When the teen comedy “The Duff” was released in February, more than one reviewer compared it to the John Hughes movies of the1980s. Any similarity was entirely intentional, according to Mary Viola, who helped produce the film as president of production at Wonderland Sound and Vision in Los Angeles. A Shoreham native, Viola says she grew up on the Hughes canon and looked to those films for inspiration while bringing “The DUFF” to the screen.
Based on a young-adult novel, “The DUFF” tells the story of Bianca (Mae Whitfield), a high-school senior who discovers that she's known as the Designated Ugly Fat Friend – the DUFF – to her two super-pretty pals. Hoping to shed the nickname and reinvent herself, Bianca seeks advice from a childhood friend, Wesley (Robbie Amell), now the school's popular football star. Variety called the film a “smart, snappy 'Pygmalion' for the modern age” and pegged it as “an instant teen classic.”
Directed by Ari Sandel and written by Josh A. Cagan, “The DUFF” enjoyed a $10-million opening weekend. Thanks partly to a social networking campaign spearheaded by CBS Films, it pulled in another $6 million the following weekend – a drop, but smaller than usual for a second weekend. So far, the movie has earned $32 million on its $8-million budget, according to BoxOfficeMojo.
Viola spoke to Newsday about “The DUFF,” the enduring influence of John Hughes and the changing nature of teen films.
How did you get involved in “The DUFF"?
Mary Viola: I was always obsessed with John Hughes. It was his classic movies that got me interested in entertainment in the first place: “The Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles.” I always had my eyes open and my ear to the ground, looking for something that was worthy of a John Hughes execution.
The book was a partial manuscript, not even finished yet, about 100 pages. I read it and said, “This is the one.” It was by an author I'd never heard of named Kody Keplinger. I thought, “This woman has this unique yet sophisticated grasp of what it's like to be a teenager. I have to option this.” It wasn't until we had made a deal that I found out she was actually 17 years old, and writing after school.
From there, we developed the story further. We went out and met directors, and that's where we hired Ari Sandel. We thought it was funny that this Academy Award-winning director [for the 2005 short “West Bank Story”] would have his next film be “The DUFF.”
These days, teen movies are mostly dystopian action films like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” What happened to the old model, with real teens in the real world?
There is a market place for all types of films, but those action-oriented movies fare better in the foreign markets. The financial side of filmmaking has to be paid attention to. I'm a huge fan of those movies, but I do think that good character pieces have a place in the market as well.
Our box office drop-off was very small our second weekend. And I think that shows that good word of mouth and smart movies with great characters will also be winners in the long run. The target is smaller, it's harder to hit. So [filmmakers] have to be very judicious in moving forward. And you have to do these movies at the right price-point. Our budget was much smaller, obviously, than “The Hunger Games.”
What other movies did you look to as inspiration for “The DUFF"?
“Pretty in Pink.” I got to meet Molly Ringwald a year ago, and I was so happy, because she was who I grew up watching. I think Mae [Whitman] could be that for girls today. We put a nod to that movie in our movie, with the dress. Also, the kiss scene in “Some Kind of Wonderful.” That was something I knew was going to be great -- the “practice kiss.” There are these little moments in our movie that relate to the films I grew up on. And “Sixteen Candles.” The fact that a movie from the '80s is just as relevant today, there's something to that.
Are you happy with the movie's box-office performance?
I'm thrilled with the numbers that we're doing. I'm stunned at the social networking component of our movie, too. With Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, I'm getting to see what teenagers do when they like something! That makes me happy. It makes me feel like I made something important, and that was the goal here.