The cast of Book Club agreed on the idea for a sequel before the movie even came out. "They were like 'Hey, there's going to be a sequel and it's going to be in Italy,'" director and co-writer Bill Holderman says of his stars, Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen.
In 2018's Book Club, Diane (Keaton), Vivian (Fonda), Sharon (Bergen) and Carol (Steenburgen) break free of romantic ruts thanks, in part, to guidance from Christian Grey as they read Fifty Shades of Grey. Looking back at the success of the first film — it made more than $100 million on a modest budget — the call for a sequel might seems obvious. Holderman and co-writer Erin Simms, who are engaged, were just happy the movie resonated in the way it did.
"One of the great gifts of the first movie was being able to see it with audiences and have a bunch of people come up to us and say, 'This is the first character that feels like they talk the way I talk with my friends,' and 'This is how my friends are,' and 'Oh, my book club read Fifty Shades,'" Holderman says. "And especially when it's this type of aspirational comedy, where they really wish they were in this book club."
"Everybody wants to be in a group of friends like that," adds Simms. "And also, there's hope. There's optimism. There's taking chances. There's pushing each other to take risks, and I think everybody wants that."
In the sequel, Book Club: The Next Chapter, the ladies do indeed say arrivederci to their day-to-day lives and head to one of the most delicious places on Earth: Italy. Shooting against the cinematic backdrop of Rome and Venice was a dream come true for Holderman and Simms — to say nothing of the cacio e pepe they ate — but the liberating message of the movie was even more important.
"We want people to have a good time in the theater. But this one, even more so than the first one, we really want people to feel like they have the opportunity and the ability to go do something in their lives that is either something they've always wanted to do or something they've been afraid to do," explains Holderman. "It's still out there. It's still an option."
A.frame: The first film was such a huge success. Was that something you expected?
BILL HOLDERMAN: We really believed in the first movie, but I think it would be very disingenuous to say that we expected it to do what it did and be as successful as it was. But I also think we were not as surprised as many other people.
ERIN SIMMS: I believed from the very beginning. I knew I wanted to see it — I'm a fan of these movies — so I felt very strong in my gut that people were going to like it. But then when it actually happens…
HOLDERMAN: As a person in this business, there's people that have that level of confidence, but most people don't. So, I'm always thinking it's going to be a disaster in whatever we do. So, the expectations were far exceeded.
SIMMS: I was also naive. It was our first movie. So, I'm not as naive this time around. I wish I was! I'm way more nervous this time than I was the first time.
Why do you think that first one went over so well?
HOLDERMAN: I mean, it was brilliantly scripted and directed. Who am I kidding? Listen, the reason why it did so well, I think it's two things: One, I think it was very fresh. I don't think there was anything in the marketplace like it. It was a surprise to a lot of people. I think we did something really smart, which was we cast really, really, really great actors and we let them be really, really true to their strengths. We let funny people be funny. We let romantic people have romance. I think when you do that, you're setting yourself up for at least the chance for success. And two, I think sometimes you just get lucky.
SIMMS: For me, it's funny. It's one thing to go to a movie that's broad and chuckle or whatever, but it's another thing to really laugh. If you can get people to genuinely laugh, it is special, and it doesn't always happen. And then second to that, I think we didn't treat them as older people. They're girlfriends at their book club, they're having a ball. They could have been 20. Obviously, they're older, but they know how to operate a cell phone. They have a life. They talk about things. They do things. And I think that was surprisingly fresh. It wasn't just jokes at their expense.
When did you decide you needed to do the sequel?
HOLDERMAN: What happened was Erin, Jane, Candice and Mary were on a private jet going to CinemaCon in 2018 before the [first] movie came out. And on that short jaunt to Las Vegas, they decided, "There needs to be a sequel and it needs to be in Italy." I was on a Southwest flight in the middle seat. I was like, "What? Huh?" Never did I think we were going to make a sequel. I mean, it was a complete pipe dream! Then the movie starts to do well and the sequel starts to seem like it's a real possibility. And the women became really great friends on the first one. They really were the driver. They were like, "We want to make a sequel. We want to do this again." We were probably the most resistant, because we were like, "Hold on... Most sequels are not great..."
SIMMS: Although they're improving recently. Historically, sequels, it's like, "Eh." It's not as good as the first one. It's a bit of a disappointment.
HOLDERMAN: We didn't want to do a diluted, derivative version of the first movie. We felt like it was special and we were really proud of it, and we didn't want to tarnish that in any way. So, we were pretty hard on it. But then we got excited about the idea, and you get to make a movie with this cast.
SIMMS: And we're going to Italy!
HOLDERMAN: These are things you don't say no to.
You were piecing the story together, and then came the COVID pandemic. How did the process change for you?
HOLDERMAN: Actually, the first time we went to Italy to scout was 2019. The first movie came out summer of 2018, we were in Italy on the ground scouting in 2019, and then it felt like it was never going to happen. And then there was a moment a year before we actually shot it, we were like, "We can pull this all off. We're going to shoot the whole thing in L.A. and go to Italy for one week. And that's it." And thank God that version didn't happen.
SIMMS: The post pandemic version of the script was the best one.
HOLDERMAN: Character-wise, we knew what everyone's journey was. So, then it was a matter of just being honest with what happened to the world, and taking everything that we'd all had to deal with and the isolation and the distance from our friends and having to interact in this way and we didn't want to ignore it. We wanted to embrace it and use the prism of the pandemic to inform our characters and try to do it in a really honest way. It was such a resonant start to where we wanted to go: Start in this isolated, tight, claustrophobic way, get our friends back together, open it up, get to a foreign country, open it up even more, and really feel the opportunity that travel and experience with friends brings.
SIMMS: It created an urgency by starting the movie that way. The entire world knows exactly how we all felt at that moment. It just makes being with your friends [and] having the luxury and privilege to travel so much more meaningful. I mean, I don't think that going to Italy in 2019 and going to Italy in 2022 can compare you. It's like a given in 2019. "Oh, I was just hop on a flight." Now, it's like, holy sh*t! We all survived this thing. I'm going to appreciate this so much more! In a way, it elevated the concept.
In the original Book Club script, you wrote the Diane character with Diane Keaton in mind. How did you feel when you found out that she was down to do it?
SIMMS: I remember the three weeks waiting to hear. I mean, I was an absolute wreck.
HOLDERMAN: Yeah. No, when we get that call, it's a little bit out-of-body. You can't believe it. It's exciting, but you're also then like, "Oh my gosh. How do we not mess this up from here?"
SIMMS: By the way, you know what she said the first time? She said, "Well, you obviously wrote this movie for me." She could tell that we knew everything about her. She knew, which was fun. But we were so excited. It was as good as you would think it would feel. And then when Jane said yes — and she didn't say yes right away. She first said no, and then we rewrote the part completely for her and took a second shot. She, being Jane Fonda, read it a second time, and then she said yes after two weeks of torture.
This is the second time the ladies are playing these roles. How much did they weigh in on their characters?
HOLDERMAN: Through the making of the first movie, we really got to understand them as actors, and as people. And then we, as writers, were able to infuse the script with a little bit more truth in terms of the voice that they bring. Truthfully, I think we got a little better at writing for them. I thought we did a good job on the first movie. I think in the second movie, we got a little bit better at honing in on their voices. So, it's not so much that they felt they needed to influence it more. They influenced it more by the nature of us having the shared experience of making a movie together. Is this true? I think it's the first time Jane Fonda has ever reprised a role in her career. Someone told me that.
SIMMS: Yeah. That it is.
HOLDERMAN: Listen, if we do nothing else in our career … But it was fun to go back into those characters and try to figure out what they're going to do, who they are at this stage. Because the first movie, everyone gets wrapped up pretty neatly, and it was an ambitious order for us to think, "All right, we got to un-package that." We don't want to throw away anything that was great about the relationships that were built, but how do we continue to expand their worlds? Honestly, they were really great on the sequel. Coming out of the sequel too, it's like, everyone was crying the last day. We had one of those experiences that you hear about and you're jealous of.
SIMMS: I think everybody wanted to make a movie that felt worthy of being made, you know what I mean? Not just to do another one for the sake of doing another one. There was a lot of goodwill, and so we felt that from them as well.
Tell me about the dynamic between you two. What's it like working together as creative partners, but also partner-partners?
HOLDERMAN: Oh, boy. Before we answer, I would like to say it works extremely well and it's very calm!
SIMMS: It's simple and easy!
HOLDERMAN: It's very civil!
SIMMS: No, I mean, I think your partnership as writers and also producers, it has its own life force. You go through all the trials and tribulations of a relationship that's separate of your real relationship. And when you're having issues in the writer relationship, it is quite the mental gymnastics not to let it [affect your real relationship]. And it does, by the way. Anybody who tells you, "We don't talk about work after 6 PM..." You might not be talking about it, but you're both thinking about it. And you have to do a lot of mental gymnastics to service the other parts of your lives and think about other things. Sometimes it gets really hard. But then you've got this best friendship, where you're both interested in the same things, the same things excite you, and so whatever the hard stuff is, the good stuff does outweigh it.
HOLDERMAN: The torture chamber that is the writing process can be exacerbated when you're doing it with someone else who, on a human level, you're trying to impress. But they get to see the worst of you where you're like, "I have no thoughts," "I haven't showered," "I'm unhappy for no reason other than we can't solve this," and whatever. So, there's that. But if you work through all of that, and you battle and you solve and you do all the things, and you somehow are still talking to each other, then you get to do something on the other side — for us anyway — which is then you get to go with the person you love to Rome and to Venice, and you get to see actors of this caliber say the words that you guys somehow cracked through together. The positives of that experience — where you get to share that not just superficially, but at the deepest, most core level — that is really, really an incredible thing. I think sometimes, as creative people, we forget the value of just those life experiences, and Erin's actually really good at reminding us of that.
SIMMS: There's a lot of trust.
HOLDERMAN: The lows get lower sometimes but the highs get higher, and you have to find a way to remember that this too shall pass.
SIMMS: It's also really fun. I'm sorry. It's so much fun. We've been working on something else, and when you're in it and when you're in the groove, it's literally the greatest thing. It's indescribable really.
I'm imagining you two just throwing double entendres back and forth at each other.
HOLDERMAN: Breakfast can be pretty egregious when it comes to a pun.
So, where are the ladies heading next?
HOLDERMAN: Oh my gosh. We got to get them back on a plane to Vegas and then they'll let us know.
SIMMS: Listen, let everyone go see our movie, then we can have the opportunity to take them somewhere else. That would be awesome.
By Doriean Stevenson