This story contains mild spoilers for The Spy Who Dumped Me.
In one scene in Susanna Fogel's The Spy Who Dumped Me, accidental spies Morgan (Kate McKinnon) and Audrey (Mila Kunis) are being held captive by a Russian operative and tortured for information. "I'll tell you everything you want to know," Morgan says. "I've never kept a secret in my life."
To prove it, she starts to list off random facts she knows about her best friend: "Audrey shaves between her boobs."
"Morgan flosses with her hair," Audrey counters.
"She has sex dreams about Minions!" Morgan replies.
"Just the one Minion with the one eye!" Audrey explains.
It's a funny moment that plays into the whole idea that these women aren't professionals; they're not trained to conceal motives or withstand interrogation. They're just trying to get by. But what makes the scene feel real is that, yes, women share these things with each other. We talk about sex, bodily functions, and every other kind of taboo subject. Female friendships can be just as intimate as romantic relationships — especially if, like Audrey, your ex-boyfriend (Justin Theroux) has been concealing his secret identity as a spy.
That dynamic is exactly what Fogel set out to explore. "I've always been fascinated with [female friendships] as an unexplored counterpart to the romantic relationships we see in movies," the director and co-writer told Refinery29. "What I've found trying to tell those stories is that there isn't really anything in between the sort of prestige drama and the giant tentpole action movie."
To get around that, Fogel and writing partner David Iserson decided to beat Hollywood at its own game: They wrote a heartfelt and funny story about friendship and wrapped it in the trappings of a summer blockbuster. For every explosion, there's a Minions moment. For every shootout, a joke about vaginas that makes MI6 agent Sebastian (Sam Heughan) blush.
Ahead, Fogel tells Refinery29 about directing an action movie for the first time, dealing with criticism, and why you won't be seeing Sam Heughan naked in the name of feminism.
Refinery29: There is full-frontal male nudity scene in the movie, but no one in the film is objectified. There's no female nudity, which feels like a reversal of the traditional James Bond dynamic. Was that your intention?
Susannah Fogel: "We have a purely comedic naked moment in the movie, [but] in the gender reversed Bond I would have probably had some sort of shot of like an oiled-up Sam Heughan without a shirt on, which I know that many Outlander fans will be so crushed to learn, spoiler, isn't in the movie. It's funny because we had a scene that was Sam's character changing clothes, and it wasn't a naked scene, but it did involve him taking his shirt off. There was a debate on the set of people saying, 'Yeah, we've been dealing with sexy women washing cars in a thunderstorm forever; let's show Sam being this hot guy.' But the vibe of the set was so kind of respectful, and everyone was friendly. It just felt wrong to objectify him. I wanted to give the people what they wanted, so he only undoes two buttons off on shirt . I can't imagine being a male director asking a woman to do that. But anyway, my apologies for not having more of Sam's naked body!"
Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon have great friendship chemistry, which is as hard to nail as romantic chemistry. Did you have them bond in any way, or do chemistry tests?
"When you're casting people at Mila and Kate's level you don't usually have a lot of time or the opportunity to meet them and introduce them and do all of that sort of testing of chemistry — especially because it's not a romantic role, so people aren't totally up to speed with the fact that that's important. But I knew Kate a little bit. She had a small role in my first movie, and I knew would be incredibly grounded person who is much more thoughtful, introverted, and sincere than her sketch performances would necessarily indicate.
"When I met Mila, it was like playing matchmaker. You try to assess the other person and see if you think they would be a good match, and then you hope you're right. Mila too, is an incredibly grounded person. She's been in the spotlight for so long, but what's most important to her is her family and her friendships. But also there's a shorthand that I think women who have close friendships with other women have."
Were there any movie tropes about female friendships you were careful to avoid in this case?
"The one thing that was most important was not to manufacture some conflict between them. Conflict is the root of good storytelling, but in a movie that has so much conflict coming from everything from assassins to explosions, it felt really hard to think of an authentic way to weave in a petty argument between the girls around page 70. What I want to see is a representation of a friendship that feels real. I don't actually want to watch people bicker, unless they have to for some plot reason. I'd much rather see the joy and fun of that magical alchemy that is friendship. In many movies about friendship, they're actually about fighting and competition."
I love the dynamic between Kate McKinnon's character and Gillian Anderson, who's the head of the spy operation. Was that written with Kate in mind?
"You know, it wasn't. One of the things about Kate is that her performances, and her dynamics with different people, end up being incredibly specific and often very offbeat. One of the great surprises of the movie was that Kate and Sam developed this really close friendship, which was very much like a sibling thing where Kate would always just jokingly objectify Sam. Kate would always be like, 'Ah, you hot piece of meat,' and he would always blush and be so uncomfortable because Kate was just unabashedly crawling all over him. It's the Kate way. She would constantly try to make him crack, and he would have trouble not laughing around her. Gillian's character was written much more as just the sort of consummate Joan Allen/Judi Dench straight woman in that situation, just to sort of show the contrast with the girls.
"But then, because of Kate's bold outlandishness as Morgan, it just became this really funny situation when we were rehearsing, where that outlandishness against Gillian's very cool straight woman vibe became this whole other comedic thing that we just pushed further and further until we could push it no further."
Did you always plan to direct this movie?
"When [David Iserson and myself] started writing the movie we just wanted it to get made, and we didn't exactly know specifically what that meant. I had directed a movie before, and some television, and at the same time I knew that on paper I was not a person who was qualified in the traditional sense. I didn't have any experience doing anything on this scale. But then it was sort of this moment of trying to float up by my body and ask: Would I be having these doubts if I were a man? Would other people think that I was perfectly qualified to make that leap? How much of it is me just preemptively playing into the sort of invisible double standards? I'll never really know, but to preemptively take myself out of contention and hire an established male director who's maybe one movie ahead of me and then have them not understand all of the nuanced friendship stuff seemed like a bigger risk. So we just kind of went for it."
It's interesting you mention yourself playing into those dynamics, because a lot of male directors who get hired on these big blockbusters — Colin Trevorrow on Jurassic World, for example — only have one or two indie movies under their belt. And women in the same situation are often told that they're not qualified enough.
"I think about that Colin Trevorrow example all the time just because on the one hand, it's partly a factor of him having made a movie with some genre elements in his indie world, but also making that genre crossover was a risk. I think for a lot of women, delving into another genre feels like a bigger risk to them for some reason. Like, redefining yourself beyond the pigeonhole that you've been put in. I think it can be harder for women just because we are used to seeing ourselves and selling ourselves as one thing, not necessarily as versatile craftswomen who can do a lot of things. We're less conditioned to do that."
And "women's stories" is its own little category of movie to begin with. So then, adding another genre onto that — like science fiction, or action — must feel daunting.
"I know. We're still kind of focusing generally on the fact that equality and pay equality are important, and I think that's a given, but there are all these other sort of more nuanced ways that sexism just exists. Like, men are so biased against female-driven content. It's like a hurdle you have to surmount: the idea of their own self-identification as men, and what that means about them that they want to see Bridesmaids or listen to Bjork. Whereas a woman doesn't have any issues seeing Rushmore or listening to The Rolling Stones."
Do you feel there's undue pressure put on woman filmmakers to get it right, and make something that speaks to women in a way that goes beyond just enjoying the movie?
"I do. There just aren't enough movies yet in enough genres that have women in the lead to relieve the pressure that each one has to be everything to all women and all feminists. An early trailer for our movie features the scene that [in which Kate McKinnon and Mila Kunis' characters] can't drive a stick shift car. To me and to Dave, my writing partner, that was just a dumb Americans in Europe fish out of water scene. We didn't even think about gender. I can drive a stick shift car, and Dave can't. It didn't even occur to us that people would think this is a joke about how women can't drive. If it had been Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd in that car, no one would have ever said this is a joke about how men can't drive. There were a couple of people who said, 'Oh, this movie isn't feminist because this scene happens in it. Clearly, this is about women who aren't competent.' I have to be allowed to show women doing different things, some of them competent, some of them not."
Not all women can be good at everything. I would make a terrible spy!
"For the pendulum to swing from women hiding under tables from their exes or whatever romantic comedy tropes we've been living with for so long, to women have to be idealised powerful confident beacons of perfection — I don't think that's any better. I mean, I think it's great to have have those narratives and those heroes, but that is by no means less pressure for women to have to live up to it. We just need every story in between to even it out a little bit."
Interview has been edited and condensed.
The Spy Who Dumped Me is in cinemas August 22.