Buffalo Grove High School valedictorian Denis Cooverman (PAUL RUST) has had quite an academic career…on paper, at least. Superlative student, conscientious young gentleman and patently obvious dork, Denis has played it safe and made it all the way to graduation day without ever having really experienced some of the joys of higher learning: breaking curfew, destruction of property, over-consumption of alcohol, fist fights, late nights, fast cars or faster women (actually, women of any sort).
But all of that is about to change, and all by uttering five little words: "I LOVE YOU, BETH COOPER."
Seems that Denis has been harboring a secret for six years, a chronic case of l'amour fou for Beth (HAYDEN PANETTIERE), one of the most popular girls in school, who sat in the desk just in front of him in multiple classes (God bless alphabetical order!). As the chase continues from sunset to sun up, Denis realizes that his little speech has given rise to one of the wildest, most eventful, most hilarious and most revealing nights of his life.
The Love Story Begins
Writer/producer/director Chris Columbus has always been a funny guy…funny, combined with a little sense of the bizarre thrown in, but funny nonetheless. Case in point: the megahit Gremlins, one of Columbus' first screenplays, about a cute little furry creature that is accidentally hit with a little water and, before its cute little owner knows it, their cute little town is on the verge of destruction from a horde of small, not-so-cute, murderous monsters.
A few years later, Columbus helmed Heartbreak Hotel, his homage to Elvis, and worked with a young assistant director named Mark Radcliffe. They next collaborated on the global hit film Home Alone - accidentally left behind, a cute little kid defends his home from two would-be burglars - with Radcliffe as first assistant director/associate producer. Along the way, the two found they shared some of the same sensibilities when it came to filmmaking - funny, offbeat, creative - and began to collaborate on other projects. The romantic comedy Nine Months brought aboard producer Michael Barnathan, to Columbus' writing/producing/directing and Radcliffe's producing. Around that time, the three joined to form the company 1492 Pictures.
Many films later, from comedies to dramas to the screen adaptations of three of the most popular and widely read books in the world, Columbus found that he wanted to return to the director's chair and began searching for his next project. When Barnathan noted, "You know, Chris, it's a long time since you've been funny," he realized that it had been a long time, indeed. Serendipitously, it was about that time that the first 100 pages of an as-yet-unpublished novel found its way to the offices of 1492 Pictures. Its title was I Love You, Beth Cooper. It was funny and offbeat, with a decidedly bizarre tilt to the story of a lovelorn dork named Denis and the object of his affection, Beth - with a motley entourage in tow - spending graduation night fleeing together from Beth's vengeful boyfriend. It was love at first read.
Michael Barnathan observes, "The story of I Love You, Beth Cooper has real emotion and heart, which we've always responded to." Mark Radcliffe says, "One of Chris' strengths as a director has always been his ability to fuse comedy and emotion, and Beth Cooper has plenty of both."
The author of the novel was Larry Doyle, whose ability to conjure the universal themes and pitfalls of the last days of high school belies his distance from the actual experience. The acutely observed and laugh-out-loud work was, according to Doyle, written as if he were in high school at the time (in the appropriate decade), and then the tale was embellished with the trappings of a post-millennial high school world. "The basic issues of being a teenager, figuring out who you are, where you fit, haven't changed," he says. "Out of the box, the characters look as if they're going to act and behave in a certain way, but by the end of the movie, none of them is who you think they are."
Two days after he began shopping the manuscript (as a 100-page sample), it had quickly reached the desks of some of Hollywood's leading producers, where it was snatched up by the 1492 team.
For Doyle, it was a dream, literally: "The story came to me in a dream, where I imagined that I was giving my high school speech and, in it, I declared my love for this girl that I had a crush on in seventh grade."
Columbus was drawn to the project because of the universality of the characters' experiences, and because it's essentially a love story. He states, "Being a high school kid and dealing with those intense emotions - feeling love for the first time, questioning your identity, whether it's your future or your sexual identity - for me is fascinating. We never have a more emotionally turbulent moment in our lives than our junior or senior year in high school. It just doesn't get any more intense in terms of what we're feeling about ourselves."
For Columbus, heading I Love You, Beth Cooper harkened back to his development, casting and directing of the first Harry Potter film; it was a chance to work with and nurture a group of fresh young actors. Columbus explains, "When they're just starting out, actors have a sense of excitement and hunger and an eagerness to be in the movie. That kind of energy fuels the production. There are no star turns. Everyone is there to work. You can never recapture your own youth, but you can certainly tap into that creative energy that fuelled you 15 or 20 years ago. That was what I was hoping to do with this movie."
In describing Beth Cooper, Columbus says, "The film is about two people whose lives cross at a time when they're about to make an enormous leap forward. Denis' leap forward is toward a future that's extremely bright and filled with the potential for success. Beth's future is not so certain. In a way, she may have reached her pinnacle in high school. I found that to be an interesting moment, when these two come together."
Lucky for the director, the perfect Beth Cooper - Hayden Panettiere, from the hit television series Heroes - had already expressed interest in the project. Her first meeting with Columbus made an immediate and happily positive impression on him: as soon as Panettiere entered the room, Chris turned to Michael Barnathan and said, "She's a big movie star."
What drew Panettiere to the film was the layered character of Beth, which afforded her the opportunity to turn her Heroes cheerleader/superhero image on its head: "Beth's character goes through a definite change. In the beginning, you don't know her, but you don't like her, either. She's the popular girl. She comes off a bit rough around the edges, but as you get to know her, you realize that it's because she thinks the rest of her life, after high school, is going to be completely ordinary. She isn't really good at anything. She doesn't have a talent. She's not particularly smart and she isn't good in school. She isn't going to get into a good college, and she can't even afford to go to a community college…so high school is her world. That is where she thrives, and that's all she knows."
Columbus thought she was perfect for the role: "I knew she was a very gifted dramatic actress, but I had no idea she was so unbelievably talented in terms of comedy. She brings an incredible sense of comic timing."
Panettiere explains the supposed disconnect between the story being told in I Love You, Beth Cooper and the way in which it's told: "Every time I describe the plotline in the movie and how the characters come together for this journey, it always sounds a bit like a drama, even though it's a very funny comedy. To me, that shows that it's a comedy that really has a heart behind it. We're basically running through the entire movie the whole night to get away from my psychotic boyfriend, who's intent on destroying Denis because of what he said. But so much happens - we drive crazy, we drink a little, we end up in the woods, and then at this fancy graduation party, then a cabin on the lake - it's really so funny. At one point, I drive a Hummer through the front of a house! And it all ends with cops. So that's not such a drama, is it?"
To find the actor to portray Denis Cooverman, an extensive casting search was launched in Los Angeles, New York and Vancouver. The filmmakers found their Denis - Paul Rust - at an evening of improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Rust had moved from Iowa to Los Angeles with the goal of becoming a creator of comedy; at the most, he had hoped for a shot at being "the funny guy" in the ensemble. Landing a lead in a major motion picture was beyond his dreams.
"Paul is a both a very gifted verbal comedian and an incredibly gifted physical comedian, plus he's an amazing actor," says Columbus. "He's naturalistic, honest and quite moving in his performance. Once you get to know Paul, you realize there's so much depth and so much complexity within him, and he brings that to the Denis. I met a lot of actors who were very talented in a comedic way, but they didn't have that soul. I love that combination. Paul is not the type of person you'd expect to get the girl at the end of the movie. He's not the person you'd expect to be successful with women, yet Woody Allen was able to pull it off all those years, as did Chaplin, Groucho Marx, and now, Seth Rogen. Paul embodies that kind of persona."
"Denis is the sort of guy that was in everybody's class," observes Paul Rust. "He's a dorky guy, who's maybe a little shy and scared to live life. Then, one day, for some reason, he decides not to be shy and be completely open. He tells everybody that he loves Beth Cooper, and they've never even spoken, by the way. And when he opens up, so does his life."
Panettiere think Rust hits the nail on the head regarding his character, and takes the point even further when she says, "Denis Cooverman has a way of bringing out the truth in people. Throughout the movie, people become more honest because of him."
"I think before you come of age you view things in very black-and-white terms,"
counters Rust, "but as you get older, you realize it's a little more complicated. Denis gets his eyes opened to the world. On an emotional level, Denis learns that being scared and being fearful of new experiences can keep you from having a more satisfying life. As far as Beth's character is concerned, I think Denis gets her to see herself as a more worthy person than she was giving herself credit for."
If Beth is at the top of the social ladder at Buffalo Grove High, Denis and his sidekick, Rich, are near the bottom, probably just above the guys steadying the ladder. Larry Doyle says, "Denis and Rich, socially speaking, are just slightly above people in band in the hierarchy. And I think they're just below the Mathletes."
Cast in the part of the flashy Rich is Jack T. Carpenter, who shares his own take on the place he and Denis occupy in the scheme of all things high school: "The characters Paul and I play are not the complete losers. It's just that we don't quite fit in. It's where I was in high school and that's something that I definitely connect to."
Rich is one of those great character combinations, then, of verbal acuity, physical comedy and a deep soul…think The Fool in several of Shakespeare's plays. And who wouldn't want to portray that?
Carpenter continues, "The thing I like most about Rich is that underneath all of his shtick and his movie quotes, there's a real sincerity to the guy; he's a real human being who's had a really hard background. And he's trying to get through it. He's got these brand new shoes that he had to buy himself, because his father wouldn't get them for him; it's oddly symbolic, because he's just trying to dance his way through life without concentrating too much on the bad stuff. Rich convinces Denis to tell Beth he loves her, because in the movie-influenced world of Rich, people who do that fall in love. And even though things don't go that way, he just doesn't concentrate on it. He goes with the flow, onto the next piece of bad advice he will give Denis."
So if Rich is the one in Denis' corner, in Beth's, it's the seemingly mismatched Cammy and Treece. Per the actresses portraying the pair - "The Laurens," as they were called during production, Lauren London and Lauren Storm, respectively - the girls are Beth's best friends because of their nonjudgmental attitude toward her.
Lauren London's reaction to the script echoed the filmmakers': "When I first read the script, I thought it was hilarious, and I had to be a part of it. I wanted to be Cammy, not just because she's dry and bitchy, although that is fun, but because you can't hate her. She's likeable because she's telling the truth. Most people have social filters, but Cammy doesn't. She says what she thinks without thinking. It's funny and dry, and it has a sting. But it stays funny because, inside, you know she's a good person."
Lauren Storm comments, "I think Cammy is dealing with a lot at home, and sometimes, the meanest people are the ones who hurt the most. I approached Treece as just that dumb girl - no judgment, I think it's genetic - who thinks physical affection equals love. I guess you'd say she's easy. I didn't really want to think of her as a traditional 'dumb blonde' role, because when you do that, you're judging the character before you play it. She may be dumb, but she's perpetually naïve and happy, so I had to totally change my thinking." (Storm's thinking wasn't the only thing that changed in order to play Treece--she gained nearly 15 pounds to screen test for the role, and eventually added another 15 pounds on top of that to give her the curves of Doyle's character.)
It seems that everyone either had or found a personal connection to the characters they played, including the "heavy" of the piece, Shawn Roberts, who was cast as the possessive and excessively macho Kevin, Beth's boyfriend. While Roberts never experienced the kind of bullying that Kevin enacts, he did at least have a glancing knowledge of the experience. Roberts relates, "I wasn't ever really bullied, not so much. I mean, I had two older brothers, if that counts. And being older brothers, it's kind of their job to do a little of that stuff. But, no, I've never had to experience the bullying thing, thank goodness, because I have seen how painful and destructive that kind of thing can be."
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
CHRIS COLUMBUS (Director / Producer) is a major force in contemporary Hollywood filmmaking, from his anarchic, genre-bending 1980s classics Gremlins and The Goonies, to the blockbuster Harry Potter films, which are among the most successful book-to-screen adaptations of all time.
Columbus was born in Spangler, Pennsylvania, and grew up outside of Youngstown, Ohio. As a student, he aspired to become a commercial artist. He spent several years studying art and oil painting, eventually becoming interested in drawing Spider-Man for Marvel Comics. Columbus eventually made the connection between comic books and movie storyboards. In high school, he began making his own homegrown 8mm films and drawing his own storyboards, which he continues to this day. After high school, he enrolled in the Directors Program at New York University's prestigious Tisch School of the Arts.
Columbus first attained success as a screenwriter. While still in college, he sold his first script, Jocks, a semi-autobiographical comedy about a Catholic schoolboy who struggles with his religion and his inability to succeed on the high school football team. After graduating from NYU, Columbus wrote a small town drama entitled Reckless (1984), based on his experiences as a factory worker in Ohio. The film was directed by James Foley and starred Aidan Quinn and Daryl Hannah.
Columbus gained prominence in Hollywood writing several original scripts produced by Steven Spielberg. The back-to-back hits of the Joe Dante-directed Gremlins (1984) and The Goonies (1985), helmed by Richard Donner, were decade-defining films that intertwined high notes of offbeat, edgy, often outrageous humor against more classic adventure-thriller backdrops. He next wrote the fantasy adventure Young Sherlock Holmes, which was directed by Barry Levinson.
These screenwriting achievements led Columbus to directing his first feature, Adventures in Babysitting (1987), starring Elisabeth Shue. A meeting with John Hughes brought Columbus to the helm of Home Alone (1990), the first of three collaborations. Home Alone, and its hugely successful follow-up, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992), were universal in appeal and launched the career of Macaulay Culkin. Only the Lonely (1991), a bittersweet comedy-drama directed by Columbus from his own screenplay, was praised for featuring one of the late John Candy's best performances, and for the return of legendary star Maureen O'Hara to the screen.
Columbus' smash hit comedy Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), starring Robin Williams and Sally Field, bent genders as well as genres, to great critical and public success. Columbus directed another comedy, Nine Months (1995), with Hugh Grant and Julianne Moore, before turning to drama with Stepmom (1998), starring Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon.
Columbus faced a daunting task when he was called upon to direct Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001), the first film based on J.K. Rowling's monumentally successful series of books. With millions of avid and sometimes fanatical readers -- both young and old -- in a high state of expectation and anticipation, Columbus cast newcomers Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint in the leading roles as Harry Potter and his friends, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. Once again, he demonstrated his facility for nurturing and cultivating young talent and turning them into natural screen performers.
The success of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was followed by Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), which once again met with huge box office success. He served as producer on the blockbuster Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and directed the film version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical, Rent (2005). He was a producer on the hit Night at the Museum, with Ben Stiller and Robin Williams, in 2006, as well as this summer's follow-up, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.
He is currently directing the fantasy-adventure Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lighting Thief for Fox 2000 Pictures, based on the best-selling novel.
LARRY DOYLE (Screenwriter (based on his novel) / Executive Producer) is a 1976 graduate of Buffalo Grove High School, the setting for his 2007 novel, I Love You, Beth Cooper. He was not the valedictorian like the book's protagonist, ranking only 13th out of 500, although several of the students above him took pretty easy classes.
Doyle has wandered through a writing life that has seen him reporting on the early AIDS epidemic and the Challenger explosion, doing comic strips and editing magazines, and writing for the best television show of all time. He currently makes his living writing screenplays while contributing to The New Yorker and other magazines.
Doyle began his career with a seven-year stint at United Press International, where he was a medical and science reporter. For a short while thereafter, he was editorial director of First Comics, then the third largest comic book company in the country. He left that to write the newly revived Pogo comic strip, which appeared in more than 300 papers. He then became an editor at the National Lampoon, which, thanks largely to his efforts, folded a year later.
He was executive editor of SPY magazine during the last of the funny years, and went on to be an editor-writer for New York magazine for four years. During that time, he also wrote several episodes of Beavis and Butt-Head.
Doyle was a writer and supervising producer of The Simpsons for four years, where he won two Emmys and an Annie award. He was the writer and executive producer of the film Looney Tunes: Back in Action, and produced eight new Looney Tunes shorts for Warner Bros. He also wrote the movie Duplex, starring Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore.
Doyle has written for numerous magazines, including Esquire, GQ, Rolling Stone, Harpers and Time. He is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker's "Shouts and Murmurs" section. His second novel, Go Mutants!, will be released by Harper-Collins in 2009.
He lives outside Baltimore with his wife Becky, their three children and one dog, until it dies, and then no more dogs, according to the wife. The wife's sister is married to Campbell McGrath, the famous poet who won a MacArthur Super Genius Grant, and once hit his brother-in-law in the face with an oar and then wrote a poem about it.
In 2008, Doyle also won an award, which, while no ^#&*%$ genius grant, was a pretty darn good one. He is the son of Irish immigrants, who only recently have accepted that he will probably not become a doctor. More information and assorted amusements can be found at larrydoyle.com.
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