In 2004, “Mean Girls” rocked pop culture. Written by “Saturday Night Live” veteran Tina Fey, based on the book “Queen Bees and Wannabes” by Rosalind Wiseman, the film comedy about high-school social hierarchies and the covert but vicious bullying of teen girls became a phenomenon.
The movie grossed $129 million. References popped up everywhere — from President Barack Obama’s Twitter to acceptance speeches by actors unaffiliated with the movie. Oct. 3 is known around the world as Mean Girls Day (a callback to a scene in the film). In 2017, that ubiquity bled to Broadway. The “Mean Girls” stage musical, featuring a book by Fey, music by Jeff Richmond (who happens to be Fey’s husband) and lyrics by Nell Benjamin, opened at the August Wilson Theatre on April 8, 2018. The musical was nominated for 12 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Fast-forward to 2024 and another iteration of “Mean Girls” is here. A film adaptation of the musical will debut in cinemas on Jan. 12. Fey has written the screenplay again, blending her original 2004 script with that of her book for the stage musical. It features songs from the musical as well as some new ones. Filmmakers Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr. came on board to co-direct.
Just as in the previous iterations, the central role of Cady Heron (played by Angourie Rice), who has been raised and homeschooled in Africa, matriculates to public school for her junior year. Trying to find her place, Cady bonds with artsy students Janis and Damian (Auli’i Cravalho and “A Strange Loop” Tony nominee Jaquel Spivey). Piqued by the arrival of fresh meat to the jungle of North Shore High, queen bee Regina George (Reneé Rapp) and her fellow “Plastics” Gretchen and Karen (Bebe Wood and Avantika) extend a welcome to Cady.
The movie musical was initially announced without directors on board. Jayne and Perez had to pitch their vision to get the job.
Their “Mean Girls” takes a page from Broadway. “What we really appreciated about the narrative construction of Broadway is that Janis and Damian are our all-knowing narrators, and this story is told through their mind’s eye in hindsight,” Jayne said. The musical opens with Janis and Damian singing “A Cautionary Tale,” about looking back at this wild high school experience. “So it’s not necessarily objectively what occurred; it’s what they perceived occurred. And they have the brains of teenagers and are feeling these big emotions.”Once Jayne and Perez realized that the movie should read as if Janis and Damian directed it, they thought, “How would a bunch of 16-year-olds figure out how to make a movie?” Jayne asked.
“They’d use their phones,” said Perez. “That’s why — one of the things I love most about this movie is [that the] ratio changes — the telephone aspect ratio, which is [vertical] nine by 16, and then you go to [widescreen] Cinemascope.”
For the directors, it was about “keeping the camera agile in the way that kids use their iPhone cameras because they’re so light and you can just move them around through space,” Jayne said. Indeed, the movie includes multiple one-shots (or at least shots that appear to be filmed in a continuous take on a single camera) that immerse viewers in the hallways of North Shore and more.
As for Fey, she was sold on Jayne and Perez’s take, including how “Mean Girls” was shot. “They very smartly knew and said, ‘We think because most people who see this movie will have seen the original, many of them will have seen the musical. How can we surprise them? What can we do in the way it is performed, the way it is shot, the way it sounds like new jokes — what can be surprising?’” Fey recalled. “I remember them talking me through the opening sequence and the way it [would be] shot. It’s the way it is in the movie. There were a lot of things they came in with that definitely made it into the movie, which is kind of rare, I would say, from a first meeting.”
Jayne and Perez’s film also demonstrates a distinctly musical sensibility. It is clear when a song is an inner monologue (manipulating light cues, freezing time for the characters who aren’t singing, etc.).
“The rules we set for the musical sequences [followed]: whose perspective are we in and what’s the feeling we’re trying to achieve?” Jayne said. “And then just using every cinematic tool possible to kind of raise those things up.”
And rather than determining how musical numbers would function in the movie on the whole, Jayne and Perez staged and filmed each number depending on the function of the song.
“There are songs that move you through time, like ‘Revenge Party,’ and then there are songs that bring us deeper into character,” Jayne said.
“We also really worked as hard as we could on the way into songs because I think that that’s such a hard thing to do in movies,” Perez added.
On Jan. 12, audiences will have their say as to whether this “Mean Girls” and its predecessor are equally fetch.