How ‘Mean Girls’ Reinvented Itself — Again

You don’t get to plan when you’ll get a life-changing email.

For “Mean Girls” directors Arturo Perez Jr. and Samantha Jayne, the missive that would ultimately lead to their feature directorial debut came at a particularly tough time for them. Following their well-received, Sundance-premiering short-form TV series “Quarter Life Poetry,” the married couple were deep into developing another TV show, this one about office culture.

“And then the pandemic happened, and offices ceased to exist,” Jayne explained to IndieWire over Zoom. “We were not doing so great. We’re like, ‘What is life right now?’ ‘What’s next?’ And then all of a sudden, this dream email came through with the words ‘Mean Girls’ on it. I got an IV infusion of vitamins and minerals and life!”

Over multiple chats, the duo came to learn Tina Fey was a fan of “Quarter Life Poetry” and wanted to hear how they would tackle and reinvent her beloved world of “Mean Girls,” the 2004 classic starring Lindsay Lohan that was now also a 2018 hit Broadway musical written by Fey and Jeff Richmond.

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“We talked about the need for it to be surprising,” Jayne said. “We’re massive fans of every iteration of this. It had to be something new. We’re 20 years later, it’s a new generation of kids, they speak an entirely new language; it’s a whole new arena.”

This new version, based on the Broadway show, got upgraded from its planned streaming home to hit movie theaters nationwide on January 12. Happily, the bones fans adore are still intact, if perhaps slightly sanded down. (Coach Carr is no longer making out with students.) In its place are plenty of sharp jokes in a new script by Fey, genuinely fun takes on social media, and the kind of big, bold theatrical numbers that are a pure delight to watch unfold.

Directors Arturo Perez Jr. and Samantha Jayne on the set of Mean Girls from Paramount Pictures. Photo Credit: Jojo Whilden/Paramount Pictures.
Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr. on the set of “Mean Girls” (Note the pink hair!)Jojo Whilden

Taking on such a beloved property was obviously nerve-wracking, so Perez and Jayne relied on a system they regularly use in their lives to guide them through it. “We have this thing we call ‘the Yes Bus,’” Perez explained. “The basic ideas is you just listen to each other fully, all the way to the end.”

“Hop on my bus, don’t worry, I’m going to drop you right back off where I picked you up,” Jayne chimed in. “I’ll tell you the full idea, and then I’ll drop you back, and then we’ll talk about it. And then I’ll ride his bus. And then we’ll ride the production designer’s bus, and then we’ll hop on the costume designer’s bus. Every idea has validity and [even if the] idea doesn’t work, it has the seed of something that could lead to the idea.”

The process paid dividends for big production numbers like “Revenge Party,” in which Cady (Angourie Rice) finally agrees with her new friends Janis (Auliʻi Cravalho) and Damian’s (Jaquel Spivey) plan to take down queen bee mean girl Regina George (Reneé Rapp).

“It was a beast,” Jayne said about the eight-minute sequence, which spans three months of the school year. “Cady starts out this innocent we know and, by [the end of the number], she comes out the other side of the tube as a Plastic.”

The number, which finds the entire cast dancing through the hallways of the school in a mix of fantasy and reality, took a ton of planning to keep the whole thing visually interesting. An additional challenge was keeping in mind the characters are 16-year-olds in high school with limited resources — hence, the Art Club Project feel of the whole thing, with astroturf on the floor and papiermâché-esque cotton clouds surrounding the action.

“We called it the utopian hallway, having that space be a space that we could return to throughout the sequence when Cady finally takes initiative and matters into her own hands,” Jayne said.

Director Arturo Perez Jr. on the set of Mean Girls from Paramount Pictures. Photo Credit: Jojo Whilden/Paramount Pictures.
Director Arturo Perez Jr. on the set of “Mean Girls”Jojo Whilden

“It was fun,” Perez Jr. added. “But it was a total and complete obsession that took weeks to crack. … Every musical number, we’re always asking two questions: Whose perspective is it? And what is the feeling?”

Those key questions led them to another standout number, Janis’ fuck-it, I’m done battle cry, “I’d Rather Be Me,” which the duo decided would be a single unbroken take as Janis leaves the rah-rah sisterhood fake bonding behind and races through the classrooms of the school ready to metaphorically burn it all down.

“These are just like raw, teenage rebellious emotions,” Jayne said. “She’s gonna feel them fully. And to cut away from that? [We] just felt like [she] would never let you do that … we wanted it to feel like you’re in an emotional roller coaster of a teenager’s brain.”

Of course, those big numbers don’t work if the cast isn’t strong. Besides fellow standouts Cravalho and Spivey, Reneé Rapp, who previously portrayed Regina George on Broadway, walks away with this movie, putting her own spin on the beloved role. It helps that she can belt.

“She’s an absolute powerhouse,” Jayne said. “Tina had a relationship with her, and she just eats this role. … It was so ingrained in her and then also, it’s a completely different kind of performance [from doing it on Broadway]. Our initial conversations with her were more about unlearning that version of Regina. How can you make it intimate and personal?”

That meant eschewing playing to the back of the house in favor of camera close-ups, most memorably in barnburner Regina tune “World Burn,” which this reporter was absolutely humming while leaving the theater.

“Hopefully this can introduce new people to the musical, as a genre,” Perez said, while discussing fellow recent musicals in theaters like “The Color Purple” and “Wonka.” All aboard the Yes Bus!

A Paramount Pictures release, “Mean Girls” is in theaters today.

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