When Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion was released in April 1997, it didn’t set the world on fire. It had complimentary reviews, but it opened behind Volcano and only went on to earn $29 million. In the 20 years since its release, this left-of-center comedy about two rudderless best friends who concoct a little yellow lie in hopes of impressing the clique that made their teen years a living hell has finally found its niche. But it was a long road to achieving cult status. In honor of the film’s anniversary, director David Mirkin looks back on the cameos that sadly had to be cut, the frustrating studio notes, and the major script changes that all worked in tandem to make Romy and Michele as popular as they are today.
1. Toni Collette could have played Romy.
While Lisa Kudrow was a shoo-in to play Michele Weinberger (she originated the role in screenwriter Robin Schiff’s play Ladies Room), Mira Sorvino wasn’t the first performer to take an interest in playing Romy White. “Early on, I actually explored and did some stuff with Lisa and the wonderful Toni Collette, who was coming off of Muriel’s Wedding, which I loved,” Mirkin told BuzzFeed News. “Toni ultimately decided not to go ahead — nothing was official and you’d have to ask her, but I think she was a little concerned with the accent. Just nailing the nature of a Valley-ish girl accent at that point.” Luckily for Mirkin, he found the perfect Romy in Sorvino, who was hot off her Academy Award win for Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite.
2. Extensive rehearsals turned strangers into best friends.
While Mirkin already knew Kudrow and quickly bonded with Sorvino during a pre-hiring lunch, as he recalls it, the two women who would be playing lifelong best friends in a matter of weeks were complete strangers at the start of the project. Thankfully Mirkin always relies on a lengthy rehearsal process, so the two actors quickly bonded.
“You try to create a friendship and a trust so anyone can do anything or say anything and feel completely trusted and free to try to experiment,” he said of the rehearsal process, which in this case lasted two weeks and included “confessional therapy sessions where we just start talking like friends.” He continued, “That creates a situation where the actors bond with each other. I wanted them to become real friends, and that happened. Lisa and Mira became real friends before we ever started shooting, and that was important to me to see onscreen. If two people really like each other and really hang with each other, there’s all kinds of unconscious and subtle ways they interact that increase everything in terms of the relationship.”
3. Romy and Michele weren’t always secret style icons.
According to Mirkin, Schiff’s original script didn’t end with Romy and Michele getting their own boutique — in fact, fashion wasn’t even a factor. “The movie was in development hell for five years before I came on,” he said. “The script wasn’t ready to go, it had no ending. Romy and Michelle didn’t have a boutique at the end, they only flew away with Sandy [Alan Cumming], so there was really no point to it all.”
The key in driving home how exceptional Romy and Michele’s homemade clothes were lay in an unlikely ally: Lisa Luder, their former tormentor, played by Elaine Hendrix. In one high school flashback, Lisa is seen going against her elite “A-Group” by saying Romy and Michele’s clothes were kind of nice — a sentiment she echoes years later at the reunion, after it’s revealed she is now working for Vogue magazine. “I needed to add all that in for this to work as a story, that these girls had some sort of value and that value was in how they made their own clothes and how they had a great eye for that.”
4. Friendship wasn’t as significant in the original script.
Another big change Mirkin made was to turn Romy and Michele into the super tight BFFs the film portrays them as. “What I did was add a lot more emotion and more of the friendship between them, with them helping each other,” he said — and that began with overhauling Romy and Michele’s high school friendship. One of their most formative experiences as friends is when they slow-dance together at prom after Billy (Vincent Ventresca) cruelly bails on Romy, but originally that super sweet yet sad scene was only referenced and never shown. “The girls didn’t help each other out as much in the original script, and part of that relationship was that they had to really save each other. It was very unemotional — I said we needed to see her get stood up and then we need Michele to say, ‘I’ll dance with you, Romy.’ That was a great image that I just had.”
5. The big film-ending dance was initially a disco routine.
After Mirkin had Romy and Michele dance to Cyndi Lauper at prom, he knew the second musical moment had the potential to be much more sentimental. “The original dance sequence was not an emotional one; it was a disco tribute to John Travolta,” he revealed. “When I wanted to do a dance sequence at the end, it made sense for that to be an emotional dance sequence that calls back to that prom song, but was also incredibly silly, ridiculous, stupid, funny, and moving all at the same time. That’s the thing I love to do the most. If I can do something incredibly silly that moves you at the same time, that’s just heaven to me.” It’s now one of the film’s most iconic moments, in part because the stars worked extensively on it for weeks and weeks.
6. The movie’s weirdest moment is Kudrow’s favorite.
Another way Mirkin put his stamp on the movie was through the super surreal dream sequence that comes as Romy and Michele seemingly arrive at their reunion. At first the scene is presented in a totally straightforward way, before quickly revealing itself to be Michele’s absolutely insane fever dream. “I made the dream sequence much more surreal than it originally was,” he said of adding Sandy’s facial reconstruction surgery, Toby (Camryn Manheim) flying over a limo, and Sandy launching himself through the car’s sunroof. “That was all to slowly build up more and more surreal nature of the dream sequence that didn’t exist before that. That was part of what was going to be fun to direct,” he said, noting, “I thought it would be complicated to get them out of the sunroof, but all that was [was] two strong guys pulling them up, and it looked great. Hollywood magic! Sometimes low-tech is the best.”
As for the moment when Sandy hits Michele with his car, that was another invention of Mirkin’s, and one Lisa Kudrow cherishes to this day. “By the way, it’s obviously a stunt person being shot into the air, but once she hits the top of the roof, it’s really Lisa rolling across the top of the car,” he said. “And you wanna talk about improv, Lisa was the one who said, ‘Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow’ like that when she was doing the roll, which I just thought was brilliant. She tells me this to this day, that’s the favorite shot she’s ever done in her entire career.”
7. Will Ferrell filmed a scene that had to be cut out.
Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion famously featured one of Justin Theroux’s first onscreen roles (he’s Clarence, the smoking-hot cowboy who taunts Janeane Garofalo’s Heather Mooney), but it almost also featured a sure-to-be-classic cameo from Will Ferrell.
“Will Ferrell, who was so sweet and at the height of his burgeoning stardom, was nice enough to come do a cameo for me, and unfortunately I put him in the wrong place in the movie,” Mirkin revealed. “He played a waiter right when Romy is being humiliated by the three girls when it gets found out she didn’t invent Post-its. The other aspect she was trying to impress those girls with was that she had a cell phone. So she had the waiter, played by Will Ferrell, give her a call on her cell phone at that exact moment. Will was hilarious as this waiter hiding behind the curtain trying to make this call that Romy no longer wanted because she was in tears.”
While Mirkin said the scene edited together hilariously, what he couldn’t have planned for was how deeply upsetting Sorvino’s performance would make that moment. “Mira is such a powerful actress that I had not anticipated how much her humiliation would devastate the audience,” he said. “I sorta thought the audience would be sad but also laughing at this idiot girl, but they were mostly just sad, so you could only have her humiliated for so long, so I had to cut out the second humiliation to have the audience recover fast enough to enjoy the rest of the scene. So poor Will, I had to cut him out — and he’s hilarious!”
8. The soundtrack cost almost $1 million.
Mirkin always wanted the movie to be packed with wall-to-wall hits from the ’80s — but securing Cyndi Lauper, Bananarama, La Bouche, the Bee-Gees, the Village People, Bow Wow Wow, Wang Chung, Devo, Robert Palmer, Kenny Loggins, Culture Club, Naked Eyes, the Go-Go’s, Tears For Fears, and Belinda Carlisle cost a pretty penny. The director estimates they spent almost $1 million for the rights to all the songs used in the film.
But there was one tune that the studio hesitated to get behind. “I chose No Doubt’s ‘Just a Girl’ for the opening sequence, and they were concerned that was too edgy and too unfriendly,” he said. “This is before they really broke out, and they considered No Doubt to be a punk-ish band.” However, by the time the movie was released in April 1997, No Doubt had become a massive mainstream success, and Mirkin got the last laugh. “Right before the movie came out, No Doubt broke out huge, and the studio called me and asked to put more No Doubt in the movie,” he said with a laugh. “No Doubt was so big by that point and we got such a great early deal on the song that if I called and tried to get another, they’d be able to renegotiate everything, so we couldn’t get any more. But that was typical. They wanted the music to be more mainstream, more straight down the middle, and I said no because the characters weren’t straight down the middle — they need this quirky, weirder, edgier music.”
9. The studio struggled to understand Mirkin’s vision.
From the very beginning, Mirkin said he was clear about wanting this movie to be quirky, weird, and edgy. “I wanted it to show the true incredibly casual cruelty of high school and not pull any punches on that,” he said. “I wanted to keep the R rating, I wanted to have the f-word in the movie and have people really speak the way they speak in high school. And the studio was great; they agreed to all that.”
But by the time he submitted his first cut, the studio almost seemed to have developed a case of amnesia. “When they were finally presented with the film and really confronted with the truth of all this, it was a challenge for them,” he said. “They wanted this to be an innocuous, sweet comedy. [It was] the complete opposite of what they’re looking for, so it was a struggle to keep the film in its quirky, weird form and to get that vision out there.”
But Mirkin stuck to his guns and was able to eventually release the film as we know and love it today. “I’m incredibly grateful they ultimately let me do that, but it was work,” he said, adding that many of the elements the studio struggled with are actually what has led to Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion remaining as beloved as it is 20 years later. “When you have a weird, strange, fucked-up point of view, it can have a tendency to remain in people’s memories if you’re lucky enough to get to produce it. All I’m ever trying to do is give the people the experiences I had and the amount of joy and love that literally saved me in many ways in my life. I’m just trying to give that back and feel so grateful to have any kind of success in doing that for someone else.”