'The Wedding Planner' at 20: Adam Shankman reveals how J.Lo and Matthew McConaughey were cast in the rom-com hit
Pop culture historians, take note: We can definitively say that the J.Lo era commenced twenty years ago today on Jan. 26, 2001. That’s the weekend that Jennifer Lopez’s second album, J.Lo, vaulted to the top of the Billboard 200 chart, just as her first big studio rom-com, The Wedding Planner, grabbed the No. 1 spot at the box-office on its way to an almost-$100 million worldwide gross. After spending the ‘90s building up her big-screen resume, while also making inroads into the music industry, the Bronx-born performer conquered both mediums in the first month of the first year of the 21st century. (According to some calendars, anyway.)
Looking back now, Wedding Planner director, Adam Shankman, can clearly see that he was part of a larger plan. “It was a moment that set a certain trajectory of her life in motion,” Shankman tells Yahoo Entertainment. “To have the number one album in the country and the number one movie in the country in one moment definitely changed stuff for her. And Jennifer recognizes and acknowledges that.”
But The Wedding Planner didn’t just launch Lopez’s career into the stratosphere: It also set her co-star, Matthew McConaughey, up for his mid-aughts rom-com run that included How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Failure to Launch; made the multiplex safe for subsequent star-powered wedding comedies like Made of Honor and 27 Dresses; and completed Shankman’s transformation from a celebrated choreographer into the director of hits like A Walk to Remember and Hairspray, as well as the upcoming Hocus Pocus 2. (“There will be announcements about that within the next few weeks,” he teases of the long-awaited sequel to the 1994 Halloween favorite, which will reunite Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker.)
Not bad for a movie that — as the director himself allows — wasn’t especially well-reviewed at the time. “One of the hard things about the genre in general is that you’re hamstrung by the notion of predictability,” Shankman explains of The Wedding Planner’s chilly critical reception. “That’s the comfort with these movies and why people want to see them over and over again, but it’s also why critics don’t like them. They get a bad rap, but when people actually do it with love and care, it’s a wonderful thing.”
The stars of The Wedding Planner echoed Shankman’s feelings in a recent reunion video that Lopez posted on her Instagram. “These kind of movies, The Wedding Planners of the world, are something for your soul.” Adds McConaughey: “We need a little lightness. We don’t get as much of it anymore. But Wedding Planner is buoyant for a reason. You’re dancing across the clouds. It feels a little bit like Saturday evening when you’re watching those movies. And you don’t want it to feel like Monday!”
For the record, there was nothing predictable about the way that Shankman landed Lopez and McConaughey as the stars of The Wedding Planner. Getting to that point involved a jump from an indie studio to a major studio, a revolving door of possible casting combinations and a Hail Mary pass to hire a leading man mere weeks before the film started production. Shankman’s own journey with the project began in the late ‘90s, when he attached himself to Michael Ellis and Pamela Falk’s original screenplay after it was purchased by Fine Line Features, the now-defunct art house arm of New Line Cinema that released such acclaimed films as The Player and Spanking the Monkey.
Based on the then-recent success of Good Will Hunting, Minnie Driver was the studio’s first choice to play the titular wedding planner, Mary Fiore, who is hired to orchestrate the nuptials of an upscale socialite only to unwittingly fall in love with the groom, Steve Edison. “Fine Line was trying to get into more of a commercial market, and they really liked this script,” Shankman recalls now. “The plot was essentially the same, but it was going to be a very low-budget indie movie.”
When Fine Line couldn’t get the Minnie Driver version of The Wedding Planner off the ground, the script moved up the Hollywood food chain to Sony Pictures, and at that point established stars like Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Freddie Prinze Jr. were reportedly circling the project. “Those actors were people who were talked about, but no one was ever officially cast,” Shankman says now.
As those discussions continued, Lopez — who gave her breakthrough performance in the 1997 favorite, Selena, followed by standout roles in Anaconda and Out of Sight — took the initiative, and made her interest in headlining her first studio rom-com known to Sony. Instead of being delighted to catch a rising star, Shankman wanted to pump the brakes. “I was honestly resistant to the idea,” he admits. “I didn’t perceive her as a romantic comedy person; she seemed too tough to me, frankly. But my agency said, ‘You have to meet with her: She read the script and she really wants to do this.’”
Eventually, Shankman was persuaded to meet Lopez for lunch, and within moments of sitting down with her, his resistance proved futile. “I was completely hypnotized by her. At that time, she was very much that character: She had just come out of a marriage and was not interested in men. [Lopez divorced her first husband, Ojani Noa, in 1998.] She was ambitious, and understood everything that was girly and feminine about the movie, but at the same time recognized the engine inside of it. There were many factors about the real-life Jennifer that really spoke to what the character was.”
After that first meeting, Shankman signed off on Lopez’s casting, although finalizing the deal still dragged on for months — during which Lopez continued to raise her profile outside of movies, recording her first album, On the 6. “When we first met, she had not become a fashion icon or had a music career,” Shankman says. “We had dinner months later, and she played me her first single, ‘If You Had My Love.’ I thought, ‘I think this is going to work, her and the music thing!’ And then I went to the album launch and I saw the thousands and thousands of people trying to get into where the music signing was. I called everybody [at Sony] and said, ‘Guys, just make this deal, please.’ So they did.”
Casting Lopez did require Shankman to make a creative choice that proved controversial: As the character’s last name suggests, Mary is from an Italian family, and her background plays a small, but significant role in the movie. At the time and still today, The Wedding Planner has been criticized for not changing the character’s ethnicity to reflect Lopez’s own identity. Shankman says that he and his star had that conversation early on and mutually agreed to stay the course. “It was a very quick conversation,” he says. “We were both like, ‘Why can’t you be Italian?’ There seemed to be no reason; people play different faiths all the time, you know? The thinking is different now. Today, I would say, ‘No, we’re changing it, and we’ll make you what you are.’”
There was one role that Shankman did alter from the script to suit his preferred star. Originally, the role of Mary’s friend and co-worker, Penny, was written to be played by an older British actress. But then Judy Greer walked into the audition room. “I was furious, because the character had been written very differently, so I took the casting director aside and said, ‘What is happening right now?’ She said, ‘I think she’s great, you should just see her.’ So Judy did her audition and as soon as she left the room, I went, ‘OK, just hire her.’” Greer’s role in The Wedding Planner helped popularize her as the go-to best friend in almost every rom-com made over the next decade.
While Sony worked to lock up Lopez for the role of Mary, Shankman reached out to his handpicked choice for Steve: The Mummy star, Brendan Fraser. “I had been working with Brendan a lot as a choreographer — we did everything from George of the Jungle to Mrs. Winterbourne together. So I talked to him, and he was in. But then he switched agencies while we were negotiating, and the new agency pulled him out of our movie and into Bedazzled. That was a really dark day for me, because we were a month-and-a-half away from starting rehearsal and we had sold the movie on Jennifer and Brendan.”
With only weeks to go until shooting started, the studio told Shankman that there was only one actor who’d be able to come aboard the project in time: Matthew McConaughey, who at that point was primarily known for dramas like A Time to Kill and Contact. The only equivalent movie on his resume was Ron Howard’s media satire, EdTV, which fell well outside the rom-com genre.
“I said to everybody, ‘I can’t imagine Matthew would ever want to do a movie like this — he never has!’” Shankman remembers. “But I was told, ‘He is who is available. If you want to make the movie now, you have to get him.’” That proved easier said than done. While Shankman says he’s saving the full story for his to-be-written autobiography, he does reveal that tracking the actor down proved to be a 48-hour adventure that included “a lot of flying and van trips through many states, plus a lot of weird phone calls on a flip phone.”
Luckily that adventure ended in a happily ever after: As soon as McConaughey and Lopez were in the same room, Shankman knew he had a movie. “They got on like wildfire. I have never seen two people who, on the surface, are more different than Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey, but they were absolutely adorable together. They had very different processes, but they allowed each other the space and freedom to work those processes.” As Lopez herself told McConaughey in their reunion chat: “I so enjoyed working with you. We had such a nice rapport and chemistry. It was such a magical time.”
As some have noted, Steven isn’t the most magical of rom-com heroes, given the fact that he doesn’t disclose his engagement to Mary when they first meet-cute, and generally plays around with her emotions throughout the movie. But that’s also precisely the thing that both Shankman and McConaughey appreciated the most about the role. “I love that Steve basically did a terrible thing, because he knew what he was doing. I liked that he was morally ambiguous, and had some moral baggage,” the director explains. “Remember, we were coming out of those Julia Roberts and early Sandra Bullock movies where the boys were props for the girls to a large extent. And this actually gave him something to work with and made him less of a prop.”
To help McConaughey acclimate to the rom-com genre, Shankman assigned him homework that included viewings of genre classics like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. “He was like ‘They talk really fast,’” Shankman says, laughing. “He'd also never danced in a movie before, and always wanted to. That was crazy-sounding to me, but I was like, ‘Whatever makes him happy!’”
If McConaughey was initially trepidatious about dipping his toe in more romantic waters, after The Wedding Planner he dived in wholeheartedly. Over the next decade, he became the face of studio rom-coms, and his familiar profile was glimpsed leaning on the posters for such movies as Fool’s Gold and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. But as he revealed in his recent memoir, Greenlights, McConaughey hit a point where he just couldn’t feel the love for the genre anymore, even rejecting one offer that came with a $14.5 million paycheck. “My career path and the characters and films I was getting offered were not satisfying me anymore,” he wrote, explaining why he rededicated himself to pursuing more challenging roles in movies like Dallas Buyers Club and The Beach Bum.
“It never occurred to me he would just keep making them,” Shankman says now of McConaughey’s post-Wedding Planner run. “He was clearly enjoying himself making the movie. What he kind of drifted into, it seems to me, was more of the sub-genre of romantic comedy, which is the battle of the sexes. I think that he found a comfortable place for himself there. He and I adore each other, and I would love to work with him again.”
Shankman is also eager to reunite with Lopez twenty years after being part of launching the J.Lo era. Like McConaughey, the actress headlined a number of rom-coms going forward, including Maid in Manhattan, Monster-in-Law and, of course, Gigli, the infamous 2003 fiasco where “Bennifer” was born. But even as she’s changed up her pop culture image with movies like Hustlers, she hasn’t left the genre behind: Lopez’s latest rom-com, Marry Me, is scheduled for release later this year.
“Whatever you think of her, she has got to be admired for what she has contributed to the industry, and how she's maintained her career and her life for this long,” Shankman says. “There's a story I've told before: When we shot the opening scene, which was a four-minute Steadicam shot, every complete take ran the exact same amount of feet. I’ll never forget that: Jennifer’s internal clock was so precise that every take was exactly the same length. I can’t tell you how rare that is.”
The Wedding Planner is currently streaming on Hulu.
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