Wine Country, the heartfelt Netflix comedy about female friendship through the years that was inspired by the real-life friendships of several Saturday Night Live alumnae, including its director, Amy Poehler, more than passes the Bechdel Test, which calls for two women in a movie to be in conversation with one another about something other than men. There’s no name yet for a film that stars primarily women in their 40s and 50s who talk mostly to other women and in which no men talk to each other — call it the Poehler Principle, perhaps.
Not only does Wine Country delve into the ins and outs of female friendship built up over decades, the only possibility for romance in the film — which juxtaposes the experiences of a couple of generations of women — occurs between women a generation apart. And Poehler and her collaborators are proud to have included those stories in their movie.
“It’s very cool to be talking to The Advocate about it,” Poehler says in a phone interview with costars Maya Rudolph and Paula Pell (the SNL writer and lesbian who penned the Poehler-Tina Fey starrer Sisters).
“What I’m very proud of is the only kind of love interest in the film or love story is between two gay women,” Poehler says. “There’s a lot of interesting dynamics of young and old, but also there’s no discussion about it. There’s no hiccup or hesitation or even discussion about it, and I find that’s still unusual, in comedies especially — that somebody’s sexuality isn’t their joke or isn’t their story.”
Inspired in part by a trip the SNL group of women took to Sonoma County in California to celebrate Rachel Dratch’s 50th birthday, Wine Country stars Poehler, Rudolph, Pell, Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, and the movie’s cowriter Emily Spivey playing characters inspired by themselves who spend a weekend together in California’s Napa Valley while they navigate personal and public failures. Only Fey, as Tammy, the flannel-wearing, hip flask–toting, no-nonsense, widowed owner of the Airbnb where they stay, plays a character that feels like a big stretch from who she is.
On their first night out, Pell’s Val begins a flirtation with their charismatic millennial-aged server and erstwhile artist Jade (Maya Erskine), who appears to reciprocate the romantic interest.
“I couldn’t be more grateful for the fact that when I watch the movie [even] now — my first line about that love interest is ‘Did you hear that? She said she has a girlfriend.’ I’m just signaling to you, Maya, to your character, that she’s got a girlfriend so I’m on the right track,” Pell says of the movie’s inclusion of queerness. “There is no header on it of OK, now we’re going to tell a gay story…”
Pell, who was a writer on some of SNL’s most enduring sketches, including Cheri Oteri and Will Ferrell’s cheerleaders, Gasteyer and Ferrell’s singing teachers, Dratch’s Debbie Downer, and Kristen Wiig’s Gilly, says that Wine Country is her “proud thing” in terms of gay visibility especially since Sisters ended up being less queer than she wrote it.
“That was my proud thing, and this truly my proud thing,” Pell says.
“Not only is it just part of humanity but this woman is alone and got her knees replaced and is in her 50s,” Pell notes, adding that Val is in a position not far from where she was, single for four years after her last marriage ended.
Wine Country utilizes the enduring friendship between the comedians, who all arrived at SNL at some stage in their careers, as a jumping-off point to discuss issues around aging, feeling irrelevant, having not been successful enough, or having failed to embrace life enough.
“Things we say now” is a refrain in the movie that replaces the old “That’s what she said” to indicate statements that never would have occurred to the women when they were in their 20s and 30s — like when Poehler’s Abby announces she’s packed her CPAP mask for sleep apnea.
The group enjoyed a shorthand that made shooting the film fairly seamless for first-time director Poehler, who was working from the script from Spivey and Liz Cackowski.
“It is really rare to have friends that you met in your 20s and have such an incredible bonding experience in work and in life that allows you to meet like-minded people that become a family for you that you can carry and grow with throughout your life,” Rudolph says of their squad. “We have the luxury of working together again. That’s such an exciting element of this. Amy is our fearless leader. We all said, ‘Hey, this would be a great movie.’ But Amy actually did it, which is a huge testament to her personality and really kind of who we are as a group.”
When asked what the experience of directing her friends was like, Poehler points to the group’s collective comedy acumen.
“I am directing my friends, but really they’re the funniest women that I know and that America knows. I’m directing assassins, so it was easy because everybody is so good and so funny and so talented and so skilled,” Poehler says.
“We’ve been rehearsing for this film for 20 years, so it really was like, Just stay out of everybody’s way and try to make a movie, just try and get it in the can.”
“That’s what she said,” Poehler says after devilishly waiting a beat.
For all of the unwritten language and chemistry among Wine Country’s central characters, the misunderstood connection between Val and Jade underscores where millennial women and those who came before intersect and diverge.
“The character was delusional that this person wanted her, but she still was going for it,” Pells says of 50-something Val feeling as though she stands a chance with the much younger server and artist.
“I don’t mean delusional in the fact that the character is just dumb to what it is. She just wants to kind of have some connection during the weekend,” she adds.
“I don’t think she was delusional. I just think that when you have a millennial artist who is really like a charm machine and who likes the attention and connection of others, it can be really confusing being in somebody’s tractor beam. It doesn’t matter what age you are,” Poehler weighs in.
At one point in the film, the group attends Jade’s wacky, pretentious art show in a scene that pokes fun at generational differences — the Gen Xers lack in technological skills while the millennials discover and canonize ’90s sitcoms. But trailblazing comics and feminists Poehler, Rudolph, and Pell have nothing but praise for the women who’ve followed in their footsteps.
“There is an inherent difference between us as Gen Xers,” Rudolph says.
“We were talking about this film coming out on Nexflix, and it might be a limited release in theaters, and how does that feel. Amy brought up a great point, which was that millennials don’t care. They don’t care, in a good way, because what she’s really saying is they’re not comparing it to the past. I think that’s a great lesson for us,” she adds. “We’re comparing a lot of things like, well, this is the way it used to be and this is the way it is now. I’m sure they may have their version of it. It is a great reminder to be open to and to understand that this is a different form and this is a different way.”
“Young people care fiercely about things, and they’re very passionate. They remind you that it’s important to feel that,” Poehler says, being sure to add that Gen X had the most sex of all the generations.
“Even though we grew up during the AIDS crisis and we had a lot of like, sex is scary, we had more sex than the generation of Paula [who is a Baby Boomer],” she says.
“You learned that from your weekly publication of Hustler, right?” Rudolph teases.
Pell brings the conversation back to millennials and Gen Zers in terms of their being open in their identities.
“They’re pretty brave. They speak up about stuff. I was closeted for many years, and when I’m with a young gay person that’s talking about it and just kind of making it clear or whatever, I’ll just be like, ‘Wow, I just can’t even imagine being your age and being so brave to speak up like that.’”
Pell’s Val may not get the millennial girl in the end in Wine Country, but she and Poehler are open to the idea of Fey’s Tammy having a late-in-life epiphany about her identity.
“You never know, because Tammy’s an adventurous, entrepreneurial soul and probably the least judgmental of all of us,” Poehler says.
But Pell is more emphatic about Val’s dating future.
“Tammy’s down for that,” Pell says. “I think in Wine Country 2 Tammy and Val go to bone town pretty hard.”
Wine Country is available now on Netflix.