SEATTLE — Jennifer Westfeldt makes, to use her own term, “subversive” romantic comedies. “Kissing Jessica Stein,” written (with Heather Juergensen) and co-produced by Westfeldt 10 years ago, presented a straight woman surprised to find herself in love with another woman. In “Ira & Abby,” written and co-produced by Westfeldt and released in 2006, a woman decides to change her luck by marrying a man she barely knows. And in the new “Friends with Kids,” opening Friday, a pair of platonic friends decide to raise a child together.
“I guess I have this indie film habit — every five years, I have to make a small movie,” said Westfeldt in a telephone interview last week. (Westfeldt, a charmingly breathless screwball comedienne, also acts in all of her films, and has a busy performing career in television, film and theater.) “When I look back and think about what unites or unifies the three films, I guess they’ve really been my response as an artist to different phases in my life, and responding and documenting some trends and issues and themes that I’m observing.
“I think there is a slightly subversive thread running throughout — ‘why can’t we do it a different way?’”
The kernel of the idea for “Friends with Kids” came, Westfeldt said, from watching many of her friends “making that incredibly intense and profound life-changing transition to being parents, and all of the accompanying highs and lows therein.” In the film’s early scenes, Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Westfeldt), close friends and thirty-something Manhattanites, watch as their friends Leslie and Alex (Maya Rudolph, Chris O’Dowd) and Ben and Missy (Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig) change from carefree lovers to stressed-out moms and dads. Jason and Julie decide to try doing things differently — but find, in true romantic-comedy fashion, another set of complications.
Westfeldt (who’s in a long-term relationship with Hamm; they have no children) said that she wrote half of the movie very quickly, about four years ago, and put it in a drawer.
“It got right to the point where they’d had the baby and all the conflict with the friends, and I didn’t know where to go from there. I didn’t know where that would lead. I got busy with other acting jobs, and I just left it.” Two years ago, she picked it up and finished it, inspired.
“I got reinvested in the initial idea,” she said. “These friends embark on this slightly alternative family arrangement, and they try to change the rules and do it their way, and I was really interested in how it would reverberate among their friends ... I was hoping to explore the various ways the different couples handled the transition. Really, it’s just about how love and friendship and the notion of family evolves and changes as you get older.”
With “Friends with Kids,” Westfeldt stepped into a new role: In addition to writing, producing and starring, she directed the film. That wasn’t the plan originally — Jake Kasdan (“Bad Teacher,” “Orange County”) was scheduled to direct. But the schedules for the cast, which (by coincidence, Westfeldt said) includes many actors from last summer’s hit “Bridesmaids,” came together at one specific time: fall/winter of 2010.
With every independent film, said Westfeldt, “the magical moment arrives when all the actors are available for that one quick window, and you do everything in your power to get it made.” That meant giving up on Kasdan, who was committed to another film (though he stayed on as a producer of “Friends with Kids”), and donning another hat. “The way to make the movie was for me to step in and direct it, and I kind of took a deep breath, and with the encouragement of Jake and Jon and some other amazing producers, I accepted.”
Now that “Friends with Kids” is over, Westfeldt is happy to return to acting; she’s been seen in recent years on television in “24” and “Notes from the Underbelly,” and says she hopes to do a play this summer at New York Stage and Film. But she speaks of the film as one might of a child, still holding it close. Of the world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, she watched the film “shaking and trembling in the back, my head buried on Jon’s shoulder,” and waiting anxiously for news about acquisition. (The film was bought shortly after the festival, by Roadside Attractions.)
“It’s nerve-racking for every independent film team,” she said. “It’s like you’re sending your kid to college, and you’re like, ‘I hope he gets in, I hope the other kids like him.’”