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For him, 'Sisterhood' isn't just a girl thing

Neither adolescent nor female, director Ken Kwapis still can relate to this coming of age tale.

June 01, 2005|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

Ken Kwapis has some interesting memorabilia among the assorted photos, plaques and certificates adorning his two-room office in Studio City -- a Student Academy Award, posters from his first few features, including "Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird," "Vibes" and "Dunston Checks In," as well as binders full of television scripts he has directed -- mementos that serve as a kind of map to his career.

To call Kwapis a journeyman director might seem misleadingly unfair. Kwapis has worked steadily since beginning his directing career with a pair of "Afterschool Specials" right after finishing the graduate film program at USC, bopping back and forth between feature films and television work.

Among the shows he has directed and/or produced for television are "The Larry Sanders Show," "Malcolm in the Middle," "The Bernie Mac Show" and "Freaks and Geeks."

In his own words, this has been "a banner year." Kwapis directed three episodes of "The Office" for television (and is credited as an executive producer on the pilot) and NBC has picked up the show for next season. An independent film he wrote and directed, "Sexual Life," premieres on Showtime later this summer. To prove just how independent the production was, the $1 check for his directing fee is framed on the wall.

And there is "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," an adaptation of the first in Ann Brashares' series of novels for young women, concerning a quartet of girlfriends and the magic pair of jeans that somehow fits all four of them. Starring Alexis Bledel, America Ferrera, Blake Lively and Amber Tamblyn, the film follows each girl through separate adventures one summer, with the foursome mailing the pants along like a chain letter.

When Kwapis first read the script, adapted by Delia Ephron and Elizabeth Chandler, he was not aware of the novel on which it was based. Nevertheless, he was interested.

"I felt I could relate to each girl's problems," says Kwapis, who prefers to allow only that he is in his 40s.

"Now clearly I am not a girl, but I found that the thorny emotional issues the girls in the story are dealing with are things I've dealt with or are even still dealing with. I also immediately felt there was an opportunity to have a unique storytelling challenge, to juggle four stories."

One of the biggest challenges was to achieve the proper balance among the four stories. The majority of screen time for each of the four lead actresses is spent without the others, and no character or storyline takes the lead.

"While I was shooting, every day I was wondering is one story going to overshadow the other," Kwapis says. "The great thing in cutting the film was very quickly it felt like all four stories held their own. Wherever I was, that was where I wanted to be. And I knew from the first time I read the script, I felt like the stories would -- and I know this is a weird way to put it -- talk to each other. Things would echo back and forth.

"A young girl who saw the film said to me, 'While I was watching one girl I was thinking of the others.' So in a way there's not a single story, but you nevertheless feel a sense of momentum and that there is a through-line even though there isn't one."

Additionally, for a PG-rated summer movie aimed at teenage girls, "Sisterhood" deals with some especially heavy issues, including the suicide of a parent, the death of a young child, divorce and remarriage among parents, and the loss of one girl's virginity.

Kwapis reports that while some recutting was required to maintain a family-friendly rating, the changes were largely cosmetic and never dealt with issues of content or tone.

"Films for young women, they're either 'Thirteen,' edgy and extreme, or fantasies like 'The Princess Diaries.' There's a gigantic open space in between for films that are both honest and accessible, provocative and relatable."

As for just how to get across some of the more mature ideas and themes in the picture without upsetting younger viewers, Kwapis says it took some doing.

"We tried to tell the story in such a way that a younger viewer could imagine whatever version of events they were comfortable with. For instance, [the sex] is implied, and the same goes for the back story of the mother's death. We created a funeral oration to make it clear to astute viewers that this was a suicide, and for a younger viewer who might not understand that kind of issue, I tried to make so it would go unnoticed.

"It's not a matter of having your cake and eating it too. It's trying to tell a story in a way that allows different viewers at different stages of maturity to be able to imagine things to a level that makes them comfortable. Anyway, I think it's always more elegant to imply something than to state it. As someone said of one of my favorite filmmakers, Ernst Lubitsch, he could 'do more with a closed door than an open zipper.' "

In a crowded summer release season, "The Sisterhood" could break either way, as successful counter-programming to the slam-bang action spectacles, or as a film that never quite catches on. Word of mouth will be crucial, as will convincing a finicky male audience that the film is for them too.

"Everyone has the same reaction, 'This is not what I expected at all.' Girls get a bad rap. It's easy to put books and films for girls into a bit of a ghetto, the girl ghetto. People don't say a film like 'Stand By Me' is a boys film, but just a coming-of-age story. Hopefully, people can see this for what it is."

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