VISITING SEATTLE recently to discuss the movie they wrote and star in, Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt recounted how Kissing Jessica Stein evolved from their '97 stage show—a year before a certain HBO series debuted. "We were ahead of the group," Westfeldt exclaims. The movie rights were swiftly sold and a screenplay written by early '98; then the writers endured two years of development hell prior to Stein's fall '00 production—during which time Sex and the City, Bridget Jones's Diary, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, and others capitalized on the dating anxiety zeitgeist.
Then there are all those fear-mongering magazine stories about the shortage of available men in Manhattan. Is the crisis real or just a way to peddle books, magazines, and movies? "I do think it's real," answers Westfeldt. "People of our generation are getting married much later."
Both women are aware of how an entire self-help-book industry has been built on the same subject. "The Rules was coming out when we were writing [the show]," says Juergensen, "and also Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. It was fun for us to send those up a little bit."
Yet sending up the dating game also means accepting certain mainstream conventions, adds Westfeldt. "We wanted to shatter stereotypes and maybe embrace them before we shatter them. I definitely think we play with that notion of turning classic romantic comedy on its ear with a modern theme and, in so doing, hopefully, possibly letting the audience forget they're watching two women. We knew we would alienate the far left and the far right; we might get everyone in between."
In this respect, Stein can be thought of as a kind of When Sally Met Sally picture, set in a prosperous New York City where everyone has a nice apartment and quirky, colorful friends. Alluding to the famously divided red-and-blue electoral map of '00, Westfeldt acknowledges that Stein hopes to reach both markets, the coasts and the heartland. "[The movie] seems to be more inclusive than most of the gay-themed films that end up in an art house, skewing toward one demographic. And certainly I don't think any conservative types would ever go see some of those movies. They might go to this if they think, 'Oh, it's a comedy!' We've seen that happen with a few screenings And they've been a bit won over—which is probably our greatest hope."
On a more pragmatic note, Juergensen recalls conducting some impromptu market testing of two different Stein posters—one emphasizing the two women, the other picturing Jessica with a bunch of male dates—in an Alabama bar. Laughing, she recalls one patron's response to the latter: "Like an episode of Friends!"