Exclusive Q&A with Emily Halpern AB '02 and Sarah Haskins AB '01

Emily Halpern AB '02 and Sarah Haskins AB '01 wrote the BAFTA and WGA-award nominated 2019 feature Booksmart. They received an Emmy nomination for their work on Black-ish and have written for numerous shows including Good Girls and The Real O'Neals. They also created Carol's Second Act for CBS and Trophy Wife for ABC. Halpern and Haskins are currently under a development deal at CBS Studios. The latest movie they wrote, 80 for Brady, will be released through Paramount Pictures this February starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Rita Moreno and Sally Field.

Q: What is the story behind the inception of 80 For Brady? And what was it like getting such a star-studded cast to work on your film?

We were approached in winter 2020 by Donna Gigliotti, a producer on the film. By that point, the concept had found footing with producers; an agent at WME’s grandmother was member of a group of octogenarian women in Boston who called themselves ‘Over 80 for Brady’ and got together to root for the Patriots (and Tom) every weekend as a celebration of friendship and football. This agent thought their story could make a great basis for a film and brought it to Tom Brady. Thankfully, he agreed and came on board. At some point these various entities partnered with Fifth Season (then Endeavor Content.)

The concept immediately resonated with both of us. Emily is from Boston. Sarah loves sports. And we both loved the idea of writing another story of female friendship.

Getting the star-studded cast was, thankfully, not our job. From the project’s inception, though, producers thought this film could have great roles for iconic actors. We agreed.

Q: Director Kyle Martin said in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter that the four iconic female leads are all “character-forward,” with “jokes in the back seat,” and further noted: “That is how we wrote and angled the characters and how they performed it.” Do you agree with this evaluation? Was that similar to your approach for writing Booksmart?

We always try to lead with story and characters in our writing, and let the jokes follow organically. Emphasis on ‘try’ - it’s not easy to do, but it’s something we strive for. Because we find again and again that the strongest jokes are jokes germane to both story and character. Otherwise they often just feel random and don’t land.

Q: Coming off such a success as Booksmart, did that affect your writing process or mentality when starting this project at all? Was there anything you wanted to do differently with this film?

We were so lucky with Booksmart. It took ten years to get made and it’s a miracle that all the hands it passed through were additive and that everyone involved understood the essence of Molly and Amy. So if Booksmart affected our attitude toward this project it probably gave us hope that scripts can, one day, actually become movies. 

This project was different from Booksmart from the beginning – we were pitching on an existing idea, with cast and producers attached. But we loved the idea of telling another story about women and female friendships; we also liked the idea of telling that story for an older demographic. And the premise was so fun, we knew we’d enjoy writing it.

Q: It was a pretty long journey to get Booksmart made - 10 years, to be exact. How was that different from the process to get 80 for Brady made? How challenging is it to get a screenplay in front of someone, when it feels like Hollywood is shifting to be more risk-averse and streaming has hugely impacted big theater releases?

Booksmart was our own original idea and the first screenplay we wrote together, so we had a bigger hill to climb just getting people to read it. It’s also tough to sell a movie with teen girls as the leads, so we faced a number of hurdles from the outset. 80 For Brady was already set up; we came in and pitched our take and got the job. So that was one big difference. We’ve also found that it’s easier to get a movie made if Tom Brady is your producer and four iconic women are the stars.

Q: Sarah, you’ve talked a lot about how feminism has been important to you throughout your life - was writing a football movie (which is a generally male-coded topic) about four older women an act of feminism/pushing boundaries for you?

In this particular case it just felt real: I grew up in a family full of women who liked sports. My Mom and her female friends loved watching the Cubs. My gramma rooted for Notre Dame football. I still play on a basketball team with my sister. Emily and I are always conscious of writing our female characters as three-dimensional people, which, in some cases, is an inherently feminist/boundary pushing act. In 80 for Brady our goal was to depict these woman as great friends and passionate sports fans who also happen to be eighty years old. Their age is a significant part of their story and contributes to some of their challenges in getting to the Super Bowl, but it’s not the only important thing about who they are.

Q: How did you two become writing partners? What’s the secret to a good co-worker writing dynamic?

We’d been friendly in college, but didn’t know each other very well. When Sarah moved out to LA, we got dinner one night and started talking about how we both wanted to write a teen movie with overachieving girls at the center of the story. We loved the teen movie genre, but had only seen those movies with teen boys as the stars, and their goal was always to get laid. We wanted to write a teen comedy with young, smart women as the leads, and tell a story about their high school experience. We decided to try and write it together, mostly because we figured we’d be more likely to get it done that way. That eventually became Booksmart.

Q: Which experiences do you think prepared you both most for what you do now?

We are in our early forties biologically, but in our souls we are eighty. After college we took different paths before we ended up writing together. Emily moved out to LA, worked as an assistant for a while, and eventually got her first writing job on a military drama created by Shawn Ryan and David Mamet called The Unit. Sarah moved to Chicago and spent several years doing improv at Second City and other theaters there. It’s probably the amalgamation of our work and life experiences, and our respect for each other’s experiences, that enables us to stare at each other for hours a day on Zoom talking about imaginary people and what is happening to them.

Q: What do you see as the difference between writing for TV and writing for film?

In TV, the writer/creator tends to have the most creative authority over what eventually winds up on screen. Film is still a director’s medium; at the end of the day, the director has more say over the final product.

Also in TV, you’re turning out scripts one after the next. This can be a good thing, and it’s certainly nice for the job security. But it does mean you’re with the same project for a long period of time, especially in success. In film, once the movie is shot, the writer’s job is pretty much done. This can be both terrifying and liberating.

Q: How has the industry (both TV and film) changed post-pandemic? Do you think it’s more
challenging for writers to get their work seen or get into writers rooms? Or do you think
the pandemic opened up more opportunities with more things being remote?

This is a tough question and we’d hate to generalize –our friends and acquaintances have had a variety of experiences. It certainly has changed and it’s hard to pin down how and whether it was just the pandemic that did the changing or the other seismic changes sweeping through the business: streaming wars, the end of packaging, the way rooms are staffed, etc.

We’ve heard anecdotes from people who’ve found great jobs they never could have done without the Zoom/internet angle and we have friends who are frustrated.

This has always been a tough industry to break into and it will be a minute before it’s totally clear what the new barriers and avenues to access are – and to what extent these are more fair or unfair than what’s come before them.

Q: And finally, what’s the key to making something funny?

We’re not sure – please tell us if you find out.

See Sarah and Emily's latest film, 80 for Brady, out in theaters starting February 3, 2023!

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