- The Washington Times - Friday, April 5, 2002

Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen, the co-writers and co-stars of the equivocal sex farce "Kissing Jessica Stein," met by chance and began collaborating in 1996.

Both were a few years out of college. Miss Westfeldt, of Guilford, Conn., had been a theater arts major at Yale. Intent on an acting career since the fourth grade, she had accumulated about two dozen summer-stock and off-Broadway credits and was about to play a lead in an ABC sitcom, "Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place."

Miss Juergensen, of Brooklyn, N.Y., had dabbled in acting but had gone into advertising after graduating with a bachelor's degree in English from McGill University in Montreal. She had become a seriously struggling New York actress, but her professional credits had yet to add up.

The two women passed through Washington recently to discuss their professional partnership and movie during two days of interviews at the Hotel Rouge. The Wilson brothers, Owen and Luke, along with their friend and directing partner Wes Anderson, once visited the hotel to promote "Bottle Rocket" in Washington. The young women thought this a good omen, even though the failure of "Bottle Rocket" to catch on in a big way had been used to discourage the "Stein" team while they were endeavoring to raise money for their debut picture, shot in and around New York City for slightly less than $1 million.

The two women began their association at a theater workshop in the Catskills. "Heather and I met as bunkmates," Miss Westfeldt says, explaining that workshop members were assigned four to a bunk. "From dawn to midnight each day [at the workshop], writers and directors and actors work on theater pieces. Improvisations, cold readings, staged scenes. It's very fast and furious. Heather and I were writing on the same theme that week: basically 'dating hell,' the disconnect between men and women."

Miss Westfeldt was cast in "Two Guys" soon after the workshop concluded, so the second stage of the collaboration was delayed slightly. "Something happened to postpone the [television] series for two months," she says. "I thought, 'What will I do here?' I really hated Los Angeles at that time. I didn't know anybody. I missed New York and the theater. I had always thought of myself as a theater actor. I called Heather a little bit out of the blue and said, 'Remember me?'"

The young women had talked about putting together a show based on their dating-hell theme. Miss Juergensen was stalled on a project of her own. "I had been working on a play. In fact, I was workshopping it with some of the same people from that trip to the Catskills, but I was stuck, blocked and frustrated. So it was kind of impeccable timing on Jen's part to call right then," she says.

"We holed up at Jen's parents' house in Connecticut and started to brainstorm. We came up with the idea of two women who've really been through the ringer with men, so they decide to date each other, in an earnest, sincere but inevitably funny way. At that time, they were both prim and proper, very Laura Ashley. We approached it in broadly comic terms at that point."

Publicists for the movie have been prompt to explain that the "Jessica Stein" pair happen to be heterosexual, not to mention spoken for with steady boyfriends and all that. However, having taken their pretext in the direction of a somewhat screwball lesbian match, the two discovered that the material was acquiring a dramatic shape and provoking a good deal of feedback.

They arranged to rent a theater, the Arclight on New York's Upper West Side, before Miss Westfeldt had to return to her sitcom commitment. The work in progress, titled "Lipschtick," was staged on six consecutive evenings, with the creators as the principal characters.

Miss Westfeldt recalls that the emerging structure kind of crept up on them. "Before we knew it, we had a play," she says. "All the bad-date routines were Act One, a prelude to the women starting a relationship, which became Act Two. We looked at each other and said, 'Hey, have we actually written a play? And all because I was afraid of being bored in L.A.?'"

A producer had assured Miss Juergensen that he could mount an off-Broadway engagement "in five minutes" as soon as they finished the play. They continued rewriting while Miss Westfeldt went off to do her TV work. The first season of a show that was renewed and lasted four seasons was more than enough for her. She pleaded for mercy and was granted a transfer to another series from the same production company, "Holding the Baby," a revamp of a British sitcom. She had the lead, and 13 episodes were shot. However, only seven aired.

"Which was fine," she says. "All the while, Heather and I were rewriting whenever we could and realizing that our play was turning into a screenplay. It had always had a lot of cinematic elements, flashbacks and montages and whatnot. I think our dialogue was always more naturalistic than theatrical. Anyway, a lot of people who saw the six performances said, 'This should be a movie.'"

For a while, the partners tried to write over the phone, but Miss Juergensen soon moved to Los Angeles, "bunking on Jennifer's couch and depending on the generosity of her and her roommate."

Miss Westfeldt had an agent who was one of the few West Coast people to have seen "Lipschtick." She had moved on to develop material at the production company InterScope. She set up the original deal for Miss Westfeldt and Miss Juergensen.

"It was like Cinderella," recalls the former. "She made the sale, with us attached to co-star. Many people were willing to bid on just the script, but playing the roles was a deal-breaker for us. Then we spent two years on the screenplay, which improved in many, many ways as a result of that process, but then we waited to get the rights back in turnaround to make the picture ourselves, because our original champions seemed to be taking too long. Ultimately, we wanted to do it faster and on less money and a little differently."

Miss Juergensen credits two InterScope executives, Scott Kroop and Erica Huggins, with being "wonderful advisers and mentors."

Even though they parted company at the end of the day, she professes gratitude to the original director, the veteran Canadian actor Saul Rubinek, who had made one feature at the time he became involved with "Jessica Stein." "He's the one who came to us and said things like, 'Look at your supporting parts. Would you want to play these characters? You need to write them as if you intended to,'" she says.

Regaining control of their screenplay also made it imperative that the writers become fund-raisers. They started what Miss Juergensen calls "our little L.L.C.," a limited liability company in which investors could buy shares in the dream of "Kissing Jessica Stein" for $2,500 each. "We found that more shares than not came from people with no money," she says.

Miss Westfeldt reflects, "The only reason we attracted a major investor, Brad Zions, is because he was a movie novice himself. He was an AOL millionaire and wanted to jump into the film business."

That chance consisted of a $500,000 stake in the movie. He and Miss Westfeldt feel so confident now that they'll soon collaborate on a screenplay she has written independently of Miss Juergensen, who also has a backlog and plans to take another crack at the play that stalled on her just before the "Jessica Stein" collaboration began. Their director, a San Francisco theater director named Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, also was a newcomer to films.

Miss Juergensen says: "It was an opportunity for Charlie. Directors who were further along in their careers just weren't that interested. We all needed to be completely gritty. Sometimes we could afford only one take, because the light was going or we didn't have permission to shoot in a certain place. We needed to behave like renegades or infiltrators."

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