When it comes to making movies about funny women, Tracy Oliver might be Hollywood’s first call. She co-wrote Girls Trip, a movie with as many scenes about the ethics of friendship as there were scenes devoted to getting professionally drunk in New Orleans. She wrote Little, a riff on Big, in which a teenage Marsai Martin puts on a blazer and effectively talks down to all of the adults around her. Next she’s doing new versions of First Wives Club (for BET) and Clueless (at Paramount), continuing to pull classic movie conventions into the present. Oliver, who started out as a performer at Stanford and later acted alongside Issa Rae in Awkward Black Girl, started writing when she wasn’t getting enough of the roles she wanted to play herself. The decision was also, partly, made on the advice of her mom, who was tired of hearing her complain: “I would be like, ‘Oh, there’s not a lot of roles for women who look like me.’” But when you’re a writer, you can create that role, Oliver says. “You have the power to write it. And the thing about writing is that it’s free. You don’t have to raise money to write. There’s no gatekeeper. There’s no one telling you you can’t do it.”
Oliver makes it seem easy, but the job isn’t without its hurdles. How, exactly, do you remake movies that a generation grew up rewatching — movies you grew up rewatching? And what happens when you don’t get all the control you thought writing would help you regain? In between projects, Oliver talked to Vulture about paying homage to the iconic “You Don’t Own Me” scene in First Wives Club, the terror that comes with remaking Clueless for today’s teens, and why she doesn’t regret speaking out against that transphobic line in Little.
I want to start with First Wives Club because I watched it last night for the first time in a couple years, and I’d forgotten just how great it is. What was your experience with the original?
It was just that rare movie that me and my mom and my sister all liked. We’re all very different women and for some reason that movie brought us together. It’s really feel-good, really fun. I think a lot of comedies right now are not leaning into fun. They’re almost like dramas. With this, I really want people to laugh — women in particular. And it was really important for me to keep all of the women over 40.
Why was it important to you to keep the women over 40?
That honestly was a discussion that was part of me reimagining it. People were saying to me, “Divorce isn’t what it used to be. People are getting divorced in their 20s. People are getting divorced in their 30s.” And that’s true, you can totally do a First Wives Club where everyone’s younger. People are getting divorced younger. But the other part of what made First Wives Club special is that we’re talking about women who are told they’re irrelevant and are forgotten after a certain age. That’s part of the movie that I don’t want to undo.
There’s that great “You Don’t Own Me” rendition at the end of the original movie. I’d totally forgotten that Ariana Grande made that one of the first visual referents for “Thank U, Next” when she performed on Ellen.
We definitely did our own nod to it [in the reboot]. I can’t say specifically what we did, but it’s in our finale. It was inspiring seeing Ariana, honestly, because we were shooting the show. She shouted out First Wives Club! Everyone was like, Oh my God, Ariana Grande is aware of the show. What also made us fan out over it was that I named one of the new characters Ari, and in the song she says Ari. Isn’t that weird?
You’re also remaking Clueless. Did you grow up really loving the movie?
I did. I loved it so much that this project scared me, if I can be completely honest.
Tell me why.
Paramount approached me to do it. Clueless, for me, was so unique to the ’90s. Everybody in it was so perfectly cast, and Amy Heckerling is just a genius. I think she’s incredibly underrated as a writer and a filmmaker. My initial reaction was, Absolutely not. They basically said that it’s not a remake, per se, but a reimagining. That made me think, Okay, there is a 2019 or a 2020 version of a group of teens that would be the Clueless for this generation. If I’m not beholden to doing the exact same story and setting it in the ’90s and making it the exact same movie, if I can have a blank slate to think about what it means to be a teen of different cultures and sexualities.
What is your writing process, typically? Where do you write, or when do you write?
I typically do note-carding first: I just write out on a card every single scene that I know is in the movie. It’s very fun for me because I literally will take note cards and just put them across the floor, or put them on a poster board. At that point it’s fun because you’re not married to anything; you can move it around. Then once you feel like you have a movie, I will kind of translate those cards into outlining. The outlining process is really extensive for me. I like to spend less time on the script and more time in the preparation phase. When I get to the script I have a really good road map.
Because I’m a crazy Gemini, I have a hard time being in the same location all the time, so sometimes I like to travel and isolate myself if I’m gonna have to crank out a movie. I’ll just find an Airbnb and I literally just stake out a location.
Last year you told Rookie that “writing is the most powerful currency you can have.” I’m curious when and how you realized that?
The reason I even became a writer, honestly, was because I felt like there was a lack of power and control with acting. As much as I enjoy performing, you’re always auditioning for someone. Acting is one of those things where you can give a great read, give a great audition, give a great performance, but if you’re not even physically what they’re looking for, it’s out of your control. There’s nothing you can do about it. I felt like I was always at someone else’s mercy. My solution to that — which my mom told me, because she’s not here for me complaining about anything — was, “Well, then go learn how to write and direct.”
As long as you have an idea and a vision, you can write. You can teach yourself. I thought that was really powerful, that I don’t have to get permission to write. I can do it whenever I feel like it. If you end up being good at writing it’s even more powerful. Because then people are coming to you to create stuff and you’re not at the mercy of hoping that someone else creates it for you. Once I realized how powerful that was, I kind of became addicted to it.
In the two years since you made history with Girls Trip, do you think you’ve gotten the kinds of opportunities you wanted?
It’s a lot easier than it used to be. I think people are more receptive to me coming into a room and pitching something with diverse leads in it because now I can point to something and say, well, [Girls Trip] cost $19 million and it made $150 million. Pre–Girls Trip, the problem was I wanted to do something about black women getting drunk forever, because that’s, like, what I do in life.
I mean, yes. Same.
Right. I’m like, I know I do this stuff, so I know that there’s a fun party movie in it. But everyone would say, “But in Bridesmaids those are white women.” Maya Rudolph was in it, but it was mostly white. People would tell me, “Um, you know that can’t happen because it’s not gonna make a lot of money.” Until you create the thing that you can then point to, there’s no example for it.
There was a period when I was pitching a black horror movie and I had a similar thing, you know? Where I was told, “Well, we don’t really have examples of that.” And then of course, Get Out comes out. So my experience now is that because we have Girls Trip and Get Out, the landscape is much friendlier. That’s not to say that we don’t have a long way to go.
Back to this idea of control, I did want to ask about a line in Little that many saw as transphobic. On Twitter, you said that it wasn’t your line and that you didn’t have final say. As a credited writer, how does that feel when you don’t have any say over the final cut of something, where you have to give up that control to a studio?
It’s hard. And that’s the downside of writing for a studio. Especially when you’re a movie writer. In TV, writers and showrunners tend to have a lot more control. In the movie space it’s still a director’s medium, and what traditionally happens is that you write your script, or you write several drafts of a script, and you send it in. After that you don’t really see it through to the end. Very few writers are on set, very few writers are participating in the casting, the postproduction. After you deliver your draft, that’s it. You don’t really have a say in how a movie comes out, or stuff that’s chosen to be included in it.
I was really, really happy with [the process of working with] Malcolm Lee on Girl’s Trip. I thought he elevated so much of the writing, so it’s not to say that it’s always negative. But every now and then you see something that doesn’t fit who you are, and you didn’t write it but your name is on it. That [line in Little] was a particular instance where I was getting so many comments online and people talking about it, and it was something that I also found jarring when I saw the movie. I felt like I had to say something. And I want to be clear that I think the movie as a whole had a lot of good stuff in it. I really enjoyed it. But that particular thing I didn’t write, and I wanted to take a stand and say that because that’s not who I am. I think that the joke was probably, you know, written with a better intention than how it landed. But either way if something doesn’t land in a way that is healthy and positive for people, I didn’t want to endorse it. Sometimes that happens, and that was the first time that’s happened to me.
Since we’ve been talking about women in their 40s, I’m wondering how you see yourself in your 40s. What will Tracy Oliver be doing, feeling, seeing?
I hope I’m a boss. That’s so vague, but really what I mean is that I want my own company. I finally officially started my own production company this year, and by 40 I’m hoping to have a lot of projects under my belt, to really usher in a new crop of writers and filmmakers and artists, people who are mostly women and diverse, just people that normally wouldn’t have had an opportunity to break through the studio system. I really don’t feel that you can stay relevant and stay active in your 40s and beyond without growing and nurturing and mentoring a new group of people.