Back in the fall of 2016, I got an invite I couldn’t pass up: the chance to visit the set of Melissa McCarthy’s upcoming comedy, Life of the Party, which was currently filming in Atlanta, Georgia.
Um, come again?
Honestly, it probably wouldn’t have even mattered where it was or what it was for — they had me at “Melissa McCarthy will be there.” I was IN.
A week later, I touched down in Hotlanta, practically peeing my pants with excitement; and as it turned out, that was definitely the appropriate response to what was about to come my way.
Life of the Party, which hit theaters this past weekend nationwide, stars Melissa McCarthy as Deanna, a mom of a college-aged daughter who’s blindsided when her husband of 20+ years (played by the hilarious Matt Walsh of Veep) suddenly drops a bombshell: He’s been having an affair. Oh yeah, and he wants a divorce.
While Deanna finds herself at first spiraling from the shock of it all, she soon realizes she has to make one of two choices: either wallow in her grief and grow bitter, or start writing her next chapter.
Luckily for viewers, she chooses the latter, and decides to head back to her old alma mater and finish her college degree. The only problem? Her old alma mater just so happens to be where her daughter goes to school. In other words: It’s basically the mother-daughter version of Rodney Dangerfield’s 1986 comedy Back to School. And after seeing the film for myself in theaters this past weekend, I can tell you it is well worth a watch.
Here’s a few things I learned after hanging around on set for a day …
1. Melissa McCarthy is just as awesome in person as you’d expect her to be.
Let’s just get this one out of the way right now: If you had this image in your head that Melissa McCarthy would feel like your BFF in person, you are absolutely correct. She came over twice to chat in between takes (while donning a permed wig, which she affectionately called Marla) and was delightful both times.
I wanted to ask her all about her Gilmore Girls days. (Suki!!!!) And tell her that I’ve watched Bridesmaids approximately 8 million times and could probably recite all her lines. And had Sean Spicer been a thing back in fall 2016, I probably would have asked her what it was like to ride down 5th Avenue on a motorized podium for SNL … but I tried to remain cool.
2. McCarthy’s character was modeled in some ways after her own mom.
“The look of the character for me is so important,” McCarthy shared with myself and a group of fellow writers and bloggers who were also on set that day. “A lot of [Deanna’s look] is based on my mom.”
Which is to say that at least at the beginning of the film, it’s a lot of permed hair and bedazzled cat sweaters. That is, until her daughter gets a hold of her at a frat party one day, takes a brush to her hair, and gives her a slightly revamped look.
Still, it was important to McCarthy that there wasn’t a cliché movie makeover scene to “transform” Deanna from not to hot. As she shared with us, these makeover scenes are often the opposite of empowering for women, since they imply that our happiness is solely determined by how we look or what we wear.
“I didn’t want it to seem like now that you look better you’re a better person,” McCarthy shared. “I always kind of grimace at that.”
3. The film’s central message is one that’ll hit close to home for most women — and especially moms.
Life of the Party is definitely a slapstick kind of comedy — complete with some wild sorority party scenes and plenty of one-liners that will have you howling. But it’s also packed with a lot of heart, and much of that stems from the movie’s theme that no matter what age you are, it’s never too late to have a second act. For moms who might feel as though their own identity has been lost to the chaotic years of mothering, that message can be pretty powerful.
While the film’s concept was actually the brainchild of McCarthy’s husband, co-writer, and the film’s director, Ben Falcone, she says that she kept ruminating on this theme while the pair wrote the script.
“I think especially for women, when you stop kind of evolving as a person and when you start to only live for other people — which is I think really easy when you have kids — you just kind of get waylaid,” said McCarthy. “And I thought, when do you stop going, ‘What do I like? Or what’s new that I like?”
4. McCarthy co-wrote the movie with her husband — sometimes from inside their minivan.
Okay, so it might have been an SUV. Or a sedan. But either way, according to both Falcone and McCarthy, they’ve done most of their scriptwriting over the years either right at the kitchen table or outside in the family car — because yes, life with two kids is that hectic.
While writing Life of the Party and also their 2014 comedy Tammy, the couple often went outside and sat in the car, where they could riff off each other’s jokes and toss around ideas without getting interrupted by their kids. (Man would I have loved to have been a fly on that wall.)
“I would say three-quarters of Tammy we wrote in the car, sitting down the block from our house,” McCarthy shared, “because it’s the only time that the kids wouldn’t, you know, be, like, ‘What are you doing? Can I do that? Can I type?'”
5. The jokes were literally re-writing themselves on set.
I was always under the impression that what you see on screen in theaters is pretty much how the script reads, verbatim. Of course, I knew that there’s a fair amount of ad-libbing that goes on when you have comedic actors on set, but what I didn’t know was that often there are writers right there, too, watching the scenes playing out in real time and jotting down fresh new jokes they think might land better in the moment.
While watching the film’s opening scene on monitors several yards away, we could also see one of the film’s producers thinking up new jokes and alternate lines for the actors, which were then delivered to them in between takes. (For an amateur film nerd, it was pretty cool.)
6. They really do have those fun “director’s” chairs everywhere on set — and if you ask nicely, they’ll let you sit in one.
This might be the most awkward photo that exists of me on the Internet, but oh well — I’M SITTING IN A REAL MOVIE SET CHAIR, PEOPLE! Sure, they might have let everyone who was visiting set that day have a moment in the chair to snap a few pics, but for about seven glorious seconds, it was all mine, and I felt pretty major.
7. When McCarthy’s away from her kids on set, she has one secret weapon: FaceTime.
Being a working parent is hard — and being a working parent who’s pulling long days on set definitely ain’t easy either, McCarthy admits. Although Falcone and McCarthy took their kids with them to Atlanta during filming, the set was an hour outside of where they were staying, so the couple often had to leave before their kids were up.
“FaceTime is my favorite [app],” McCarthy shared, when asked how she makes the time apart work. “It’s not the same as when you’re together, but it’s, like, boy, if I can sit and have breakfast with them … It’s almost always this quadrant in the face [motions to forehead]. Or my little one loves to just put it down and then I’m talking to the ceiling.”
8. When you’re in the presence of a craft service table, there is only one rule: Do. not. be. shy.
If I’m being honest, I threw back more food in this six-hour set visit than I probably throw back during Thanksgiving dinner (and yes, that’s saying a lot). When we first stepped foot on site, there was a table set up of snacks. Granola bars. Cookies. Light refreshments, etc. We were told to help ourselves to whatever we wanted, and since I’d heard stories about how amazing craft service tables are on films, you did not have to tell me twice.
Did I help myself to more than one item at once? Yes. Did I head back for more later? Also yes.
But as it later turned out, the snack table was child’s play. Later, we were treated to what can only be described as the most epic lunch buffet spread I have ever laid eyes on. (Let’s just say, I practically had to be rolled home to New York.)
9. Knowing that I’d have to wait months for the movie to come out requires a kind of patience I apparently don’t have.
I always knew that movies literally take years to make it from script to screen, but I had a newfound appreciation for all the hard work that goes into making one — and the time spent waiting patiently to see the finished product — once I left the film set that day.
When it finally came time for me to hit the theater this weekend, I could hardly contain myself. I also could barely believe that the scene I’d watched filming for some 6+ hours straight wound up being a whopping 20 seconds long (give or take).
Still, it was pretty cool to know that in those brief, 20 seconds on screen, 2016 me was somewhere in the background, stifling my laughter as Melissa McCarthy delivered her lines. (Okay, and probably smuggling more granola bars for the road, if we’re being honest.)
Life of the Party is playing now in theaters nationwide.