GETTING DOWN THE AISLE
(L-r) MANDY MOORE as Sadie Jones, WANDA SYKES as Nurse Borman, JOHN KRASINSKI as Ben Murphy and ROBIN WILLIAMS as Reverend Frank in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ comedy “License to Wed,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.
"To get a driver's license, you need hours and hours of classroom instruction, a learner's permit, behind-the-wheel training, and so on. But, to get a marriage license, all you have to do is show up at the courthouse and pay. This gives the bride and groom much more time to focus on the truly important things, like finding the right venue, the best photographer, the hippest DJ...etc.," director Ken Kwapis smiles. "Who cares if you end up in divorce court a year later as long as the wedding cake was to die for?"
In "License to Wed," Ben Murphy and Sadie Jones are young, blissfully in love, and have the best intentions of spending the rest of their lives together. However, like many young couples, they have no idea what they're getting into. Fortunately, Reverend Frank is here to help with his highly successful marriage prep course.
Producer Robert Simonds offers, "This is a very real-life situation. There are certain challenges of marriage that are common and unavoidable. Instead of dancing around them and hoping that everything just works out, a pre-marital exploration of these obstacles can increase the likelihood of a marriage staying together--and make for some pretty funny situations."
Producer Nick Osborne says, "There's been a recent surge in popularity of marriage prep classes, which teach couples how to communicate fairly, balance finances, keep the romance alive, etc. In our movie, Reverend Frank teaches the course, and he's the kind of guy who'll find the hot buttons in your relationship and push them until they fall off. It's his attempt at curbing divorce by weeding out the bad couples."
The story of "License to Wed" was inspired by a friend of co-screenwriter Kim Barker who was getting married and told her about a marriage prep course he was taking. Barker recalls, "There was a particular church where my friend and his fiancee wanted to get married, but before the minister of the church would marry them, he required that they pass his marriage prep course. Then my friend described the minister and how he seemed a little off because he was swearing a bit in their first meeting, which made me laugh."
Following her creative instincts, Barker co-wrote a fictional story around an offbeat minister who takes his job a tad too seriously. "I've always been drawn to quirky individuals, especially those who aren't afraid to do things their own way. I think most people exhibit a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder in one way or another, and Reverend Frank is no exception. His obsession is creating happy, life-long unions...or at least preventing divorces."
In selecting the right director for the project, Simonds notes, "The story has both simple comedic elements and complex emotional aspects at the same time. There's a lot of physical comedy in the script, but we also wanted to provide the audience with a chance to be emotionally invested in the characters. Looking at his past projects, Ken Kwapis has a strong grasp of how to blend both comedy and emotion to great effect."
Executive producer Kim Zubick affirms, "Ken has a great track record, and he can handle a wide range of material. Whether it is a film like 'The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants' or his work on 'The Office,' he knows how to make it work. What Reverend Frank does in this movie is very unusual; I don't think many marriage prep courses are actually like this in real life--at least I hope not--but we are playing it as if it's completely real. Ken was the perfect director to pull this off."
Kwapis says he instantly connected with the themes in "License to Wed" when he read the script. "It amazes me that even half of all marriages last these days. Most people see marriage as a day at the beach. Reverend Frank shows us all the blood, sweat and tears that go into making them work. Our film is a cautionary tale for the young and affianced--don't dive in unless you know you can swim."
THE WEDDING PARTY
The search for the right actor to don Reverend Frank's collar didn't take long. Producer Mike Medavoy notes, "When I read the script, I just knew that Robin Williams would be ideal for the role. In addition to being an incredibly funny actor and comedian, he's such a passionate and compassionate person. While Reverend Frank puts Ben and Sadie through some really trying situations, at the core, likeability was a key component for building the character."
Academy Award-winning actor and comedian Robin Williams says he gravitated towards the project "for the characters, mostly, and the idea that Reverend Frank is genuinely trying to help people. He creates simulated exercises and scenarios that a young couple might not even think about or have to deal with until they're already married, when it's too late. But if a couple doesn't drop out and actually graduates his class, they'll be one step closer to living happily ever after."
Kwapis remarks, "Robin Williams was the perfect choice to create an irreverent Reverend. His ad-lib abilities, of course, are the stuff of legend. He can riff on anything in his path, which, more often than not, was me. You wouldn't believe the number of ways you can mangle the name Kwapis. There is a method to Reverend Frank's madness. No matter how perverse his tactics, his goal remains noble: keeping couples together."
The bride-to-be character in the film, Sadie Jones, has long dreamed of getting married at St. Augustine's and will let nothing get in the way of fulfilling that dream. It's where her parents tied the knot, and where she was christened by Reverend Frank--both very compelling reasons any groom would be reluctant to challenge.
Kwapis offers, "For the role of Sadie, I wanted someone who is adorable but strong. Sadie is the girl that guys would do anything for, including something as crazy as Reverend Frank's patented marriage prep course. Mandy Moore could not be more winning in this part, and it gave a chance to show off her comedic skills. Mandy is daffy and real; she is Everywoman, but the funny version."
"The thing that really struck me about this script, and what made me want to be a part of this film so badly, was that whatever situation these characters found themselves in, it really felt grounded and relatable," says Moore. "I have yet to find myself in these situations for real--like getting married--but when I do, I'll certainly be much better prepared!"
On the other side of the marriage equation is Sadie's fiance, Ben Murphy. For the role, Kwapis knew exactly who he wanted. "I helped launch 'The Office' and knew from the moment I first worked with John Krasinski that he was a rare find, a perfect blend of comic actor and leading man. He was my very top choice for the role of Ben. John has an innate ability to be both funny and grounded. He is both understated and expressive. As fans of 'The Office' can attest, John really knows his way around an awkward pause."
Krasinski states, "I really wanted to do this movie. When I heard that Ken got hired on to direct, it made me even more excited to do it. I am completely and totally indebted to him for bringing me on."
Osborne attests, "John was always on the top of the list for Ken, and when we screen-tested Mandy and John, we couldn't have agreed more. We saw real chemistry between the two. We could see them as a couple struggling through the course together...for better or for worse."
Being paired with Moore onscreen for the first time, Krasinski notes, "I was very excited to work with Mandy. She's so sweet, and she brought such incredible warmth to the set."
Moore offers, "I've had a blast with John. We have a really good rapport. He's so talented and such a sweetheart; it's been such a treat to work with him."
In the film, Ben bravely proposes to Sadie in front of the entire Jones family at her parents' 30th wedding anniversary. Sadie accepts, but there's a hitch to getting hitched as the jubilant moment quickly spirals towards a pragmatic discussion about where to have the wedding.
"Ben just wants a simple, casual wedding somewhere exotic, like the Caribbean, not knowing that marrying Sadie comes with a stipulation," says Krasinski.
"Sadie has dreamt of getting married at St. Augustine's all her life because she wants to keep the family tradition, so she's very determined to make it happen and is sticking to it," states Moore.
To arrange a date at the church, Sadie introduces Ben to Reverend Frank, who informs them that, as luck would have it, St. Augustine's is booked solid for the next two years. However, there has just been a cancellation, which opens up a slot in three weeks. Sadie excitedly agrees to the abrupt wedding date, at which point the Reverend tells them he won't marry the couple unless they pass his mandatory prep course.
When it came to designing and shooting the prep course scenes, "imagine marriage as a theme park, with thrill rides representing the various trials and tribulations a couple undergoes. That's how I conceived of the marriage prep course in the film. I wanted the audience to experience an emotional roller- coaster ride--thirty years of marriage crammed into three weeks," Kwapis says.
"Sadie's the type that welcomes this kind of a challenge. To her, it's just one more thing that will bring her and Ben closer, and more in love," says Moore.
Ben, on the other hand, can't help but feel a little uneasy, especially when Reverend Frank introduces two very important rules they must follow: Rule Number One, they must each write their own wedding vows, which are only to be revealed at the wedding ceremony; Rule Number Two, effective immediately, they are to have no sex until the honeymoon.
"Rule Number Two is, without a doubt, one of the hardest rules to follow for a modern couple, and that's the beauty of the prep course," states Williams. "I especially like the idea of putting a young couple's relationship to the test that way. Let's just take that tool out of your toolbox and see what you have left."
"In the beginning of a typical relationship, the sex is everywhere, but after about 15 or 20 years, it's another story," Williams jokes, continuing, "Reverend Frank owes the high success rate of his class to his commitment to helping couples discover what it is in their relationship that will give it the staying power it needs to last through the years."
Before Ben even realizes he's being tested, Reverend Frank not-so-subtly grills him with piercing personal questions. Krasinski notes, "One of the tests Ben goes through with Reverend Frank is playing catch. What Ben thinks is a casual conversation turns into 20 questions of a very personal nature: how long Sadie and Ben have been dating, whether they sleep together, and things like that. I think Reverend Frank does identify Ben as somebody who is worthy of Sadie, but just wants Ben to prove it, not only to Sadie but also to Ben himself. He wants Ben to really understand why he wants to get married and to look at the relationship past the starry-eyed perspective."
Another exercise from Reverend Frank's class involves the care and feeding of eerily lifelike, but decidedly creepy-looking, animatronic babies. Drawing inspiration from real-life experiences, Kim Barker recalls a high school assignment designed to teach students the responsibilities of being a parent. "I remember, in one of my classes, we had to carry around eggs for a week, 24 hours a day, as if they were real babies. We had to take care of them; you couldn't just leave them in your locker. From that idea, we created a stress test in which Ben and Sadie would be responsible for something 24/7. Initially, the idea was to use simple devices like baby pagers and, eventually, the idea evolved into the twin robotic babies."
Designed by makeup and special effects company Drac Studios, the animatronic babies were controlled remotely via radio transmitters. Eye movements, hand movements, mouth movements, and even bowel movements were controlled independently. Each function was precisely coordinated and rehearsed for each shot.
Moore recalls, "Handling the babies was pretty difficult. I would hope that they are actually more temperamental than real babies because they required a whole lot of maintenance...and battery changes. They were also really heavy and smelled funny. I was surprised at how much effort it took to make them work behind the scenes. There were four different people controlling one baby. Poor John...he had to do more scenes with the babies than I did."
Krasinski agrees, "There's a scene where Sadie and Ben are in a department store creating their wedding registry, and while Sadie's picking out dinnerware I'm stuck with the two babies, who suddenly decide to have a complete breakdown."
Unbeknownst to Ben, the tot-sized terrors are being controlled remotely by Reverend Frank's right-hand man, a precocious minister-in-training, referred to in the script as Choir Boy.
Played by Josh Flitter, Choir Boy adjusts the "Robo Mood" of the animatronic babies by flipping the switches on the remote control from "Calm," skipping the intermediate stages of "Cranky" and "Berserk," and going directly to "Meltdown."
"The toughest role to cast was Choir Boy," Kwapis notes. "He's like a miniature thug, a little henchman who does all Reverend Frank's heavy lifting. Most of the candidates read the part as if they were little cherubs. When Josh Flitter walked into the casting session, it was as if he was channeling every Hollywood tough guy from Edward G. Robinson to James Gandolfini. The idea of Josh as a marriage enforcer was too irresistible to pass up."
Flitter says, "Choir Boy is enrolled in Reverend Frank's 'Ministers of Tomorrow' program, and his life goal is to become the greatest reverend ever when he grows up. He wholeheartedly believes in the prep course that Reverend Frank created and is the one who gets things done behind the scenes."
Choir Boy has covertly bugged Ben and Sadie's bedroom with a mini-microphone that gives Reverend Frank around-the-clock surveillance of the couple's conversations. In one instance, the bug serves to prevent a violation of Reverend Frank's much-dreaded Rule Number Two.
Rule Number Two notwithstanding, perhaps one of the more stress-inducing tests in the Reverend's course is the word association exercise with in-laws. Under the guise of a wine and cheese tasting, the test is designed to open the lines of communication between Ben and his future relatives, including Sadie's older, jaded, and recently divorced sister, Lindsey, played by Christine Taylor.
Taylor offers, "Having just gone through a nasty divorce, my character is very sarcastic and bitter. She has no faith in marriage, or men for that matter, and is very wary about Sadie getting married so suddenly. She's definitely feeling like the black sheep in the family being surrounded by her parents' and grandparents' successful marriages--and now Sadie and Ben's engagement. She can't help but act a little standoffish towards Ben, and it becomes really apparent during the in-laws exercise."
Also invited to the wine and cheese tasting is Sadie's attractive, sophisticated, wealthy--and male--best friend, Carlisle, played by Eric Christian Olsen. "Carlisle is Sadie's B.F.F. They grew up together, took baths together, and know everything about each other. He's definitely part of Sadie's family. This presents an interesting dynamic for Ben, who should be made to feel very territorial by Carlisle's mere presence. I mean, you can't really blame Ben for feeling a bit insecure when Carlisle's around because, besides having a good relationship with Sadie's family, he's also very charming, very talented, and has great teeth and cheekbones," smiles Olsen.
While Sadie confides in Carlisle for advice on just about everything, Ben seeks out his best friend, Joel, who provides Ben with a slightly different point of view. Played by actor-comedian DeRay Davis, Joel has been married for some time--complete with two children and a lawnmower--and can perhaps be best summed up as a man's man, or as Davis puts it, "the everyman who thinks that men should be kings again. Joel knows that, for him, the days of being the master of his domain have long passed since he got married. So, living vicariously, he secretly wants Ben to reign as a free man just a little bit longer."
As Ben and Sadie get caught in the crossfire of conflicting influences and endure the demands of the prep course, their true personalities materialize, putting their compatibility to the ultimate test.
Krasinski states, "Ben and Sadie had never fought prior to enrolling in Reverend Frank's class, but as soon as the course begins and they're feeling the pressure, Sadie's type-A personality really begins to emerge. She's someone who is very organized, gets things done, and needs to have them done a certain way, whereas Ben is happy to wake up with a smile and just sort of get through the day. Then, when Sadie starts showing favoritism towards Carlisle's opinions, and Sadie's sister starts in on Ben's passive nature, he can't help but feel like everyone is teaming up against him."
Sometimes the truth hurts, but other times the truth can be really funny. Taylor notes, "When Reverend Frank asks Lindsey to word associate with Ben, she, in her sarcastic, cutting way, calls him 'assertive,' which is the complete opposite of how she really feels about him. She actually thinks Ben is a big pushover, and not necessarily the right guy for Sadie. When Ben is asked to word associate with Lindsey, he calls her 'blonde,' which she takes as a cue to attack him right back. It was a really fun scene to shoot. We kept blowing takes because everybody around the table was making everyone else laugh so much."
With a comedic dynamo like Robin Williams on the set, Kwapis encouraged everyone to expect the unexpected. "With Robin, who has an inexhaustible desire to invent, you have to make sure there's plenty of film in the camera and you have a group of actors who can hold their own when the ad-libs start flying."
"My favorite thing about working with Ken is the fact that he just hands you the ball, and gives you the leeway and the freedom to get into the moment," says Moore. "He doesn't call 'Action' to begin a scene. Instead, he simply says, 'Go ahead.' It's so relaxed and conversational. Even though Ken was very supportive and gave us a lot of freedom on the set to improvise, I was still terrified to try things in front of Robin because he's such a comic legend. But I was really impressed with him because he was so considerate of all the other actors and so collaborative."
The chance to work with Robin Williams was also an incredible highlight for Krasinski, who reveals that when he was much younger he had written Williams a fan letter asking for, and receiving, an autographed photo. "I was a big fan of Robin's, and had seen all of his movies. Even before I wanted to be an actor, I just loved, loved to watch his work. So to act in a film with him now is nothing short of surreal. And, he's even funnier and more enthusiastic in person than he is on film."
Too funny, perhaps; as Kwapis says, "The great hazard of putting together such a group of nimble comic talents is that it was often impossible for them to get through a take without laughing. Keeping a straight face became a Herculean task for John in particular, faced with Robin's onslaught of quips."
Additionally, both Kwapis and Krasinski enjoyed an "office" party of their own while shooting scenes featuring co-workers from "The Office," including Brian Baumgartner as Jim, Ben and Sadie's potato skin-loving prep course classmate; Mindy Kaling as Joel's demanding wife, Shelly; and Angela Kinsey as Judith, a jewelry store clerk.
NO PALM TREES IN CHICAGO
Though the story is set in Chicago, the film was primarily shot on location in and around Los Angeles.
Location manager Tom Hillman notes, "Ken's initial vision for the setting of this film was Anytown, USA. He wasn't originally going for Chicago, but he liked the architecture and feel of the city and its suburbs."
However, with a fairly short pre-production schedule, the filmmakers opted to shoot Los Angeles for Chicago. Hillman and the team searched for neighborhoods within the massive Los Angeles urban sprawl for settings that could pass for Chicago.
Co-producer Christine Sacani states, "It's one thing if you are shooting L.A. for L.A., but when you're shooting L.A. for Chicago there are a number of considerations...like avoiding palm trees."
"There aren't really any palm trees in Chicago," says Hillman. "If you go down into the Adams district of Los Angeles, there are a lot of craftsman-style houses, but the people who settled there many decades ago were proud that they lived in L.A. so they flooded the place with palm trees, even though the palm tree isn't indigenous to Los Angeles. But when you go to Pasadena and South Pasadena, the early developers planted more deciduous trees, which look much more Midwestern."
One of the centerpiece locations for the story is St. Augustine's Church. After scouting several locations, the filmmakers selected the First Congregational Church in Long Beach, California. Constructed in 1914, the structure still looks very much the same today as it did then.
"Oddly enough, that was the first church that played in my head when they said Chicago. We had sold ourselves on a different church in downtown Los Angeles but, through what can appropriately be deemed as divine intervention, it had problems and didn't end up working out," recalls Hillman. "I then took them to what had been my first choice, which ended up being much better for us. The church in Long Beach was a lot warmer, a lot smaller, and more containable. When Ken and the producers saw it in person, they said, 'Oh my god, look at these windows. Look how beautiful this is!'"
With the climax of the film taking place in an exotic location, the filmmakers were also faced with another decision. "I think Jamaica was what Ken had in mind. At one point, it was going to be a winery, but it didn't have the right tropical feel. The California coast is still the California coast," Hillman states. "You have to bring in a lot of greens to sell it as a tropical beach, which can be done, but it takes a whole lot of set dressing."
At first, the idea of filming these scenes in Jamaica seemed impractical, given the production schedule. Paraphrasing the old studio adage, Kwapis quips, "A tree is a tree, so let's shoot it in Malibu."
In the end, the filmmakers found no substitute for the real thing. The company trekked down to the Sandals Grande Ocho Rios Beach & Villa Resort in Jamaica for the final week of filming.
Kwapis concludes, "There's no place on the West Coast that can substitute for Jamaica. The blue of the Caribbean is so specific--it's turquoise, really-- there's nothing else quite like it. It was the perfect backdrop to shoot the film's big finish."