Like so many Gen X kids who came of age in the 1980s, director Mike Elliott’s earliest exposure to sex happened on the big screen at his local movie theater. That was the era when R-rated teen movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Revenge of the Nerds and Porky’s lured young viewers into the multiplex with the promise of nudity, racy language and bedroom foreplay. And it wasn’t just moviegoers his age watching those generation-defining sex comedies. “I remember going to see Porky’s and I saw the local priest watching the movie just a few rows up,” Elliott tells Yahoo Entertainment, with a laugh. “I was scared s***less, and I didn’t want to ask him, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ I guess he was doing research or something.”
Flash-forward to 2020, and Elliott’s newest film, American Pie Presents: Girls’ Rules might serve as a sex tutorial for the current generation of Zoomers... and their religious mentors. Premiering on Netflix, DVD and VOD — as opposed to in theaters — on Oct. 6, the movie is a reboot of the long-dormant American Pie franchise that first hit theaters in 1999 seeking to recapture the R-rated ribaldry (and giant box-office grosses) of those ‘80s hits. While the first film was a critical and commercial hit, the three big-screen sequels and four direct-to-DVD spinoffs that followed proved a case of diminishing returns that finally ended with 2012’s desultory American Reunion, which earned half of the original movie’s $102 million domestic gross.
As early as 2014, though, Universal Studios recognized there might still be life in the American Pie brand and enlisted Elliott — who has previously shepherded home entertainment revivals of franchises like The Scorpion King, Kindergarten Cop and Blue Crush — to bake up another edition. Elliott’s first instinct was to run with a back-to-basics story that would involve a group of high-school guys getting into all kinds of sexually-compromising positions on a senior trip. As the reboot went through its lengthy development process, the landscape for high school comedies changed as movies like Blockers and Booksmart found acclaim and success by and about women. Those films fundamentally changed Elliott’s approach to American Pie.
“We were trying to make it funny and topical, but we realized that it was neither funny nor topical,” he says of his original guy-centric pitch. “It had so many examples of what were becoming old-fashioned ideas in it. So we switched gears and said, ‘Let’s pattern it a bit after the first American Pie, but we’re going to make it all girls.’”
Story-wise, Girls’ Rules follows the general arc of the original movie, once again following a group of East Great Falls High School seniors (including the obligatory member of West Michigan’s notorious Stifler family) who make a pact to achieve various sex-related goals before prom. But in place of Jason Biggs’s pie-crazy Jim, the central character here is Annie, played by former Disney Channel star — and co-lead of the 2007 Dwayne Johnson family comedy, The Game Plan — Madison Pettis.
She’s surrounded by a diverse group of young actresses that includes Lizze Broadway as the aforementioned Stifler, Stephanie; Natasha Benham as the politically conscious Michelle; and Piper Curda as Kayla, the most sexually-experienced member of the quartet. (In another bit of purposeful throwback casting, Zachary Gordon, best remembered as the titular “Wimpy Kid” from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies, plays Broadway’s love interest.) “It’s the first American Pie movie where we have a Black lead, and the first movie with all-female leads,” Elliott notes. “The way that we approached this was to make something that was modern and cognizant of modern times, but still fun and raunchy for all audiences.”
Given that this new slice of American Pie is all about embracing girl power, Elliott anticipates the next question before it’s even asked. “Why is an old white man directing this movie?” he says, without missing a beat. “It’s because I’ve been attached to it since 2014, and I felt like I could learn a lot from doing it. I felt like I could make the right movie at the right time, and with the right partners.” Elliott says that he sought female collaborators behind the camera, noting that Karen Gorodetzky and Abbey Lessanu are part of the producing team, while Maria Friesen is one of the editors. But it won’t escape attention that the only two credited writers on the film are men: Blayne Weaver and David H. Steinberg, who previously worked on American Pie 2 and American Pie: The Book of Love.
Elliott says that multiple female writers were brought in to workshop the script, but none of them received credit under current Writer’s Guild rules. (They’re instead listed in the “Special Thanks” in the closing credits.) “We sought out [women] at every possible step. It was a real effort to make sure that we weren't making dumb guy mistakes. I'm sure we made some anyway, but we had a lot of help.” In fact, Elliott credits the uncredited female writers with coming up with many of the movie’s raunchier jokes, including a running gag about a “woman’s vagina being an oyster” that he shot, but couldn’t include in the final cut. “They really made me blush,” he says. “I can be kind of gross sometimes myself, but they had a lot of really, really raunchy ideas that couldn’t be in the movie.”
According to Elliott, Universal made the final call on what stayed in and what came out of the R-rated version of Girls’ Rules that viewers will find on Netflix and other on-demand services. “It’s a pretty innocent picture,” he says of the current cut, which is perhaps an odd thing to say about a movie that features its heroines participating in dental dam-assisted blowjobs, cybersex complete with vibrating panties and sex on top of washing machines. But there’s also no sequence in Girls’ Rules that’s as calculated — and controversial — as the Shannon Elizabeth scene from the original American Pie. In the 1999 film, Elizabeth’s free-spirited foreign exchange student, Nadia, strips down while Jim and his friends watch via webcam — a sequence that’s essentially the early internet-era version of the notorious locker room shower peep-show scene in Porky’s.
Revisiting the film for its 20th anniversary last year, Elizabeth told Page Six that she was “grateful” to be part of American Pie, but pointed out how that specific moment hasn’t aged well. “If this had come out after the #MeToo movement, there would definitely be a problem. I think that it would have gone down differently.” For his part, Elliott admits that there are scenes in the earlier movie — like Nadia’s unwitting public striptease — that make him “cringe” today, and sought to avoid replicating those moments in his own film. That specifically meant ensuring that any nudity or sexual activity would be entirely consensual for both the male and female characters featured in the scene.
“There’s always a request and a verbal assent to any kind of sexuality or weirdness, just because that's how it is and how that should be,” he says. “We were always super-aware that we had to be careful, but everyone on set felt it was pretty honest and natural. I don’t think things have gone too far in terms of political correctness; I think it’s just correctness.” Elliott also recalibrated Stifler’s function in the franchise to be less of the adversary that Seann William Scott’s version of the character was. “His Stifler was kind of against the other guys, and his roughness is something that drives their relationships. We wanted to avoid having the girls be catty with each other — that was important thematically for us. Lizze did a great job of making the character likable; when she says the ‘f-word,’ she does it in a way that’s sweet.”
One other area where Girls’ Rules departs from the American Pie playbook is the lack of any nudity. Elliott says that he filmed one topless scene, but opted to leave it out of the final cut. On the other hand, he fully intended to feature some equal opportunity — and entirely consensual — full-frontal male nudity in a scene where Gordon’s character drops trou and reveals his erect penis. (Elliott is quick to add that the actor used a Boogie Nights-like prosthetic in place of his actual member.) But he was overruled by Universal, which used their veto power to remove the scene from the film.
“I wish it were in there,” Elliott says now, noting that Hollywood has a “total double standard” when it comes to male and female nudity. “Ever since there’s been movie ratings, there’s been this uncomfortableness that’s applies to male nudity, and not female nudity. It exists at the filmmaker level, the studio level and the ratings board level. I was hoping to break that, but I couldn’t in this case. And I thought it would be great for Zach to do, because he was in all of those Wimpy Kid movies, and it was time for him to finally burst out! Maybe it’ll end up on a director’s cut someday, because it’s pretty funny. But it still plays OK without it.”
Elliott’s other major regret is that all of the relationships in Girls’ Rules are heteronormative, a choice that’s out of step with the more diverse representations of teenage sexuality seen on shows like HBO’s Euphoria. “If I could do this picture one more time, I would have a gay or trans character,” he says. “We didn’t — not out of a choice to exclude it — but just because the story was working with the girls the way they are. When I watch it now, I realize we could have gone back and made two of the characters gay, and it would feel pretty natural.” And it’s worth noting that Girls’ Rules depiction of high school sex is far more celebratory than Euphoria, which freaked parents out with its dark portrait of contemporary teenage life. “I'm a big believer in openness about sexuality,” Elliott says. “Sex in this movie is a positive thing, and I think that’s what’s happening for girls. I hope we’re presenting sex as something empowering, fun and a great part of growing up, and not something that has to be kept secret.”
Meanwhile, it’s no secret that there’s a vocal contingent of internet trolls — specifically guys — who tend to flip out whenever a previously male-centric franchise adopts a female point-of-view. Asked whether he’s concerned that Girls’ Rules might be met with the same vitriol that greeted Paul Feig’s 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, Elliott sounds sanguine. “Most of the guys that have already seen it have liked it. They haven't been like, ‘They did it all with girls? It's not an American Pie movie anymore!’ It's still pretty fun to watch for anyone.”
Besides any trolls that do feel the need to complain should also be aware that, going forward, subsequent American Pie movies will look more like Girls’ Rules and less like the 1999 film. “There’s a whole bunch more movies coming,” Elliott teases, adding that the next one is likely to be helmed by a female director. “As groundbreaking and as honest as American Pie was, I hope that this one is just as groundbreaking and honest. It's a different time and it's a different movie, but at its heart, it’s still about teenage kids exploring their sexuality.”
American Pie: Girls’ Rules is currently streaming on Netflix.
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