Written by Denis Faye
After six seasons of Sex and the City, showrunner Michael Patrick King had told the story he set out to tell, so after conferring with star Sarah Jessica Parker, he decided it was time for the girls to kick off those high heels for good. “The series had run its course because we told a lot of story every episode,” explains King. “I mean, in some 30-minute episodes there were 39 scenes. It was very aggressive storytelling.”
Despite this, immediately following the series finale, King, Parker and HBO CEO Chris Albrecht flirted briefly with squeezing a little more life out of the premise in the form of a movie. King even drafted an outline telling the “wild, comic” story of how Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda go their separate ways -- a tale he couldn't have told in the series -- but ultimately, it was decided to let sleeping divas lie.
But the show refused to die. First, there was syndication on TBS and TNT, then the international markets took off and, four years later, Sex and the City was bigger than ever. Finally, when Devil Wears Prada hit big, HBO saw the writing on the wall. As King puts it, “The money people went, 'Wait a minute, maybe we missed a moment here, or maybe this is a viable thing.' That's when I got the call to do this movie.”
King's long career has seen him writing, producing, and directing shows like Murphy Brown, Will & Grace and The Comeback, but Sex and the City: The Movie is his first time writing -- and directing -- a feature film. He talked to the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about what it was like bringing a hit TV show to the silver screen, the challenges of three-act structure, and why an extra 15 minutes can be so satisfying -- 15 minutes of screen time, that is.
What were you hoping to accomplish creatively with this movie?
I wanted to be current, so my first thought was, “Where are they now?” I also knew that the movie was going to be different than the series because I would have people for two hours -- it turned out to be more than that, thank God -- for one, big, sweeping story. So I wanted the movie to have a bigger, epic feel. I also wanted to have a beginning, middle, and end, so it didn't just feel like four episodes.
Photo: © 2008 New Line Cinema
Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City: The Movie.
I knew I had one, big story, which was when Mr. Big and Carrie Bradshaw get married, so I knew I could build on that. But I wanted to take it from an episodic, chatty, talky structure to something bigger. I knew I was going to be directing, so I knew I didn't want it to be a lot of talking heads. I tried to make it a little bit more of a sweep of a movie like Sense and Sensibility and not a half-hour of television.
How did your creative process differ?
I thought to myself, “Oh good, now I get to sit down and write a big movie, and it won't be like I was trying to contain the story. I wrote it the way I wrote the series, which was to explore every nuance, like you do in a series. And when I printed out my first draft, it was 365 pages! I thought, “Oh my God, I wanted it to span a year, not literally be a year, a page a day!” I had this idea that it was going to be as full as possible, but then I realized that, structurally, you just can't possibly hold it all.
Structurally, it was quite a challenge for me because I can't think of any other movie with four female storylines that are all arced. Usually, it's Kate Hudson and her sidekick at the Starbucks who has two scenes -- and if you get long, you cut one of the sidekick's scenes and no one says boo. But I have four characters that represent four factions of the viewers. Everyone has their girl. So, I was, like, “I don't know how I'm going to do this, tell four stories in this structure that is a movie.” I had to play some hard facts, like everyone only gets one story -- which is Movie Writing 101, and as it is, it's still over 2 hours and 15 minutes.
I thought I was writing a big movie, and I thought it would be more luxurious, but sometimes writing a series can be more of an expression because it's longer.
You learned that some of the conventions of the Hollywood movie are there for a reason.
For length, I guess, primarily, and the three-act structure, which I played with. I looked through all the old movies and books, and I guess you can make it as new as you want in tone and maybe story-wise, but there is some structure you've got to participate in. Otherwise, no one will be able to sit through it and have a breezy feeling.
At one point, it was so long that I was just going to make it a drama and rename it There Will Be Shoes because it seems that dramas are allowed more. Sometimes I think that comedies are the bitch of drama. It's like, the drama gets to break the rules and the comedy just has to be the obedient wife behind it. I was, like, “If this were a drama, people wouldn't be saying this.” But, of course, they would.
Are you the kind of creative who needs to hold onto things? Are you hoping for the director's four-hour cut on DVD?
No. I hold onto stuff when writing, but then I let go. Like for this, people are familiar with these characters, so when I was writing, I was, like, “I have to write this scene because it needs to be there, but will I be ahead of the audience? Or will they see one look from Mr. Big, and then I don't need this scene because they're ahead of me?” They know where it's going in a good way. So once I got to the editing room, it was just play. I've been in editing rooms with other writers, and they go, “It's funny!” because they're actually watching the thing they wrote in their head, versus the thing that manifested itself on film in front of them.
So I'm not at all territorial -- well, I am because otherwise it wouldn't be two hours and 15 minutes -- but it's easier for me to let go of it once I've actually seen it.
In my mind, I'm always trying to figure out the invisible pieces that are secretly sewing this together for people. It might not be a plot point, but if you cut that moment, people might not feel as much, so I'm always very leery of cutting the invisible threads that writers use to sew everything together.
Sometimes I see scripts that just go point to point to point, and I'm like, “You're going to get a bunch of points there. You're going to get a lot of plot, but you're not going to get any feeling.” And it's tricky, because they're invisible. I think all good writers write surprisingly hidden stuff that resonates, the subtext versus the text.
As a writer-director, you were probably able to experiment with that subtext a lot more.
I trust my editor because I've been working with him a long time. I also bring in other writers and say, “Look at this.” After I did the big, long script, I called up two of the writers from the series -- great writers -- and I said to them, “Tell me what you can't live without.” They were the first people to come back and say, “You don't need this, and you don't need this.”
After a while, you have to listen to people you respect, people who have the same goal in mind, which is the best version of something, not the cheapest version or not the shortest version.
Do you want to stay in film or go back to TV? What's your bliss?
I'll go anywhere I can write complicated stories. By complicated, I mean they can be everything. They're funny when they're funny, and they're sad when they're sad, and hopefully a combination of both. The reality was -- with all due respect -- I understand that this was a unique experience in terms of brand. It allotted me more power than any other writer without a brand would have. People were a little bit more respectful of my vision because I had created something that had already worked for them. They didn't want to fuck it up -- the brand. I always had my superpower secret weapon, which was, “Well, I think I know because I wrote it.”
I'm not expecting this on any other project. In terms of bliss, this was a very blissful writer-director experience. I had a lot of power, which is not the norm.
When you make your next movie, do you think it'll be difficult to only have a couple hours to fully explore the characters when you had hundreds of hours to explore with Sex and the City?
I guess not. Each side has a blessing and a curse. The idea of not having to worry about a backstory because people are already in love with these characters is an amazing gift to a writer. The flipside is that you've already used up six years of storylines, and you've already said six years of clever or funny or pertinent things with that character, so it's not like you have a well that's completely untapped. On the other hand, the next thing I'm working on won't have four female leads I'll need to pay homage to, so I'll probably win some points, not having to fight that big of a structure dilemma.