Given its abiding popularity and fun-loving sensibility, “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” seems like an easy movie to make. It was not. Creative differences dogged the project ― so much so that the director threatened to take his name off the film ― and mediocre box-office returns could have relegated it to the void of forgotten gems.
A decade after a well-reviewed play called “Ladies’ Room” introduced Romy and Michele prototypes as minor characters, “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” debuted at No. 2 on the weekend of April 25, 1997. It earned $29.2 million in total, a modest sum that today amounts to $44.4 million with inflation. Twenty years later, this little movie about two best friends grandstanding for their former classmates has gone from signature cult classic to universal favorite. Making it required a bout of studio panic, Quentin Tarantino’s endorsement, a nixed Will Ferrell cameo, post-production spats and a key vote of confidence from James L. Brooks and Carrie Fisher.
Settle in for a candid oral history of “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.” It’s a bit like high school frenemies revisiting the drama of yore. One thing they have going for them: Meryl Streep apparently loves their work.
Robin Schiff, writer: The play started as a sketch at the Groundlings. It was basically these two women who were talking about getting respect in the workplace while they were transforming into going-out clubwear. That took place in a women’s bathroom.
Lisa Kudrow, actress: I was a student at the Groundlings. They were holding auditions for “Ladies’ Room,” the play Robin had written. That was my first audition ever, and I got it.
Schiff: I went to this club called Carlos ’n Charlie’s, on the Sunset Strip, to do research. I go into the girls’ bathroom and I overhear these girls saying, “Oh my God, I love your hair.” “My hair? Your hair! I’d trade my hair for your hair in two seconds.” “Take it. Take my hair!” It was the most banal conversation, but it had a musicality to it. I went home and I just wrote this run. Then, they just took on lives of their own. They weren’t the leads in the play — they were like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And their first entrance, they got entrance applause.
Kudrow: I don’t even think the characters had names. It was just Airhead 1 and Airhead 2. These two characters were onstage a total of seven minutes. They would run in and out of the ladies’ room.
Schiff: They were wearing black because there used to be another bar on the Sunset Strip called Nicky Blair’s, and all the women who waited to get in looked alike because they were all wearing black. Kathy Griffin played either Romy or Michele [in the backer’s audition to raise funds for “Ladies’ Room”].
Kathy Griffin, actress/comedian: Rita Wilson had a role. Rita was in a Groundlings class with me, or she might have been one of my students. More importantly, she got Tom Hanks to play a really small role. That’s how I met Tom Hanks! Rita and Tom were dating. He was this guy who has to sit in the stall for a big part of the play and then he emerges. I remember thinking how amazing that that was Tom Hanks.
Schiff: Kathy kept adding words and I was like, “Fuck her” [laughs]. Kathy Griffin is so crazy talented, but I did not like that she was adding to it. She kept going, “Girlfriend!”
Griffin: That sounds totally true. I remember at the time the phrase “hey, girlfriend” was considered cool. This is even before “talk to the hand.” I can totally see me doing that in character, trying to add words here and there. It’s how I do my act. I’m a big improviser.
Schiff: You know that little exchange in the bar in the movie where Michele goes, “Remember that time I barfed from bad Mexican food”? Romy says, “I really hate throwing up in public.” And Michele says, “Me too!” I didn’t know how funny that was, and the way Lisa said “me too” in “Ladies’ Room,” which was “[gasp] me too!,” gave me the entire characters. In that one two-page scene in the play, their hearts expanded.
Kudrow: No matter the audience or the kind of night the play was having, these characters always got their laughs. I did it with Christie Mellor, who played Romy. Christie was like, “Well, we should try to look like we’re Robert Palmer girls,” with our hair slicked back, wearing black. She loaned me a black stretch skirt that was really tight, with some Madonna/Robert Palmer mixture happening, with red, red lips. It was a great look for the play.
Schiff: We were doing that in ’87 and ’88. We did that production and we did a TV pilot. In its first incarnation, it was at HBO. It was called “Just Temporary.” They worked at a temp agency. Lenny Kravitz wrote the theme song. The pilot didn’t go, so it just fell into limbo. Years later, I was hired to work with Barry Kemp, who created “Coach” and “Newhart.” He read the play and loved it. We ended up doing a second production in San Francisco.
Kudrow: It was fun to spend a summer in San Francisco. That’s how I saw it. It was during that time that Disney talked to Robin about a movie.
Schiff: My agents were sending out the play as a writing sample, and these two female executives at Disney read it and felt like it could be a “Wayne’s World” type. Every so often, people realize the female ticket buyer has some power.
Alex Schwartz, Touchstone Pictures executive: I flew up to San Francisco with one of my colleagues. We go to the play, and Romy and Michele were clearly the fun characters. We came out of that all agreeing that they should be the characters for the movie.
Kudrow: I remember a dinner in San Francisco talking about the movie and going, “OK, well, that’s nice.” Why we would ever get to play it was a big roll of the dice. It’s just like, “Well, if it works out, that’s great for Robin.” This was before “Friends” had premiered.
Schiff: I wasn’t sure if we could do a movie because the characters were so shallow. I kept trying to think of ideas for them. I thought of “Romy and Michele Go to Japan” and “Romy and Michele Go to College.” I got this idea — it literally just popped into my head — where they were going to their high school reunion and it’s the first time they realize their lives are not good enough, that they haven’t amounted to anything. It made me laugh, this idea that 10 years have gone by and you just didn’t notice.
Donald De Line, Touchstone Pictures executive: Robin Schiff pitched a story. We bought it and developed the screenplay to be a great female-driven buddy comedy with themes of sisterhood and friendship through the prism of something funny and ironic.
Vincent Ventresca, actor: I think we knew we were doing something kind of special. The script was amazing. I had never seen anything like it.
Schwartz: Amy Heckerling was attached for a while. We did all these table reads with Amy and we developed it with Amy. It was very disappointing, needless to say, when Amy went and did “Clueless” instead.
Schiff: After Amy Heckerling, we offered it to Penny Marshall, who was big at the time, and Betty Thomas, who directed the Howard Stern movie “Private Parts.” They passed, and then we went after David Mirkin, who I worshiped off of “The Simpsons.” It seemed like a very big get to get this “Simpsons” director.
David Mirkin, director: I did a show called ”The Edge” with Jennifer Aniston and Julie Brown. I had been executive producing and show-running “The Simpsons” for about three years, and I’d been sent scripts to direct. Nothing was particularly jumping out at me, and I was thinking I wanted to do a movie that involves strong, funny women because I always felt there was not enough of those. The script came and I reacted to it immediately. It needed work, but I instantly saw this amazing potential and this incredible relationship between these two girls. It was also exciting to look at high school not in a sweet way as so many of these movies did, but in a truly beautiful, nasty way.
De Line: Everyone loved the script and we put the movie together in a way that you probably couldn’t do now so much because it was a small movie for the studio at the time. It was a character comedy and we cast it with young, funny up-and-comers.
Schiff: The movie was in development for five years, including a year where I was replaced and then came back and refused to use the other guy’s work. At one point, they wanted a more conventional story, because, look, I have a 20-minute dream sequence that absolutely affects nothing. It was unconventionally structured and works against all odds.
Mirkin: When I came on, they asked me to fire Robin about five times. It’s not a reflection on her ― it’s a very natural thing for a studio to do.
Schiff: The studio wanted it to be more like “Night at the Roxbury,” and I didn’t want it to be more like “Night at the Roxbury.” I never saw them as losers like that. That’s why I didn’t make them the bottom of the barrel at high school. They were not part of any group, but they were still mean to [Sandy Frink, Alan Cumming’s character], so one of their realizations is that other people have feelings. Some guy came in and did a major rewrite, and Lisa and Janeane Garofalo wouldn’t do it afterward. One of the things that I had going from the whole time was an executive-producer credit. They couldn’t really fuck with me too much because of my relationship with Lisa.
Mirkin: When a studio has been with someone for a long time, their answer is always to find somebody new. They would have been happy for me to just do the writing on my own, but I liked Robin’s voice.
Schiff: When the movie started in development, I said I wanted [Lisa Kudrow and Christie Mellor], and they’d never really done anything. Five years later, Lisa was on “Friends” and she was on the cover of Rolling Stone and People in a week. I’m like, “Now can she star in this movie?” But they were afraid to only have a TV person, so they wanted a feature person.
Schwartz: In the early days, we had Janeane Garofalo playing Romy, but she didn’t really want to play Romy ― she wanted to play Heather Mooney.
Marcia Ross, casting director: We had to find a marquee name for the other part or else the movie was going to be stalled. Mira Sorvino was really hot coming off of her Academy Award nomination.
Mikin: The other person who we explored early on for Romy was Toni Collette, who I had adored from “Muriel’s Wedding.” She’s a lovely person, but I think she was concerned at that point about exactly how to hit a Valley-girl vibe and accent.
Mira Sorvino, actress: I think at the time I was doing “Norma Jean and Marilyn.” It was the winter that I was up for the Oscar for “Mighty Aphrodite.” I read it and just thought it was absolutely hilarious.
Mirkin: I had lunch with Mira. I knew she could do different voices and I knew we would get there.
Sorvino: My agents questioned whether it was high-brow enough to accompany an Oscar nod, and I was like, “You don’t understand. This is so laugh-out-loud funny on every page. I’m laughing in public as I read it.” I also felt like I super identified with it because I had been a nerd in high school. Kids were quite mean to me for a while, so I really resonated with the storyline of two best friends who were pitted against the world. Even though they’re idiots who think they’re smart, there’s also a universal struggle about a teenage antihero underdog.
Ross: We offered it to her and she wasn’t really interested at first. But she was dating Quentin Tarantino at the time, and we heard that Quentin Tarantino liked the script and therefore she was open to considering it.
Sorvino: It was more my agents who were on the fence. I just wanted validation, so I had Quentin read it. He loved it.
De Line: It helped to elevate the whole thing. It was like, “Wow, Mira Sorvino!” She wasn’t known as a comedic actress. That definitely gave it a certain cachet.
Kudrow: I remember being away with Courteney Cox and Jennifer Aniston one weekend, and when we were driving back I got a call saying Mira Sorvino’s going to do it. She had just won an Oscar, and I said, “Oh my God, you guys! This movie is going to happen! Mira Sorvino’s going to do it!” The girls went, “Whoa! Wow! That’s fantastic!”
Ventresca: Lisa and Mira were super supportive. I’d worked with Lisa on a couple episodes of “Friends” [playing Fun Bobby]. I’m married, but I fell in love with Mira. When you’re in that movie bubble, it’s already your job to connect with that person. It was really easy. I loved her. She was so cool and open and so fucking funny. We were two peas in a pod. We didn’t hang out off the set, but when we were there we hung out a lot.
Schwartz: Mira didn’t have as easy a time, perhaps, as Lisa. She wasn’t quite as seasoned. She was more emotional. I don’t know if it affected the movie, but she was a little more difficult than Lisa.
Mirkin: Lisa and Mira had a great time with each other. It’s a stress-filled situation, and virtually any actor at any time can be under pressure in that situation. I wouldn’t single anyone out for anything that’s different than all the actors I’ve worked with. It’s a matter of creating a situation where they can do their best work. Everybody works differently.
Mona May, costume designer: I was kind of the it girl with the success of “Clueless.” When you really look at some of the ‘90s stuff, there’s the iconic Madonna look and the flower dresses and plaid skirts. But this was a fun project for me because they were grown-ups — they were no longer teenage girls in high school.
Kudrow: If you can believe it, Romy and Michele were more cartoonish in the play because there was less of them and you just got this snippet of complete idiocy. So now they had to be people with feelings.
May: They used their sexuality to get things. It was different set of circumstances and a different type of girls.
Sorvino: A couple of the dresses I wore were actually in my own wardrobe, like the silver dress in the scene where I say, “Will you excuse me? I cut my foot before and my shoe is filling up with blood.” And the Madonna prom dress was a Betsey Johnson dress I had bought in New York City with my waitress tip money.
May: It was a middle-budgeted comedy, so I had to be very inventive. I had to be able to reach out for the designer clothes, mixed with some things I found at a thrift store or on Melrose Avenue. Mira had great legs, so we gave her shorter skirts. Lisa always wanted to have big cleavage, and everything was very, very tight on her.
Sorvino: I based Romy’s speech on my sister’s way of talking when we were teenagers. We lived in New Jersey, but somehow she and her friends adopted this Valley-girl speech. But I made the voice lower because I always felt like there was something slightly masculine about Romy. What I wanted for her visually was to look like a linebacker in drag. She was always wearing these hyper-sexual clothes, but she wasn’t really comfortable in any of it. I honestly feel like Michele is the trendsetter of the two of them and Romy dressed to emulate Michele.
Mirkin: I said it’s going to be wall-to-wall music, and a lot of it I wanted to look like a music video because that’s what these girls live in. The studio liked that idea, but when they saw all these shots I was doing and all these crane shots, they got kind of nervous. I did get a visit where they said, “We’re a little concerned your shots are too interesting.” That was the beginning of the rumble.
Ventresca: I knew David was taking a big swing. I liked him as a director.
Kudrow: The camera was always moving. It was never just on sticks shooting something and then they moved the sticks to get another angle. That was smart of David because all the scenes are basically just two people talking. There’s not a lot of action or activity, and then there were always 4,000 extras because we were always in heavily populated places. On that movie, there were a lot of takes, just to get everyone moving at the right time in the background.
Mirkin: If Robin and [producer Barry Kemp] were kind of uncomfortable with the movie, that happened early on. They both came from a point of view of sitcoms, and that was the absolute opposite of what I wanted to do. Robin was on the set early on, and then it became clear it was going to be better if she wasn’t. She kind of went away and I didn’t see her again until we started to screen the film.
Schiff: I was doing a show at the time and I couldn’t come. When you’re working in television, you go up to the director and you say, “You’re missing this.” In features, it’s not that way. David and I had gotten along really well in pre-production. I loved his notes on the script. But the second production started, it was like this wall fell down where I felt shut out.
De Line: He was a first-time director and studios are always a little nervous. You don’t really know what’s going to happen until you’re out there on the floor. He did his thing but had strong points of view, which is a good thing for a director. There were occasions where we differed and had disagreements about it, which is not an uncommon thing.
Schwartz: David did things that were a little broader and stranger, I think, that might have made the senior execs who were not in touch with the project nervous. When I worked at Touchstone, we checked on everyone. We would have checked on Martin Scorsese. The way I was taught to be an executive was to be very hands-on. I’m sure we had all kinds of cautionary notes trying to keep things from going too far out because that would have been the tone of the whole studio at that point. I’m thinking it could have been the whole dream sequence where Romy and Michele become old.
Mirkin: In the original script, the dream was not originally very different from the main reunion.
Schiff: David had an idea, which was they get into a fight in the dream so that by the time Michele wakes up she’s pissed again.
Mirkin: I knew the structure was bizarre, and it’s one of the things I was excited about. But I also said what would be really fun about this dream sequence is you just make it much more surreal than it is in the script.
Schiff: Because they make up so quickly in quote-unquote real life, the only time they experience life without each other is in that dream sequence. So it’s for the audience, too. Even though people know it’s a dream sequence, you still get that scene where they’re looking at each other from the back of the limos when they’re leaving the reunion. One of the things I think David did so well is balancing emotion with humor.
Mirkin: I wanted to keep having more and more strange things happen. Originally, Lisa is just walking around and she runs into Sandy Frink. This guy is kind of a nerd in school, so he’s become incredibly successful and the first thing he does is he buys a new face. That’s where the prosthetic makeup came from. I always thought Sandy’s entrance should be more impactful, so I thought it would be hilarious to see Lisa get hit by his limousine and fly over the top of the car in a way that you would only survive in a dream. It’s the same thing with [Toby Walters, played by Camryn Manheim] floating over the sunroof saying, “Come on in.” All those things were adding up to give you this other level besides just the information of what a perfect reunion could be.
Kudrow: I thought it would be funny, as Michele is rolling along the top of the limo for way too long, to say, “Oh, come on!” after I fall. It was ridiculous. It made us laugh, so David let me say it.
Mirkin: [Outside of the dream sequence], this really needed to be something where the entire reunion would be impressed by Romy and Michele and the woman working at Vogue complimenting their clothing. It gives you something you desperately need in that scene.
Kudrow: I have no sense of style or fashion or tailoring or any of that, but I think Mira had a definite idea what her dress should be for the reunion. Mona May showed me and I said, “That looks great, except she’s wearing it. What can I do?” And Mona’s fantastic. She said, “You’d look better in an A-line and we could make yours pink and just do the Michele version of that so it could be a similar material.” And I said, “Well, I would really appreciate that. Thanks!”
Sorvino: Mona put in a “Star Trek” insignia on the blue dress because I was an original “Star Trek” fan.
Mirkin: That was always the thing: to have a really fun, stupid, silly story that also went very emotionally deep in the places that it needed to. Michele coming to save Romy when she’s getting humiliated in front of the three girls when they find out that she didn’t invent Post-its didn’t happen [in the original script]. It was really important to deepen that relationship.
Kudrow: I was really thrilled that I got it all out. I was really thrilled that I could memorize [the monologue about creating Post-its].
Mirkin: Back then, to have a cellphone was a big deal. There was a waiter that I added who Mira makes a deal with to call her so she gets to answer the cellphone at the reunion when she’s standing there talking to the three pregnant women.
Ross: I had just met Will Ferrell. He had just come out of the Groundlings and had gotten cast on the next season of “Saturday Night Live.” At the reunion, he played this waiter. But he was cut out of the movie.
Mirkin: I knew Will was going to be a huge star. I was so thrilled that he was coming out to do this little part in the film. He was brilliant as this waiter trying to hide behind a curtain even when he gets caught. That call comes after Romy has already been outed about the Post-its, so she’s very humiliated and upset. Mira is such a powerful actress that it totally, totally devastated the audience to see that happen to her. So when Will calls her, it extended this humiliation so far and for so long that the audience could not recover from her sadness. Even though Will got big laughs, the audience was still so heartbroken for Mira that the fun was sucked out of the movie for too long after that. I had to cut Will out of it. I thought, “Will’s career is going so great, he’s not going to care at all.” I called him up and I said, “Man, you were so brilliant. I’m the idiot who put it in the wrong place. I’ve got this fantastic cameo and we can’t use it.” He was very quiet. He was sad that he was cut, and that made me feel even worse.
Ventresca: I watched them shoot the incredible dance sequence. I was on sensory overload. I thought it was the greatest, most interesting night of my life.
Mirkin: In the original script, there was a dance sequence, but it wasn’t an emotional dance sequence. It was kind of a parody of “Stayin’ Alive,” a John Travolta parody. I didn’t understand what the meaning was — I assume it was a celebration of the ‘80s in general. But I realized that this dance sequence needed to be something that’s more emotional. So instead of it being a disco song, it’s “Time After Time.”
Schiff: That was just a line. I said, “They do a weird ballet with Sandy.” But I could not have imagined that.
Sorvino: We rehearsed it for two or three weeks.
Schiff: I had “Time After Time” because I wanted something that would be emotional for the prom but funnier at the reunion. That song cost us $240,000, and our original music budget was maybe $1 million or $1.5 million. They gave us more money for music. We couldn’t replace it.
Mirkin: The choreographer from “The Edge,” Smith Wordes, would come up with suggestions for moves. I would pick and choose and we would decide where to put them. She was brilliant at that. She worked with Madonna for a while, so that was one of the great things, to have someone with that level of skill.
Sorvino: The choreographer tried to incorporate what we could do. I had taken ballet for seven years as a kid, so we threw in some pique turns for me. But I still wanted her to have that ungainly aspect, so there’s a moment where I’m doing the Snoopy dance from the Christmas special. There’s a certain point where I come out of a move and I put my arm up in victory, like I’m a gymnast mounting something. There’s always that slight ungracefulness to her.
Kudrow: I don’t dance, so Smith kept trying to introduce these interesting things. I was like, “I can’t do it, but I think it’s funny anyway that Michele just tries, and maybe has some arm gestures.” She laughed and said, “Yep, that’s funny.” It was great. She had me catching Alan, which is so funny.
Mirkin: It was tough because that was the one where it was really hard for the ladies not to laugh. I needed them to be deadly, deadly serious, even though the dance was ridiculous. Alan, coming from the British sensibility, completely understood that. He had the perfect attitude. We rehearsed it so much that by the time it came to shooting it shot very quickly.
Kudrow: We had to do these things so many times. Just us going in a circle, I think we did that 400 times. Not literally, but that stuff wasn’t easy. It was one of the most difficult shoots I’ve ever had.
Schiff: I saw the movie for the first time in LA. I was sitting next to a woman during the dance and she says, “This is going on forever!” And I was like, “Oh fuck, what have we done?”
Mirkin: Originally, the girls just fly off in a helicopter with Sandy and that’s the end of it. You never discovered their value. Part of the story that was so important to me that I wanted to tell was that people who are outsiders, misfits and weirdos who don’t fit in can have this amazing value and this amazing talent that’s not apparent.
Schiff: The original end of the movie was so cynical. I wanted them to basically have learned nothing. It was a horrible idea. They’d be watching a nicer television, but still watching “Pretty Woman.” They had a line that I’m glad wasn’t in the movie ― one of them said, “If I was a prostitute, I would be the exact opposite kind of hooker, like kissing is fine but no sex.” And then the other one is like, “Yeah, but I guess it wouldn’t have been as romantic if they built to the big blow job.”
Mirkin: I wanted to add the idea that they get their own boutique. That was an important ending to me, to show this whole trip was to discover the value of what they’ve been doing, which is making their own clothes. I think they really have an eye for it.
Schwartz: The movie did not test very well.
Mirkin: That’s a badge of honor. There are so many gigantic hits that tested poorly. Testing can work on some films that are sweet and happy and give the audience everything they want. This kind of movie I never expected to have high test scores.
De Line: That happens all the time. Movies can have very rough and difficult tests to start with and go through huge transformations in the post-production process.
Schiff: It’s interesting because everybody sees it from different points of view. What happened in post-production really was creative differences, and I don’t know if that could have been avoided.
Schwarz: The director gets [10 weeks to assemble the movie, per Directors Guild regulations]. But I know that when we first saw David’s version of the movie, we felt like the comedy wasn’t being cut to the best effects. He tended to drift into every scene. The camera would start up on a corner and move down and find the actors. It was throwing the pacing off.
Schiff: There was a difference of opinion, and Barry Kemp and I were asked to go into the editing room by the studio and make some changes to the first reel. David was really unhappy with this and chose not to participate. And then there was some additional work done that he also chose not to participate in.
Mirkin: In terms of what was finally released, I have no knowledge of the movie needing to have any pace picked up or anything like that. It was the studio that insisted on three changes. To my knowledge, that’s it. That’s the cut that I signed off on, and that’s the cut we released.
Schiff: It wasn’t like we were trying to take the movie away from David — we were trying to pitch in and fix the movie. Some of us felt it was broken and some of us didn’t. The studio happened to side with us, basically.
Mirkin: The biggest, most upsetting [change] to me was the first time Michele goes into the ballroom and discusses the Post-its glue, you never saw that that was a two-story room. The second time she goes in, when Sandy floats out of the car, it’s a giant, two-story room with giant pictures of [Christy Masters, the prom queen] everywhere. It was much more surreal. The reveal of that was a very cool crane shot. For some reason, they said, “Oh no, that slows everything down.” I kept explaining it was a visual reveal. It wasn’t life or death, but it was incredibly annoying because we worked hard to get that crane shot.
Schwartz: We also had a real dispute over his music choices, which made a pretty huge impact on the tone. He really liked much heavier rock ‘n’ roll. I remember him using a lot of Iggy Pop. We were like, “No, these are girly girls.” For me, that No Doubt song over the opening shot is so the essence of the movie. We fought about that.
Mirkin: I had Iggy Pop in temporarily, but I was never planing on keeping Iggy Pop. I was trying to make a deal with No Doubt. I had chosen all music that was representative of the girls, which was a bit edgy, a bit different, sort of cutting edge for the time. The studio was nervous about No Doubt. No Doubt had not broken out yet. By the time the movie was finished, they called me and they said, “Can you get more music from No Doubt? They’re huge!” I was like, “Well, they’re too big now. If we even call them, they’ll take away the rights that we have. We can’t change the deal.”
Schiff: There’s a scene in the high school flashback where Romy is looking at Billy and going, “Oh my God, he’s so cute.” She’s looking at him in that high school way, and David had put that R.E.M. song “The One I Love.”
Mirkin: They considered that to be too dark and too alternative. I said, “Well, these girls are alternative,” and we compromised.
Schiff: Barry and I replaced it with “I Want Candy.” To play “I Want Candy,” set against that look of vulnerability and longing on her face, seemed like high school to me.
Schwartz: We handled those disputes with relentless badgering and meetings.
Schiff: We were able to reshape the movie in three weeks, but the majority of the movie is how David cut it. This is just my opinion, but David cut for what he felt were jokes, and when Barry and I went back in, we cut for story. One example of a scene that wasn’t in his cut that I put back was when they’re getting dressed to go to the club. Romy’s looking at herself and she says, “I can’t believe how cute I look.” Michele says, “I know, this is the cutest we’ve ever looked. Don’t you love how we can say that to each other and we’re not being conceited?” He didn’t have that scene in. For me, we always see women running themselves down, saying they feel disgusting. But what you really do with your real best friend is you brag. And David said, “Well, you’re going to hate them because they’re so beautiful.” And I’m thinking, “They look like drag queens. The girls are beautiful, but Mira’s got her weird voice and they’ve got that hair. It’s not really hot girls looking like hot girls.” That’s an example.
Mirkin: As far as I was aware, the studio — and this is very normal — was fooling around with the movie, and whether Robin and Barry also fooled around with the movie, that’s a normal thing to happen.
Schiff: Notes were flying around. It wasn’t working, so everyone was pitching in documents: “What if we do this, what if we do that?” We all wanted the same thing, which was for the movie to work. It was at this point that David shut down. He really didn’t want anybody else’s suggestions.
Schwartz: David saw the recut movie and wanted to take his name off. He wanted the credit to read “Eddy Otts,” like “Idiots.” We were like, “Really? If you want to talk your name off the movie, I guess we can’t really stop you.”
Mirkin: That had been my pseudonym that had been registered to me. It wasn’t that I was choosing it for that film. You have an opportunity with the Writers Guild where, if there’s ever going to be a situation, that’s the name you’re going to use. I didn’t really talk to them so much about that as my representatives did. Honestly, I don’t know what it was that my agents were saying at that time, or if they explored it that far, but I never felt that it was going to come to that.
Ventresca: I didn’t know there was any kind of trouble with the cuts, but I remember there was [a studio session to record dialogue] that they had me come to out of nowhere. I showed up and David wasn’t there. I was like, “Wow, where’s David?” Nobody answered me. I never dug into it too deep, but all of a sudden there was a new version and I was looping scenes because they’d been re-edited.
Schiff: In David’s cut, at the end of the scene with the argument on the way to the reunion, when Romy and Michele get back into the car to drive away, David just had them driving away. I don’t know how we found out about it, but there was a take where Lisa pulled her seat belt really hard and it jammed and Mira accidentally hit the windshield wipers. You have their relationship going haywire, and coincidentally something happened in the moment with both of them and they stayed in character. How much better can you get than that? That was something that Barry and I put in because we loved the messiness of it.
Schwartz: Effectively, Robin and Barry shifted the tone of the movie and made it into what I thought the movie was going to be. There’s stuff in it, of course, that never would have been that way if it weren’t for David Mirkin, like when Lisa Kudrow flies up in the air off that car. A million things never would have been that way if it weren’t for David because only David would think that way. But he was going for something that I think was tonally less fun. It was less feminine. He definitely wanted an edgier vibe.
Mirkin: You have a moment where you’re just like, “Oh no.” So to make sure ― this was so sweet of them ― I arranged a screening at Disney of what was going to be the final thing, to make sure that nothing horrible happened from these changes. It was so sweet. I brought Carrie Fisher and Garry Shandling and James L. Brooks in and played the movie for them, and they were so supportive and so complimentary that it was one of the things that really calmed me down from the entire process.
Schwartz: The feedback that we got was Jim Brooks saying, “You’re crazy if you want to take your name off this movie. Why would you take your name off this movie?” We were waiting to hear what was going to happen after that screening.
De Line: I don’t think it affected the studio’s ability to market the movie at all. If one thing was clear, the studio knew how to market that movie from the go. Everything from the poster to the trailer to the TV spots was great.
Kudrow: It was funny doing press for this. Certain men, especially the ones who had talk shows, would say, “I liked this movie because it wasn’t bashing men.” And I thought, “Well, that’s great, except no one was talking about men. They didn’t even get into the conversation. It’s about two girls. How did you insert yourself into this? We weren’t talking about men.”
Sorvino: I think the biggest mistake, which I was attuned to at the time, was that they rated it R because of the F-expletives by Janeane Garofalo’s character. You could kill a person on screen and get a PG-13, but you can’t use an F-word in a sexual capacity. They said, “Well, this is for people who are going to their 10-year reunion.”
Mirkin: I loved “Clueless,” but it’s a sweet movie. I was never pretending that I was going to do this as a sweet movie. It was going to have brutal things in it. Part of the brutality of high school is to be able to have the language of high school. I had been working with Janeane on “The Larry Sanders Show” and I loved her. If you took that language away from her character, Heather would not be Heather. You just can’t have that character without all those “fucks.” The studio was so distracted, probably by all the other things, that the idea of changing it from an R-rating was never mentioned to me. Instead, I was fighting about music and the length and some of the more interesting shots.
Sorvino: I said, “Well, I also think it’s for teenage girls. Really it would be better if we had a more audience-friendly rating.” I made my opinions known to the marketing team and the powers that be, but they did not change their minds.
De Line: It was made for young women, not necessarily teenagers, because these were characters getting a start in life and going back to their reunion. Their friendship was aspirational for young women. For teenage girls, it was cool to go to an R-rated movie, and those were the days when they would absolutely get in if they wanted it. I think they cracked down on that in subsequent years.
Sorvino: We lost so much repeat business because the way that things become hits in the teenage sector is that kids go back to see the same movie. If it’s rated R, that requires that the parent go in and watch it with them. I think that really, really hurt our numbers up front because we didn’t have that capacity for kids to go back on their own to see the movie again and again with their friends. That was, I think, a very, very big mistake, but over time it doesn’t matter.
Schwartz: There were probably 600 people at a La Quinta in the desert at some terrible Disney corporate retreat when the movie came out. And then it did OK. It actually was profitable because it was such an inexpensive movie. I remember just feeling like, “OK, I’m not fired.” It definitely performed better than the studio thought it would.
Ventresca: I was doing a show called “Boston Common.” It was Max Mutchnick and David Kohan’s first show before they did “Will & Grace.” The movie was about to come out and an agent came up to me and she goes, “I saw your movie.” You feel really vulnerable before a movie comes out because you don’t know how you came across, and I said, “So what did you think?” She was like, “It was good. You play a good dick.” It just crushed me, to be honest. Here’s the truth: I kind of was Billy Christensen in high school. As far as my career goes, I think some people thought I was that guy, a very surface-level idiot.
Schiff: I was going to go out of town the weekend it opened because I thought I was going to get a public spanking. There was another movie that had been made at the studio that also had a reunion in it called “Grosse Point Blank.” But I wound up in town the weekend it opened. Everybody was shocked we got a great review from Siskel and Ebert ― we got two thumbs up; they loved it. We got a great review in The New York Times from Janet Maslin. Nobody could believe it, because this was after it had tested so horribly.
Ventresca: I have a sister who lives in San Diego, and it was my birthday the week it came out. My wife and I drove down, and my parents surprised me. They showed up and said, “We want to see your first big movie.” I didn’t say anything because there was a little uncertainty about how the movie was going to be received. We sat down and the movie started playing. It was a full house and the audience ate it up. They were dying. They were laughing, they were crying, they were singing along with the soundtrack. They were on the “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” Express. All of a sudden, I was like, “Wow, this is really, really cool.” It was one of the greatest times of my life.
Mirkin: It was not a giant hit, but it didn’t cost anybody anything. The budget was probably about $16 to $18 million. And then when it came out in home video, it went through the roof.
Schwartz: It was a good thing, from my perspective.
Schiff: Lisa and I discussed a sequel, and Disney wasn’t interested. Lionsgate was kind of interested, but they wanted to do it for so little money we couldn’t really do it.
Kudrow: It just seemed like the next logical step for them was to get married.
Schiff: The idea was kind of funny, that Romy and Michele forget to get married. And then this woman that they’re super competitive with is getting married, so they say they’re getting married but they don’t have husbands, so the whole movie would have been them planning their wedding almost as if they’re marrying each other while they’re looking for men. The men are completely beside the point.
Kudrow: We thought, “Wow, then it could be ‘Romy and Michele Get Divorced,’” which would mean they have a huge falling out.
Laurence Mark, Touchstone/Disney producer: If it had made $75 million at first blush, perhaps they might have talked about a sequel. But just looking at the hard numbers, it’s not crying out for a sequel. It’s only crying out for a sequel in retrospect.
Schiff: The studio just didn’t get it. To some degree, I think they still don’t get it.
Mark: I pitched an animated version of the movie with Lisa and Mira doing the voices. I didn’t have any specific approach. It was a comment-at-lunch kind of thing. It’s incredibly colorful; it almost feels animated, in its own way.
Sorvino: At the time, I was offered a bunch more dumb-blonde comedies. I kind of steered away from them because I thought I was going to get stuck in them. Practically speaking, I probably should have taken a few more just to solidify that commercial success. I wanted to explore other genres and I wanted to go darker. That wasn’t a status thing; it was just something that I wanted to do. I never was very strategic at that point in my career. I followed my passions and my heart, and sometimes that wasn’t necessarily the best decision, but it is what it is. I do wish that over the years I had done more comedies. I did what I did. The only thing I regret maybe is that I was originally offered “The Good Girl.” I didn’t feel like I could do it for some reason. I didn’t feel like I could make it work. We did a staged reading and I just didn’t have confidence in myself with it, but I feel like I should have pushed myself and figured out how to make it work. It was obviously a great movie with Jennifer Aniston.
Kudrow: That same summer, I did an independent film called “Clockwatchers,” and that went to Sundance. “Romy and Michele” was a favorite of director/writer Don Roos. He saw “Friends,” of course, and he saw “Romy and Michele” and thought, “Oh, she can play this part in ‘Opposite of Sex.’ How you get from those two roles to Lucia in “Opposite of Sex,” I don’t know. But who cares because he really thought I could do it, and thank God. For independent films, I was never asked to play an idiot or a ditz.
Mirkin: Periodically, people had approached me with ideas about sequels and whatnot, but there was nothing firm in there. There was that prequel, “Romy and Michele: In the Beginning,” and that’s a completely different sensibility. I think it represents more of what this film maybe started out to be.
Schiff: There was a woman named Susan Lyne who was head of ABC briefly, and because they own the property they decided they wanted to do a sequel. I said, “You can’t do a sequel without Lisa and Mira, but maybe you could do a prequel without Lisa and Mira.” I said I’d do it if I get to direct it and they said OK. I had fun writing the movie, but I learned a lot ― let me put it that way. There were certain things I let the girls get away with that I wish I hadn’t. They talked too fast, and I was also going through a period of my life where I was doing a whole bunch of spiritual stuff, so I had them say a couple of spiritual things. It did not please the fans. Katherine Heigl and Alexandra Breckenridge were in it. It was Katherine’s first comedy role. She’s a tough cookie, but I got along with her just fine.
Sorvino: I think the enduring fandom of it became apparent to me in the mid-2000s when I was in France at the Louvre Museum with my family. A girl tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around and she said, “I’m the Mary.” I was like, “Wow! Someone’s doing lines from ‘Romy and Michele’ to me in another country.” On Instagram, I’m seeing people posting pictures of themselves in Romy and Michele costumes. I knew that people dressed up as us in the West Hollywood gay Halloween parade, and I knew there were drag shows and this cult following within the gay community, but I was not aware how widespread it was with so many different people. I think a year and a half ago Jessica Alba dressed up as me!
Schiff: I’ve been working on a musical for 10-plus years. I got a call from Larry Mark, and he’d gotten a spec song from two guys. They were horrible. I said, “I would make it sound like the Go-Gos and it would not just be like a regular Broadway musical.” Larry said he loved that. When the original play was happening, Romy and Michele were such a big presence. I was very attached to their personalities. It had to evolve for them to be in the movie, and now they’re having to evolve again to be in the musical. There’s going to be a ton of stuff that is exactly from the movie and then other stuff that will be a little different.
Schwartz: I have some general awareness of the musical they’re developing, which I think is fantastic. For me, it’s that one crystalline moment of silliness that’s perfect.
Kudrow: I remember hearing from Janeane, “Have you met the guy who played the cowboy who smokes and flings cigarettes at me? He’s fucking fantastic. He’s so funny and he’s a writer. He’s the coolest guy I ever met.” And I was like, “No, I haven’t met him, what’s his name?” “Justin Theroux.” “Well, great!” We didn’t have any scenes together, but I met him when he was engaged to my friend, [Jennifer Aniston]. It took a few encounters for me to remember, “Oh my God, you were in ‘Romy and Michele.’ That’s right!”
Mirkin: Meryl Streep is one of the great people I directed on “The Simpsons.” I would see her periodically and I ran into her not long after the movie. She said, “You know, I’ve seen that movie 21 times.” She loved it because she watched it with her daughter, but she also loved the movie in and of herself.
Schiff: I think platonic love is not often a topic, certainly not among women. Usually they’re competing against each other. Most buddy movies end up being about platonic love, whether they want to say it or not. So many women, the most important relationships in their lives are with their female friends.
Mirkin: One of my big influences was Mike Nichols. When I met him, he raved to me about “Romy and Michele.” Again, all those shots that I had to fight with the studio to keep in, and that tone, that’s exactly what Mike responded to. That’s why you really do have to fight for what you believe in. And then my hero said how much he liked it. And of course I told Mike, “So much of this comes from ‘The Graduate,’” which totally inspired me. He laughed and said it’s all a big circle. And it was. In fact, that whole final reunion is shot at the Ambassador Hotel, and that’s the hotel from “The Graduate.”
Sorvino: It’s arguably the most popular film I’ve ever been in. It has an enduring following and has stood the test of time. Somehow, it’s not dated. I mean, there’s a retro aspect to it, but it has universal themes.
Mark: Maybe part of why it’s had such a long, celebrated life is because it’s edgy and because it works today. As you know, edgy happens to be going on today, in a bigger way than ever, in all kinds of movies. It almost seems like it could have been released yesterday.
Sorvino: If you happen to watch the movie with a crowd of people, literally every line of the movie, and many unscripted and wordless moments, are just hilarious. There’s a laugh every few seconds. I credit that to Robin Schiff. She wrote such a great, great script. David Mirkin directed it in such a funny way. And the colors! And Mona May doing the costumes, which are so appealing. I’m very happy I did it. I continue to love the movie and love the people associated with it. I’m really proud of it.
The above quotes have been edited, condensed and arranged based on individual interviews.
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