I have a hard time explaining what a weird moment in time “the millennium” (1998-2001) was to people who were too young to really remember it. I was a teenager in the ‘90s, which meant I was a helpless part of the slacker rebellion, worshipping at the feet of grunge and alternative culture, rebelling against all manner of corporate influence from the safety of the cushiest time imaginable.
But popular culture reflected all these values back at us, from movies, to music, to MTV, so we felt like the world revolved around us. But all this really did was pave the way for a stark transition. When the dream of the ‘90s crashed and burned (ironically through the burst of the dot-com bubble), corporations shifted their interests to a new core demographic; they discovered the buying power of “tween culture,” which not-so-coincidentally coincided with the meteoric stardom of pop acts like Backstreet Boys, ‘NSync and Britney Spears. MTV and record companies threw in hard on the trend (and smartly offset these squeaky clean acts by playing to the angsty crowds with cartoonishly over-the top “trash rock” outfits like Korn, Slipknot and Kid Rock). And in the end, Times Square was suddenly rendered neigh-uninhabitable during afternoon airings of Total Request Live, when tweens would pack the sidewalks just for a glimpse of Carson Daly and the guest of the day. It was an insane time. One that was especially ripe for parody. And while a lot of TV shows and media certainly tried, there was only one film that absolutely nailed the ethos of the era (and made a legitimately great film to boot).
I’m talking about 2001’s Josie and the Pussycats.
If you’ve never seen the film, correct that right now. It’s funny, weird, sweet and captures this bizarre moment in time quite brilliantly. And if that doesn’t convince you, both Alan Cumming and Parker Posey are incredible in it. But an offhand mention of the film’s greatness on Twitter got me in touch with Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan, the writer-director duo behind Josie along with the ‘90s staple Can’t Hardly Wait, the popular rom-coms Made of Honor and Leap Year and MTV’s recent series Mary + Jane. After briefly talking online, I did something I hardly ever do…I asked them for an interview.
Thank you for doing this. I guess I’ll start at the beginning; how did you get involved with Josie?
DK: I think it was the late Allison Shearmur, right?
HE: I think it was even before that. I remember hearing about it through an agent, who wasn’t even our agent. I think it was Marty?
DK: He has a better memory because he doesn’t have children.
HE: [laughs] Yeah, Marty Bowen, who is now a fantastic producer, he was an agent at UTA. He would always just send us stuff even though he wasn’t our agent because he was trying to sign us. And I think he said, “There’s an assignment at Universal you guys would be perfect for. You should do Josie and the Pussycats.” And we were like, “That sounds awful.”
DK: And then it actually did come through our agent.
HE: Right, Allison Shearmur was the exec and I think we passed on it initially. Because I think we were thinking of it on the surface level like, “It’s a comic book, we want to do something a little more grown up.” But then she came after us again and said, bluntly, “You guys can kind of do whatever you want.” And we stopped and thought, “Oh…we can do a musical. We can actually do a studio-driven musical and that’s just something you can’t really do anymore.” So then we thought, “Are we going to pass up the chance to do a musical that has a real budget?” And then we started figuring out what we wanted to do. From when we met and pitched it went very quickly. I mean I think where was a brief moment where we were going to do…
DK: Outer space.
HE: [laughs] Josie and the Pussycats From Outer Space. Which we may have even pitched them.
DK: I think so, yeah.
HE: And they were like, “cool” and then we thought, “No, that is not a good idea.”
DK: Yeah, no space opera.
HE: That’s the whole thing. We were driven by the music. And so we thought, “What’s going on with music right now? What do we want to say about pop music?” And that’s when the whole brainwashing story kind of came together. We pitched them that after space and they said, “That’s great too!”
The film really came along during such a specific era. I look back at that 2000s pop scene, and it almost feels like anomaly in a kind of way. But it really took over the world.
HE: Well, the weird thing is that none of us had any idea it was over. It literally ended right after the movie was released. Because the iPod came out the fall after the movie came out and that was it for CDs and recorded music. It was so weird because at the time we thought, “Oh this is just how it is now, I guess.”
DK: But we were the death knell.
Which makes the title card in the film so prophetic, “DuJour 2000-2001.”
DK: [laughs] But that’s what happened! Bands would come out and be the biggest thing, and then wooosh…disappear.
Well, interestingly now, they’re all getting their Las Vegas rebirths.
HE: Yeah, they’ve become retro Vegas acts and they’re all younger than I am!
It’s so weird to me. Especially because at the time they were popular, I was at that perfect age to scoff at them—toss my hair out of the way and talk about Radiohead. But I can’t help but look back at it now with a little bit of affinity.
HE: Of course. But at the time, you’d sit there and think about how this is all so offensive and the music industry is ignoring people with incredible talent, but now it’s so easy to see that it was completely innocuous.
What’s interesting is that it’s not just a film that captures a weird moment in time, but it has a weird tonal balance. It’s at once sincere, scathingly ironic and also really fun, with a sugary pop sensibility. Was that tone something you had to find or was the combo what you wanted from the outset?
DK: Well, I think what informed us was the script really read like a cartoon, in a way. This movie could be animated. But I think we more just understood it was a narrow target we were trying to hit. I mean, we did show the script to a few people and they were like “I don’t get it, why are you doing this?” But it made sense to us.
HE: Right, and when we talk about tone, the thing that always comes to me is when we first met with Mark Platt—and this is the first movie he produced after being a studio executive—he used this term I loved, he said, “The danger with this movie is that you’ll end up with a ‘feathered fish,’” where it’s not consistent and there are too many parts. But I don’t know know that he was wrong. It really does feel like a feathered fish. And I know the movie is tonally all over the place, but I think that’s just because we wanted to do lots of different things. We were trying to make a movie that was bubble gum and poppy on the surface but subversive underneath, and that’s going to throw people. There’s no way it couldn’t. But now it’s the very thing that people celebrate.
DK: We just didn’t quite realize it.
HE: Well, for me, I think it was first or second day of dailies. I couldn’t sleep, and for the first time in my life had a panic attack because, after the watching the footage, it hit me, “Oh fuck, we’re making a cult movie.” Like, it just became so clear to me in that moment that was what was going to happen. But then you catastrophize and think, “We’re never going to make another movie again!” But the problem is it all was true. Usually a panic attack is not about stuff that’s true.
DK: Are you sure you just didn’t manifest that for us?
HE: [laughs] Yeah, probably.
But in the end you not only made a great movie, but a movie where one of my favorite performances in it comes from Mr. Moviefone.
HE: It’s so funny to think about that now, to try and explain to a younger audience that in order to get movie times you would call a number.
DK: And listen in as he would try to tell you all the times. And he couldn’t go any faster!
HE: And it was one guy who did them for everywhere!
DK: Russ Leatherman.
HE: Russ Leatherman! He was great. He loved it.
DK: It was like bringing in a rock star.
HE: We talked about who it should be, asking “who is that subliminal voice?” We talked about a lot of different people. I don’t know why we ended up with moviefone. It was probably the combo of who was getable and who was funniest.
DK: He was just so omnipresent then, too.
HE: And I think it was really just that voice. That affected…
[Cue two minutes of us all doing our Mr. Moviefone voices]
It just plays so well whether its propaganda or talking smack. I think that’s so important though. Even if you don’t understand the reference, his performance is just funny.
DK: Where is he now?
HE: I bet he has a web…site?
But it’s interesting, with Mr. Moviefone, you’re talking about this crazy pop-culture-reference movie, at the same time, you’re adapting a decades-old comic.
DK: To be honest, I don’t know how much we were thinking about the fans. I mean we wanted to stay true to the iconography of the leopard print, their personalities, and the rock and roll of it all. But it was more just specific things that were set in stone by the rights holders.
HE: Yeah, there were certain things we were required to do. Like, I swear to god, there was a requirement that “These characters have to be shown demonstrating good…oral hygiene.”
HE: Yes, they had to demonstrate they were taking care of their teeth.
DK: Wearing seatbelts, too.
HE: So there’s literally a scene in that opening montage where they’re brushing their teeth, to satisfy that note. But it’s not like we were huge Josie and the Pussycats fans. To tell you the truth I remember the property much more from the Saturday morning cartoon. We were more just trying to stay true to the archetypes of the characters. Melody was kind of the airhead. Val was…actually, I don’t know if Val was kind of the tougher one in the original.
DK: Oh she kicked ass, I think.
HE: And then joke with [Alexandra Cabot]: “Why are you even here?”…”I was in the comic.” That was our wink to the audience that we’re using these characters to tell the story we want to tell.
But I think it’s a good way to be at once completely loyal while doing something completely different.
HE: Yeah, but honestly I don’t think you could get away with that now. With comic adaptations [these days] I think you really do have to service the fans first.
Even then, when you were writing the film, it’s a movie that’s having a lot of fun, but you had to make the mechanics of a conspiracy plot actually work.
HE: My thing is always, as an audience member, I don’t want to be too far ahead of the characters, so I can experience the story with the protagonists. But this is a movie where we introduce very early that there’s a conspiracy, and we talked a lot about when to reveal it.
DK: Do we want to reveal it early?
HE: But the whole problem is, if you take that big scene out where Parker walks you through what’s going on, you don’t know. You just feel like there’s something weird here and that’s it.
Right, and to me the reveal comes at the exact right time because you get to play the hints for the first third of the movie, then you can just switch to playing the dramatic irony in the second act, where the characters don’t realize they’re in danger and being manipulated. It’s how the story’s conflict evolves.
HE: Plus, we just realized it’s kind of more fun to actually see the conspiracy instead of being on the ride with them.
Parker Posey takes you on a personal guided tour of the apocalypse!
DK: [laughs] We really wanted that to have a schoolhouse rock feeling, but, you know, for world leaders.
Going back to the musical element, how did Kay Hanley get involved?
DK: Well, Kay was the final piece. We actually started with Kenny and Babyface, who we brought on to help us. But that was a whole different arm of the film. I don’t even know how many months we spent working with him.
HE: It felt like three or four months. Even before we started prepping the movie, they put us together with Babyface and we went to his studio and we got to choose who we really wanted to be involved in the process.
DK: We actually brought Dave Gibbs in because I knew him, just socially, and then he rounded up a whole bunch of people he knew. Jason Faulkner and Jane Weidlin.
HE: To have one of the Go-Go’s on our writing team for a movie about an all-female band, that was pretty crazy.
DK: Who else was in there writing songs?
HE: Well it was Kenny, Dave, Jason, Jane, and then Adam Duritz found out about it and he wrote some songs. And then we got in touch with Adam Schlesinger and he sent a song. So it really was just an oddly democratic process for a creative endeavor.
DK: But then we needed to find someone who could really do Josie’s voice. And a lot of people came in and sang.
HE: We had so many auditions.
DK: But they really had to believably double for Rachel [Leigh Cook].
HE: Kenny had someone in mind who he liked and she came in and recorded some songs. She had a lot of clarity, but Rachel needed someone with a little bit more rasp. And it was really hard to find a match. We were even pulling in people we knew from our social life, like “can you sing?!” Even Tracy Bonham came in.
HE: Yeah, but she just had too much power. And then it happened Kay was in town. And Dave was like, “You should come in!” And that was that.
HULK: Speaking of which, Rachel Leigh Cook was coming off of She’s All That and this new rising stardom. But I really, really like her performance in this movie. A lot of times people try to pretend a character is weird who is acting perfectly normal. But she is genuinely weird in the movie. She has those buzzy eyes, but she’s also really sweet and just loves her friends.
DK: She’s super funny in real life, but she always gets cast as this serious, soulful woman. She really deserves to do more comedy.
HE: And at the time, she was quite shy. It was struggle for her to go out there and rock it. I mean, she had to be the front woman for the band and there are literally 10,000 people in this arena. We piggybacked a concert for this Canadian boy band and then went right in there for the crowd shots. And she was performing, I mean she’s lip-syncing, but she still has to have that bravado to sell. But I think that’s what’s fun about the character. There’s a duality there. She’s not just pure introvert. And she’s not “Whaaaaaaa!” [rock star noises]. She’s actually holding something back.
It really fits with the dynamic of the group, especially Val. And god, every time I see Rosario Dawson she’s like Paul Rudd. She’s an ageless constant who has always been exactly who she is.
DK: I know, isn’t that weird?
She can play so many different kinds of roles, and yet she’s always herself, too. It reminds me of this thing Pauline Kael said about acting, and I’m paraphrasing: “The only important thing with an actor is when you hear them talk, you always believe them.” And it’s the most simple, clear-cut expression of how to get to the heart of acting I’ve ever heard.
HE: And of course Pauline Kael would say that.
And Rosario is absolutely one of those people. I never doubt her on-screen, especially when I look back in this movie where she was so young, but she was always there.
HE: And there were a lot of people who read for that part. Famously, Beyoncé came in and read.
I was going to ask you about that! It’s so weird to think about that now.
HE: It is definitely weird to think about that now.
DK: She was just really young. It’s not like she wasn’t good, she just really was young back in those days and had to grow.
And I have to say, you nailed it on all three leads here, because this is my favorite Tara Reid performance, too. She’s not just playing a ditzy character, there’s physical comedy and a lot of subtler stuff in there.
HE: And they genuinely really liked each other. I mean, time goes on, but they were a tight little trio for sure. We also put them through band camp. Two weeks before we did the movie. Every day. just drilling on how to fake those songs convincingly. It was like a rock star boot camp.
Yeah, there are so many logistics that go into a making a movie, but you had so many added elements from the music, to the comics, to the tone…
DK: To peddling a conspiracy.
You got so lucky that your conspiracy was being peddled by Alan Cumming and Parker Posey. They can sell the evil, the wounded and the silly elements.
DK: Oh, we felt so lucky to get both of them. Like, Alan..have you ever seen him not be good?
HE: And Parker too. That’s the whole thing. Only she can do what she does. There’s nobody else like her. And in terms of the tone, everything that she does sets the stage in that she’s kind of over the top, but she feels vulnerable.
Yeah, It’s so hard to do “sincere insincerity.”
She has a knack for every little detail. One of my favorite moments in the movie is just when she jumps on the bed, impersonating a pre-teen.
HE: [laughs] Yeah, she just did that.
You know, looking back, I think there were a lot of flash in the pan things that were trying to do comedy where they make fun of boy bands, but I feel like DuJour was the only one that actually worked.
DK: Well, the most interesting dynamic to me with the boy band era was the way they always seemed to care so much, but always just about the wrong things. They’d put so much weight into a face or a look, the petty stuff
DK: So it didn’t seem too far from what could be happening on the jet.
And that jet reminds me of the fact that this is actually one of my favorite production design movies. Period. There are so many quick jokes that last just for two seconds. Like one of my favorites is the quick shot of the suburbs in the opening. There’s the brown SUV in every driveway and it’s not an overt Tim Burton shot where you notice it in a glaring way, it’s a quick “wait…”
HE: It’s funny you say that because that was actually the reference for that shot, the Edward Scissorhands shot. And to tell you the truth, it probably would have looked more like a Tim Burton shot but we couldn’t afford it.
DK: I think we even wanted a different color but the only color we could get was brown.
But it’s still a weird blessing, because instead it becomes this great subtle joke you only see if you’re really looking. And the movie is full of those things. Melody using her drumsticks as chopsticks…
HE: But production design-wise especially, it was a real challenge. Because I’ve seen, somewhere, people were saying we were a 40- or 50-million-dollar movie. The budget was under 30 million.
That’s ultimately the thing. Even with constraints, you were making choices. You knew what you wanted to say.
HE: Also the choice to hire Matty [director of photography, Matthew Libatique]…we knew wanted this movie to look different than a comedy usually looks, just to juggle the tone. We were the first movie to color digitally, with the exception of O, Brother Where Art Thou? But what they did was use the digital intermediate to pull color out. That movie has no green in it. We wanted to use it to boost everything and accentuate the colors. They had done it for certain scenes before, but never for a full feature.
I remember that was a big deal with Lord of the Rings.
HE: Yup! And for us it never matched! We’d get it dialed in on the monitor and they didn’t quite have the experience yet to get it to come out right on the print. So we’d go look at it and be like, “What happened to all that work we did in the suite?” Sorry, I’m just reliving the frustration.
It’s okay. But going into the details of the movie, I remember this also being the first movie, TV show, what have you, to really make the first jokes about overt product placement. And that kind of joking is everywhere now.
DK: And we took a lot of shit for that! A lot of the reviews weren’t in on it, they said we were trying to have our cake and eat it too, like, “They’re trying to make a statement about product placement taking money and yet there is product placement in the film!” But we didn’t even get any money for it!
DK: Not a dime! And the companies still had to agree to do it, and a lot of companies said no. Like, “We see what you’re doing and we don’t want any part of it.” But the companies who agreed said we could use their logos, but we didn’t get products, we didn’t get money…
HE: Wait, didn’t we get some clothing?
DK: Right we got clothing from Puma because we needed solid color T-shirts to dress people at the concert at the end, but that was it it. No money from McDonalds or Target or anyone else. Just the logos.
HE: Yeah, just rejections. And the one I always remember is when Josie walks out in Times Square and she looks up at that billboard. And at the time Gap had that add “Everybody in denim,” “Everybody in khaki,” which is literally the perfect tagline for the conspiracy. And for her it was “Everybody in leopard,” and Gap saw the script and said no way.
It’s funny, the brands pushing you away for this movie. It brings it back to how this movie is really the last time capsule from an era that was about to disappear. I think about Josie’s final act of defiance, taking power away from the record companies, but really, it was Napster right around the corner.
DK: It’s funny, but I also think it’s a product of our age. Because now, almost 20 years later, you realize that anything that has real artistic value has staying power. Anything that’s a genuinely good song, or piece of art, it lasts. There’s room for all of it. You don’t really have to worry about a tidal wave of trend bands or forgettable pop music, because it’s forgettable pop music and it’s thus forgotten. We were coming off of grunge and people were like, “It’s killing Nirvana!” And here we are, and kids are still finding Nirvana and listening to it. I don’t think kids are actively seeking out, I don’t know, 98 Degrees and being like, “Have you heard this?”
Right, and yet there are things from that short pop era that have lasted and work as callbacks. I think about that Backstreet Boys moment in This Is the End. It plays like gangbusters. There’s still some cultural cache that people can hold on to and remember.
HE: Oh, for sure. I think what it’s really hard for people to grasp now is the ubiquity. The single message of an entire channel. It was so being shoved down people’s throats, to a degree that almost nothing else could survive in the market. It was like the gold rush. Everything else was being shoved aside in the rush toward the carbon copy boy bands that disrupted the industry.
More than music, they’d shut down Times Square every day!
DK: With TRL, yeah.
Right, and then immediately after that stranglehold, the MTV decentralized message completely fizzled out and they had to grasp at reality shows.
HE: Well, the record industry started fizzling first, then the money being thrown at MTV went with them.
HE: A friend of mine who is a composer in the classic world said it perfectly, “Recorded music had a good run. About a hundred years.” Before then, musicians would get paid to play live. And then, “Oh my gosh we could record and sell it!” But you can’t do that anymore.
But it’s getting back to the same thing in a way. My music friend was talking about how the music industry has a new cycle with young bands. For every Beyoncé who skyrockets, there are 50 young bands that get a lot of attention in a year. They put out one great album that everyone loves but no one actually buys. They tour forever in support of it because that’s how they get their income. They finally put out a second record that doesn’t have the same resources and time behind it and it doesn’t get the same groundswell. And then they’re all retiring in their late 20s and getting day jobs because they’re just freaking exhausted.
HE: Right, touring is the only way they can make money.
It’s a such a strange cyclical path. And it’s weird comparing that new path to the “make it or break it” dynamic seen in Josie. Because it really was the last hurrah of the mega fame-based music business.
HE: We just had no idea it was the last hurrah.
How do you feel about the themes of the movie in hindsight? Or does the cult movie message and value still come through?
DK: You know, I’m not sure I ever thought, “It’s a cult movie.” I thought we were making a fun studio movie with the subversive part clearly slipped in. But that changed the moment I saw the marketing, because it was all pink and purple and juvenile and they were marketing it to 10 year olds. The people who were supposed to sell the movie didn’t understand the movie, nor who it was for. And that’s when I realized, “Oops, nope. No one’s going to see this.”
Yeah, I’ll admit I didn’t really think about seeing the movie or that I would like it until I saw it. And if you’re marketing it to the tween audience who actually does like bands like DuJour? They’re too busy being in it to have a sense humor about it. But really it was exactly for the people like me who were older. People who liked all the bands of my teens like Nirvana and Radiohead, and suddenly had to grapple with this immediate cultural shift.
HE: Right, and it’s more about run-amok consumerism and capitalism than really making fun of people’s music tastes.
But that also gets into this whole thing that I try express about being a white teenager in the ‘90s. We had this insanely privileged space in pop culture. Everything was so easy and great. The economy was booming. I actually talk about it in terms of Fight Club, a movie about how terrible it is to have a job, a nice apartment and security—but now young people have so little money, so little security, the cost of living has skyrocketed, it’s a radically different world and outlook than in the ‘90s. So it’s hard to explain “No, we thought this was the important stuff!” But we were being so young and myopic about certain things.
HE: We referenced Fight Club a lot when we were talking about it actually…
DK: And I have to say, it’s strange thinking about that now, with the macho, sexist underpinnings of that movie.
HE: You watched it recently?
HE: And it didn’t hold up?
DK: It’s certainly clever, but it’s just just so graphic, full of itself and self-congratulatory.
Yeah, I don’t like the ethos. So many remember it as this brilliant, cool movie, but there’s this deep juvenile element to it. It’s about disaffected young men who, in the end, are just being jerks. Even in the commentary track on the DVD, there’s a moment where Brad Pitt is ranting about cancer patients and the meetings with “healing balls of light” and he’s like, “I don’t get why people would ever do that!” And it’s like, “Oh, you’re just being a young man who just doesn’t have empathy.”
DK: Right, and I can’t speak to the filmmakers, but it’s a movie that seems like it’s [about] people who have never actually had anything bad happen. It’s all fantasy about wanting to have those bad experiences. But it’s still young-bro-white-guy-rage that’s really about nothing. And looking back at it now with my feelings about that? In today’s society?
DK: But through the fever dream of bare knuckle fists in a basement.
The repressed masculine fantasy.
HE: Oof, and the next step is white polos, khakis and tiki torches.
Yeah, and when it comes to that fantasy, as a young man in Boston, I totally bought into that stuff when it came to fighting. Everybody grows up learning to box and fight, but it’s toxic. I look back on it and I’m like, “Oh that was all horrible.”
HE: I don’t think you could make Fight Club today.
DK: I don’t think you’d want to.
Sorry, I just realized we got on a whole Fight Club rant here, but it’s just that in the ‘90s a lot of people really did feel like they had to rebel against the notion that things were great and perfect.
DK: Which was the messaging we were really trying to strike out against. It’s not the music. The problem was, in the end, it was just about selling you stuff.
And Josie really did emanate out of that same cultural space and had its sights on the same consumerist problems. But without all the macho anger and disaffection. It was a satire that can both roll with the punches, laugh at everything, but in the end, just kind of wants to give all its characters a big hug. Even the villains.
HE: And that’s what’s fun—for a movie with that tone to have found an audience. Nay, to have found a passionate audience. Because the fans of this movie really love it. To the point that they’re still talking about it 17 years later; that’s fantastic. That’s what you want as opposed to, “Oh we had a great opening weekend and now people have forgotten about it.” Because it doesn’t feel as disposable. Sure, the movie was operating on a couple levels. But that just means there was something for people to discover and share. It felt like the fans of this movie loved that they were in on something everyone else missed. And that’s what really grew.
DK: It’s like I said, In the end, there’s room for all of it.
And the good stuff lasts.