Tina Fey and Amy Poehler always make me laugh. So when Universal invited us to the set of director Jason Moore‘s (Pitch Perfect) comedy, Sisters, you could say I was kind of excited. If you’re not familiar with the film, Fey and Poehler star as two estranged sisters who have to return home to clean out their rooms before their parents sell the family house. While there, they opt to have one last hurrah and throw a huge house party for their former classmates. The film also stars Maya Rudolph, Ike Barinholtz, John Leguizamo, Dianne Wiest, John Cena and James Brolin.
While spending the day on set I got to watch most of the cast shoot the huge party scene and see the way Fey and Poehler will occasionally alter dialogue to figure out the best way to play a scene. As you might imagine, I spent a lot of the day laughing and it was a blast to watch.
During a break in filming I got to participate in a group interview with the two gifted actresses. They talked about how the project came together, the way they like to work on set, getting to design their 80s bedroom, the secret to playing Orlando women, and a lot more. Check out what they had to say below.
TINA FEY: Hello! You’ve been here all day?
AMY POEHLER: Have you been watching? Oh, good.
FEY: It’s like a broken ride at Disneyworld. “Your ride will be moving shortly.”
I’m fascinated by the idea of comedy duos. I feel like there’s a resurgence in some ways. You two have both done stuff on your own but people love when you come together. Can you talk about how you arrive at the decision to do something together like this?
FEY: The Globes was one for sure, like when that came up, it definitely was something, for me, the appeal of it was doing it together.
FEY: We had no interest in doing it separately.
FEY: But for us, it’s the only way we get to spend time together.
POEHLER: Yeah, I think we try every seven years to do something together.
FEY: It would be like the 7 Up series. Watch us, see us age. (laughter)
POEHLER: We’re both going back and forth between doing our own stuff and coming together and it is nice to feel that feeling that people like us when we’re together, because we like when we’re together.
I know you’ve been working on this for a while as a producer, but what was it about this project that you both agreed, “We have to do this” and talk a little bit about where it all came from.
FEY: Paula (Pell) had this script idea, that was sort of loosely based on her and her own sister, inspired by her actual journals from her middle school years and up which she found hilarious. So she had been working on the script for a long time and then I was working with her, and I didn’t know if I’d be in it at all but then I got really excited about the idea that we could do it together and switch, play the less expected parts at the beginning of the movie.
POEHLER: Yeah, and then the chance to work with Tina again and Paula and Jason, who I had met through these guys and who I instantly thought was awesome. So all that. Sometimes, you can feel or see how a movie can… how you can do it. Sometimes it’s just like seeing, “Can that work? Will people buy that? Can we do that?” And all those checkmarks.
We see you guys tweaking the script so much as you do multiple takes. As you film a scene that’s more adlibbed or improv-ed, when it’s over, do you get a feel for “Okay we might be able to use that take” or “This elevated the film in this way or that?” How does the improv play into all of this?
FEY: I think it livens things up right away.
POEHLER: Yeah, I think because we’ve worked on TV shows for so long where we’ve been fortunate to have a lot of control, we do kind of know what is a waste of time and what can be, “Oh, that’s useable.” We know enough luckily after our time shooting a lot that we know “If the camera’s not on you, don’t waste everybody’s time.” Or simple things like, “Oh, that’s a funny improv but it might be off-story.” I know that we have had fun improvising just because it does keep things fresh, and Tina and I really do know how to play off of each other so instinctually, and I think we like to keep the crew laughing always.
FEY: There are also so many people in the other parts in this movie who are improvisers, who are so funny that it’s been really a delight to perform with them.
POEHLER: You’ll also be seeing that right now as we turn around on all these people.
FEY: Also it ends up that this funny stuff comes into us on Post-its, which is a very Paula Pell technique, she’s trademarked.
POEHLER: You should talk about that more because it’s really good.
FEY: Yeah, so some of it is improvisation but some of it’s still just coming from the writer. In this film, it’s very common where you’d get the new joke and no one else has heard it yet.
POEHLER: Jason would come up and hand you a Post-It and on it will be a joke and you get to giggle and Tina will know that I’m going to say something and you’re the only one who says it. Sometimes when you’re doing a comedy, the director will yell out “alts” and then the director gets the first laugh.
FEY: So it’s already not as fresh.
POEHLER: Yeah, so it’s really a generous way for Paula to continuously prove that she’s the funniest person on the film.
FEY: An absolute joke machine.
You both worked with Paula on SNL and both your TV shows so how has that dynamic changed doing a feature film? Usually, the writer is more in the background, but this is her story and script.
FEY: I do think it’s a little bit atypical in that a lot of movies the writers aren’t (on set), but Paula is for sure such an integral part of the ongoing development of the script and all the new jokes, so she’s here every single day.
POEHLER: And we got to work on one character. We’ve all written stuff together at SNL that’s very temporary and at times, pretty disposable. It’s fun to think about the idea of the arc of this film. “What happens to the characters, what’s the story we’re trying to tell?” A film is really only as good as the story. You would hope that it’s funny as you’d hope a film to be and you also care about what happens to these people for at least two hours.
You two are playing sisters and you do have that history together so does playing sisters easier or is it harder with your joined history?
FEY: I think our shorthand that we have with each other makes it easier, but the one thing that’s funny is that neither of us have a sister. We both have brothers, and we were talking the other day that if we were supposed to take a bath together, we would ask people “Would you get in the bathtub naked with your sister?” and you’re a bit…
POEHLER: Yeah (to journalist) do you have a sister? (to another journalist) Do you have a sister? Oh, interesting. We were trying to figure that out. I’m personally a little obsessed with sisters. They’re exotic creatures to me and I love being around them and watching them interact, it’s like a special language. I think that Tina and I are chosen sisters. I think we are a chosen family, so it’s been kind of fun to experience that thing that I never got to experience in my life. We have a moment in this film where we first see each other and where we just kind of pick on each other like eight and we find that can be really sisterly and very specific to that relationship.
We saw your bedroom and all the distinctly ‘80s posters like the Michael J. Fox specifically. How much was that you giving notes about what should go in there and how much was it you just walking in for the first time and going “This is amazing”?
FEY: They did ask us, “Who do you think your character would have in there?”
POEHLER: We got to send a “dream list” and I have to say that I feel like I have to take credit for the Michael J. Fox poster. I sent Michael J. Fox and Out of Africa. I think my character Maura is really into Out of Africa. That being said, I think we were blown away by how amazing it looked. It’s so nostalgic for us to get in there and we keep finding ourselves going into that bedroom when we have time to rest when we’re shooting. We end just getting into our beds.
FEY: Yeah, it’s very nice. (laughs)
You both play women that are from Florida. What’s the secret to capturing the Orlando woman?
FEY: Constant spray tan. (laughter)
POEHLER: Well, we’re kind of playing two women who aren’t where they want to be, and there’s this funny, great thing in Florida where there’s old and new. There’s this great retirement community and our parents, played brilliantly by James Brolin and Dianne Wiest, who truly just feel like my parents most of the time. They have the lives we wish we had.
This is an R-rated movie so knowing that it’s R going in how much does that change the energy on set knowing that you can say and do pretty much anything?
FEY: I think we were thinking that the impulse is to curse so much that you’re realizing that you’re cursing more than any natural person and you have to dial it back. But I’m definitely going to show my penis. (laughter) I keep it in a Tupperware.
POEHLER: (laughs) I think we’re doing some fun stuff that we’ve never gotten to do before and like a physical action stuff that I like but I don’t know if we think about it when we’re doing it but it’s fun to not have to think about it.
FEY: Especially since we’ve both done TV. I mean, I like the boundaries of network TV. I think you have to work a little harder when you have to show a tit.
POEHLER: But if you want to show a tit, it’s nice to know you can.
Can you talk about the way from when you first got involved in the project and the story and structure to what we’re going to see on screen, how much change to the characters?
FEY: That I don’t know. We’ll have to see.
POEHLER: Yeah, it’s so far away.
FEY: Far, far away… but I think the spirit of it has always been the same. Like any screenplay, things you like in one draft are your favorite thing, but Paula is also very fluid in that way coming from our SNL background where a lot of times you go “That was my favorite thing on Wednesday and I’m ready to part with it on Friday night.” We’re not too precious about it.
POEHLER: And things change once we cast people like when we cast Ike Barinholtz as Maura’s love interest and it’s just like, “Oh, I see. This changes this kind of guy and they’re going to have this kind of chemistry.” We start casting people and seeing what the movie is, but it really was always this simple idea of sisters not in the right place. Parents are trying to sell the house from underneath them. They throw one last party to try to get back to when they felt most alive. Or in Maura’s case… Everyone’s trying to change the person of who they were in high school.
Paula knows you both so well and for so long so she can tailor stuff to your self, so how much do you think you’re drawing from yourselves and how much do you feel you’re having to become these characters?
POEHLER: Well, Tina and I have a huge ritual to get into character, right?
FEY: Yeah, we have a hot box on wheels. We get in there together and wrestle each other. And then the sun comes up and they call us. I think for me, this is a very different character than I usually get to play so you go, “What do we have in common, where do we overlap?” And Paula’s been able to help us find them.
Having played an iconic character on TV is it more nerve-wracking to play this kind of character?
FEY: No, it’s fun and I’m really counting on Amy to carry the movie (laughter) so it doesn’t really matter how well I play it.
POEHLER: Yeah, and I’m kind of in a different movie in my own head, like a documentary.
FEY: I try to be a slightly different character every time and I make the editor (figure it out?)
Do you feel like the characters are reversed with you being the wild child and you being the more straight and narrow?
POEHLER: What’s fun about the film is what happens about midway through is that they kind of encourage each other to be different, so there’s a moment where Tina’s character Kate decides that for once I’m going to be responsible for tonight and Maura decides to really let loose, so it’s like everybody’s wish fulfillment in the film. Everybody kind of gets to be the person they didn’t get to be. There’s a really great scene that Paula wrote where Maura and James (played by Ike Barinholtz), they’re in bed kissing and they’re talking about what kind of youth they are. They’re pretending that they’re captain of the football team and she’s a foreign exchange student—studying blow jobs or whatever—and that’s what everybody… that idea of going back in time and I think it’s fun to watch Tina-slash-Kate struggle with trying to be responsible, to grow up finally.