Oliver hadn’t initially planned to be a screenwriter. A drama kid throughout childhood, she wound up at Stanford pursuing acting, and grew more and more frustrated with, as she remembers, “always getting cast as some version of Rizzo from ‘Grease’ — I was always the funny sidekick smoking a cigarette.”
Encouraged by her mother to try writing her own plays to widen the range of possible roles, Oliver initially blanched at the extra work. A decade or so later, her second feature screenplay, “Girls Trip,” has grossed a gob-stopping $115 million at the domestic box office, making it unquestionably the sleeper hit of the summer.
Oliver’s first real breakthrough came thanks to a partnership with a onetime Stanford classmate, Issa Rae, creating the cult webseries “The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl” in 2011. She got her first shot at feature writing courtesy of director Malcolm D. Lee’s “Barbershop: The Next Chapter,” and through him got word of a future project of his that seemed almost infuriatingly up her alley, “Girls Trip,” with screenwriters already attached.
“I was really bummed about it,” she says, “because I AM that crazy black girl who loves partying and getting into reckless fun. It was like, ‘they’re making my movie and I’m not writing it? Why?’”
Fast-forward a year or so, and a screenwriting vacancy on “Girls Trip” emerged, with Oliver taking the gig. Drawing from her own life — Tiffany Haddish’s scene-stealing Dina is based closely on one of Oliver’s friends — she tried to focus on the character relationships first and foremost, allowing the wilder comedy set pieces to evolve organically from there.
“I basically wanted it to be a love story between these four women, she says. “I didn’t want a woman-finds-man-who-completes-her ending.”
After “Girls Trip’s” success, Oliver has found herself fielding opportunities, with a thriller screenplay with producer Pharrell Williams, “Survive the Night,” up next.
“It’s been surreal to have people reach out and make offers,” she says. “For most of my professional life I’ve been fighting for opportunities, and fighting to prove that women of color matter and our stories can be mainstream and universal. Before, there was always some kind of reason why it couldn’t work.”
– Andrew Barker
Influences: Nora Ephron, Donald Glover, Shonda Rhimes, Dan Fogelman
Reps: Agent: ICM Partners; Management: Principato Young; Legal: Myman Greenspa