Photo: Deverill Weekes
Karen McCullah Lutz

Photo: Deverill Weekes
Kirsten Smith
“We [met] face-to-face for the first time… We just started talking about a script and writing it together on cocktail napkins over the course of many margaritas, and that was it. We basically got pregnant on our first blind date.” - Kirsten Smith
The Power of the Underdog
Written by Shira Gotshalk

Karen Lutz and Kirsten Smith have penned a successful partnership in the shark tank of Hollywood that's lasted longer than most marriages on this coast. Their first triumph was 10 Things I Hate About You, a loose adaptation of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew set in a modern high school, followed by Legally Blond, and She's the Man (Screenplay by Ewan Leslie and Karen Lutz & Kirsten Smith), a contemporary teen twist on, you guessed it, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. The House Bunny, an exuberant amalgamation of Playboy Bunnies, sorority girls, and learning to be the True You, was second at the box office last weekend. And yet, they still consider themselves underdogs in this business.

Midway through a conversation with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site touching on Girl Power, not being defined by others, and flying below the radar, Karen divulges, “I don't know if I should even say this, but upon meeting us, you would not guess that Kirsten and I are the brightest bulbs in the world.”

Kirsten, horrified, exclaims, “What do you mean?!”

Karen is blonde and talks like a surfer. Kirsten is very animated and “flighty,” all over the place, hyper. “So people never really view us as intellectuals upon first meeting us, and sometimes they are actually quite shocked to find out that we have brains in our heads and that we are successful writers,” says Karen. “I think that because we have been kind of underestimated in our lives, it is fun for us to write about characters who are similar to that in nature.”

Was it an easy project for you to work on a script about down-on-their-luck Playboy Bunnies, having previously worked on adaptations of Shakespearean plays and your own novels?

Karen Lutz: Yes, we like to think of ourselves as lovers of all types of culture, from Shakespeare to…

Photo: © 2008 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.
Anna Faris in The House Bunny.
Kirsten Smith: High-brow to low-brow.

Karen Lutz: We don't discriminate. A good character is a good character no matter what the milieu.

At this point, are you writing screenplays with certain actors in mind or is it just purely driven by the story concept?

Karen Lutz: Sometimes we do, but not always.

Kirsten Smith: With The House Bunny, we definitely did.

Karen Lutz: We wrote that for Anna Faris.

Kirsten Smith: We were admirers of Anna Faris' work and thought -- still do! -- that she is going to be the next big comedic movie star. We had our people call her people and set up a blind date, basically.

Karen Lutz: So we met with her and she told us that she always wanted to play a Playboy Bunny who's been kicked out of the mansion, because where do those girls go? We spent a couple of months figuring out where that girl went and pitched it to her and she loved it. Then we pitched it all over town, and she came with us in character, doing the lines that we'd written for her.

Kirsten Smith: It was much more fun to pitch when you've got your muse and your star right there in the room with you. Also, I think it is much more exciting for executives to see the character coming to life and see that there is an actress who really believes in something so much that she is committed enough to come on every pitch. It helps show them what the movie is.

That is an interesting and somewhat unique way of approaching a writing project --to believe in an actor and want to work with them and build a project around them.

Kirsten Smith: It is fun because as writers, we don't often get to be involved in the casting process of the movie, so we felt like this could be a chance to do that.

“Girl power” has been a prominent theme in most of your scripts. Is that a direction you've consciously chosen or is it the path you've found yourself on at this point of the journey?

Karen Lutz: No, it wasn't a decision. It is just something that comes to the forefront in many of our projects quite naturally.

Kirsten Smith: Maybe it was only conscious in that we knew that we like writing movies that we wanted to see and we mainly gravitate toward movies with a female lead. So why not focus on that, because those are the movies we want to pay to see.

Do you feel that you've been pigeonholed in some ways as “chick flick” writers?

Karen Lutz: No, we write romantic comedies, two-handers. Our last movie that just finished shooting a month ago, The Ugly Truth, is a romantic comedy. It was very much a two-hander with an equal male part. So I don't think we are pigeonholed as just “girl power” movie writers.

Kirsten Smith: I guess that we also like to write female characters that are underestimated or put in a box or, as Karen likes to say, defined by others. Then the journey of the movie is: Don't let other people define you. So if anyone were to do that to us, I think it would probably just inspire us to prove them wrong.

Do you feel that that has worked to your advantage because you get to slide in under the radar and kind of blow people's minds?

Kirsten Smith: I like that, yeah. Underdog movies are favorites of ours, too, so it is nice to be under the radar. Writers can fly below the radar and do their own thing, so I like the idea that we are underestimated and can prove 'em wrong.

Let's start with talking about you as a writing team. How did you get together?

Kirsten Smith: Karen was living in Denver 12 years ago when she was writing screenplays, and I was working at an independent production company as a development person. You know, reading scripts and stuff. Karen sent me a query letter, and I read it and immediately wanted to read all her scripts… I read all of her scripts and called her and told her that she was my new favorite writer, and we had a great chat. She came to Los Angeles shortly after that, so we got to meet face-to-face for the first time, and we had one of the classic drinks meetings. We just started talking about a script and writing it together on cocktail napkins over the course of many margaritas, and that was it. We basically got pregnant on our first blind date.

Did your first baby go into development?

Karen Lutz: Our first baby did not sell.

Kirsten Smith: Our first baby was super deformed. Even though we loved it, it had some problems. But it made us realize we wanted to make another one.

And what motivated you to move to Los Angeles, Karen?

Karen Lutz: I moved out here after we sold 10 Things I Hate About You.

Karen Lutz: We were offered a development deal by 20th Century Fox Television and they put us on a sitcom, called Getting Personal. They called me on Wednesday and said, “Can you move to Los Angeles on Monday to start a sitcom?” So I took my car and drove over the Rocky Mountains and got an apartment at the Oakwood apartment complex in Toluca Lake. It is a really depressing place; I do not recommend it. And that is how I got to L.A.

What is your writing process like? Do you write together at the same time or do you share drafts back and forth?

Karen Lutz: We write together at the same time from 2 to 7 every day.

Kirsten Smith: Very, very strict hours.

Karen Lutz: We usually write outside by the pool, or sometimes we'll write at restaurants. We usually try to do it outside and get some sun and be a little festive about it.

And how long does it usually take you two to complete a script?

Karen Lutz: I would say about two months for a first draft.

That is pretty zippy!

Kirsten Smith: Well, that depends on how much work we do before, outlining the movie. The last couple of projects, we've sold off of pitches. With a pitch that we spent a good long time preparing like The House Bunny -- probably six months on and off, but in earnest, really three months -- we really outlined the movie and beat out all the details. When do that kind of work beforehand, you are able to use the pitch as an extremely strong guide from which to write the script. The more work you do beforehand, the more quickly you can write the script. I mean, it takes a lot longer to outline the movie than it does to even write the first draft.

Once the script leaves your hand and goes into development, do you have a sense of terror of what might happen to your product?

Karen Lutz: At first, I think it is a sense of hope that everyone will love it… You know we are both pretty optimistic people so when we turn something in, we can't wait for them to read it and love it. But then there is always the first notes meeting and then you get a couple of notes that are a little bit uncomfortable, but then you figure out how to get around them. But sometimes you get surprised, and you're unhappy with the reaction. Most of the time, it works out for the best.

Kirsten Smith: Whenever we turn in a script, Karen is always like 24 hours later, “Why don't they call? When are they going to call?” And I am always like, “What? Don't wait for the call, because you know what the call is going to be.” It is always, “Come in, let's talk about it, let's give you the notes.” That is when the real work begins in a way.

So Karen is always excited to hear the, “Yay! We love it!” I don't know if it usually happens that way, but she is just so cute. She is just like a five-year-old at Christmas getting to the presents before…

Karen Lutz: You're waiting for mommy and daddy to open the papier-mache ashtray you made them or something…

Kirsten Smith: “Look what I made; read it, read it!” And then they are like, “It has three heads; we don't like it.”