In 2004, during the final season of HBO’s “Sex and the City,” Carrie Bradshaw dangerously flirted with love in Paris and the seed for a movie version of the show was planted. As the series came to a climactic close—ending a heady era of Manolo Blahniks, cosmopolitans and candid girlfriend camaraderie—creative leader and executive producer Michael Patrick King toyed with the idea of taking the fabulous foursome to the big screen.
When HBO expressed an interest in exploring a movie version shortly after the show wrapped, King drew up a rough outline. But the project quietly ran aground. The actresses’ contracts were put on hold for a period of time and eventually lapsed.
It was a false start, King now admits. “The whole thing was pursued from an artistic level, but not from a business level in any real way,” he says. “There was no real business mandate—there was nothing to point at that it would be a moneymaking venture.”
Then, in the summer of 2006, The Devil Wears Prada arrived in theaters, where it went on to rake in $326 million worldwide. According to King, that took the business heads by surprise. Perhaps they had underestimated the power of the female dollar. “It became, ‘Maybe we missed the buck on making the bucks—literally. If The Devil Wears Prada, which was wonderful, stylistic, artistic, beautiful and a success, could create that much money without any groundswell, then maybe we should re-investigate,’” he recalls.
Soon after, HBO called King up and asked, “Do you want to come up with a script?” Without missing a beat, he agreed.
King, a former stand-up comic and actor in New York City, knows a thing or two about timing. Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he started out working as a writer on “Murphy Brown,” which he calls “the Yale School of Drama for comedy writing,” and went on to work on other sitcoms like “Cybill” and “Will & Grace.” After “Sex and the City” ended, King produced the pilot and other episodes for HBO’s “The Comeback,” starring Lisa Kudrow.
When King started playwriting, he fell in love with the craft. “People would immediately respond,” he explains. “It became the thing that had the most power behind it. Your script is your stock. Over the years, I’ve been fired a couple of times and I’ve also been hired a couple of times. But the reality is, no matter what, if your stock stays up, you will work.”
As writer, director and producer of Sex and the City: The Movie, King set out to create a cinematic feast with dollops of whipped cream and cherries on top. It’s not a traditional romantic comedy, he insists, because it has a lot of drama. “I think it’s romantic storytelling,” he says. “It’s fun because it can go wrong in so many ways.”
King opened up to MM about his writing process, romantic comedies and the foibles of adapting an über-popular TV series to the big screen.
Jennifer Soong (MM): What has been the hardest part of adapting such a popular TV series for the big screen?
Michael Patrick King (MPK): The hardest part was getting people to understand the finances involved in taking something that was legend and redoing it. It was a sprawling script because no one has done a romantic comedy that centers around four women, each having an arc. Usually it’s the star—Kate Hudson—and some girl at Starbucks who’s her side player. If it gets long, you just cut her scenes. I had four stars, so that guaranteed an enormous amount of story and to pay for that story was going to cost. You couldn’t squeeze it into a certain amount of days; it really had to be done well.
MM: What concerns did you face with the budget and finances?
MPK: I had a lot of pressure on me. Then the script also had to be enough to justify the big-budget aspect of the movie. We always knew it had to be a big-budget movie, because it had to be just as fabulous—and more—than the series was. We did not scrimp and save on the series. It was a very decadently designed series, which is why I think people are still able to watch it over and over again. Aside from the writing, aside from identifying with the girls, each detail is beautiful. It wears well on your eye.
MM: Why do you think “Sex and the City” struck such a nerve in pop culture, even years later?
MPK: The main reason is that it was the first voice for a crowd that never had a voice, which is single women. Society had been telling them for years that if they weren’t married, they were losers. “Sex and the City” was the first thing to say, “Hey, maybe we’re great.” Secondly, it had the word ‘sex’ in it, which is always exciting. For me, the great victory was that we turned sex into something pink and fun versus something dark and scary. Even on TBS, where the episodes are completely edited and all the sex is gone, they’re still very compelling. I think that has to do with the idea of eternal friendships and support and love through the rough times as well as the good times.
MM: Do you think the timing between the end of the show in 2004 and the film’s release this spring will be a good or bad thing?
MPK: Oh, it’s perfect. I feel like people actually miss the girls, like it’s palpable. Like they’ve been gone for so long that it’s an event to see them. And the girls still look phenomenal. It was an amazing bonus to have so many people interested in this stunt, this big stunt. I don’t think anyone’s tried to do this before. I guess “The X-Files,” but they had aliens.
MM: Speaking of “The X-Files,” are there any TV-shows-turned-movies that provided a good model for you?
MPK: I can’t name one. Quite frankly, any other television show that was ever made into a movie was not the original. It was many years later and done a little bit like an homage or a parody. No one took the actual actresses who played these actual characters and put them on the big screen as an actual movie. My goal as a writer was to make sure it was a movie and not just a very long television episode.
MM: How was it different directing the movie version versus a single episode?
MPK: To be completely elemental, just the shape of the screen. It went from a square to an oblong. It went from bigger pictures, less talking heads, more visual sweep. I even approached the walk and talk down the street differently. Because I just didn’t want it to be Carrie’s head talking to Miranda’s head. On the big screen it would be absurd. So we explored a lot more framing, the size of the shots, where you go close, where you don’t, the movement of the camera.
MM: Any major differences on the set itself?
MPK: From a design point of view, everything is more real. Carrie’s apartment was redone to be the more realistic dimensions of a New York apartment. It’s subtle, but her hallway is four inches shorter and less wide. We built a coffee shop in an actual building in SoHo versus a television set. So when they’re at the coffee shop, real cars are going down the street. Charlotte’s apartment was redone, the fabrics and everything. It’s all the real thing. It was really important that if it was going to be on the screen, it had to be real.
MM: What was the writing process like for this script?
MPK: It was very, very intense. I wanted to do something that had a great journey. The minute I started writing, I thought, ‘Oh, good, I get to write a movie. It’s going to be longer than half an hour.’ But what I realized was you write what you write. The first script was enormous—365 pages. I realized I had done an entire season. Then I thought, ‘Okay, how do I get this down to the essentials and yet keep all the whipped cream and meat of it, you know?’ So the only way to do it was to get it all out and then start trimming the forest from the trees.
MM: In this case, the audience already knows the characters pretty well. Did this add an extra layer of pressure?
MPK: When I was writing it, there was a lot of pressure because in my head, whether I liked it or not, was the fact that people have high expectations for these girls’ lives. So I was like, ‘I hope this is enough for the fans,’ because they’re really loyal. And they really believe it. They really own these girls. I feel the same way. So for me to write it, I had to put the audience a little bit aside—but they never left.
MM: How did you juggle your different roles as writer and director?
MPK: I was filming this during the writer’s strike. At one point, when I knew the strike was definitely going to happen and we were already filming, I realized that I had to get all my rewrites done. I call them my “psychic rewrites” because I never got to see the scenes work. I knew by the time I got to see the scenes on their feet, it would be during the strike. So I did my psychic rewrites at night, after long days of directing. I would come home and lay down for an hour and then get up and write all night. I did that for three days and turned in all my rewrites the day before the strike. What I realized was writer, director—those are really different densities. I realized that writing is alone, withdrawn and hidden while directing is connected, verbal and visible. To try to be doing the directing when I was halfway in the cave of writing and halfway out was difficult.
MM: Which moviemakers have influenced your work the most?
MPK: Preston Sturges! Preston Sturges influenced me so much that I named Big’s character after him and that’s a secret I just told you. It has something to do with Big’s name in the movie. So yes, I love him. I’ve always loved Woody Allen’s early stuff. I love Robert Altman. I loved movies like Baby Boom—I thought it was hilarious. And I love Paul Thomas Anderson a lot. I like his radical changing from film to film and his daring. But Preston Sturges, c’mon! The fact that he can be stylish and funny and break your heart—it’s the mixed bag of him, that’s what I like the most. The comedy and the style and the drama are all next to each other.
MM: Which romantic comedies—traditional or non-traditional—do you like best?
MPK: I love The Philadelphia Story. I love Bringing Up Baby. I love screwball comedies. I love Love and Death. That’s a non-traditional romantic comedy between Diane Keaton and Woody Allen. I like things with women because I like the full range of emotion that you’re allowed to express. As a comedy writer, women will investigate a lot of what they’re feeling verbally and that’s fun. It certainly made for a good series for six years because they never got tired of talking about shit. Whereas men, you know, they do it differently. They don’t verbalize the nuance of everything they’re feeling so much.
MM: What’s your advice to aspiring moviemakers?
MPK: Put all your energy into your script. Your script is your stock. If your stock stays up, you will work. I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen actors. I’ve seen directors. I’ve seen a lot of people start. The most direct route I’ve ever seen anyone get is: If it’s on the page, you have a very good shot because people respond to scripts and a script can be moved around very quickly. When I was a show runner, we were always hiring new writers. It was a good script when it moved around the group like crack. Like, “This guy has it.” I’m not talking about a perfectly realized thing, I’m talking about your voice—a unique twist in a point of view. From a comedy point of view, a freshness that hasn’t already been seen—even just in the way people talk. A moment like that in your script can move it along and you will get hired. Then it’s up to you to ruin it. mm
Sex and the City: The Movie will be released by New Line Cinema on May 30, 2008.