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Monday, October 1, 2018

'The Hairy Bird: and the lessons Hollywood didn’t learn from Now and Then'

* Full disclosure: I wrote this back in 2015. I tried pitching the article to various online magazines and pop-culture websites, but nobody had heard of The Hairy Bird (or its other iterations) so the article went nowhere. Then I saw Jenna Guillaume's Buzzfeed article on her re-watch of the film and I was inspired to go read my own article again. 

And ... aside from it having some pretty telling condemnations (especially now) of Harvey Weinstein's movie taste where female portrayals are concerned, I found it to still be so relevant - everything Sarah Kernochan told me then still applies today.

So here it is. 

[left to right] Merritt Wever, Gaby Hoffmann, Kirsten Dunst, and Heather Matarazzo.

When I was eight-years-old I started wearing pedal-pusher pants, Chuck Taylors and was desperate to drink Coke out of a glass bottle. Because when I was eight-years-old I saw the movie Now and Then for the very first time – a film about four 12-year-old girls growing up together during an eventful small-town summer in 1970. I was obsessed with the film, and regularly rented it from my local Civic Video store (shut up, it was 1995!).  

So when director Lesli Linka Glatter spoke to Vulture in February, revealing that she and writer I. Marlene King are still friends and hinting that they’ve explored the idea of a remake, my inner eight-year-old was thrilled.
But then reality kicked in.

Putting aside the possibility of disaster that comes with remaking a classic, the more I thought about it, the more frustrated I was with the idea of a Now and Then reboot (and not just because that word is fast becoming the most overused in 2015 – between Twin Peaks and The X-Files). No, I was frustrated because the legacy of Roberta, Teeny, Samantha and Chrissy shouldn’t be to retell their coming-of-age story. Rather, the cult-classic status of that film should compel Hollywood to make more movies focused on young female narratives, because there simply aren’t enough of them. Glatter even told Vulture the reason they made Now and Then in the first place was because, “there hadn't been anything done about young girls growing up,” and – ummm – there still isn’t a hell of a lot.

Really, it’s hard for me to name any recent American films for young ‘tween’ girls (no, those great HelloFlo period ads don’t count) … instead you’ve got to look at more dynamic international and indie films like 2013’s Swedish-Danish drama We Are the Best! about three rebellious teenagers who form an all-girl punk band in 1980s Stockholm. Or the 2014 French film Girlhood, about young Marieme, who joins an all-girl gang in the projects of Paris.

In fact, if you’re looking for evidence that Now and Then had any real impact on the way Hollywood recognized the need and potential in telling stories that appeal to young female audiences … you’ll be pretty disappointed. Case in point was another female-focused 90s movie that had such a struggle, it really crystallizes the fact that film studios didn’t learn any lessons from Now and Then or realize the potential in harnessing female audiences.

The Hairy Bird is a film set in the 1960s which follows a group of friends at Miss Godard's Preparatory School for Girls who learn that their school is going to be combined with a nearby all boys school. They concoct a plan to save their school from the invading St. Ambrose Boys academy, and learn some lessons about themselves along the way.

The Hairy Bird came out in 1998, and I fell in love with it as fiercely as I did Now and Then three years earlier – not least because I related to the unique dilemmas of the all-girls school environment. The cast alone was a 90s slam-dunk: there’s Kirsten Dunst (who would go on to star in another cult-classic for my generation, Bring It On and the brilliant The Virgin Suicides), Rachael Leigh Cook (She’s All That), Heather Matarazzo (from another indie classic, Welcome to the Dollhouse), Mad Men alum Vincent Kartheiser and – *drumroll, please! – Samantha from Now and Then, the wonderful Gaby Hoffmann!

In many ways The Hairy Bird deliberately doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, because the storyline revolves around the girls planning to keep Miss Godard's same-sex by holding back the tide of an invading boy’s school. Or as Kernochan once described it, the film is about; “the incursion of the penis in young girls lives,” (hence, The Hairy Bird refers to male genitalia and in one scene, Dunst’s character declares; “I'm not gonna live in the shadow of the Hairy Bird!”).

I recently spoke to writer and director Sarah Kernochan about the film, which she admits, “Had a difficult birth, overcoming the inertia of an industry which traditionally has had reservations about women running things.” And despite being a success in Canada and Australia, her female-focused drama was bought down by an American distributor who wanted it to appeal more to young male audiences.

[left to right] Actors Gaby Hoffmann and Lynn Redgrave with writer/director Sarah Kernochan

‘It took about seven years to get financing, and to get a financial entity to believe that you could make a movie with an almost solely female cast,’ Kernochan says during our Skype chat, ‘Everyone shied away from it, because there were no major men’s parts and the girls were either fifteen or the head mistress was an older woman in her 50’s and they couldn’t understand why that should be bankable.’
‘There had been a number of films up until then that had been successful, that should have proved to producers that in fact an audience would show up for this. It was Clueless, it was Titanic (which was a completely different film) but it was driven by girls of that age. You just had to know how to get them in and market to them. And that’s what nobody could figure out how to do.’

Eventually a Canadian company financed the film, which was then picked up by Harvey Weinstein for distribution by Miramax … and that’s when things started to go wrong. Weinstein envisioned The Hairy Bird as a Porky’s for female audiences, and as detailed in Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, he wanted to have greater editorial control over the film which eventually saw him pushing Kernochan to make it more appealing to male audiences. ‘At one time we had two versions screening for audiences at a mall – my version, and his version cut for young male audiences – and the scores came out exactly the same,’ Kernochan explains, ‘But one reason for mine not having higher scores was that it wasn’t finished – it didn’t have a soundtrack, or looped dialogue. But even though it wasn’t finished, my version still received positive feedback. But his cut of the film was just disastrous, and once he realized that he wasn’t going to turn this all-girls for a girl audience film into a female Porky’s, then he got very cool on the whole thing.’

Weinstein even insisted on changing the title of Kernochan’s film, because he believed The Hairy Bird was too vulgar a reference (‘but American Pie did it!’ she points out), so the film ended up having three titles – Strike! in Canada and All I Wanna Do in the US – but it retained its original title and the version of the film that Kernochan envisioned made its way to Australia, because the distributor here refused to change it (much to Harvey’s chagrin, because he hadn’t bought Australian territory rights).

In America the film had a single week of screenings, bringing in just $5,383 before going straight to video and DVD. But it was a success in Canada and Australia (who saw the Kernochan cut of the film) – ‘I wrote it for me and my friends,’ Kernochan says, ‘I figured between mothers and daughters we would be cool. I mean, if you make 20 million dollars off of a 1.5 million dollar budget film, that’s good! And that’s what we made in Canada.’

I ask Kernochan if she thinks the film would still struggle, if she’d been pitching it to studios today; ‘Nowadays I would not have even bothered, I would have gone straight to television because women rule on TV. It’s completely the opposite.’

Monica Keena as Tinka Parker leading the Godard's rebellion 

She’s absolutely right, of course – much has been written about the female disparity between film and television, but to really boil it down consider that Now and Then’s director Lesli Linka Glatter is now the director of television show Homeland, for which she has been Emmy-nominated and awarded by the Directors Guild of America. Meanwhile, the writer of Now and Then I. Marlene King is today executive producer and showrunner on the teen television series Pretty Little Liars. Those two women – who made a cult-classic about young girls growing up because there were no such films at the time – have gone on to find greater success in TV because that movie has remained the exception to the studio’s rule that stories about young girls don’t have an audience.  

My inner eight-year-old would love a reboot, but adult me who was shaped by my watching films like Now and Then and The Hairy Bird despairs at the thought that Glatter and King would rather tell the same story again, rather than challenge an industry that insists young girls are not a ‘bankable’ audience.


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