A Thing or Two (or Ten) about Scriptwriting – ‘Legally Blonde’ dynamic duo return to the Pollock for classic teen comedy

Karen McCullah, Matt Ryan and Kirsten Smith COURTESY PHOTO

Karen McCullah, Matt Ryan and Kirsten Smith
COURTESY PHOTO

Ah, now here’s the life. When Karen McCullah sits down with her long-time writing partner Kirsten Smith to work on a script, they usually do it poolside at Karen’s Hollywood house, sipping on mimosas. (Unless they’re working on the plot of a movie, then the mimosas usually wait. Champagne is good for writing dialog.) That working environment was well-earned: Ms. McCullah and Ms. Smith wrote some of the best loved comedies of the last decade, from their breakthrough hit “10 Things I Hate About You,” the hilarious “Legally Blonde” (now a Broadway musical!), and “The House Bunny,” which showed off Anna Faris’ comedic chops.

The two will return to UCSB this Thursday for their second sit-down chat at the Pollock Theater for the Carsey-Wolf sponsored “Script to Screen” event, hosted by Matt Ryan. Their last trip to UCSB featured a screening of “Legally Blonde.” This time they return with “10 Things I Hate About You,” their high school rewrite of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” starring a young and still unknown Heath Ledger, Julia Stiles and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. They will screen the film, then talk about the making of the script, their first successful collaboration and the start of a beautiful friendship.

To hear her tell it, the two partnered up when Ms. McCullah, living in Denver at the time, got one of her scripts noticed by Ms. Smith, who was young and working her way up in the development department of a studio.

“She said, ‘I love your writing, send me everything you have,’ ” says Ms. McCullah. “And the next time I was out there (in L.A.) she said let’s meet for a drink and we did.” By this point, Ms. Smith had quit her job and wanted to focus on writing.

“We started that night on cocktail napkins.” The first script they wrote together did not get produced, but a year and three scripts later, the first script they sold wound up getting made, which is pretty good for a first time screenwriter.

Wanting to write a teen comedy, Ms. McCullah went back through her high school diary and found a list of “Things I Hate About Anthony” about her then-boyfriend. “I wrote it during a bit of anger at him to remind myself why I shouldn’t keep dating him … Kirsten said, oh my god, that should be the title, and we had the title before the plot.”

Adapting Shakespeare proved an adventure, as the Bard has a lot of plot and characters, more than the two needed. It was a good experience, their first sold script, as they got to meet Heath Ledger and tailor his character to his Australian accent. It was a kind of experience that doesn’t always happen to scriptwriters. (They’ve been in that other role too, being brought in to rewrite scripts.)

The Script to Screen experience was fun for the two last time, when they screened “Legally Blonde.”

“It was kind of exciting to see how many kids who are in college now are really into that movie,” Ms. McCullah says. “They had a lot of questions, and a trivia contest, and a lot of people said how Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon’s lead character) was an big influence on their lives.”

They two are currently at work on several scripts, both together and separate. Their last film was “The Ugly Truth,” their first R-Rated comedy. That was a great chance to indulge in “how people really talk,” she says. “Because I swear like a sailor.”

The partnership, whether over poolside cocktails or down in Los Feliz at Ms. Smith’s house, is strong because the two just love making each other crack up, Ms. McCullah Lutz says.

“It’s a mix of bouncing an idea and having the other person say, oh yes, and then we could do this, and this, and it just snowballs.”

KAREN MCCULLAH AND KIRSTEN SMITH
When: 7 p.m., Thursday
Where: Pollock Theatre, UCSB
Cost: $5
Information: carseywolf.ucsb.edu/pollock/script-screen

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