About the Production
What draws storytellers to explore a unique and specific high-stakes world? In the case of ADMISSION the pull of Ivy League academia, according to producer Kerry Kohansky-Roberts, provides "the perfect setting for blending deftly nuanced comedy with drama."
Novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz thought so too, writing her 2009 novel ADMISSION as a multilayered exploration -- not only of the intensely competitive world of the college admissions process but also of the attendant emotions at the center of the experience.
Korelitz reveals, "I'm married to a Princeton University professor, and had myself worked for a couple of years as an outside reader in the university's Office of Admissions. There were about 10 of us each year, and although we did not make the acceptance decisions we commented on the applications after reading them. I was fascinated by the intense emotion surrounding the applications, and very curious about what it must feel like to have to make these decisions.
"I'd watched a generation of Princeton students come through my house and my husband's classes. They're fantastic young students -- but they're not the only fantastic young students out there. I remember going through a very competitive and intense college ADMISSION process myself; from what I've observed, it's only gotten crazier."
The author felt that the protagonist should be neither a student nor a professor. She notes, "I wanted to look at the kind of person who becomes an admissions officer, someone whose job it is to fend off the anxieties and loathing of all of us on the outside. Who does that, and what's it like to be them?"
Since that latter question of self-knowledge is at the heart of many of Academy Award nominee Paul Weitz's movies, his longtime associate Kohansky-Roberts recognized ADMISSION as material that the director would gravitate towards. She reflects, "While Jean's novel pulled back the curtain on the college admissions process, it delved into themes of rediscovery, family, and parenthood -- all of which Paul is always addressing in his films.
"I loved the concept of an admissions counselor who has her confirmed opinions on parents and the lengths they go to in order to place their kids in the right university -- and then, ironically, ends up behaving in a more extreme way than any of them."
Screenwriter Karen Croner also read and admired the book. She and Kohansky-Roberts had met years earlier, and had long been hoping to work on a project together. They met anew to discuss the book "and joined forces to bring it to Paul," says Croner.
Korelitz remembers, "When I discovered that Paul, who had made ABOUT A BOY, was interested in ADMISSION, I was beyond elated. I couldn't imagine anyone better to direct the film based on my book."
For Croner, the novel's themes resonated. She offers, "I felt a highly personal connection to the story. One of the first things that really struck me in reading the book was, here is a woman who is on the wrong path in her life. Well, I had been writing dramas and I woke up one morning and said, 'I want to write comedy. What am I doing?'"
Croner had also recently endured a stressful admissions process. She says, "Having just gone through the process of getting my son into middle school, which in West Los Angeles is a blood sport, I was doubly curious and wanted to dig deeper into who these officers are -- or might be. In interviewing admissions officers while working on the script, I found that they fell into one of two groups: people who were truly passionate about finding the right kid for their school, and people who absolutely overwhelmed, looking for any reason to say no.
"So, right there I found inspiration taking dramatic material and making it funny. I got to work straight away on the script and, right from the start, working closely with Paul Weitz on the adaptation was absolutely wonderful -- a dream come true."
Croner made sure to meet with Korelitz and discuss the adaptation process. The screenwriter remembers telling the author "that I would be true to the themes of her book, although a lot was going to change with the story. For example, much of the book is told in the past tense, and the movie would play out in the present."
Kohansky-Roberts adds, "Some characters were eliminated, while others were enhanced. Quite a bit of plot was put in. What didn't change was the sense of connection to these characters."
"The essence of the story has remained the same," confirms Korelitz. "The script reflects Karen's interpretation of Portia, and the movie reflects Paul Weitz's interpretation. At this point, I'm the grandmother of the character!"
Incorporating the dramatic and comedic elements of the story, the movie's Portia became, says Croner, "a woman with a genuine desire to launch kids into their lives, yet she herself stays imprisoned in her own well-ordered life. I felt Portia's story could be universal, and inspiring for anybody who has imposed limits on themselves and wonders if they have the guts to say 'I'm going to break out of this.'"
Kohansky-Roberts comments, "It's only after receiving a jolt from the past does Portia begin to reset herself and strike out on a new path, with a new outlook and a budding maternal desire that supersedes her previous way of thinking. There transpires a series of events by which she acts like a parent, something that she had openly disdained."
Croner concurs, "When she begins to behave like a mother with Jeremiah, she allows herself to have feelings that she had been afraid of."
While Kohansky-Roberts and Weitz coordinated on the initial pitch with Croner, they simultaneously approached their top choice for the lead role. Kohansky-Roberts notes, "We had heard Tina Fey was interested in doing a comedy/drama, and we thought the combination of her wry humor with the more serious undertones in the story would make for a movie that was substantive and also entertaining. Once we thought of Tina in the role, there really wasn't a second choice for us."
Weitz's longtime Depth of Field production partner Andrew Miano adds, "In addition to her comic timing, Tina conveys heart and depth; we all felt that she could access the dramatic and emotional places Portia would progress to."
The multi-award-winning actress and writer sparked to the pitch, and first read the novel and then a screenplay draft. She conferred extensively with Weitz and Croner, also met with Korelitz, and committed to the project in the fall of 2010.
Fey reflects, "When I told friends, especially those with children, about the film, there would be an instantaneous reaction and I would get peppered with questions. There's a sense of panic in every parent who is about to go through that process. I found the story compelling, and I wanted to take on the challenge of playing this character at the center of that process.
"Portia is a woman who is living in a judgmental and strict world, and she comes unraveled -- but she also loosens up. When she takes a maternal interest in Jeremiah, she is trying to give something to him and help him realize his potential. Her story is so beautifully told in Jean's book, and Karen did such a great job translating it into the screenplay."
With Fey in mind to incarnate Portia, Croner continued working on the script. The filmmakers all felt that the strength of the adaptation would lie not only in the vivid characters but also in the detailed backdrop of academia and the machinations-laden admissions process.
The screenwriter talked to ADMISSION officers at some of the country's finest schools. Croner notes, "First and foremost, I wanted to know who the people were who were making these important decisions."
Kohansky-Roberts notes, "There has been an escalating parental obsession with this process -- whether for nursery schools or elite universities. Kids are being groomed and nurtured for a greatness that may well be unattainable, and they are trying so hard -- and pushed so hard -- to be all that they can be to secure entrance into a top Ivy League university."
Croner elaborates, "To some parents, their children's college acceptance becomes a referendum on their own parenting skills. In essence, the parents are applying. Competition is fierce. Kids can spend the last three years of high school being pressured by their parents to excel in school and in extracurricular activities: can you get published in THE NEW YORKER, or develop an intense passion for cutting-edge molecular biology? By the time they do enter college, they may be burned-out and unsure of who they really are."
The filmmakers soon had their own stack of applications to sift through -from agents and managers keen to have actors cast opposite the leading lady. The role of John Pressman, the former college acquaintance of Portia's who reappears in her life and both blindsides her and opens her eyes, called for an actor who could hold his own with Fey.
Miano notes, "Paul Rudd was the ideal actor because he is so versatile; he goes from indie films to laugh-out-loud popular comedies to edgy stage work."
Kohansky-Roberts adds, "When they were at school together at Dartmouth, John perhaps had a crush on Portia. She's taught herself to forget a lot of what went on for her there. Now, though, there's a spark between them as John wants Portia to make the maternal connection with Jeremiah. We knew that Paul Rudd partnering on-screen with Tina Fey could make these emotional sea changes persuasive."
The two actors were already acquainted. Rudd remarks, "Tina and I had done some sketch comedy on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, but working with her starring in a movie was amazing; she had such a handle on the part of Portia. Coming into this, you know Tina is going to be funny, but she deflects all of her jokes. She's not schtick-y; that's not her style. Instead, she plays into what's funny in the situation and the character, making sure that the humor emerges naturally.
"Before filming, Paul Weitz and I had met to talk about who John was -- including things that weren't necessarily in the script, like his history with Portia as he would remember it. In speaking with Paul, I knew this was a character I wanted to play."
When approached to play Portia's live-in lover, Princeton professor Mark, acclaimed actor Michael Sheen "jumped at the chance to be Tina's boyfriend again -- and to be the Brit playing with her mind, again! Wesley [played by Sheen opposite Fey on 30 ROCK] was clean-shaven, while Mark is bearded and wears glasses. The next time I play her boyfriend, there will be call for yet another look..."
Miano notes, "Through her longtime relationship with Mark, we see just how regimented and orderly Portia's existence truly is. Then, after he jilts her and they keep encountering each other again, Tina and Michael share some of the movie's funniest moments."
The British actor muses, "Mark may seem like a bad guy, but I'd say he's more sad. He's not brave, and when he tells Portia that they want different things, it's something he only likes to think. For the rest of the film, he projects onto her that she is still upset over his leaving. Audiences will empathize with Portia and go on the journey with her.
"I always have such a good time working with Tina, who is just fantastic. I try to be open to what she does, react to it and go with it."
Chemistry was also a consideration in casting the role of Portia's mother, an accomplished author and intellectual whose high expectations for her daughter have frequently put a strain on their relationship. Kohansky-Roberts says, "Lily Tomlin is a feminist icon and a comedic idol, so we felt that her playing opposite Tina would be ideal." Fey and Tomlin have both been honored with the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, and are among only four women who to date have received the accolade.
Rudd enthuses, "It was great to be able to see Lily's process, to watch her work -- she will mold and sculpt a scene like clay, trying different line readings and coming up with new things."
Tomlin remarks, "Lately, I've played a lot of mothers -- but not a character like Susannah. I was pleased to be able to play her. Susannah was a celebrated feminist at one point; years have passed, but she still has her principles and ideals -- and a mythology that she's created for herself. She feels that Portia, for whom she had hopes of fearlessness, has become conventional. But they're both holding secrets, and over the course of the story they have to find their way back to each other.
"I had seen Paul Weitz's work, and thought he did very interesting things with relationships -- subtle work, not predictable or pat. I met with him, and we talked about our families and our lives. On the set, he was real supportive. I also wanted to work with Tina Fey -- anyone can see from all she's done that she's a terrific girl."
Miano says, "Getting two consummate comedic actors to play mother and daughter was almost too good to be true. I think we were all in awe of Lily, but she came in and proceeded to wow everyone with her humor -- and how easygoing she was, despite her busy schedule.
"Another big 'get' for us was Wallace Shawn as Clarence, the retiring Dean of Admissions. Paul [Weitz] so admires Wallace's writing and performing; as an actor, he always brings something special to the dynamic of his scenes."
Executive producer Caroline Baron comments, "Paul loves actors as much as he loves the storytelling process. I think audiences will see some of themselves in each of the characters."
Fey adds, "Paul has really thought through both the story and the characters; when we are shooting, he will identify little things for you to focus on, which I found to be truly helpful. He is also open to hearing about what an actor thinks is going on within their character."
Actor Nat Wolff, who plays Jeremiah, reports, "Paul has a relaxed approach, and I think he has the entire movie in his head before he makes it. But then he lets himself be surprised by what can happen while shooting."
Baron adds, "With all these funny people on the set, this was a shoot where a lot of laughter would go on."
Croner remembers, "The fun of being on the set was to see what these actors -- so good at improvisation -- might add, or what they might change simply because of their timing."
The ADMISSION cast member perhaps most associated with dramatic work, Gloria Reuben, found herself drawn to Corinne, Portia's workplace "frenemy." The Emmy Award-nominated ER star enthuses, "I felt that this script had intelligent humor and showed people's humanity. I loved how Corinne was so ambitious and driven. I knew that playing her would be unlike anything else I've ever done as an actor, so of course it was appealing to stretch boundaries.
"Is Corinne a bitch? I think she's a bit misunderstood. Maybe some of her dreams haven't come true; being Dean of Admissions would be big for her. Corinne feels that she is the best one for the job, meaning, 'nothing personal.' Also, it's not like Portia isn't working her own angles -- which is one of the things I also liked about the material: it acknowledges that sometimes we manipulate people to get what we want."
Since either Portia or Corinne could succeed Clarence as Dean of Admissions, and each has their eye on the prize, "their friendly rivalry slowly transforms into an out-and-out rivalry," notes Fey.
Croner remarks, "Portia and Corinne's competition becomes very much like trying to get into a college."
Her and Fey's scenes together and with Shawn have tension that spills over into comedy, and Reuben found filming them to be "great fun. Tina is so naturally funny that it helped the rest of us to find the humor as well. Paul Weitz is so specific in his direction, but he likes to laugh, too.
"Sometimes I couldn't even look at Wallace because he would make me laugh just by sitting there. He'd catch my eye and it would be all over."
Rounding out the cast are two young actors. The older of the two, 18-year-old Nat Wolff, had heard of the ADMISSION plum role of Jeremiah, the student who is an unknowing catalyst to Portia's transformation as she increasingly presses to get him into Princeton.
Both as actor and teenager, Wolff felt that he understood the character, "and I thought, 'I want this part.' Jeremiah has never really cared about school, and his grades reflect that. He's rebellious in that he has taught himself through books and through living life. John sees the genius potential in this insolent kid, and brings him into the New Quest School, where Jeremiah excels for the first time. But he's not the typical Princeton applicant, and he's a tough sell for Portia there.
"What interested me is how he makes the transition from being highly analytical, seeing everything in black-and-white, to softening up a bit; Portia becomes someone he accepts into his life."
Fey says, "Portia is drawn to Jeremiah, although at first she can't handle being around him; she doesn't feel she can deal with it. But when John, being the aggressive do-gooder that he is, brings Jeremiah to visit Princeton, she senses an opportunity to find out more about this child -- even if it's clear that she doesn't know much about mothering, she's going to attempt it."
Something that the script called for Wolff to attempt, but that he didn't know much about, was ventriloquism. Initially, the actor could only envision "the movies about weirdos -- Anthony Hopkins in MAGIC and Adrien Brody in DUMMY. But the production got someone who does children's parties to train me in this skill, which it really is -- you have to learn how to talk without moving your mouth. You replace 'b' with 'd' and 'p' with 't,' and so on. It was cool to learn something new on a movie, but this was very difficult.
"I said to Paul Weitz, 'I've been working really hard on this.' He told me, 'You know, Jeremiah's supposed to be bad at it.' I said, 'Don't worry, I'll still be not so good at it.'"
For the role of John's adopted son, Nelson, the filmmakers met with dozens of pre-teens, both working actors and novices. Splitting that difference was then-11-year-old Travaris Spears, who had begun pursuing acting but was new to movies. He landed the role in ADMISSION after three audition cycles in as many weeks, and took it all in stride.
Spears says, "Nelson loves John as his dad, but he doesn't want to travel the world like John does. Nelson wants stability; to him, Portia is very stable, and he begins to look at Portia like a mom. He definitely wants her and John's relationship to grow.
"What I liked about my character was his personality and his humor. He reminded me a lot of myself!"
Rudd remarks, "Travaris' enthusiasm was infectious. We're not kids any more, so it was nice to experience that -- and to see how he doesn't worry too much about 'getting into the scene' and all that stuff we do. Paul Weitz would call 'Action' and Travaris would just key into it."
The young actor remembers, "Paul Weitz was awesome -- and very patient! Paul Rudd was inspiring, and he would give me tips that came in handy throughout scenes. Tina Fey was hilarious on and off the set, and I learned a lot from her. If I have a chance to work with them again, I will definitely take it."
Wolff reports, "When we started filming, Travaris asked me, 'Are you nervous?' I answered, 'A little nervous; it's my first day.' He said, 'I'm not nervous.' He's no over-the-top kid actor. He's a natural."
Spears found himself receiving a lot of advice on the shoot, not just about acting but also about the admissions process; personal anecdotes of past and present experiences were frequently discussed. Whether it was about getting into college, high school, middle school or preschool, everyone seemed to have a story.
Fey reveals, "I did apply to Princeton, because it was a dream of my mother's that one day I would try to go there. I was a good student, but I wasn't 'Princeton material,' as Wallace Shawn's character would say. I remember thinking at my Alumni Interview that they were not interested in me at all, that it was completely perfunctory.
"So I did not get into Princeton, but I went to a great school -- the University of Virginia."
Wolff did not have the luxury of Fey's reflective perspective. Before filming, he was "anxious because I was just starting the college admissions process. I was having meetings with my college advisor three days after I read the script, and then while preparing for the movie. It's a stressful and intense process for students. Instead of visiting colleges, I worked on this movie!"
The system is a bit different in the United Kingdom, points out Sheen. He recalls, "I wanted to go to Oxford University to study English, but I realized that I wouldn't be able to study both Drama and English. I did go to Oxford to take the exam. I got through that, so then what happens is you go to the college and you meet the Dons [or, Professors]. I was in this very grand room with these eccentric-looking people. They asked me who my favorite writer was.
"By that point, I'd realized this was not for me. Rather than name someone who I knew would impress them like Camus or Blake or Dostoyevsky, I said Stephen King -- who was in fact my favorite writer. They feigned not knowing who he was, and life as an actor beckoned." Sheen would go on to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London.
Baron had been Stateside, and is an alumnus of Brandeis University. In readying to make the movie, she says, "Locations-wise, ADMISSION was a complicated picture. It was challenging to unify the worlds the characters inhabited, and yet all these suburban and rural locations don't give away that we were in the metro New York area."
Utilizing as many practical settings as possible was essential to meeting a streamlined filming schedule and budget. The majority of the locations were in New York State; the latter's versatility afforded a multitude of options to recreate the story's locales of rural New Hampshire, leafy suburban New Jersey, a sprawling country estate, and the hushed gentility of some of the top private schools along the Eastern seaboard.
For New Quest, John Pressman's experimental high school where learning is valued for its own sake, an equine training center in Old Westbury, NY provided the requisite bucolic setting. At HorseAbility, the filmmakers had access to an open-air courtyard and a farmyard; production designer Sarah Knowles and her department fashioned rustic classrooms. Four-legged animals joined the principal cast members for several days of filming there, as Fey, Rudd, and Wolff found themselves working with a cow for a calf-birthing sequence. Rudd praises the cow as being "sweet, but huge. It was hard to see past our new costar, spending the day filming in a small pen.
"The flies loved us that day, because we were smeared with this goop made of syrup and some other gelatinous substance. Our clothes were stuck to us. Sometimes, filming a movie stinks."
The newborn calf was slathered in the goop as well, but since it was in actuality a flexible prosthetic fashioned by the special effects department specifically for the scene, no peeps of discomfort were heard.
Extending the equestrian connection, a privately owned estate in "horse country" on Long Island stood in as the genteel home of John's wealthy family where Nelson's birthday party is held.
Elsewhere in the state, a beautiful old farmhouse in Piermont, NY became Portia's childhood home, then as now Susannah's bohemian enclave. The 35-day shooting schedule also took the production to the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn in New York City.
The production's ability to work so well and so swiftly within imposed parameters can be traced in part to the team's having been one prior. Baron notes, "With a short shooting schedule, it was tremendously helpful that Paul Weitz, [cinematographer] Declan Quinn, Sarah, and so many of us had all worked together before -- recently, on Being Flynn. So there was a real shorthand. We knew we would have to think on our feet while also being well-prepared prior to the shoot. In that regard, Paul is a wonderful collaborator with cast and crew alike."
Knowles and returning set decorator Susan Perlman enjoyed scouring prop houses, vintage stores, and flea markets to re-create Susannah's decades' worth of materials. Tomlin reports, "They made it a rambling place where Susannah is forever working on things. In one scene, she's repairing a bike -- which would be her eco-minded mode of transportation -- so I was taught how to fix the bike chain, which I'll now never forget."
One of the occasions where the production filmed on a soundstage was for the marathon ADMISSION session scenes during which final decisions on the incoming class of Princetonians are made; the volume of cast members, and a surprising shooting style that Weitz and Quinn had worked out, necessitated removing set walls and ceilings in order to capture unexpected perspectives.
As production on ADMISSION neared its close, the production finally made it to Princeton University for several days of location filming on campus and in the town of Princeton, NJ.
With full cooperation from the university, its iconic ivy-covered buildings and campus locales such as Blair Arch, Whig Hall, Scudder Plaza Fountain, Holder Court, and Firestone Plaza were captured on camera.
All of this access became feasible because the university had commenced its less-trafficked summer session. As word of the production's presence spread, Dean of Admissions Janet Lavin Rapelye arrived to meet the moviemakers -- and was promptly added by Paul Weitz into a scene being filmed with Tina Fey. Dr. Shirley M. Tilghman, University President at the time, stopped by but remained out of camera range along with a Princeton professor who had previous experience with moviemaking; the man with her, Nobel Prize winner John Forbes Nash Jr., whose life story and history with Princeton was told in the multi-Academy Award-winning film A BEAUTIFUL MIND, quietly and intently observed the unfolding scenes.
Miano comments, "Princeton University is an institution that is a touchstone to generations of the best and the brightest. Everyone was so glad that we were able to include it in the movie -- that was an honor."
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