When Kristin Hahn read Julie Murphy’s book Dumplin’ she couldn’t put it down but once she came to the end, she rushed to write the screenplay before it was even commissioned. Such was the importance of Willowdean’s story to Hahn that she “held it hostage.”
Dumplin’ is a celebratory story, a warmhearted look at the beauty pageant experience done in a refreshing and ultimately positive way. Patti Cake$ Danielle MacDonald shines and endears as Willowdean, a character that struck Hahn as she read and wrote the story. Even more charming is the story of Willowdean and body confidence, a positive message, so rarely seen on film.
Hahn says, “This movie is about getting past your judgments so that you can have a richer and more expansive life.” The icing on the cake for the film was Dolly Parton, “a Godmother” who came in and delivered six new songs for the movie. Parton’s music plays an integral part in the film and was happy to not only offer her catalog, but also offer new music.
How did you discover the story of Dumplin’?
I fell in love with Willowdean as a character and the fact that she had a very realistic blend of confidence and insecurity. The way Julie conceived of this character, I related to her so much. I felt my girlfriends who are a huge part of my life struggle with the same blend of confidence and insecurity even as we’re decades older than Willowdean. I just felt like she’s like the teenager in me. I thought the pageant world is such a fun world to play within a movie and to have fun with without having to make fun of it.
I just felt that being able to tell a love story about a girl who has to fall in love with herself more than any other love story in this movie, but through a pageant, I thought was such a cool and fun concept. There’s the body positivity angle of it which is great. My hope is that the body positivity expands out to a lot of other areas because we all have something that we judge in ourselves and that other people judge. This movie is about getting past your judgments so that you can have a richer and more expansive life.
I thought she was such a great character because all females have at some point in their lives that crisis of body confidence. What was it like to write the script and take it on?
After I read the book, I called my agent and said that I really needed to go in on this book. He started setting the meeting. I couldn’t sleep I started writing the script so it happened before the meeting even happened. I had written a lot of the script before I even sat down for the meeting. It was a hostile takeover. I went in, I was already writing the movie, it was half done and I hoped they’d let me write the second half. They kind of laughed and they brought me in for a second meeting.
My female friendships in my life have been more than life-saving. Women and girls can sometimes be programmed to be competitive with each other, but I’ve had the beautiful experience of having really loving unconditionally friends. It’s an important topic and theme for me. I have a daughter and I’m always trying to be an example to her and say, “You deserve to find a positive, supportive female tribe and don’t accept anything less. End of story. Even though you’re 12.”
That’s how it should be. It’s not always easy because judgment thrives in social and group settings and we all compare ourselves to each other so it takes a choice and a consciousness to remember that they know there’s enough for everyone. Your girlfriend’s successes should be celebrated wholeheartedly and being there for each other that way. I’ve had that collaborative, creative friend with Jennifer for many years. To get to make this movie about this topic together was a dream. It was something we dreamed about in our 20’s and to tell a story about the kind of friendship that we have and the story we have with our girlfriends. I think storytelling and movie making is very important because we need to see something to believe it and to understand if possible.
We’ve seen Mean Girls and we’ve seen movies about bullies of every form, I don’t think we’ve seen enough of young women bonding and being authentic with each other and yes, having judgments, getting past those judgments and finding common ground and finding love for each other. I don’t see enough of that, that’s why I wanted to make this.
That’s truly what I loved about this film, just the whole positivity of females toward each other. It was nice to see that instead of competitiveness. I also loved the scene in the drag bar and that moment with Willowdean. Were there other scenes you enjoyed adapting?
That was so fun. I loved the scene with Lee and Willowdean backstage because that’s when you first get to see Lucy in a way, who you only understand in flashbacks. Lee really represents the spirit of Lucy. I loved writing that scene.
I loved the end scene where one of the girls has a triumph and the reaction of the other girls and how it has this ripple effect. It’s a collective win for all of them who have been on this journey. I loved that and tying that in with Willowdean’s self-realization and Lucy and what she taught her, and what Dolly taught her. I loved that whole sequence because all the threads come together in a way that felt organic and emotional. I loved that. I loved the scenes between Rosie and Willowdean. My mom is in that character, some of Jen’s mom is in there. It was kind of an homage to single moms and I had fun writing those scenes, fusing what was in the book and that character in my mind. I enjoyed trying to humanize Rosie to understand that her perfectionism comes from fear. She’s a product of her environment and Willowdean finally gets that. I loved writing that scene.
I loved the scene with Rosie in the dressing room where she finally sees her daughter for who she really is.
You also had Dolly Parton, who wrote some beautiful new music. What was that like when you found that out?
Before Dolly had committed, it was me and a page. I just wrote into the script what songs Dolly might let you have from her treasure trove. I just did that thinking maybe we’d get lucky that she would say yes to it. We couldn’t have made the music without her signing on as a fairy Godmother. Once the script was written we approached Dolly and thankfully she has such a good work ethic. She read the script right away and got back to us. I think she was touched by the legacy of her career and the kind of themes and stories she’s been telling, really resonated with the theme of the song and movie. I think she’s such a girl’s girl and she believes in the power of storytelling. I think she saw it as an opportunity to support a movie that has this great message. At first, she said we could have access to her catalog. Then she called back and asked if we wanted a theme song. She started working on that. She called back and said she wrote six songs. We went in to the studio in LA and we listened to the song and we were in tears as we heard them.
Dumplin’ is streaming on Netflix