Interview: Bill Holderman and Erin Simms on creating Book Club: The Next Chapter, reuniting THAT cast and location scouting in Italy

When Bill Holderman and Erin Simms wrote the script for 2018’s Book Club they envisioned both Diane Keaton and Jane Fonda in their respective roles; now you know why Keaton’s character’s name is Diane! Such was the power of their own determination, both Keaton and Fonda signed on, with fellow industry titans Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen following suit.

With over $100 million in ticket sales, Book Club turned enough pages to warrant a sequel, and once you finish one chapter, it only makes sense to start on the next.  Reuniting the film’s fabulous four for Book Club: The Next Chapter, writer/director Holderman and writer/producer Simms move the literary laughs to an Italian landscape where everything goes a little off the rails for their overdue girl’s trip.

Ahead of the film’s global release this mother’s day weekend (you can read our review here), Peter Gray spoke with the creators about what inspired the international change for this sequel, the joys of location scouting, and who they’d like to work with next.

I understand the first film essentially began off the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon that took the loins of the world by storm and how you both sent your respective mothers copies, and the film spitballed from there.  With this film moving beyond the reading and into the adventure side of things, was there a trip of your own that inspired The Next Chapter? Or did this just feel like a natural progression as to how we could move with characters?

Bill Holderman: Well, I think it feels like a very natural progression, but the idea of a sequel and of the trip to Italy actually happened very organically.  I’ll give you a little insight.  Erin was on a plane with Mary (Steenburgen), Candice (Bergen) and Jane (Fonda), and they were going to CinemaCon in 2018, before the first movie even came out.  On the flight, and it’s not a long flight from LA To Las Vegas, they were talking about the first movie and how much fun they had making it.  I think it was Candice who said, “Well, we have to make a sequel.  And if we do we should go to Italy.”

So, when they landed the idea of a sequel and and the idea of Italy was (there), and they came to me and said, “Hey, great news, we’re going to make a sequel, and we’re going to go to Italy!”  The movie hadn’t even come out yet! We had no idea if it would even warrant a sequel, but we did know that if we were making a sequel it was going to be in Italy.

Erin Simms: We had no story, but (Candice) wasn’t giving up on Italy.  Once she said it, we were going.

Bill Holderman: And I think for us, because obviously the first one built around Fifty Shades… (and) that was such an essential element, but for us as writers we really wanted something that had thematic resonance in (this film).  So even though The Alchemist is the book we select, it’s not as significant in terms of getting the same screen time as the Fifty Shades books may have gotten in the first one.  I think that was a foundational element, and part of what made the trip make sense.

You had Diane Keaton and Jane Fonda specifically in mind for the first film, and obviously getting them and then Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen is just this embarrassment of riches.  When making the sequel, is there still a bit of pressure in getting them all back on board and pitching this idea? Even if Candice Bergen is taking the credit!

Bill Holderman: Yeah, I think the friendship that was developed during the first movie (and) grew in between the two movies was a huge driving force.  You still have to deliver a script, I mean, these are professionals working at the highest level.  They’re not going to just go make anything for a trip to Italy.  And nor should we.  I think there was that pressure of delivering them a script that got them excited and inspired.  And gets them not just excited to go and have a great filming experience, but gets them excited about who these characters still are and where they’re going in those relationships.

Erin Simms: The truth is that the pressure we really felt was on ourselves and in not wanting to make a bad sequel.  We did not want to make a watered down version of the first film.  We didn’t want to repeat ourselves.  Getting them to say yes again (meant) we were halfway there, but we did have to seal the deal.

One thing I really appreciated in this film was the reference to the pandemic.  As much as films are an escape, we still need that relatability.  I know Candice off the bat was talking about Italy, so was this something conceived before 2020? Or did the writing process take place during the immense downtime we all had in the world?

Bill Holderman: We were scouting Italy in 2019, and we had a script that did not include the pandemic.  But once the pandemic happened, it was such a significant moment for all of us.  It was so impactful in our lives (that) we felt like it would be disingenuous not to include that in some way and let that inform the way it informed all of us about life and challenged relationships.  We wanted to make sure that we infused these characters with the same reality that the rest of us were living in.  It happened organically and truthfully.

Erin Simms: I don’t think that you can make a movie about inspiring people to get out there and take risks and take chances and just ignore what we’ve all been through.  I don’t think that would have worked out.  I think adding the sequence at the beginning really grounded the story and made it feel like aren’t we so lucky to be back together?

Bill Holderman: Ultimately the movie is about friendship, and nothing challenged friendships more than being forced to isolate away from the people that we loved.  I think that was an opportunity to, again, showcase the importance of friendship.

Erin Simms: Friendship, but also travel and how lucky that it feels like a privilege.  Before the pandemic it was something we took for granted, and now post-pandemic, you just feel like the luckiest person in the world to travel and meet new people and have new experiences.

Seeing all those locations in Italy is just, like, travel porn! As you said you were already scouting, so finding these villas and that cooking school…how did you find these locations?

Bill Holderman: Scouting in Italy, and scouting the nooks and crannies of Rome and Venice is much more pleasurable than, you know, scouting for some industrial factory in some weird part of LA.  It was amazing. Truly amazing.  You had to remind yourself that you weren’t a tourist just getting shuttled around by the best local tour guides.

Erin Simms: We obviously went to some iconic places, but the sequence at the end of the movie is a location that apparently no one has ever shot a movie at.  If you read our script it was as if that building came to life.  It was exactly what was in our imagination.  And that was just outside of Rome, so that was a discovery.  And then the cooking school (well) no one had ever been there before because our incredible production designer built it brick by brick.  That was a set.  They hand-painted every brick, every statue.  Everyone comes away from the movie saying, “We gotta go to that restaurant!”

And you arguably have four of the greatest living actresses on hand here.  But if you could have your pick of any other four legendary actors to work with in another project, could you think of any that are on the bucket list?

Bill Holderman: I don’t know. (Book Club) was born from the material and it’s hard to think of it in the abstract.  It was such an honour and a privilege to get these four women that we had written for to play these characters.

Erin Simms: I can think of some new groups, yeah.  Some actors that we’d like to work with, like Halle Berry and Sandra Bullock.  Just putting together the best comedians and, sorry, (but) Meg Ryan, who I will one day get her back in the movies because, does she understand how good at comedy she is? She probably does, but that’s a gift that not everybody gets. Diane has it. Jane has it. Candice has it. Mary has it.  But, I gotta get Meg Ryan in there.

Bill Holderman: We’re at that point where it’s impossible for me think of anyone else.  We’re so in love with this four.

Erin Simms: Yeah, it’s like we’re cheating on them a little bit.

With these actresses being so attached to these characters, are they coming to you with their own dialogue notes? Their own backstories?

Bill Holderman: Certainly.  In the first movie, we talked a lot about the characters and who they were and (that) really created them.  When you get to make a sequel, you have all the knowledge that you had, not only in the writing of the first script, but in the production and working with the actors throughout.  It’s a real collaborative relationship between the creators, the writers, the director, and the actors.  Those characters continue to evolve.

The amazing thing about this cast (is that) they have amazing ideas.  Once we all talk them through and figure it all out, we go back and hammer out a script.  They’re so good at taking the words on the page and breathing incredible life into them.  They feel like they’re having real conversations.  They never go off-book, but it never feels like a script.

Erin Simms: They have a lot of respect for writers.

Book Club: The Next Chapter is screening in Australian theatres from May 11th, 2023.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.