Wine Country is a new comedy movie about a group of longtime girlfriends who go to Napa for the weekend to celebrate Rebecca’s (Rachel Dratch) 50th birthday. The film also stars female comedy legends Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Ana Gasteyer and Maya Rudolph. Directed by Poehler, from a script written by Emily Spivey and Liz Cackowski, the film is based on a real-life wine country trip some of the actresses attended a few years ago. Co-writer Liz Cackowski opens up about the real-life trip that inspired the film, her time writing for Saturday Night Live, and of course, wine.
“I drink every type of wine,” says Cackowski, “It really depends on my mood. Summertime day-drinking is rosé. Game of Thrones night is red wine, you know, winter is coming so you have to get cozy with a red. White wine is for everything else.”
With such a varied wine palate, it’s no surprise Cackowski is successful in many forms of comedy. From improv, to sketch, to sitcoms, to a perimenopausal, friendship-driven vacation comedy inspired by true events, Cackowski is a master of it all.
Like many comedy writers and actors, Cackowski started doing improv at a young age. After cutting her improv teeth at Northwestern University, she went to Amsterdam to perform with professional improv group, Boom Chicago.
“Jordan Peele, Ike Barinholtz, Kay Cannon and Jason Sudeikis were all in my troop. We were all 21 at the time.” Talk about a comedy dream team. After a year-and-half honing her improv skills in Holland, she moved to Chicago and began performing on Second City’s main stage and touring with the company.
When a talent scout from SNL contacted Cackowski, she didn’t think much would come of it. “I interviewed with Lorne Michaels, submitted my packet, and I thought what a cool weekend! I got flown out to New York, Business Class. I was with [actor] John Lutz.”
But then things got serious. “We went to the show, went to the after-party and at 3 a.m. we got called over to Lorne Michaels and he tells [Jon Lutz and me] he’s hired us both. It was the greatest moment of my life! I called my mom in the middle of the night and said, ‘I got it! I’m going to write for SNL!’ I did three seasons there.”
But when she was hired at SNL, she admits she didn’t think of herself as a writer. “I didn’t really know I was a writer. I hadn’t acted on TV or in movies but I had been onstage so I thought well, I’m a comedian, I’m an improviser. When SNL was hiring writers they said they were looking for performers to be writers. Apparently, SNL likes to have a mix of what they call the ‘Harvards’ or, “People who can think comedy – they would never perform but joke structure is like a math problem for them.” But there’s another kind of comedy writer SNL looks for – one who can feel the comedy in their body.
“I’ve been on stage and know the laugh isn’t from the joke structure, but how you move your body or the tone of your voice or the look you give. So [SNL] wants that mix of people.” As a performer, she says, “You’ve been there, you know what works, you’ve gotten laughs from an audience. You have a sense of a rhythm or something. I wonder if it’s sort of like playing music because you’ve done it before.”
Since then Cackowski’s both acted in film and TV, and written for shows like Community and Last Man on Earth.
Wine Country is based on a real-life trip to Napa where best friends celebrated Rachel Dratch’s 50th birthday.
“A lot of what is in the movie really happened. After that trip Amy Poehler and Emily Spivey said it should be a movie — we need to show the world how important female friendships are and how great these trips are – what they mean to us and what it means to be this age.”
Spivey and Cackowski have previously written comedy sketches together, along with a TV pilot that didn’t get made. But this film seemed like the perfect project to showcase their talent. And working with such a talented crew of comedy actresses made it that much easier.
“The writing process was very collaborative, we talked to everyone and asked, ‘What are things from your life you want to portray?’ It was also great to write for characters when you know who’s going to play the part.”
Can you imagine writing for Tina Fey? Unreal.
The hilarious scene with a grumpy tarot card reader was real, as was the chef who took forever to make paella. And then there’s the scene with the dildos.
“That was real – Paula [Pell] had really brought dildos for everybody and the way we heightened the comedy was to have specific dildos based on the person’s personality. In writing classes, they say think about your character, what’s your character’s favorite song, what do they wear, etc. So we thought, ‘Oh, this is like a writing assignment, what’s your character’s favorite dildo? Abby [Poehler] is on a schedule and she’s really type A, so let’s put a timer on hers.”
And then there’s the baffling yet hilarious scene with an art show inspired by The Nanny’s Fran Drescher.
“That scene is the brilliance of Emily Spivey. We wanted to do something with a different generation – we wanted to talk about how we feel about millennials and also give millennials a chance to reflect on us. Then Emily said, ‘Ugh. Millennials love The Nanny.’ And I was like, ‘They do?’ Apparently, they’re obsessed with The Nanny. So she wrote the first draft of that scene at the art show were every single piece of art was Fran Drescher. I thought it was so random but after she said it, I started seeing millennials wearing t-shirts with Fran Drescher on them. Or I’d hear someone talk about The Nanny.”
Sometimes the best humor comes out of the strangest trends.
Cackowski feels fortunate she got to be on set during the filming. Not surprisingly, the movie contains a lot of improvised scenes. “There’s a scene in a vineyard where we just wanted to have everyone talk about what they would normally talk about. So we added that scene to the script the week before shooting.”
Craig Cackowski, Liz’s brother, is also a comedian and played the role of sommelier in the movie. His scene – one of the funniest in the film – was totally improvised.
“That set day was one of my favorite days because I got to share this experience with my brother — we’re at a beautiful vineyard in Napa, the weather was perfect. He did Second City with both Amy [Poehler] and Rachel [Dratch] and here they are doing an improv scene where anything Amy says [about flavor notes in the wine], he says she’s absolutely correct. And anything Rachel says, he’s like, ‘No, no. Canned peaches, no.’ It was making everyone laugh so hard, it was such a joy.”
Then there was the scene where it appeared as if the friends were going to take ecstasy (MDMA) – or “Molly” as they call it in the movie. But the ladies never quite get around to actually taking it, eschewing classic comedic structure where if you introduce a comedic element, the audience expects the characters to follow through.
“To be honest, this was a bit of a swing that we took – we were aware of it. The normal structure of storytelling is that if you show a gun in the first act, it has to go off in the second act. You introduce Molly, they’re going to take it.”
But Cackowski and Spivey liked the idea that at their age, these women weren’t going to do anything too crazy. “This is a movie where women go on a trip and don’t do Molly. When we told people that, they would stare at us and ask what we meant.” Cackowski gets frank, “I’m in my forties and I’m not going to do drugs anymore. The more we talked about it, I said I don’t think I could take Molly because I take Lexapro – I don’t know how it would interact. Then we got on the riff about all the thousands of prescription drugs we’re on. So we were aware we were going against the typical structure.”
This twist in the structure just makes the film that more funny, that more surprising, and also that more relatable. Though the comedy in the movie is very heightened, at the end of the day, it feels like a trip to which most women can relate.
“I can’t wait for my girlfriends to see it!”
You’ll want to see it, too. Wine Country will play in theatres and stream on Netflix starting May 10.