When you find the theme week you want to spend the rest of your life with, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible. Thankfully, The Ringer hereby dubs this week Rom-Com Week, a celebration of one of the most delightful, captivating genres in film. Head to the top of the Empire State Building, order what she’s having, and join us as we dig into everything the rom-com has had to offer over the years.
The first time P.J. Hogan ever flew on a private jet, he was headed for disaster. On his way to Phoenix for a test screening of My Best Friend’s Wedding, the Australian director was eager to witness the first reactions to his new romantic comedy. But after a friendly plane ride with Sony head John Calley and producer Jerry Zucker, Hogan’s mood shifted dramatically on the desert ground. Despite uproarious laughter throughout the first two acts of the movie, “silence reigned supreme” over its final 30 minutes, Hogan recalls. “And by the time we got to the end, it was hatred.”
Originally, Sony executives demanded their A-list star close out the movie on a high note, prompting Hogan and screenwriter Ronald Bass to give Jules (Julia Roberts) a redemptive meet-cute with a new man (John Corbett) during the end credits. But after watching her repeatedly fail to break up a wedding between her best friend Michael (Dermot Mulroney) and his college-student fiancé Kimmy (Cameron Diaz), the Arizona audience had no interest in seeing the movie’s hero-turned-villain get a happy ending. Inside the theater, it didn’t take long to see the decision backfire—audience members crucified Jules on their note cards. “You’d have thought we made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and I was asking them to root for Leatherface,” Hogan says. “It was just awful.”
Hogan, who’d broken out a few years earlier with Muriel’s Wedding, headed back to L.A. believing he’d blown his first shot at Hollywood. “I felt like my career was over,” Hogan says. “I felt like it deserved to be over.” But Zucker remained optimistic that Hogan had a hit on his hands—he just needed to reshoot the ending, something the Aussie director had never considered as an option. “When I knew there was a possibility of reshoots, hope rose like the sun over the horizon for me,” Hogan says with a laugh. Soon, he and Bass began tweaking the script, revising the end so that Jules’s fan-favorite gay friend, George (Rupert Everett), showed up to the wedding instead, easing her single pain with a familiar song and dance. “That’s the message of the screenplay—sometimes the person you love isn’t your lover,” Hogan says. “Rupert kept saying, ‘You need me at the end.’ I think he knew the impact he was going to have in the film way before any of us did.”
The new material rescued the movie (a second test screening proved much smoother) and the last-minute changes—on top of a variety of other musical additions and rewrites—paid major dividends. Throughout the summer of 1997, My Best Friend’s Wedding earned $127 million at the domestic box office and added another $172 million globally, turning the genre’s standard fairy-tale ending on its head while affirming Roberts’s unwavering star power. Almost 25 years later, it remains a modern rom-com classic, one that Hogan still enjoys dissecting and theorizing about to this day. And over the course of two-plus hours, he was game to answer every question we had. “There’s something fizzy and vital and alive about it at its best,” he says. “But it has a lot to do with the fact that she doesn’t get the guy.”
I’ve heard you say that when you read Ronald Bass’s script for the first time, it didn’t really seem like a rom-com.
No, it wasn’t very romantic and it wasn’t very funny. I kind of knew around the midpoint, you had to start questioning the strength of [Michael and Julianne’s] romance. If you start to think they belong together, the ending would collapse, and the ending was why I did the movie. The major thing to me was it needed to be a lot funnier, so I started riffing with [my wife] Jocelyn [Moorhouse]. Rupert Everett’s character, George, was only in two scenes—the opening scene, and when he showed up in Chicago to give Julianne some sage advice.
Considering how big of a role he plays, that seems wild to me.
I wanted George to hang around. I’d never read a script in the early ’90s that had an openly gay character pleased to be himself in the way his best friend isn’t. I said to Jocelyn, I really love this character, and I think he could really make a mark in the movie. We had some Australian friends in town, we all got drunk and we pretty much riffed the whole “George visits Chicago” scene when Julianne gets the great idea to pass him off as her fiancé. We were just roaring with laughter.
What did you make of Julia Roberts at the time? Why do you think she was interested in portraying a darker character?
I found her absolutely charming, and I saw immediately what made her a movie star. I suspected that, much like me, she didn’t expect her career to be founded on romantic comedies. I think Pretty Woman was such a blockbuster that she got pigeonholed. This was an actress who really wanted to do something that her audience didn’t expect. There was a lot of pressure on Julia that she was returning to her wheelhouse: This one had better connect.
So let’s get into the movie: Do you think it was in poor taste for Michael to invite Jules to be part of his wedding at the last minute? It seems obvious he’s inviting disaster to happen.
Yeah, look, I wouldn’t have done it. I remember talking to Ron about it and Ron simply said, “If he doesn’t, there’s no movie, P.J. So what do you want to do about this?” I chalk that up to the “Big Ask.” Every movie always has a Big Ask to accept this one thing, and if you accept that one thing, we promise we’ll make it worth your while.
Michael is a 28-year-old sportswriter and Kimmy is a 20-year-old University of Chicago student. How do you think that they met?
I’m not a sports guy, and I knew nothing about American football or baseball. I spoke to a Sports Illustrated journalist who told me how much of it was unrealistic and unbelievable. But if I were to change his profession, it would be like pulling a building block out of the screenplay. None of us had the time to think of another job that still worked, because it had to be unpleasant—Julianne had to have something to inflame Kimmy’s doubts. You’re going to be stuck traveling with this dude all around the country in a low-paying job. I remember that Dermot and Cameron knew how they met, but I didn’t care because the film wasn’t about them. Philip Bosco’s character was the owner of the White Sox. That’s how they met!
Of course, if you’re marrying the daughter of the White Sox owner, and hanging around the owner’s box, isn’t that a huge conflict of interest for a sports journalist?
Yeah, I remember talking with Dermot that sportswriting was his love, but we did talk about what his future career was. He wanted to be a novelist, so I think we just decided that eventually he was going to have a shot at the Great American Novel, and maybe it would be sports related—what really happens behind the scenes. I know he had bigger fish to fry than just being a sportswriter.
Well, if you marry into a billionaire’s family, you’re not going to need to scrounge around for writing gigs.
I always thought he should have taken the PR job. When Michael was being noble and going “I want to be broke, I want to struggle for a living,” I remember thinking, Is this guy not very bright? Take the job with dad and do what you want to do. There should be a whole separate movie about Kimmy and Michael’s relationship.
There’s a running gag throughout the movie that shows Kimmy being a terrible driver. Where did she learn to drive, and how tough was that to shoot?
That was Cameron driving. We lucked out there because there was a section of the freeway in Chicago very close to the inner city that was under construction, so Cameron did her own driving and she floored it. Most of the cars were only doing 30 miles per hour, and she’s doing 60. So it looks like she’s doing 110. I think Kimmy drives like a rich person, like an heiress. She’s also got a gleaming BMW, so nobody’s ever going to hit her because they’ll be paying for the damage for the rest of their lives.
Why does Kimmy have so few friends to the point of needing to enlist her fiancé’s former lover as her maid of honor?
As I recall, Kimmy’s best friend broke her hip “line dancing in Abilene.” But like Jules says later, “You didn’t trust me for a moment. You wanted to keep me close.” The Michael Corleone rule: “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.”
For the karaoke scene, was Cameron’s voice actually that bad, or did she have to act like she couldn’t sing well?
No, it’s that bad. Cameron told me beforehand that she can’t sing, and I said, well that’s perfect because the character can’t sing. She didn’t want to do it live, but I’d always noticed that Cameron was one of the easiest blushes, and I really wanted to capture that on film.
I love the bridge scene so much. Was Jules originally meant to struggle with admitting her love for Michael as the boat crosses under the bridge, or was that improvised?
It seems like an odd reference, but The Last Picture Show is one of my favorite films. There’s a character named Sam the Lion sitting by a water tank talking about a lost love, and right when it gets to his close-up, the sun comes out. They couldn’t have planned it because it was an overcast day, and then when he talks about how he lost her, the sun goes back behind the clouds. I remember thinking I would love to have a moment like that. I remember trying to time the confession for a bridge, and that was virtually impossible, but it accidentally happened on the first take. The timing never worked again.
Was the rehearsal lunch always going to be centered around “I Say a Little Prayer”?
Yeah, the scene was conceived around that song, because to have a spontaneous sing-along, it had to be a song everybody knew but didn’t know that they knew. I went through a number of possibilities and tested them on people. I’d start them on the first line, but the one that really stuck was “I Say a Little Prayer.” Everybody knew what to say after “The moment I wake up…”
Did every actor go into the studio at some point and record their verses with you?
No, I got them all in at once and we did it as a group recording. And I only did it as a guide track. What we ended up doing was playing the guide track on the set, and then they sang over the guide track. So it’s both.
Has Dionne Warwick ever reached out to you about the movie?
The original ending was really terrible—it ended with leaving Julianne on the dance floor as a waiter starts singing, “I Say a Little Prayer.” And I thought I may as well turn this into a musical and maybe I can have Dionne Warwick in it. At that time, Dionne lived in South Africa and granted us just one day with her. But she didn’t show up. She didn’t get on the plane. She would have been cut out anyway, so she made the right call.
Has she ever contacted you?
No, I don’t know what Dionne Warwick thinks of her lionization in the film. The most famous version is Aretha’s version, but Dionne recorded it first, so it was important to me that that be acknowledged in the scene.
Speaking of music, what’s the story behind the kids sucking on helium and singing John Denver?
When I read the first draft it was the funniest thing in the script, but originally it was “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I loved that song, but Paul Simon asked to see the screenplay because he protects his music like a hawk protecting her eggs. I wanted to get on the phone and talk him into it, but I thought there’s no way you can do this song sung on helium respectfully. I just have to send him the screenplay. And Paul predictably said, “No, any other song but this one. I can’t have a group of teenagers singing it on helium.” But “Annie’s Song” seemed to work just as well.
I’d imagine those kids actually sucked helium, right?
Well, I couldn’t stop them. There was helium on set, because the balloons were being filled up for the sequence. We told them not to suck helium because it could be done so easily in post, but from the moment we started rehearsing, they were sucking helium. I think by the end they were so high, and they would talk to me in their helium voices, and I remember having to film them very quickly because I thought there was going to be a helium catastrophe—they were going to collapse if I didn’t get them off set.
Kimmy’s dad writes all of his emails during the day, saves them as drafts, and then has his assistant send them all out at the end of the day. Was that a thing people did in the ’90s, or is Kimmy’s dad a gigantic weirdo?
We shot the film in 1996 and honestly, I had never sent an email, so I didn’t know. And Ron was an emailer, so I thought “Ron emails with people, he knows.” But in retrospect, it really is quite ridiculous to write emails, then put them in a box and just say “send all my emails at the end of the day.” The point of emails is you write them and send them off right then and there. I feel like I’m pinning all the film’s mistakes on Ron. I just thought emails were something corporations and big businesses did, maybe that was true at the time.
It’s pleasantly surprising to see Paul Giamatti in the hotel hallway every time I watch this movie. How did you find him for the bellhop role?
We knew it was an important scene. Paul just came in and he was wonderful. It was instantly, “I’ve got to have this guy.” He was just so good. What I didn’t know was that Paul had knee trouble and the whole sequence involved him crouching in front of Julia. Paul said, “I think I’d stay standing the whole time.” And I went, “You wouldn’t, Paul, this is supposed to be an intimate moment.” And then he just said, “I’m in incredible pain when I kneel down.” Maybe you can even see a grimace.
I think you have to admit that Jules lending her and Michael’s song to Michael and Kimmy seems a little strange.
Yeah. I went for it. She originally also read Michael a poem, which was very beautiful, but was basically saying, “I’m still in love with you,” which is another reason the last act went completely wrong. The audience was going, “The bitch still loves him? What’s going on?” So we had to re-do the speech. She couldn’t be reading a poem. What are you, setting up the sequel? My Best Friend’s Divorce?
Acknowledging that George’s presence saves the ending of the movie, how plausible was it that he would fly from New York to Chicago twice in two days, considering he hates to fly?
There’s no way I would fly from New York to Chicago to save my loony friend, whose actions I don’t approve of anyway. But that always struck me as “Jeez, he’s a good friend.” So I shot that first sequence to at least give him some impetus to do it. I thought “in for a penny, in for a pound.” Would you really not want him to show up at the end? People absolutely loved it. As implausible as it might seem, everybody in that audience wanted a friend who would do that for them.
Sign up for the
The Ringer Newsletter
Who is the villain of this movie? Do you think Michael is potentially worse than Jules?
I’ve had a lot of people say to me, “He’s complicit, at the very least.” I still believe that the villain and the hero of the movie was Julia’s character. He still has an attraction to her, that’s obvious. But I don’t think that’s necessarily wrong. I’m married, and I know that when the weeks were counting down to my wedding day, I started having cold feet. There’s nothing like a wedding day to start focusing your mind on previous relationships and what could have been.
Why do you think people still connect with this movie so much?
I remember when I saw When Harry Met Sally for the first time. I’d been through a breakup and I just remember sitting there, as much as I loved the film, like, “Well, aren’t you the lucky ones.” If you’ve been through a breakup or are not in a relationship, My Best Friend’s Wedding is a really great romantic comedy for you because it’s realistic. Even if you didn’t live the rom-com dream, that doesn’t mean your life is over, and it doesn’t mean you’ll never be happy again. “There may not be love, there may not be sex, but there will be dancing.”
Do you still find that wisdom to be true?
It’s been true for me. Ron had always said, “I really want the ending to say that sometimes the person you love the most isn’t a lover.” You still have to find happiness where you can, and that’s why the movie has lived on. It leaves you with hope.
Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com, and The New York Times.