Directing her first film at 47, for Netflix, the producer talks about the power of middle-aged women in an industry geared to youth
In mid-career, Amy Poehler has just directed her first film, “Wine Country,” a comedy about six middle-aged women who take a trip to Napa to celebrate a 50th birthday. The story was inspired by birthday trips she has taken with friends. “It’s not like we got chased by a bear or picked up by a drug lord,” Ms. Poehler says. “I like exploring female friendship at this age.”
The women who play her friends in “Wine Country” are all alumnae of “Saturday Night Live”: Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer and writers Paula Pell and Emily Spivey. Tina Fey also appears in a smaller role in the film, which premieres on Netflix May 10.
For 20 years, Ms. Poehler’s performing career has had steady momentum, from “SNL,” to movies including “Baby Mama,” to the NBC television series “Parks and Recreation.” In 2001, she started a production company, Paper Kite—working with five other women, though not the ones in the movie—and lately has been doing more behind the camera than in front of it.
This year she was co-creator and an executive producer of the critically acclaimed Netflix series “Russian Doll,” and is about to direct another Netflix film, “Moxie,” about a rebellious high school girl.
Ms. Poehler, who is 47 years old and the mother of sons ages 8 and 10, talked about being a middle-aged woman in an industry that often undervalues them. Edited excerpts:
Films that celebrate female friendship in middle age are relatively rare in Hollywood. Did you feel you were going against the grain?
I think sometimes in art there’s a little bit of fetishizing about the beginning and the end of one’s journey. The juicy middle, which is where I find myself now, is unexplored, especially in terms of women and their experiences. Most of the women I’m around, we’re in the big squeeze, young kids, aging parents. I thought it would be exciting to find a project that struck a tone that is different from what we usually get to do.
All the women in your film have great hair, make-up and lighting. Was that deliberate?
Yeah! I think I can speak for all the women in the film. Because we come from comedy, people assume that if we’re going to do a photo shoot or something, we just want to look bad, we want to look ugly. I can’t tell you how many photo shoots I’ve been to where the idea is: your hair is going to look like you’ve been electrocuted, and you’re going to have a crazy thing in your teeth. Can’t I just look like a normal person?
They all have different looks and shapes, but their looks are never the punchline.
Some people think that women of a certain age spend all day talking about how they look, and they just don’t. We do touch a little bit upon the gravity of what it means to get older. We didn’t spend a lot of real estate having us bemoan it. There are so many depictions in films of women who are either adolescent and oversexed, or undersexed and shrewish.
Was it a strategic career decision to do more producing and directing?
I was a producer on “Parks” and a few other shows, and it felt more exciting than acting right now. I have to remind myself to add “right now.” I like joining somebody at the bottom of Show Mountain and trying to build it. And I like being in charge—there, I said it!
How hands-on are you with Paper Kite, your production company?
I give notes on every script and every draft, we meet with every writer. We’re six women and we work out of a house together. We’re in tight quarters for a reason. I really liked that scrum feeling at “SNL” where you were collaborative and pushed each other and knew what everybody else was working on, so I try to do that where we are.
Was making Paper Kite a company of women intentional?
No, we’re open to everyone. But I still get surprised when people come in to work with us and they’re not used to so many women working together. On “Wine Country,” we did this big stunt piece, and the stunt women were saying, “It’s so exciting, I’ve never been in a film where six women are doing stunts. I’m usually the only one.” [For some people] it still feels novel sometimes to be in a room with a lot of women. It doesn’t feel like that at Paper Kite.
Who Is She?
Name: Amy Poehler
What she does: Actor, director and producer
How she got there: After college she started doing improv in Chicago, where she became a founding member of the improv group Upright Citizens Brigade before landing at “Saturday Night Live.”
Her big break: You might think it was “SNL,” but Ms. Poehler says, “My big break was getting accepted into the improv community in Chicago. I was at Second City when the seniors were Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert. Tina Fey was my teammate. Any confidence I had for any other job was because of Chicago.”
Her obsession: “One is Hilma af Klint, the Swedish abstract artist. A woman in 1908 who’s making stuff that looks like Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ is mind-blowing. And Judge Judy. I am obsessed with how she operates as a working woman and mother, and how she runs her empire and her show. I’m between those two women somehow.”