Nia Vardalos confesses why it took 14 years for her to write the sequel to My Big Fat Greek Wedding and how many times a day she wrote herself into John Corbett’s mouth.
Written by Todd Aaron Jensen
(March 25, 2016)
After 14 years of trekking through the gold-paved roads and labyrinth of sudden celebrity bestowed by the 2002 juggernaut that was My Big Fat Greek Wedding – made for $5-million, grossing an astonishing $375-million globally, earning the film’s suddenly sizzling hot screenwriter nominations for both an Oscar and a Writers Guild Award – the candles, stefana, and martyrika are all laid out for My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, and Nia Vardalos is tired.
Whereas “the little film that could” more than a decade ago appeared (seemingly, to most of the world) out of nowhere and with zero expectations, anticipation for the second installment of the Portokalos family’s adventures is white-hot, requiring the Second City veteran plane hop, globe trot, “speed date” (with journalists writing about the movie), and smile brightly round the clock to spread the word about the marvelously vibrant, eccentric, warm-hearted family comedy.
It was a film that actually required the long span of years Vardalos took to write, the first chapter being a largely autobiographical romantic comedy (based on Vardalos’ own one-woman stage show, which was based on the love story between her husband, ubiquitous character actor Ian Gomez, and herself, a Greek orthodox from Manitoba) and the sequel being about…Um…Well, it’s about stuff the 53-year old multi-hyphenate needed some time to experience for herself before she could snap the story into three acts with some punchy characters and crackerjack dialogue. Most specifically, it’s about parenthood, which is something Vardalos and Gomez, married 23 years, have been enjoying for some seven years now, having adopted a daughter in 2008.
So Vardalos is tired. Which is why she’s asking if the interview will be disrupted somehow by her lying down for the conversation. With, you know, maybe no pants on. Fully aware that Vardalos is already married to two Ians – Gomez in real life, and also the Ian played by John Corbett in the Greek Wedding movies – the gauntlet has, nevertheless, been laid.
Photo: © 2016 Universal Pictures
Nia Vardalos and John Corbett in My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.
It took George Miller almost exactly 30 years to continue his Mad Max franchise with last year’s Fury Road. There were 28 years between Tron films. I guess 14 years between Greek Wedding movies isn’t so bad, right?
That’s a very clever way of asking the question everyone’s been asking: “Hey, Nia! What took you so long?”
That would be belligerent, wouldn’t it?
Maybe, but it would also be a very reasonable question. After our little movie did pretty well all those years ago, there was, of course, a lot of interest in having us make another one. The producer was thrilled and kept saying, “Let’s do another one!” but I kept saying no. I felt like I had to say no. Honestly, the reason that I kept saying no to a sequel during the incredible success and that wonderfully fun, wild ride, is that I was hiding a very private situation in my personal life – a biological struggle to become a mom. When I wrote the ending of My Big Fat Greek Wedding where Toula and Ian have become parents, that was, truthfully, a bit of wishful thinking on my part. I wanted to be a mother so badly. And I couldn’t.
So in the “write what you know” rubric, you had to get some knowledge before you could continue with the story?
Yes! Exactly! I could not understand or explore the emotions of motherhood that would be necessary for a sequel because I hadn’t been through that set of experiences. The whole first movie? I’d lived that movie. If I just went on and wrote Part 2 right away, when everyone was asking me to do it, it would have been terrible because any part of it that felt authentic would’ve been just a lucky guess on my part. I needed to live it first.
That’s a very challenging proposition for a writer, though a good many screenwriters don’t subscribe at all to the notion of “write what you know.” It’s doubtful that Joss Whedon, for example, has ever worn spandex or wielded an extraterrestrial hammer!
I’m really glad I took my pants off! It was challenging – to my husband and me. In the big picture of the world’s problems, I’m not sure it had much impact on anyone else, but it was a difficult time for Ian and I – and it really kept me from writing the second movie. The only people that I told about it, really, were [the films’ producers] Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson and Gary Goetzman. I just told them the truth, and they were so understanding and so sweet about it. When we’d be in public together and someone would ask us, “Hey, how about that sequel already?” one of them would jump in and take it on for me and say, “Ah, we’re not ready for that yet. One day, maybe…” They were so incredible to me.
And then, lo and behold, you became a mother.
I did. Luckily, I did become a mother about seven years ago.
And you wrote a book about it, 2003’s Instant Mom, a beautiful, funny, very soulful book.
Thank you! It felt like a book I really kind of had to write. It definitely prepared me to write Greek Wedding 2.
When the news broke that the film would be made, the announcement caught you somewhat unawares, right? You hadn’t actually finished writing the movie yet.
I was in New York doing a musical, doing Company, and I got out from rehearsal and opened up my computer, and I saw the news, just like that. Boom. I didn't know that the financiers were going to announce that we were going forward with the sequel – I definitely didn’t know they were going to announce it when they did – and about 15-minutes after I read the article about it, my phone just exploded. The overwhelming response was warmth and love, which was really touching for me. I was really taken aback by the overwhelming positivity people expressed about a second film. The truth is: I finally knew how to tell the rest of that story. So I went on Twitter and told the truth: “Now that I am experiencing motherhood, I feel ready to write this next chapter.” And then I tweeted, “A few jaded folks might claim that I ran out of money, or that I just wanted to kiss John Corbett again.” That last part’s true!
How does Mister Vardalos feel about that?
He’s hilarious! He has never seen the kissing scenes in the first movie. He just closes his eyes, and waits for me to squeeze his hand and say, "It's okay, honey. It’s over."
Does home life ever impact the way you tell a story or write a scene?
When the news broke about the second movie, a good friend of mine called a few days later and asked, "What are you doing right now?" And I said, "I'm actually in rewrites." And my friend said, "Mm-hmm, okay, so how many times have you written yourself into Corbett's mouth today?" [Laughs] Of course, I texted back: “Seven.”
Let’s back up just a bit. When did you actually begin writing Greek Wedding 2?
On my daughter's first day of kindergarten! Here I was, packing up her lunch for school, tying her shoelaces for her, hugging her way too close, loving her to the point of suffocation, and some other mother remarked at drop-off that day about how quickly they would leave us and go off to college, and I felt my throat just close up on me. I had a moment where the room spun around, and I had such a feeling of losing control, this terror and sadness echoing in my head, this voice wailing in my head, "I don't want her to leave me. I don't want her to leave me!” And I was, like, “Oh my God! I've morphed into my own suffocating Greek parents!” I sat down and started writing that day – probably just so it would make me leave my daughter’s kindergarten classroom!
In the years between Weddings, romantic comedies have changed quite a bit. The “pretty woman” isn’t usually a prostitute waiting for a rich banker to save the day anymore. Toula, your Greek Wedding character, she’s nobody’s victim. What does that mean to you?
It’s important to start with this: I know many male screenwriters who write good roles for women. It is being done. But it's becoming increasingly difficult for an actor like me to find those roles. If Sandra Bullock, as she recently stated, is having trouble finding good work, imagine what it's like for the rest of us. So with the first Greek Wedding, I wrote myself a part I’d be very, very happy to play, and I made sure that the writing was as good as I could make it. I made sure every single character in that movie was taken care of, that they had their own arc, their own storyline – just like all of the people in our real-life families. If you go down a long dinner table at anybody’s family meal, the thought bubbles over everyone's heads are about their own struggles or desires or whatever. I didn’t write Greek Wedding to just write strong roles for women; I wrote that movie to write strong roles for everyone. You’ve probably heard me say this before: “I’m very pro-woman without being anti-man.”
Like one of this year’s Oscar-winning screenwriters, Adam McKay, your roots are in improvisational comedy – like McKay, Chicago’s Second City, specifically. How does improv feed the scripted work you do?
I use improvisation in my writing all the time. I mean, that’s, basically, the whole process. I don't outline or card my stories. I have an idea, and then I open my...Well, first, I clean my desk. I don't have Internet access in my little writing cave, and I just open my computer, and I write into Final Draft, “Fade In,” and then I write until its not coming anymore. I write every day. I make myself write something everyday – because writing, it’s a muscle. So improvisation for me is key. It’s critical to not hamper my characters with my own preconceived notions, which is what we were taught in Second City. You walk into an improvised scene with a question, and then you listen to the response that you get back – and you go from there. When I was writing the sequel, I did that. I listened to all of the characters. I felt all of them. There were 14 people in the movie at all times, and I would be thinking, “Well, where is Maria in the scene? What’s she thinking? What’s she doing or saying?” And then I’d wonder about everyone else in the room. I could almost see them all around me, which is something I told Joey Fatone one day. I told him, “Joey, I felt that you were sitting on the corner of my desk, looking at me all steely, going, ‘You know… I haven’t talked since page 35!’”
Does that improvisational spirit carry into production of the film, too?
We don't have improvisation in the movie. What we did have was a lot of fun. At the end of many takes, especially the full family scenes, we would do a really dirty, improvised take that would end up in the gag reel. What I love about these actors is that they understood there's a rhythm and a music in the words, so they did the lines as they were written. And that is just a joyous thing for any writer to hear.
Which is a respect only a few playwrights get anymore. Still, once you get the cast to the table-read or to the set, everyone’s got ideas. Do you go back to the draft after the scenes have been read a few times, or do you have a “suggestion box” for your actors?
That's an excellent question, because a script – probably any script – is ever evolving. I will usually rewrite until the director takes the script from my hands and says, "I'm filming this now. Stop writing." I tend to keep rewriting because, as we're rehearsing the scenes, I'll hear something that sounds a little tinny sometimes. So I'll just say, "Hold on," and take the script, and do some tweaking. What I love about my actors, especially John Corbett, is that he'll just read the script through and go, "Okay, baby," and he’ll go do it.
So becoming a mother finally allows you to write Greek Wedding 2, but many writers with children find that doing their job becomes, at least occasionally, more difficult with children in the picture. How has your writing life shifted?
I have to be more disciplined than ever now. You know, ideas don't come to us on a schedule. I used to be able to just slip out of bed at two in the morning, and write something down that came to me. What happened with motherhood is, I had to start working exactly after I dropped her off because there would only be a four-hour window. I would take my daughter to school, I would go to my little writing office, I would set an alarm on my phone – because you know how treadmill time can be; you'll be like, "I bet I've been on here for 300 calories burned," but then you move the towel aside from the timer, and it's been, like, seven minutes. Writing, once you start, you think it's only been seven minutes, but you look up and it's like, "When did it become Tuesday?" So I would set an alarm, give myself that boundary, and then I could just go lose myself in the writing. Writing Instant Mom and Greek Wedding 2 kind of happened at the same time, though I didn’t finish the screenplay until after I finished the book tour. It just took more time to do.
Is that because prose and screenwriting are different muscles?
Well, first of all, you know, you can't force creativity. I felt that the screenplay just wasn't finished. I was writing it, but I didn't tell anybody about it, and then on the book tour in the bookstores, I’d see the people lining up to get their book signed. I’d see the people who had come out to see me – can you imagine? – and in their faces, I’d see myself. Over and over and over again. Standing there, a small child holding their hand, maybe a second kid on their other side. And they looked exactly like me: tired, tired, tired. One night I thought to myself, “That’s where I’m going to go for my generation’s story in this movie.” And then I fought very hard to not wear make-up in the opening scene because, let’s face it, we all know what we look like in carpool.
Was there really a conversation about “make-up or no make-up”?
The director [Kirk Jones] was just being protective of me. The opening scenes, the carpool stuff, were filmed over about a four-day period, and I didn’t want to wear any make-up for the scenes. Kirk came to me on day two or three, and said, “Darling, are you sure about this? Because you look terrible.” And I smiled at him. “Oh, good! Let’s keep going!”
Though you wrote a couple of films after Greek Wedding and took a number of acting roles, that breakthrough was a lot of years ago. Did the affection and stamina of your audience surprise you?
It did surprise me. I didn’t duck out of Hollywood to be enigmatic or anything. I was just trying to keep things manageable in my life, and I still do – which is why it can look like there’s this hodge-podge of “what is she doing anyway?” with the theater stuff and the indie films and the book and everything. But I love doing small, independent films. I really, really love that. I do small, independent films because of the autonomy they bring. It takes so much money to release a movie these days that, at a big studio, it’s very easy to become the forgotten daughter, the movie they decide they’ll promote after they market the big blockbuster thing. So I’ve accepted that and I’m just happy with the creative process in my life. I just get on with it.
By the way, I wanted to say something about the TV show. You mentioned My Big Fat Greek Life [the short-lived 2003 CBS sitcom adaptation of Greek Wedding]. I did not write the show, but I truly and honestly felt that those writers did the very best they could. And they got quite a bad rap for it. Not fair at all. These writers, they’re my friends and there were things written about that show that were just 100 percent not true. They worked hard. They did their best. They did some very good work. In the end, we all just looked at each other and went, “Well…We tried.”
You’ve been a very active mentor with the Guild for a number of years. You’re working with five writers now?
Yes! And I love, love, love being involved with them as human beings and with the WGA as an organization. When the first movie happened, a lot of people just focused on its financial success – which means nothing to me. What’s more astounding to me, regardless of how much money a movie makes, is that the film you wrote got made at all! I don’t look at box office numbers very much anymore. That would be ridiculous, mercenary, contrary to creativity. So what do you do when you accidentally make a movie that becomes a big hit? Todd Amorde at the Writers Guild approached me and asked if I’d like to mentor a writer. I’d already been mentoring a woman through the Universal [writers mentor] program, so I told Todd, “Sure! Who you got?” And I got five guys! I love it! Like I said, I’m pro-woman without being anti-man! When you teach, you’re learning. And don’t tell the students of the world this, but when you’re learning, you’re also doing some teaching! You learn so much by simply talking with other writers about things like structure, character arc, all of those nuts and bolts things. Being a mentor brings so much clarity to me. I really enjoy it!
Most screenwriters have at least one “rule book” for craft on their bookshelf – Robert McKee, Syd Field, Chris Vogler. Are there “rules” that you’ve found helpful in your life as a writer?
It’s the Second City stuff for me. You have to be present, available, ready to reinvent, ready to receive, prepared to give it all up. Refuse labels. Just write what comes to you. Don’t give a thought to the marketplace because, believe me, anybody’s who’s advising your career based on the marketplace is at least three beats behind. The improv rules – the Second City stuff – really carry me through the screenwriting process, sometimes just so that I can break them. It’s what Adam McKay has done. He’s a perfect example. No matter what other people say, you don’t label your own writing. It’s not a comedy or a drama or whatever that I’m writing. Writers don’t have to be just one thing. Adam did Talladega Nights and then, a few short years later, he’s winning an Oscar for The Big Short. Who saw that coming? And they’re both great movies!
Do the acting jobs inform your writing, as well?
I’m a big nerd for everything to do with the process. I love to watch every aspect of a movie being made. I'm on a series that comes out in the fall, written by Josh Stern, called Graves. It's with Nick Nolte and Sela Ward. Even when I’m not working, I like to stop by the set sometimes and just watch quietly – watch the director, listen to the writers discussing arcs and story breaks, see how the actors work with the script and the writers, watch all of it. All of that information and those observations are valid and can be used at some point in a writer's life, so being the hired actor can really give me a different perspective on things – which is always good for a writer. Perspective really matters. Also, I want to add: I memorize those scripts word for word, verbatim, right down to every last “umm…” and “ugh.” I memorize that dialogue completely, and then – if I got enough sleep the night before – I’ll do it on camera exactly as it was written. Why would I try to ask people to be faithful to my dialogue if I won’t do that for another writer’s work?
Any other words of wisdom for screenwriters?
Yes! Write everyday. Everyday. And don't show your first draft to more than three people.