Meet the Riot Grrrl Poet Behind 'Legally Blonde' and Other Classic Rom-coms
Kirsten "Kiwi" Smith penned the screenplays for "10 Things I Hate About You," "The House Bunny," and other rom-coms in between writing feminist poems.
From left: Karen McCullah, Kirsten "Kiwi" Smith, and actress Dana Goodman. Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez, courtesy of Getty Images
Young women have always depended on teen movies to figure out what kind of women they want to become. For many girls, those films are written by riot grrrl poet-turned-screenwriter Kirsten "Kiwi" Smith. Her first film, 10 Things I Hate About You, introduced them to Sylvia Plath, Bikini Kill, and Sarah Lawrence all at once. Audiences loved the movie, and it launched Smith and her writing partner, Karen McCullah, into the world of romantic comedies. Together, they went on to write some of the 2000's biggest female-centric romantic comedies: Legally Blonde, She's The Man, and The House Bunny.
Heath Ledger, Reese Witherspoon, and Amanda Bynes are just a few of the dozens of major Hollywood talents who have brought Smith's characters to life, but she grew up on a sailboat in San Pedro, California without a TV. She cultivated her own fantastical imagination through independent study and play. As an only child, she spent most her time alone writing. Smith's creative way of being continued to sustain her when her family moved to a sleepy, small town off the coast of Washington, where she would eventually become a clerk at a local video store. Film became Smith's obsession, alongside poetry. In the early 90s, she studied storytelling at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where she later launched her film career.
This week, Smith spoke to Broadly about writing riot grrrl-inspired movies about sorority girls, how poetry magazines' rejection letters prepared her for Hollywood, and Heath Ledger's musical number in 10 Things I Hate About You. This interview has been edited and condensed.
BROADLY: How did your poetry influence your screenwriting style?
Kirsten "Kiwi" Smith: I always liked writing narrative poems, so it was a clean transition for me to write screenplays. I would often write persona-style poems from the point of view of an individual character, who usually was much different than I was. I spent my childhood observing people, as a fish out of water in an adult world. Sometimes I was better at observing than interacting, so maybe it's still a little like that. Writing movies allows me to continue doing what I love to [do]—observing a person and then getting inside that person's head.
How did you go about launching your professional writing career in college?
I became really focused on submitting my poems to literary magazines. I had this whole elaborate system where I would have 50 poems out for submission at one time. I was like a machine, just sending out endless submissions with self-addressed envelopes. I had my own little way of tracking which poems were out, which were getting feedback, and which were possibly getting close to publication. Eventually I got my first poem published in a literary magazine called Poetry LA, a cool quarterly journal. I think I was 19.
How did you get involved in film after Occidental?
Right after college, I got a scholarship to go to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and also did a residency at the MacDowell Colony. I still wasn't sure if I was going to pursue a poetry life (whatever that was), but after MacDowell, I realized the only way I could move forward was to get my MFA and ultimately become a professor. I realized I needed to find a way to fuse my love of movies with my love of writing, and I had made an independent studies class for myself in college where I had written a script, so I came to the conclusion I had to be a screenwriter by day and a poet by night.
While in college, I had an internship at this tiny film production company called CineTel Films where I read scripts and wrote coverage, so when I moved back to LA after MacDowell, I reached out to my old boss Catalaine Knell, and she hired me as a reader. She ended up hiring me full-time to work in development, which is when I got my real training in [screenwriting] structure. She was an excellent mentor, which is really what you need—she read some of my poems too. In fact, when CineTel did this movie Poison Ivy II, Catalaine had me write a poem into the script for it and gave me my first credit.
[Heath Ledger] was so specific about what he wanted to wear.
Many great actors have then stepped into your characters. Is any performances your favorite?
I think Reese Witherspoon handled the material in Legally Blonde brilliantly—that combination she brought of optimism and delight and shrewd intelligence. And Heath in 10 Things for sure. I remember being on-set and him putting together the outfit he was going to wear for the song number, his musical moment [performing "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" in the bleachers]. He was so specific about what he wanted to wear; it had to be this certain type of dark shirt with a precise fit. Oddly, it's kind of a nondescript ensemble when you actually watch the movie, but seeing him architect the costume as part of his preparation [to act] was so impressive, especially because he was only 19.
In 10 Things I Hate About You, Kat is a bold feminist and a distinct embodiment of late Riot Grrrl, but also based on the titular monster from The Taming of the Shrew. Where did that feminist context come from?
I had a little bit of that Northwest feminism in me, and I had only graduated from college a few years earlier. I was fresh from women's studies classes and very excited to plug in a lot of those ideas and references. We wrote 10 Things in 1997, so we were still pretty early in terms of the history of post-feminist reclaiming. There was a new book called Cunt around that time all about taking a negative word and reclaiming its power. At that time, I remember my writing partner being reluctant to call herself a feminist because back then, it wasn't trendy. It was code for "angry at men" or "she hates men." But that's not to say she hasn't always been very feminist in the way she lives. She's undaunted, she's strong, and she never has a doubt about what she can and will accomplish.
Do you feel particularly attached to any of the movies you've written?
For me, The House Bunny was one of the most personal and rewarding projects because we came up with the character with Anna [Faris]. We had seen Just Friends, and Anna was so twisted and funny in it, so we asked for a coffee meeting. She had the idea for a Playboy bunny character who gets kicked out of the mansion. Then [Karen and I] went through our files and found another idea about an uptight woman who had to become a sorority mother. We ended up marrying Anna's character with our plot and developing the entire plot with Anna, and then went out and pitched together. We pitched it like 22 times. We kept getting told that nobody was going to buy the movie. We faced a lot of rejection, so it was a really empowering experience to sell it, get it made, and then have it be well-received.
Are you accustomed to rejection?
Yeah, I think so. Mostly because of my early days submitting all those poems. I would receive a rejection, nod, and put the same poem in a new envelope. I didn't dwell too much on the feeling of rejection. I was more about seeing who was next on my list and and being like, "Let's go. I can take it."
Are you ever scared to hand your female-centric material over to a production team full of guys?
I've worked with a few different men who were definitely not progressive, but there were usually other gatekeepers involved who looked out for the material. There were times when I looked at a guy and couldn't believe this was the person who was going to be bringing one of our scripts to life, because he wasn't an enlightened, human person. Or there have been moments in the finished products where I watched the dailies or whatever and thought, Ahhhh! I wish this looked different. I remember on 10 Things, seeing Kat's room for the first time and being like, No, why does the room look like that? I was upset about the music, because I had envisioned way more of a hardline, riot grrrl soundtrack. I was certain those things were going to sink the whole vibe, but obviously I was wrong, and it turned out great. Part of it is just growing up as an artist and a writer. You can cling to the idea of what something should be, but the beauty of collaboration is that a new take on it could turn it into the best version it could become.