Though in the last decade, women have found more work as directors and showrunners on TV, movies are still in the Stone Age when it comes to gender equality. In fact, a recent study showed that in 2016, only 7% of the 250 highest-grossing movies were directed by women, a 2% drop from the year before.
There’s no better example of this imbalance than the male-dominated comedy movie market, where women are rarely ever given the opportunity to helm outside of rom-coms. So even though there has been needed attention and praise for recent releases like Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” and Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled,” we shouldn’t ignore the significance of Sony releasing Lucia Aniello’s raunchy R-rated comedy “Rough Night” on Friday.
In the last 20 years, there aren’t many examples of women making studio R-rated comedies. The three “Bridget Jones” movies were all helmed by women (Sharon Maguire did the first and third movies, Beeban Kidron made the second), in 2009 Nancy Meyers made “It’s Complicated,” and then you have to go all the way back to 1998’s Dave Chappelle-starring classic “Half Baked,” directed by Tamra Davis. So Aniello, who is best known for directing and cowriting many episodes of the Comedy Central hit “Broad City,” is the latest on a very short list. Which she wasn’t aware of for a while.
“I think it’s a big deal because it’s my first movie, period,” Aniello recently told Business Insider. “That’s why it feels like a pretty big moment for me. The fact that there’s this additional curse thing that has been broken, which I didn’t know about until a few weeks ago, I just hope in some small way if this movie is able to pave the way for anybody else to make an R comedy by women for women, then I think it’s done its job.”
Aniello and her partner Paul W. Downs (who along with being a writer on “Broad City” also plays Trey on the show) wrote the script for “Rough Night” during a break between seasons of “Broad City.” While much of the humor and story on the show — which follows the antics of Ilana (Ilana Glazer) and Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) as they navigate life in New York City — revolve around experiences the staff had in their 20s, Aniello and Downs thought of a way to explore life in their 30s.
“We realized that a lot of our closest friendships have kind of gone to the back burner,” Aniello said. “We had a lot of bachelorette and bachelor parties that we went to and we started talking about this idea of what happens when you have people from college you feel you could never ever live without, but 10 years later, where are you? And is everyone on equal footing or are there issues that have come up?”
They decided to explore those questions inside a raunchy comedy. Over the course of a bachelorette party in Miami, five friends have fun until everything goes very wrong after the stripper they hired dies in a horrific accident.
Aniello and Downs began to pitch it to studios, but there were two stipulations to buying the project: Aniello would have to direct it and Downs would have to play the super-sensitive fiance, Peter. And to their delight, multiple studios were interested in the script, but Sony was the most aggressive.
“From the first conversation, Sony was ready to throw down and make the movie,” Aniello said. “For us we weren’t necessarily interested in who is going to give us the most money, we were like, ‘Let’s make this thing,’ and that was always our goal from day one. We would have Kickstartered it if we had to, shot it on cell phones in a borrowed house. We just wanted to make something that we really cared about.”
But then things got even better when they found that one of the most bankable actresses in the world wanted to play the lead: Scarlett Johansson.
“It was a complete shot in the dark,” Aniello said about sending the script to Johansson’s people. “I don’t even know if she was looking for that kind of a thing.”
However, Aniello felt the only way to pull off the emotional third act of the movie — in which bachelorette Jess (Johansson) and her friends (Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer, Kate McKinnon, Zoë Kravitz) open up about being left out of each other’s lives — was with a lead who had serious chops.
“We definitely wanted an actress who had the range of comedy and drama. For us there were very few people in general that we were interested in,” Aniello said.
Though Aniello had no doubts Johansson could pull off the comedy, having seen her hold her own on “Saturday Night Live,” watching her work on the set of a fast-paced comedy movie was still impressive.
“We would give her a Post-It with 30 words on it and she would read it once, hand it back, and I would say, ‘Action,’ and she would deliver it verbatim, perfect timing,” Aniello said. “She’s an unbelievable machine.”
Looking back on the first major movie they’ve been able to make, Downs recalls the back-and-forth with the studio that all hard-R movies experience, like a scene in which his character is offered oral sex at a gas station. Downs said they had to shoot a version that didn’t include the mention of oral sex to appease the studio, but after test screenings, the dirtier version was kept. But another highlight was the camaraderie that was built because of the female power behind the scenes.
“Comedy has always been a boys’ club, so I think in that way we knew it was significant that Lucia was directing,” Downs said. “And because it was a woman director and a female cast, all around the same age, they all became girlfriends. That’s the biggest success of this film, how much everyone got along.”
“I’m lucky to be in a position where I can help move the needle, so I’m kind of concentrating on that,” Aniello said of her place in furthering women-directed comedies. “Come and laugh and maybe Hollywood will let women make more R comedies.”
It may just change the landscape of gross-out, goofy R comedies as we know it.