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Amy Poehler’s Directorial Debut Is a Big ‘Saturday Night Live’ Reunion

Having thrived as an actress, comedian, writer and producer, directing may seem like a natural next step for Amy Poehler. But as she told Variety at the world premiere of “Wine Country,” she decided to take the plunge for one reason: “The ladies said yes. The end. Period!”

Once it was suggested, all of the women felt instinctively that this was a story they wanted to tell. “We were really excited to show what female friendship looks like at a certain age, and to show old friends and how they interact and what they talk about,” she explained. “And just to have a chance to work with these legends — they’re all amazing.”

With Poehler behind the camera, an all-star ensemble of sketch actresses in front of it, and fellow “Saturday Night Live” alums Emily Spivey and Liz Cackowski writing the screenplay, the gender breakdown for “Wine Country” was very different from the average Hollywood film. For the “Parks and Recreation” star, that was an advantage. “When you have a lot of women working together on a project, there’s a certain energy that permeates if things go well, and I loved it,” she said. “I mean, Paper Kite, my production company, is all women. I work with women all day long — it’s awesome!”

The genuine intimacy between the cast and creatives was also key. “We were all truly friends and we all had this trust with each other that was really special,” Paula Pell told Variety.

In fact, that bond was what inspired the film in the first place. “It’s a 100% based on a real trip we took to Napa [for Rachel Dratch’s 50th birthday], and another one with Ana Gasteyer for her 50th to Palm Springs. Both trips were s—shows,” Pell said, laughing. “The first day, I got so excited about seeing everyone that I drank a little too early, at about four in the afternoon, and I lost about three hours. I just went and got sick in the bathroom like a sad teenager, went to bed, and woke up to a dog licking me and a guy making our paella. I felt so embarrassed; I had immediate, like, high-school shame that I was the one who threw up at the party. But that did not make it [into the film] — thankfully!”

Maya Rudolph echoed Pell’s excitement at seeing the rest of the team face to face. “For us, you know, we don’t always get to be in the same city — we’re sort of split on both coasts — and so we started doing these trips as a way to get together. We text each other every day and keep tabs, but getting to do what we learned how to do in the beginning together — I wish we had thought of this a million years ago, because now I don’t want to work any other way.”

Asked how “Wine Country” stacks up against those real-life reunions, she agreed that screenwriters Spivey and Cackowski made the right calls when adapting their adventures for the big screen. “They got the good ones. They got the big zingers. I mean, there’s raunchy s—, but I think they tried to keep it together. There were a lot more topless moments,” she said, grinning.

For Spivey, the only challenge was ensuring that every woman got the time in the spotlight she deserved. “We wanted to service everyone properly — we wanted everyone to feel like they were having fun and had funny stuff to do — but it was just a dream come true otherwise.”

The care they took in crafting these moments for a murderers’ row of female comedians had an unexpected side effect: no two men talk to each other over the course of “Wine Country’s” 103-minute running time. “It wasn’t conscious in terms of breaking the story,” Cackowski said. “But then once we were filming and were more aware of it, we had fun — almost every man is told to shhh a little bit, like, ‘Stop, no, no, this isn’t for you,’ which made us laugh.”

The pair also saw the film as a chance to showcase a different side of the “SNL” vets. “They’re amazing sketch actresses, so there are characters or impersonations you see them play, but you might not know what they’re really like. It was exciting to get to write something closer to who they are. And then Tina, on the other hand, who usually plays herself, and was known on ‘Weekend Update’ as Tina Fey, gets to play a character,” Cackowski explained. “Hopefully it’s a new way of seeing them that the audience hasn’t gotten to see before.”

That shared history on “Saturday Night Live” was what made working together on “Wine Country” feel so necessary for Gasteyer. When the women reunited for the Betty White episode in 2010, she said, “We’d all gone off and done our things, but we came back and it was this instant, mutant, ‘Avengers’-level, like, ‘Do you have webbed toes, too?!’ It’s so second nature — these women are so smart, they make such good choices, it’s just a deep, deep connection. So, any opportunity, I would take it. I would follow these guys to the moon.”

They have at least one more earthbound trip to plan before then. “We’re brainstorming. We’re going to do a retroactive one for Paula Pell, who seems to be having her coming out party at 56 — America’s finally realizing the genius comedian that she is, so we want to go celebrate her,” Gasteyer told Variety. “There’s some talk about Hawaii, some talk about Mexico City…” She paused, then grinned at the thought. “The options are endless.”

“Wine Country” is streaming now on Netflix.

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