Jan Chats with screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna about her new film ‘The Devil Wears Prada’
(First Posted in 2006)
September 7, 2006: “Battle for Oscar begins” shouts the headline on the front page of today’s USA TODAY, & indeed folks, it IS a battle.
PRADA has been one of this summer’s big box office winners. It opened on June 30th with $27.5 million in gross box office revenue for its first weekend, & as I write, it has exceeded $122 million in the USA alone, plus it’s still playing in theatres in metropolitan Chicago (& in many other places as well). Since PRADA had a mid-sized budget (read: no grandiose special effects), it’s been a solid performer compared to “macho-treats” like MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE THREE, POSEIDON, &SUPERMAN RETURNS all of which scored way below expectations.
But as the Awards season heats-up, will the powers-that-be consign this fabulous film to the “chick-flick” category & bypass it, giving a perfunctory nod to the always-amazing Meryl Streep? NOT IF WE FIGHT BACK!!!
I’ve been waiting to post this chat with screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (done by phone on July 12th) because I wanted all of you to have the chance to see the film for yourselves before I introduced any spoilers. Now that you have, I hope you will enjoy this detailed discussion of how McKenna created characters much richer & deeper than their literary antecedents.
Yes, Meryl Streep does an extraordinary job as “Miranda Priestly.” This may be one of the greatest performances in her unparalleled career. But remember folks: Streep did not write her own lines, direct herself, or dress herself, & while she certainly had input, her job as an actor is to “embody” a character created by the people behind the camera (most especially, in this case, screenwriter McKenna).
Jan: I need to start this interview with some background about myself, Aline, so you’ll know where I’m coming from: I used to work for KPMG Peat Marwick, one of the “Big Eight” accounting firms, & the address of our New York office was 345 Park Avenue. So I lived at the Marriott East Side, our corporate hotel, for months at a time, & the Smith & Wollensky restaurant that figures so prominently in the movie was right around the corner. PRADA’s filmed in “my” New York neighborhood!
Aline: Hilarious, all that stuff was shot where you lived?
Jan: Exactly; & working for a large firm, I lived just the kind of life that Andy lives. So, I went to see PRADA & I absolutely loved it. I found a copy of the book the very next day, devoured it, & went back to the see the movie again. And I took a bunch of my friends with me the second time, & they all loved it too.
The book is a kvetch-a-thon, a “roman-a-kvetch.” Lauren Weisberger basically wrote a first-person story about a very young woman & the problems she has with her boyfriend, her roommate, her family, & oh yes, her boss. In your screenplay, though, you’ve eliminated most of that & focused on business world, & you really explain the Enron Era better than anything else I’ve ever seen.
Aline: The Enron Era?
Jan: Yes, the excesses – the way people in positions of power & control threw money around in ways that seem absolutely ludicrous now to the uninitiated. I know from experience that it happens because people are working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, so they have no perspective on what they’re doing & no appreciation for anyone else’s time & effort.
You captured it all, so please tell me about it: tell me how you created Miranda & the extra scenes that you wrote for her; tell me how you created Nigel from a composite of characters in the book. What were your goals when you create these wonderful characters
Aline: Miranda: we wanted to take Miranda & her work very seriously, & make sure the audience got a sense of what she does & why she’s so accomplished. She’s not just inspiring that behavior in the other people around her because she’s “scary,” but because she’s so accomplished & she’s achieved such a high level at work.
I wanted to make sure the audience understood why she had so much power in her world; & then understand that there was a cost for her, because we wanted Andy to walk away from a life as opposed to walking away from a person. She sees how much Miranda has sacrificed in her personal life, & that’s just not what Andy wants to do. Miranda’s held to a different standard than male executives might be held to, & she lives under a microscope.
The movie sees Miranda’s life from her perspective. Obviously, her priorities are a little different from most peoples, but basically, Miranda’s a working mother. She’s trying to do the best she can, & she’s trying to keep her personal life afloat, & this is the only way that she knows to live her life – completely devoted to her work. Ultimately, Andy decides it’s not for her.
Jan: For example, you create a scene (which is not in Weisberger’s book) in which Andy overhears Miranda’s husband complaining because people sometimes call him “Mr. Priestly.”
Aline: Right, well that’s part of what’s difficult for Miranda, finding a partner who understands what her life is about & what her priorities are. Then we used that incident to show what other kind of sacrifices Miranda’s made in her life.
We wanted Andy to see what her future might be. When Miranda says to her: “You know, I see a lot of myself in you,” Andy realizes: “I could go down this path.” She could actually live a life where her career would be more important than her personal life, but that’s not what she wants. It’s not really about her versus Miranda; it’s about them coming to see other sides of each other. Andy’s choice at the end isn’t a repudiation of someone who’s just a bad boss.
Jan: I will admit that in the final scene, when Andy meets up with her boyfriend Nate after she comes back from Paris, I got worried; I thought for a moment that you were going to have her toss all her career aspirations aside & follow him to Boston.
Aline: Oh yes, you got worried?
Jan: I did get worried, but when all is said & done, it’s not clear to me that Andy’s decided she doesn’t want to put her career first. What is clear to me is that when Miranda says that to her (“I see a lot of myself in you.”), Andy realizes that she’s won her battle, which is the battle for Miranda’s respect. And that gives Andy the confidence to conquer the world she really wants to conquer, which is the world of journalism.
Aline: Well, that is one way of looking at it. Andy is competing in a world that she never thought she would have anything to do with (the fashion world) & she finds that she really wants to do well. So it becomes a question for Andy: how far is she willing to go to protect herself & her career? It’s not like she’s not going to pursue her career; she’s going to pursue her career.
We felt it was necessary for her to apologize to Nate, which she does, but they’re young & he’s going to Boston. We know from that scene that he’s got a job in Boston & she’s got a job in New York. They’re way too young to be making any kind of permanent commitment to each other. No, it’s definitely not about choosing or not choosing a man.
Jan: Yes, exactly, there’s no suggestion here that what Andy really wants to say is: “Let’s go to Boston, Nate; let’s start again.”
Aline: Oh my gosh, no. The actors & the director were really supportive of that. They didn’t want a pat ending; they wanted to show the complexities. The two guys [Nate & Christian] are there to amplify what Andy’s going through in her life.
Jan: What the newspaper editor [Andy’s new boss] says at the end is terrific. You wrote that letter of reference, the letter from Miranda; it’s not in the book. The simple fact is that Miranda takes Andy to Paris with her, & that fact in & of itself announces to everybody who’s anybody that Andy is “a winner.” In its terse way, Miranda’s letter of reference is the ultimate validation of that fact.
Aline: Right, none of that happens in the book, but we felt like we would take the story a step further: there’s kind of a romance between Andy & Miranda, & the audience wants to know how it gets resolved, so we wanted to leave them with some closure. Miranda doesn’t give Andy anything when they see each other on the street, she doesn’t smile at her, but we know that…
Jan: She’ll be watching her! It’s a “Hubble moment” [from THE WAY WE WERE]!
Aline: Yes! People think Miranda can’t be nice; she can be nice. She knows that; she doesn’t need anybody else to know it.
Jan: Great! So now let’s talk a bit about Nigel & how you created him.
Aline: The main thing with Nigel was not to do “a fairy godmother” character. We felt like it would be phony for Nigel to take Andy under his wing for no reason. He’s sort of horrified by her, & as Andy says, he finally makes her over just because he’s tired of looking at her.
So we wanted Nigel to become “the mean mentor,” the mentor who tells Andy what she’s really doing wrong; it’s an important thing in your 20s to recognize when you’re failing. Andy’s making this mistake of blaming everything on Miranda instead of just understanding that a boss is boss, & part of what you need to do is figure out how to work around the boss. And then Nigel’s also the character who in some ways is sacrificed. He captures the guy who’s made some of these sacrifices, so he makes Andy wonder: Is it worth it?
He’s also the one who really understands the artistry of their work. Nigel feels like he has “a calling,” which is to appreciate and disseminate the work of these [fashion] artists.
Jan: Nigel’s big speech, did you write that? Were those your words?
Aline: Yes. Actually, I was on the set that day, & the director [David Frankel] asked Stanley if he wanted it to be adjusted in any way, & Stanley said: “No, I like it the way it is.”
Jan: Bravo, Aline, but really: how did you know all these tiny little things about this world?
Aline: It’s not just the fashion world, it’s every workplace. Everybody’s been that young person in the workplace for the first time. Everybody’s had to realize that you have to fit in if you want to succeed.
Jan: So let me ask you this: If I say that I think PRADA is a very “feminist movie” in the very best sense, does that make you happy or nervous?
Aline: I was thrilled that the book had 2 strong female leads, & that it was about a woman coming-of-age in the workplace. Older women are drawn in by Meryl [Streep], & seeing somebody who’s in her mid 50s playing that part, but they also see themselves having been Andy once, because most of the women in the audience now have had some experience in the workplace. So I think it’s pleasing for women to have those women to connect to. People ask me: How do you feel about PRADA being called a “chick-flick”?
Jan: That was going to be my next question!
Aline: If you find a good story, it’s a good story. Does it have a feminist, female protagonist? So much the better!
Jan: I’m really glad we were able to connect, Aline. If I ruled the world, I would short-list you for an Oscar for “Best Adapted Screenplay” today!
© Jan Lisa Huttner (9/7/06)
All stills from ‘Prada’ are credited to Barry Wetcher. © 2006 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.