Writers on Writing: Writing Team of the ‘The Best and the Brightest’

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Screenwriter Michael Jaeger and writer-director Josh Shelov (right) on the set ofThe Best and the Brightest

Jeff and Samantha Jasinski (Neil Patrick Harris and Bonnie Somerville) are a middle-class married couple that move from Delaware to New York City with their five-year-old daughter for a last chance at “the big time.” When they arrive to New York, they realize that there is a huge problem: They can’t get their daughter into a single private kindergarten, all of which have been booked solid for months. The couple is immediately laughed at by every New York school administrator before they desperately turn to a kindergarten consultant who believes Jeff should pose as a high-profile poet to have his child accepted. Jeff pawns off his friend’s filthy e-mails and text messages as his poetry, which the school principal loves. Through sexual blackmail and creative persuasion, the Jasinskis battle to enroll their child for the fall semester.

Here, writer-director Josh Shelov and co-writer Michael Jaeger give Script readers a look at their newest comedy, The Best and the Brightest. Shelov and Jaeger constructed the script while on opposite coasts.

Josh Shelov: I’m a screenwriter turned director. After 10 years of zero love from the business, I finally broke in with my spec Green Street Hooligans, which was, by strange whim of the gods, filmed almost instantly after I sold it, starring Elijah Wood. That sale got me an agent, and I was able to start writing assignments for the studios. I adapted a sports comedy called Ten Bears for director Todd Phillips (The Hangover) and producer Mike DeLuca (Boogie Nights, Austin Powers).

I love writing dialogue, but I find story crafting extremely difficult. Breaking story got a hell of a lot easier for me when I started writing with a partner, my great friend Michael Jaeger, whom I’ve known since college.

Michael Jaeger: Josh had initially written a few scenes about a young couples’ book club, which felt like a good china shop to bring a bull into. But we weren’t sure that the concept could be sustained for a full 90 minutes. So we started brainstorming what kind of larger context we could put the book club idea into. We figured the central reason would be because the couple was trying to impress someone — so the next question was, who would they be trying to impress?

Peter Serafinowicz, Amy Sedaris, Bonnie Somerville, and Neil Patrick Harris

Right around the time we were writing this, Josh and I — in our actual, real lives — were both dealing with the gauntlet of preschool applications. Josh was in New York and I was in Los Angeles. We had been trading stories about the ridiculous things we had been seeing, and the stress it was bringing into our lives. One day that went “click” — we realized that that’s what our young couple might be doing — checking out preschools and kindergartens for their kid. Hosting a book club was a perfect way to try to impress the nursery school bluebloods of Manhattan or L.A.

Josh Shelov: I love a good romantic comedy, but to me, a great farce is the funniest comedic subgenre there is — I was in a college production of Noises Off, and people in the audience were literally pressing their hands against their abdomens to hold in their urine. A well-oiled farce has that kind of power.

Michael Jaeger: We were aiming tonally and structurally for A Fish Called Wanda — a high bar, to be sure — a movie we consider to be one of the funniest of all time. We knew that with our book club movie, we wanted to make an adult comedy, specifically an adult farce, which is what we consider Wanda to be. Lots of verbal comedy, but some wacky physical comedy in there as well. Tootsie was another movie that we used as a touchstone for that combination of verbal and physical comedy for grown-ups.

Once we had the general idea of applying to preschool or kindergarten, with the centerpiece scene of the book club, we started breaking the story, as they say — figuring out the characters, scenes, and structure of the movie. Josh had this big bulletin board up in his office in New York, and as we discussed scenes and characters he would start tacking things up on it — pictures of actors who were inspiring us for certain characters, titles or subject matter of scenes, bits of dialogue, stuff that had to happen in a scene — anything and everything we came up with.

Chronologically, the movie went from left to right across the top of the board, and as scenes started developing we’d add more cards with info and dialogue for each scene going downward. Every few days, Josh would send me new pictures of the updated board, so we were both looking at the same thing. We’d talk for hours on the phone and also send ideas back and forth via e-mail.

When we finally had the whole thing mapped out — which, given all of those note cards, was actually pretty far along and specific — Josh would start writing them up as scenes, which he would then send to me. I’d take ridiculous amounts of notes, make suggestions for additions, deletions, changes, moves, whatever, and we’d again talk for hours. He’d work up a revised version, and we’d do it all over again. Slowly, by doing that, we started creating the full script, and the discussions would range from big, meta-items, like reorganizing scenes, adding or removing characters entirely, to tiny things like changing a single word in a punch line, or adding or removing a “pause” in a stage direction.

Christopher McDonald and Neil Patrick Harris; Photos courtesy of High Treason Pictures, Wellfleet Phantasy Productions, and Big Indie Pictures

Josh Shelov: We wrote the script in the spring and summer of 2007, and shopped it to the usual channels in Hollywood and found no takers. The first people to take an interest were Philadelphia-based producers Rob and Patricia Weiser, whom I met at Sundance in January 2008. To their unending credit, not only did they commit our critical startup money, they stuck to their guns in the fall of 2008, when the bottom dropped out of the market, and they would have had every right to pull out. Their courage during that moment was one of the most critical reasons this movie was made.

That money allowed us to hire a casting director, and from there we really started picking up steam. The catalyst was when Amy Sedaris signed on — she’s so brilliant, and is so beloved by other actors, that she acted as a talent magnet. Neil Patrick Harris had heard about Amy’s involvement and was dying to work with her — fortunately he liked the script and signed on. After that everything happened pretty fast — Kate Mulgrew and Christopher McDonald and Bonnie Somerville and Peter Serafinowicz and Bridget Regan and Jenna Stern signed on soon after, and we were off.

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