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Q&A: Screenwriter Stacey Harman Takes a Business Trip to Change Her Life

Bridesmaids producer Judd Apatow has had more than one young female screenwriter under his wing as of late. When Stacey Harman pitched her idea of three women going on a business trip where everything happens (except their business), Apatow took notice.
Screenwriter Stacey Harman

Screenwriter Stacey Harman

In the wake of a new discovery by Hollywood that “women are funny,” more female screenwriters are getting noticed, and it’s not just because Bridesmaids – written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo -- was such a resounding hit. Women are actually funny; always have been. It just took some time for Hollywood execs to realize there was a market for the female-driven comedy. But not all producers are late to the party. Bridesmaids producer Judd Apatow has had more than one young female screenwriter under his wing as of late. When Stacey Harman pitched her idea of three women going on a business trip (where everything happens except their business), Apatow took notice. Script sat down with the lady screenwriter to hear the story of how a business trip with friends turned into a business meeting to change her life.

SCRIPT: How did you get the idea for Business Trip?

STACEY HARMAN: This all came about when my manager Jill McElroy and former VP of production, Langley Perer, [at Benderspink] were set to take a business trip to the Tribeca Film Festival. They had to see some movies, they had a few meetings with creatives and some agents in New York, so of course I invited myself and said, “That sounds fun. I’ll tag along.” They were like, “Uh, we don’t think that’s quite how it works. But okay.”

Producer Judd Apatow

Producer Judd Apatow

SCRIPT: Did you go?

STACEY HARMAN: I bought my plane ticket within the hour, and I joined them on their business trip. The idea was that they would go to their meetings and I would do my own thing. But it didn’t quite work out that way. For example, they had a meeting in midtown one day and I said, “I’ll come up there with you guys and just hang out in the lobby until you’re done.” And they were like, “Stacey, you can’t come with us to all our meetings.” So that day, I ended up walking around midtown by myself, drinking mini bottles of wine in the park, and taking a tour of the Empire State Building. I took a picture with King Kong at the top. This was only the beginning …

SCRIPT: Why did you go on that trip?

STACEY HARMAN: I had just gotten engaged. And, not that I didn’t marry an amazing man, but at that very moment, it was completely freaking me out that I was finally settling down. Plus, Jill and Langley are good friends of mine anyway. I thought, this will be fun. A girls' getaway to New York. So, I crashed their business trip.

SCRIPT: What happened once you got there?

STACEY HARMAN: I think they made it to a couple of meetings the first day and maybe one movie at the festival, and then it was chaos from then on. I’m probably going to get them in trouble. [Laughs.] Every time I speak of this crazy weekend I feel like someone is going to get in trouble. It was just shenanigans. I distracted them from all the business they had to do. We had three days of pure fun, enjoying New York City. By the end of it, I was curled up in the fetal position in the hotel room, just counting down the minutes until we could leave for the airport. And somehow, I managed, through one of the worst hangovers in history, to say, “How funny would it be to see a movie about three women who go on a business trip and wind up doing everything but their business?” I said it on a whim, and they both got those big googly eyes, staring at me and were like, “Yes, you will write this!”

SCRIPT: Did you start writing right away?

STACEY HARMAN: No. Actually, we came back to L.A. and I didn’t think anything more of it until we were sitting at a dinner with an executive from Universal, and I pitched him the five-minute, censored version of our weekend in New York and he said, “Flesh it out and bring it into me, I want to hear the whole spiel.”

SCRIPT: How did you get hooked up with Judd Apatow?

STACEY HARMAN: There are three female characters in Business Trip, and I pitched the lead as Leslie Mann, not even thinking she would ever join on, never thinking that Judd Apatow would even hear of this project or have anything to do with us, but just because I love Leslie Mann, and I just think she’s got such awesome comical chops that she would just nail this role. So, after I pitched the exec at Universal (Erik Baiers), he happened to be sitting down with Judd Apatow and told him, “Hey, we just bought this idea from this young writer.” He pitched it as Leslie Mann starring, and he told him the short version, and from what I’ve heard, Judd liked it and called me in. So, I got to sit down with the Judd Apatow, and my knees were knocking under the table, and it was completely nerve-wracking, but he liked what I had to say.

SCRIPT: What kind of prep work do you do?

STACEY HARMAN: I pretty much do a full outline before I ever even pitch an idea. It’ll end up being something absurd like 50 pages, and then I have to pare that down into a cohesive story I can tell in 15 minutes. And I always go over and talk a mile a minute, and by the end of the pitch you’re like, please end this now. I think they’re brains are fried when I’m done, but that could be actually why I’ve had success with pitches. They’re just like, “All right, if you shut up, we’ll buy it.” It works for me.

SCRIPT: Is this before or after Bridesmaids came out?

STACEY HARMAN: This was two years ago. From what I know about Bridesmaids, they were in development for awhile. This was after they were in development, but I hadn’t heard of Bridesmaids. My idea actually came on the heels of The Hangover. I saw an early screening of The Hangover and laughed my ass off, and then got really mad when I left the theater, because once again, the boys were having all the fun. And I was like, “You know what, damn it, girls have fun too.” And sometimes we have a little more fun than guys, I think, really now. And then we went on this business trip, and I thought, this is it, this is how I’m going to tell our story. This is how I’m gonna let the world know that we’re bad, too.

SCRIPT: What’s happening with the script now?

STACEY HARMAN: It’s still in development. There have been quite a few revisions and recreations, but it gets bigger and better with every read.

SCRIPT: What’s your process?

STACEY HARMAN: Normally, for me personally, I just go through one outline and make sure it’s in good enough shape and then I sit down and get to writing. But with Judd, he really enjoys the outlining process, and notes, and tons of conversations about character and story. He likes having me make lists. Places they could end up. People they could run into. General shenanigans and fun things they could find themselves doing.

SCRIPT: What was it like to go through that process?

STACEY HARMAN: It was awesome. At first I thought, this is going to be a really hard list to make, and then I’m like a 100 deep on a list of set pieces. I think I always took Judd’s notes a little too literally. He’d be like, “Make me a list,” and I’d come back with over 100 options. He is always appreciative and complimentary, but he must think I’m nuts. So, with him, it’s a much longer outlining process, but it’s ended up being very rewarding in the scriptwriting process because once I get to the pages, the script is practically written already.

SCRIPT: When do you start writing?

STACEY HARMAN: I start writing when the thought of looking at the outline for even one minute longer makes me want to jump out of my office window. That’s when I know it’s time to get down to it and start writing. I wrote a first draft before we ever went through the lists and outlining process together, and then he read it and we sat down again; that’s when we started the new outline process and all these conversations began, and the lists. So, on my revisions, I was able to incorporate the “Judd of it all” into my writing. It’s fun to Judd-ify your script. He knows what he’s doing.

SCRIPT: Do you think the industry is moving in a direction of embracing more female comedies?

STACEY HARMAN: Absolutely. I don’t know if I could have sold this concept five or 10 years ago. I don’t know, actually, if it would have sold if me, Jill, and Langley hadn’t been on that weekend away together. Simply because it came from such a real place. At the point when I was pitching, I was literally telling stories that we had just experienced and probably getting us in a lot of trouble at the same time. I would like to think it could have sold 10 years ago, but I think that the market is now hungry and has just become hungry for something a little different than we’ve seen on screen in a long time.

SCRIPT: Do you think it’s important to have more female screenwriters?

STACEY HARMAN: There was a Vanity Fair article years ago, “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” followed by another article a year later, “Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?” I think this was such an eye-opener where every female screenwriter, every funny girl in town went, “Hold up. Yes, we’re funny.” Why this was ever even a question is beyond me.

SCRIPT: Do you have any advice for aspiring female screenwriters?

STACEY HARMAN: The best thing I’ve learned, and the only way I’ve had any success, is by writing exactly what I know and coming from a very realistic place with my characters. I always start with characters. If you can put on the page something relatable so that anyone who’s watching can go, “Oh my God, I’ve been through that,” or “I’ve done that” or “I want to do that.” If you can write from that place, you can have success. Hopefully. Maybe. Good luck.