those were the two that I noted.
Erin Simms: Yeah. You’ve seen Pann’s for sure.
Bill Holderman: If you’ve gone to the airport, you’ve gone past Pann’s. It’s one of those. But it’s been around forever, and it’s one of those iconic places that is fun to shoot in LA. You need to go to these places.
Scott Menzel: What was the most difficult scene to shoot in this film for you guys?
Erin Simms: The actors, it was never because of the actors. It was usually timeline.
Bill Holderman: One of the most challenging days was the first day that we had all four actors on. All four of the women. And it was the day where they were dressing Jane Fonda up to go chase after Don. It was our first day of shooting at The Montage, first day with all four actors. Shooting in a hotel room has a whole inherent set of challenges. Lighting it was challenging. You have not the space for camerawork, it’s a scene that really should be covered and cross-covered because there’s a lot of movement and they had to get her out of bed and wrap a dress around her, so there was a lot of that type of work. And we had to do all of it. There was no going over. And we had to do all of that scene and then a couple other scenes at The Montage, all in the same day. And it’s also a day where it’s Diane Keaton’s first day on the movie. Again, she’s so great but it’s like, they’re all meeting each other and they’re all getting into a vibe. And yet we have to rush through the day.
Erin Simms: There was a lot of rushing while also trying to not rush.
Bill Holderman: But the thing is and what’s really important for a movie like this, where the dynamic of the friendship is so precious, is that you want to maintain an environment on set where they can stay loose, friendly, fun, and just keep it really light. And so all the rushing is happening on this side…
Erin Simms: and they don’t see it.
Bill Holderman: And on set, we’re just trying to keep it really loose. But that was a scene that had a lot of movement, a lot of technical stuff, because they had to get this dress on and get out the door, and we had to reset so that was a challenge, not because of anything but the pressures of trying to pull that off in one day in a hotel room, where you can’t screw anything into the walls.
Erin Simms: We also had another scene in the hotel. We didn’t have any money to dress the room the way we knew Jane wanted it. And she came in and she was like, “Guys, this is just not my character.” And we just looked at each other. And they were shooting another scene in the living room. And so Rachel O’Toole, our production designer, and I ran downstairs and went to Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams. Again, I keep saying the word miracle, but it was. And we just met this guy, Scott, and we’re like, look, we’re shooting right now with Jane Fonda. Can we take this stuff off the floor? And so, we came down with some pa who had dollies and we’re running through the lobby of The Montage with all this stuff.
Bill Holderman: We were shooting another scene, and we redressed her room. Because for us, it’s like we had these incredible actors, and we wanted the movie and all the sets to be reflective of what we think they deserve. So we were busting our pumps every day-
Erin Simms: But every day, something would happen where we had…
Bill Holderman: to create the façade that it’s a bigger movie than it was.
Erin Simms: And every day, something would happen where the next day, there was some disaster that was about to happen, so we were shooting but then trying to put out some fire, which I know is what producing is. But we had another day, the lingerie store is actually built from just Mitchell Gold again. I called them, I’m like, “We lost the location, we’re shooting this scene in 10 hours. I need the round couch, blah blah blah” and then we got some mannequins.
Bill Holderman: And we made that in a dining room of the house we were shooting in because we had lost the location-
Erin Simms: It had a curved area to a bathroom, so we put up a curtain.
Bill Holderman: Yeah. We had lost the location and we were told this scene’s getting cut. And we were like, this scene’s not getting cut. We’re going to pull it off. Well, you have to shoot in this house. We’re shooting in this house tomorrow, and our production design team was brilliant and could somehow pull off these miracles.
Scott Menzel: So why do you think it is that these types of movies are so hard to get made nowadays?
Bill Holderman: I think in society, there’s such a pressure to cater to the younger demographic. And I think that ageism is a real thing. And I think Hollywood’s reflective of that. And I think that these are movies that just … I don’t know. I think that they’re not in vogue until you have one that works. And then you’ll see a series of them, potentially. I really don’t know.
Erin Simms: But also, financing movies is obviously inherently risky and crazy, and I think that there’s no reading the script for Book Club and being like, oh, 100%, this is going to be a hit. Because when you’re financing a movie, you haven’t cast yet. You don’t know who you’re going to get. So you’re getting on board this train and hoping for the best.
Bill Holderman: And the truth is, they’re execution-dependent, whereas some of the movies that cater to a younger audience are less execution-dependent. You have a built-in safety net because if you’re a certain genre, you know you’re going to be able to cover a certain amount in foreign, there’s a whole arithmetic to it.
Erin Simms: But it’s not that trackable of an audience. They’re not sitting around tweeting and posting. Let’s knock on wood and hope the movie does well. I think that there isn’t really that much risk, especially with the budget that we made it. This is for an audience that loves to go out if you give them a reason to. They haven’t had a reason to in a very long time.
Bill Holderman: I think so too … Yeah, they are really hard to make, but for us, we love these movies. Genuinely, as an audience member. I want to see this movie, and I think it’s a movie that people can go out on a date with or they can go with a group of friends to see.
Erin Simms: It’s a great date movie.
Bill Holderman: It is a very socially minded movie, and I think that’s something that for us, we weren’t thinking about the marketplace when we were writing it or creating it. We were thinking about, what do we want to say.?
Erin Simms: And what do we care about?
Bill Holderman: What do we care about, and what are the themes that are inspiring to us? And then what do we want to go see? And it’s like, I think the world is due for a good love story.
Scott Menzel: It’s interesting that you bring this up because I feel like in the ’90s, there was Grumpy Old Men, The Odd Couple and a lot of other movies like it. There were movies where they weren’t afraid to take risks with older actors-
Erin Simms: And they all did well.
Scott Menzel: Hell, even Gone Fishing … I’m thinking of really obscure, random movies that they came out with. And then all of a sudden, they just disappeared. And I really think someone who did such an incredible job of bringing this genre back for a little bit, is Brett Haley, who did I’ll See You in My Dreams and The Hero. Because it shined the light on actors like Blythe Danner, she’s so great but we never see her in these types of movies and these types of roles. And he made a movie for her with I’ll See You In My Dreams and then The Hero for Sam Elliot. So I agree with you, I think there is an audience for this. I think it’s just like you were saying, not a safe enough bet, unfortunately. Which is sad.
Erin Simms: Yeah.
Bill Holderman: It is sad, but again, Hollywood is very reactive-
Erin Simms: We’re gamblers.
Bill Holderman: Hollywood is a very reactive place. And I think, let’s see what happens.
Erin Simms: I know it’s not a movie, but the Golden Girls. Think about it, there has not been anything like that, and that was the biggest show for a while. Do you remember Golden Girls, Empty Nest…
Bill Holderman: Grace and Frankie.
Erin Simms: Yeah, and Grace and Frankie is a massive hit. Why is it not more obvious to make more of these?
Scott Menzel: My opinion for that is that things get oversaturated in the marketplace. So if you only have one or two of them, they really stand out. And then they become iconic. Think about horror movies, in all fairness. Totally different genre from this movie, but you hear about Get Out, and the only reason you hear about Get Out is because it was a game changer. You don’t hear about the 50 other horror movies all year round. Films like Wish Upon and all these other random things that come out. There are one or two surprises that end up changing the game. Look at A Quiet Place, same thing. You’re going to have one or two of them maybe a year. They stand out, they break the mold, and they become iconic. I think there’s a marketplace for a movie like this, where if they do one or two of them a year, it’s good, and it’ll find an audience. But it’s a harder sell because again, younger demographic, they don’t think of the older crowd going to the Laemmle on a Wednesday afternoon. You know? It’s difficult.
Bill Holderman: It is. It’s difficult. And it’s also a movie that has a lot of heart. And I think that’s also not necessarily in vogue right now, just in terms of where society is as a whole. We’re in a cynical time.
Erin Simms: Yeah, I was saying, these are cynical, cynical times. To quote Jerry Maguire.
Scott Menzel: If you could do anything, what kind of movie would you make, and who would you work with?
Erin Simms: Well now that we’ve worked with these people.
Scott Menzel: I know, you worked with the legends.
Bill Holderman: I have not really given the next thing thought yet, because we’re still finishing this one, to be totally frank.
Scott Menzel: Yeah which was just filmed in what August of last year? It was a very short turnaround.
Bill Holderman: Yes, we wrapped in September and we’re still finishing. I don’t know. I think to me, making movies is such a privilege to have the opportunity to do it, but at the same time, it’s an incredibly hard slog. And so for me, anything that I do, and I’ve been lucky enough to have this … So far, I really want to care about what the movie’s about. I want to believe in what the themes are. I want to believe that whatever I’m making is somehow something that I feel like should be out in society. So whatever is next is going to be something that, again, is going to be born from some theme or some idea that I feel really strongly deserves to get out there. I just don’t know what that is yet.
Erin Simms: Yeah. We’ve got a few things.
Scott Menzel: Do you think these types of movies are best suited for film festival audiences nowadays?
Bill Holderman: I don’t.
Erin Simms: No.
Bill Holderman: This movie, from the moment we started writing it, we wanted this to be a big, commercial movie, because it’s a movie that is great to go see with a group, it’s great to see in a theater with an audience. And I think often at times, this demographic gets relegated to film festivals. And I love film festivals, and I love those movies. But I think there are the opportunities for some of these movies to get in. Again, we’re coming out in the summer as counterprogramming to some really massive movies.
Erin Simms: Really big movies.
Bill Holderman: But that said, a movie like this with these actors deserves that same treatment-
Erin Simms: We see ourselves more as in the Sex and the City for older women vein. I don’t really see that as a festival movie. And we know the festival movies really well.
Bill Holderman: Yeah. And again, it’s breaking a mold because no movies like this are getting made, but this is also a bit of a throwback to those great feel-good movies that we grew up with and that we want to see out there again. And I think those movies are not just for the festival circuit.
Scott Menzel: All right, well, thank you, guys.
Erin Simms: Thank you.
Bill Holderman: Thank you.
Scott Menzel: Nice meeting you.
Erin Simms: You too.
Bill Holderman: Appreciate it, thank you.
Scott Menzel: Good luck with this one, I hope it does well for you two.
Book Club opens in theaters on Friday, May 18, 2018