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Rough Night’s Lucia Aniello on R-rated women, and why pitting them against each other sucks

The writer-director of the new comedy (and the best of Broad City) on portraying women who are rated “R for realistic.”

Director Lucia Aniello with her Rough Night cast, v casual

Rough Night knows what people have come to expect from a movie bachelorette party, and for a while, it delivers exactly that: a group of hot college friends dance through a blur of tequila shots while sparkly pink penises bob like alien antennae on top of their hair. But then, in a shocking twist, they get tired and head back to the house they’re using for the weekend, shrug their way into comfier clothes to hang out by the pool, pass around a bottle of wine, and debate the merits of ordering a stripper and/or pizza sooner rather than later.

Such an ordinary scenario really shouldn’t feel revolutionary. But in hard R-rated comedies, getting to see women — even ones as star-powered as Scarlett Johansson, Zoe Kravitz, and Kate McKinnon — be so casually themselves is still so rare that it’s downright jarring.

For director and co-writer Lucia Aniello, though, it was just instinct.

As Aniello told me last weekend while shuffling into hotel slippers and getting comfortable herself, what she and her writing partner Paul Downs, who co-wrote Rough Night, have always been interested in — as seen in everything from their web sketches to some of Broad City’s best and most bizarre episodes — is showing real people dealing with surreal situations. “Real crazy shit happens, but people react in the way you would react,” Aniello said. “That is, to me, what makes things the most interesting.”

So yes: Things in Rough Night do go truly sideways after that casual pool hangout thanks to some drunken mistakes and a striptease gone deathly awry. But Aniello and Downs (who also plays Johansson’s sweetheart fiancé) are still confused to hear anyone describe Rough Night as inherently edgier than any other R-rated comedy. “When people are like, 'wow, this is edgy,' it's because there are women in it smoking pot and being horny,” Downs shrugged.

"They do swear casually,” Aniello allowed. “It feels more unrealistic and stilted to me [otherwise]. That's the looseness we have in our movie, is we let them talk just the way people talk.”

Which, again, shouldn’t feel like nearly as huge a deal as it does. But Rough Night stars an unusually woman-centric cast and is only the third R-rated studio comedy directed by a woman in 20 years — a fact Aniello only found out a few weeks ago, at which point she wished she were more surprised. Aniello and Downs have always written casually crass women, but now that their romp of a bachelorette movie was going to be a major studio release, the conversation about it rapidly spun out of their control.

“Maybe part of what feels 'R' about it is that it's like, R for realistic,” Aniello mused at one point. “Hyper-realistic women. Maybe that's the thing that is most shocking." And then she wrinkled her nose, disgusted — but again, not exactly surprised.

Aniello and Downs have always written for women who feel anchored in some kind of reality. Imagine that!

Aniello and Downs on the Rough Night set

If you love Broad City, chances are you love an episode that came from the eerily in-sync mind-meld that is Aniello and Downs’s comedic partnership.

The two have been working together for over a decade now as “Paulilu” on sketches and webseries like “The Real Housewives of South Boston” (in which Aniello’s Masshole roots get a wicked fun showcase) and “Diary of Zac Efron” (in which Downs practically weaponized his signature sincerity in service of portraying Efron’s oblivious charm offensives).

But their collective big break came when Amy Poehler brought them on to help shape Broad City, a new series from New York comedians Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer (who also stars in Rough Night). Even though Glazer and Jacobson’s partnership is the heart of the series both onscreen and off, Aniello and Downs’s episodes launched the show into weirder and more ambitious directions. “Paul and Lucia were such important architects for Broad City,” Poehler told me via email. “They have such distinctive, imaginative and hilarious voices."

Just some of the classic Broad City moments to come out of their heads include Garol (season one’s yogurt-eating gatekeeper of North Brother Island), Blake Griffin’s willingness to experiment with dynamic sexual stretching in season three, and Abbi’s foray into pegging her longtime crush.

While they’ve always juggled writing, directing, and performing duties depending on the project, Aniello and Downs’s seemingly effortless writing process is what tended to propel their comedy to the next level. I’ve talked to a bunch of writing teams, and I can’t honestly say I’ve heard of one that works quite like this one does. After completely outlining their project — whether it’s an episode of TV or a feature film — both Aniello and Downs write their own version of each and every scene, show them to each other, and find a way to combine their individual visions from there.

"It forces you to not be in your head,” Aniello insisted. "And I know what tickles him, so it makes the voice really specific.”

Downs agreed, comparing their singular process to a particularly fun game of timed chess. “I get to just try and surprise her and make her laugh,” he said with a smile, “and she does the same for me.”

What they found is that they both love and excel at what Downs calls “big, pants-down moments that are also grounded, and have heart." So when, for instance, Broad City’s Abbi decides to try a strap-on for the first time, it’s not just played for laughs; it’s played as the monumental moment in her sexual history that it is.

And for Rough Night, sure, they wanted to have a whole lot of slapstick fun, but they also wanted to tell a story about this group of friends who were so incredibly close in college, and 10 years later, have drifted to the point where they struggle to click back into the same kind of rhythm. Even the movie’s game-changing death is played as hyper-real, with Aniello switching to handheld cameras to capture everyone’s horror.

That’s why the idea that Rough Night might be sold as “edgy” due to its female-driven cast is one that frustrates them both. “To us, this seems totally normal,” Aniello said. “It's based on ourselves, it's based on how people we know talk and act ... it's just supposed to be funny and real."

Rough Night was buried under preconceptions and expectations before it even came out

Woooooooo, bachelorette party (that goes home at a reasonable hour once everyone’s hit their collective wall)!!!
Sony Pictures

Before I first talked to Downs, he had been at a morning television interview with the rest of the cast. They tried to talk about a running joke in the movie where the women use the code “do you need a tampon?” to ask each other for help when creepy men are making them uncomfortable — and were floored when their host balked at letting them use the word “tampon” on air. (Surprising no one, Glazer immediately doubled down and used it anyway).

But beyond being surprised, Downs was also just kind of exhausted by the exchange, since it’s exactly the kind of thing Rough Night has been crashing up against in its life as a studio comedy, as people try to wrap their heads around the fact that it’s happening at all.

Something else that came up after making the movie — and something that Aniello and Downs are straight up baffled by — is that Rough Night was constantly compared to and pitted against other women-led comedies like Bridesmaids even before it came out. There’s even been some speculation over whether or not Girls Tripthe upcoming road trip movie starring Queen Latifah and Tiffany Haddish — will “beat” Rough Night, as if it should be a competition.

"Now people are like, 'uh oh, which is gonna win?' And it's like, 'who's gonna win?’” Aniello said, rolling her eyes. “Anybody who goes to the movies and laughs! That’s who’s gonna win.” (And for what it’s worth, she “can’t wait” to see Girls Trip.)

“We're not trying to take anybody on,” Downs said, then grinned, “other than the patriarchy.”

But the idea that female comedies should be in competition because they’re rare is, unsurprisingly, a real frustration for anyone who just wants to write good jokes for funny women.

"No one's saying, 'Hey Will Ferrell, did you know Kevin Hart also has a movie coming out this year? Is that a trend? What do you think of that? Is your movie the white version of his movie?’” Aniello said. “They don't have to deal with any of that. They just get to make movies. And sometimes they make money, sometimes they don't, but guess what? They still get to make another one."

Comedy is starting to make real space for women, but women directors in comedy are still rare

Like just about every aspect of the entertainment industry, comedy has always been a boys club first and foremost — but it’s also been one of the slowest to change. And while there were more women directing R-rated comedies in the ’90s (like Betty Thomas’s Private Parts or Tamra Davis’s Half Baked), in recent years, that hasn’t been the case outside of independent film (like Leslye Headland’s excellent Bachelorette or Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child).

In fact, Sharon Maguire’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) was the last R-rated studio comedy to be directed by a woman until Nancy Meyers stumbled into an R-rating in 2009, because she dared to show Meryl Streep smoke a joint onscreen in It’s Complicated. Otherwise, the hard-R comedy has been a total no-woman’s land.

Aniello, for her part, only found out about that depressing statistic a few weeks ago. Not that she wasn’t aware of the depressing dearth of women in comedy directing; that fact was part of the reason she’s kept prioritizing directing. "I like it, but also, it felt like there was a demand for more women in comedy directing,” Aniello said, “and I felt like I could supply that demand."

Comedy, like most industries, can be incredibly insider-y; people tend to turn to the people they already know — and when the people in charge are predominantly straight white men, that’s usually who ends up getting the chances. Again: It took Amy Poehler throwing her weight behind Broad City to make it happen, and for Aniello to get her TV directing debut, besides. (Poehler not only calls Aniello’s direction “precise and flexible,” but the woman herself “a badass.”)

"[Aniello’s] very skilled, and there aren't a lot of women who are given the opportunity,” Downs said. “So when you are really good and you're getting the opportunities, it's hard not to take those." But as Aniello was quick to point out, they’re also determined to pass along the same chances to other people who might not have been able to crack the industry otherwise. After all, she said, “the reason we're in this position is because some women helped us ... you gotta try to help people whose voices you know are important."

So Aniello’s determined not to waste the momentum she’s got going now, both for her sake and the others who might come up after her. Being involved with comedy for years and knowing the sporadic history of not just woman-directed comedies, but big studio comedies that dare to give women more than 10 lines, makes her aware of the high-profile gamble she’s taking. But to her, there’s something kind of thrilling about that, too.

“There's something overconfident to say ... this story, or these characters, these actresses, these jokes all deserve to be blown up on a big screen,” she said. “There's something brash about that that's usually reserved for white men."

Still: She’ll admit that once a major studio got involved, the idea of failing became a real fear.

“I knew I had to be cool, casual, and confident, because comedy lives and dies by the air that it exists in,” Aniello said, “but it can't be too much fun, because then it's like, lazy and not in line with the storytelling ... and it needs to be a really, really good movie, because something like this hasn't happened in a long time."

So while Aniello is breaking ground with Rough Night, she isn’t exactly counting on it being the definitive crack that will break the industry wide open for women. After all, Bridesmaids came out six years ago and was directed by a white man and it’s still the go-to example of explicit women-led comedies being able to succeed. But Rough Night is still a step forward — and one that will hopefully not remain a piece of “can you believe this shit?” trivia for long.