A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “The Wedding Planner” – The 20th Anniversary

Everyone who knows me, knows I’m a sucker for romantic comedies and “The Wedding Planner” is one of my absolute favorites. Sure it follows the rom com playbook with predictable outcomes, but there is something special about the Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey charmer. It’s easy to get warmed up to the overall theme of the story, that mixes both an old-fashioned romance and modern attitudes. 

The story of McConaughey’s Steve and Lopez’s Mary is sort of timeless. A lot of couples start to feel complacent and comfortable with each other. So they take the next step because that’s what is expected and “The Wedding Planner” is about that, but it’s also about getting married for the first time and for the right reasons. 

In 2001, “The Wedding Planner” was a big step for Adam Shankman, who went from dance choreographer to making his debut as a film director and film producer. The very next year (2002) after following the success of “The Wedding Planner”. Shankman had a big hit with the tear jerker of tear jerkers, “A Walk To Remember” based on the beloved Nicolas Sparks novel. Shankman kept his streak going for a third year in a row, with his biggest film to date directing “Bringing Down The House”. The Steve Martin and Queen Latifah comedy that grossed nearly $200 million and proved to be one of the funniest movies of 2003. From there Shankman’s career was on the up and down, having some films better (“Hairspray” & “Bedtime Stories”) then others (“Rock Of Ages” & “What Men Want”).

Shankman said “I’m a huge fan of romantic comedy with dialogue that is witty and crackling. It also has movie musical elements and several dance numbers in it. As a choreographer, I could envision how these factors could enhance the magic, the romance and the comedy. It’s destiny when two people from different worlds meet. On the surface, they shouldn’t be together, but the subtext of the characters is inextricably linked. They need to come together. More specifically, this film [“The Wedding Planner”] is about risking your heart and not being afraid to go for it”.

The idea for “The Wedding Planner” came from screenwriting partners Pamela Falk and Michael Ellis, who saw an ad in the “Learning Annex” catalog on “How to Be a Wedding Planner”. The screenwriters said: “We thought. What kind of person plans other people’s weddings? And we took that idea a step further by thinking it would be a funny juxtaposition to have a wedding planner with a non-existent love life”. For their research, Falk and Ellis went to the Los Angeles Festival of Brides, a trade show for anything and anyone connected with weddings. “We met a lot of wedding planners there, set up meetings with them and then interviewed them to find out what they actually did and how they operated”, says Falk.

Falk continued on saying “What we found out was that it’s a world that’s very far from romance and love. We had lunch with one wedding planner who told us that she didn’t even believe in marriage. So we took that to the next level in the script, where Mary is not only unsentimental about the weddings she plans, but has them down to a science. She can actually tell how long a couple will stay together by the different choices they make for their wedding song or the color of the bridesmaids’ dresses”.

After loving the script, producers Peter Abrams and Jennifer Gibgot went to find the right director for “The Wedding Planner”, which was of course Adam Shankman. They wanted someone who could balance the film’s musical and dance concerns with the story’s classic romantic comedy style. Equally strong was their desire to give the film a visual look. After interviewing dozens of people, they found the man who was right for the job, right under their noses. Producer Peter Abrams, had previously worked with Shankman when he choreographed his film “She’s All That” (1999) and describes Shankman as an obvious choice for several reasons. 

Shankman knew how to make all of the comedy, romance, music and dance of “The Wedding Planner” sparkle. Shankman had made a throwback to the romantic comedies of the ’30s and ’40s, with “The Wedding Planner” and that’s very much of Adam Shankman’s sensibility. Producer Jennifer Gibgot, who is also Shankman’s younger sister says: “Adam has seen every single musical and classic romantic comedy ever made, so I brought him in to meet with the studio executives, like all the other directorial candidates. He pitched his take on the film, and they hired him right there in the room”. 

Once After Shankman was signed on, casting the role of Mary was the next task at hand. The written character of Mary is a workaholic who has transferred all her feelings about love into her career. She’s constantly immersed in what most couples think is the most romantic, important day of their lives. But for Mary, they’re just exercises in physical beauty. Speaking of physical beauty, casting Jennifer Lopez as Mary was a perfect choice. Up until her starring role in “The Wedding Planner”, Lopez made many supporting role appearances including “Money Train” and “Jack”. Lopez had also already made a name for herself winning critical praise playing Latino singer Selena in the highly successful biopic named after the singer. 

Starring in “The Wedding Planner” was a much needed breezy change of pace, as JLO was coming fresh off of the dark and gritty psychological serial killer thriller “The Cell”. Being in “The Wedding Planner” set off a string of romantic comedies for Lopez in the next coming years, with “Maid In Manhattan” and “The Back Up Plan” some of her best rom com work aside from “The Wedding Planner”. 

But in fact Lopez, was not an obvious choice for director Adam Shankman, who said: “I thought she was too sexy for the role. I didn’t think Jennifer would be someone a bride to be, would want around her fiancée”. But when Lopez got a hold of the script and met with Shankman, he says: “She came to the restaurant and absolutely dazzled me. She answered every question about who Mary was, beyond correctly. She bit into this project and wouldn’t let go and her passion for it was so intense”.

Explaining her interest in the part, Lopez says: “I was anxious to do a romantic comedy after starring in action films and heavy dramas. I know how goofy I am in real life so this film seemed like a great way to show that side of me. When I read the script, it had a little bit of that magic that the best romantic comedies have, that waiting for prince charming type of fairy tale quality that I like in romantic comedies”. Adam Shankman said: “The truth of the matter is that at that time, Jennifer was very much like Mary”.

“When I signed on to do the film, my life really mirrored Mary’s. I was very focused on my career and I put my love life on the back burner at that time. I could really relate to her. Mary definitely does believe in prince charming, it’s just not that important to her right at the beginning of the story. She’s focused on her career; she’s very set in her life right then”. To prepare for her role, Lopez learned about what it takes to be a wedding planner. She discovered that wedding planning wasn’t just about flowers, photographers and happily ever after. It’s a challenging balancing act between the many details involved in getting a couple and everyone else involved, through the ceremony and off into their new life together.

“To be a wedding planner, you have to be a therapist too”, Lopez explains. “You’re dealing with the biggest event in a lot of people’s lives; their big night; their big show. Everybody wants to take part and the bride and groom want it to be perfect. It’s such a big step for so many people that it stirs up a lot of strong emotions. What makes Mary so good at her job is that, first of all, she loves what she does. She’s organized and meticulous and it shows in her work. She’s built herself a reputation and she’s very good at making people feel like everything is going to be ok”.

Although Mary is a whiz at weddings, her dedication takes its toll on her personal life. But a chance meeting with a handsome doctor will soon change all that. Playing the handsome Doctor Steve was Texan born Matthew McConaughey. In his career up to “The Wedding Planner”, McConaughey had starred in a number of leading roles for some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Including directors Joel Schumacher in “A Time To Kill”, Robert Zemeckis in “Contact” and Steven Spielberg in “Amistad”. Much like Lopez, “The Wedding Planner” would lock McConaughey into a string of romantic comedies. With “How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days”, “Fools Gold” and “Failure To Launch” being among his best. 

Like Lopez, McConaughey also responded to the film because it offered him a different kind of character to play, especially after starring in his previously mentioned heavy dramas. McConaughey said: “This is one of the first characters I’ve played where I’m not heavily defined by my profession. I’ve been a lawyer, a cowboy, a theologian and a lieutenant in different films. But being a doctor in this film is really beside the point”. Lopez explained the charm of McConaughey and his character. “He’s a southern kind of gentleman and that’s so becoming. He’s the kind of guy who, when he looks at you, makes you giggle like a little girl”. McConaughey has his own take on Steve and his relationship to Mary, saying: “He’s not too complicated a guy. He’s a lover, he’s a doctor, so he’s a caregiver”. 

What’s great about the character of Mary is her reaction to her Mr. Right, is in the tradition of many films from Hollywood’s golden age. Mary and Steve meet in this chance meeting of being involved in a big accident and then getting thrown together for the rest of the day. Mary feels something right away and it’s something she hasn’t felt in a long time and while it takes her by surprise. She doesn’t really know what to make of it, but it is exciting. 

According to McConaughey, “Mary and Steve, through a bunch of different circumstances, are forced to be in each other’s company because she’s obviously planning the wedding. A relationship cultivates from there and they sort of grow on each other. This story is a fable, a love story between Mary and Steve. That’s the fun of it. It’s a classic comedy”. 

Rediscovering love, and seeing and feeling it in a new way, is something that Steve, as well as Mary, must experience. “Steve, as a character, has many of his own issues with love and marriage that need to be worked out through the story,” McConaughey says. “Meeting Mary sends a shock through his life that helps wake up his mind and his heart. She makes Steve realize what’s going on, what he wants out of life, what’s possible”.

For Shankman, the pairing of Lopez and McConaughey resulted in an unexpected alchemy. “In real life and in the film, Jennifer and Matthew come from different sides of the world-she’s the Bronx city girl, and he’s the Texas cowboy. Their characters in the film kind of mirror this and while Mary’s the sophisticated event planner, she lets nothing get in her way. Steve’s a laid back pediatrician going with the flow. Yet their differences compliment each other that Mary needs to relax and enjoy life a little more and Steve needs be more focused and serious about what’s important to him. So they complete each other, besides looking so right together”.

In fact the original actors weren’t Lopez and McConaughey. The original choices to play Mary and Steve were Jennifer Love Hewitt and Brendan Fraser, but were replaced by Sarah Michelle Gellar and Freddie Prinze Jr. Both couples eventually dropped out due to scheduling conflicts, leaving Lopez and McConaughey to be the eventual stars.

For the first few months, production on “The Wedding Planner” was based in Los Angeles. The production then moved on to three weeks of filming in San Francisco for scenes that could be shot nowhere else but in the real jewel of the California Gold Coast. It was Shankman’s idea to change the original location in the script from New York to San Francisco. Shankman said: “It’s always struck me as a romantic, beautiful city and I wanted to make this film a kind of Valentine to it. Also, with its upper crust attitude, it would be a perfect location for a savvy wedding planner to exploit all the new moneyed, techno millionaires who want to be accepted into old money society”.

Shankman and cinematographer Julio Macat shot the love letter to the city at such locations as lush Golden Gate Park, the magnificent Filoli House and Gardens just outside the city, which doubled for an upscale Napa Inn. The at the time a newly renovated City Hall, Victorian Park on San Francisco Bay, Grace Cathedral and the distinctive Nob Hill neighborhood.

“My big edict to the locations scout was that I didn’t want to see any cable car wires or power lines. Also, I didn’t want to emphasize the city’s hills. I wanted to take the clichés away from the city and make it look more European. That way, the romance of the city would shine through. My goal for the look of the movie was to infuse it with the old-fashioned glamour of some of my favorite films, like ‘His Girl Friday (1996),’ ‘Bringing up Baby (1938)’ and ‘Roman Holiday (1953)’”.

Shankman continues, “These films were populated with truly beautiful people who bantered with smart dialogue, who wore beautiful clothes and lived in beautiful settings. For audiences, it was pure entertainment. It lifted you out of your seat a little bit, out of your life a little bit. It became another world.”

Costume designer Pamela Withers was brought on to give the film’s characters that “classic beautiful look” that Shankman wanted. “Adam and I saw Mary’s style as very sophisticated, conservative and timeless, like such everlasting icons as Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy. Mary also seemed like a woman who saved her money and invested it in a few good designer pieces. So I dressed her in such things as a classic blue Armani cotton sheath, a tan leather Prada coat and an Emporio Armani two-piece top and skirt with a little cardigan. The audience may not be used to seeing Jennifer Lopez like this, but she looks stunning”.

“Mary starts out dressing very business like when the film begins. But her wardrobe becomes a touch sexier, lighter and more romantic as the film goes on” Withers said. For McConaughey, Withers chose comfortable upscale things, all of which were slim and trim-lined for him. “We wanted things to hug his chest. Since he’s got great pecs” Withers reveals.

Color and style were very important elements for the two leads. “For instance, in the scene where Mary and Steve meet and he rescues her, she’s in bright blue and tan, and he’s in navy and chocolate, so they compliment each other,” says Withers.

Mary plans four weddings in the film, and Withers had a lot of fun choosing four distinct wedding dresses for these scenes. Two Vera Wang gowns bracket the film. “The bride in the church wedding that opens the movie is wearing a very traditional strapless dress with rhinestones and silver beading across the bodice. She also wears a platinum bow that picks up the silver beading,” describes Withers. 

As much as I love this movie, it is also the film that struck an interest in me in becoming a wedding planner myself. I went and bought all the books to study (which I still own) and printed all the brochures from the “QC Online School Of Wedding Planning”, where i would take courses online and become a certified wedding planner in an estimated five months. Although my enrollment has yet to happen, I hope to one day make it a possibility.

But as much as I love it, there are a few things that don’t work in the movie and the most obvious being the casting of an actress and singer of Puerto Rican descent playing an Italian-American. Still, Lopez manages to rise above it and deliver a performance that is funny, sweet, and real. The movie was a box-office smash, grossing nearly $95 million worldwide on a budget of $35 million, opening at number one at the U.S. box office on Super Bowl weekend no less. 

Combined with the success of her second album titled “J.Lo”, Lopez became the first woman to have a number one film and album at the same time in the United States. She also earned a record breaking $9 million, the highest salary paid to a Latina actress up to that date. But even if one despised the movie and there were many, the refusal to acknowledge Lopez’s magnetic star power in her first romantic comedy was an undeniable draw.

The Wedding Planner” does have a lot to recommend. The writing isn’t nearly as bad as its reputation would have you believe. Pamela Falk and Michael Ellis’s script has the extremely delicate task of keeping the audience from hating a couple who, in order to be together have to engage in a mild reprehensible behavior. Not only does Steve lead Mary on in the beginning, he’s also consciously emotionally cheating on his fiancee throughout. Meanwhile, if Mary wants to end up with Steve, she has to break the trust of a woman who has hired her to make things run smoothly. All of this is made even more fraught by the fact that Fran (Bridget Wilson Sampras), Steve’s fiancée, isn’t a hateable witch, she’s downright sensible and the first to come to the realization that maybe this man isn’t for her and that’s okay. 

The same goes for the movie, that it may not be for everyone especially those who despise rom coms. But for fans of the genre like me, you’ll love this one and after watching it again the other day after twenty years, it still holds up incredibly well. If you want to see how Mary and Steve are doing head over to Jennifer Lopez’s YouTube page. Where just this past week she had a twenty year reunion with McConaughey as they discussed “The Wedding Planner”. It’s always a treat to see two stars of a movie, twenty years later reminiscing about a past project. Especially when it’s a movie this great. 

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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