How an Ad World Directing Duo Made Mean Girls a Global Smash
Words by Christine Champagne
MUSE by Clio: Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr. translated Tina Fey's script to the screen
It's not every day that you get an email from Tina Fey’s producer offering a chat with the famed comedian and creative force about a possible feature project.
So, Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr., the married directing duo known for working with brands like Apple, Starbucks and Mini Cooper and shooting music videos, were pretty excited about the invitation.
"It was definitely the best email that we had gotten in a while," Jayne enthuses.
Fey had them in mind to direct the latest Mean Girls film because she seen Quarter Life Poetry, a dark comedy series from the pair that had premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019. That work chronicled a young woman's quarter-life crisis with musical panache (Jayne played the lead character, while Perez directed).
The meeting obviously went well, because Jayne and Perez, who are repped for spot work by WTP Pictures, got the gig, marking a major milestone in their careers—their first feature credit. (As of this writing, Mean Girls, released by Paramount last month, is nearing a global box office of $100 million.)
Jayne, who was a teenager when she saw the original 2004 film, recalls, "My first reaction [to Fey's query] was, 'Oh my God, Mean Girls!' And then my second reaction was, 'Hold on, why are you touching Mean Girls? It is perfect!'"
Jayne and Perez learned that this new version wasn't intended as a remake, but rather a reinterpretation reflecting the world teens live in today. Fey, who penned the '04 version, actually based her new screenplay on the 2017 Broadway version of Mean Girls.
As in the Broadway show, Jayne explains, the film places lovable outcasts Janis (Auli'i Cravalho) and Damian (Jaquel Spivey) in the roles of "all-knowing narrators." They guide the audience through the story as they plot with Cady (Angourie Rice), a naïve new student at their high school, to take down Regina George (Renee Rapp), the leader of a shallow clique known as the Plastics.
Jayne and Perez were keen on that approach and also excited about the reboot being a musical that borrows songs from the Broadway show. That said, making a movie musical upped the ante for the directors.
"A musical makes everything bigger. The stakes are bigger," Perez muses. "If it doesn’t work, it really doesn't work. So, we didn't want to shoot this the way that a lot of traditional musicals are shot. That would have been expected. With Tina, we always talked about the need for this to be surprising."
One of the film's most delightful surprises is when spacey Karen (Avantika) confidently busts into a song called "Sexy" at a Halloween party. The tune pokes fun at the sexy Halloween costume craze.
The idea was to place viewers into the shoes of each character as they sing and move about, Perez says, noting, "The camera is almost like another dancer."
Perez and Jayne enlisted famed Steadicam operator Ari Robbins (whose credits include La La Land, which won an Oscar for Best Cinematography in 2016, and Everything Everywhere All at Once, last year's Best Picture winner) to work on the film.
"We essentially had 12 music videos to shoot,” Jayne reflects, noting that Mean Girls was made in real locations on a limited budget and schedule.
To make sure everyone was on the same page, Jayne and Perez created Camp Fetch, a 200-page production guide. Not so much an edict, Camp Fetch was a living, collaborative document. "We had different iterations of the document as we would have conversations with our department heads, and they would bring their expertise," Jayne explains.
The duo routinely make detailed production guides for all of their projects, including commercials. It's part of their process. "We feel like the prep that helps us in our commercial work helped us succeed with Mean Girls," Perez says.
As buttoned up as the production of Mean Girls was, the directors also took creative risks. "The easy thing to do is just get coverage for everything and be super safe," Jayne says. "I think something that we pride ourselves on is really paying attention to what the scene is telling us and what the story is telling us and forming all creative choices from there."
To wit: the way they shot the musical numbers with Robbins trailing the talent was a more experimental mode of moviemaking.
"The one take doesn’t work until it works. Then it's magic, but it's just a different kind of shooting," Jayne says. "Seeing it cut together and work really well—just how we imagined in Camp Fetch—it was very validating."