• Kate Silberman '09 (left) on the set of Booksmart

    Booksmart Screenwriter Katie Silberman ’09 Gives Teen Film Genre a 2019 Upgrade

    Monday, October 14, 2019
    News Type

Katie Silberman ’09 didn’t study film at Dartmouth—but she loved reading movie scripts. “I printed out so many scripts that I used up all my printing credit in the first three days of every semester,” she remembers. “I was that person standing by the printers waiting for 100 pages to print, and everyone wanted to kill me.” 

Among those many pages was a script for a fledgling teen comedy titled Booksmart. Silberman remembers printing and reading the screenplay, which chronicled the adventures of two female best friends on the last night of high school, around her fourth year at Dartmouth.

Little did she know that eight years later—after attending Columbia Film School, moving to Los Angeles to become an assistant, and getting into screenwriting—Silberman would be hired to rewrite and produce that very film. 

A Dartmouth-Inspired Plot Twist 

Originally written by Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins in 2009, and revised by Susanna Fogel in 2014, the Booksmart script was latent until Annapurna Studios finally picked it up in 2017. Actress Olivia Wilde, who was tapped for a directorial debut, reached out to Silberman seeking writers to recraft the storyline. The alumna jumped on the chance to pitch a new plot twist. 

She imagined that the main characters had spent high school overachieving in order to get into the Ivies, only to find out that they’d misjudged everyone else: The kids who partied, too, were headed to good schools. So, on the eve of graduation, the duo would attempt to cram four years of missed fun into one epic night. 

The story was personal for Silberman, who was an overachieving teen herself. “I convinced myself I was so focused on school because I was responsible and not because I was scared to put myself out there,” she says. But at Dartmouth, she learned that being studious didn’t necessarily mean missing out on fun. 

“Dartmouth is a place where everyone is hardworking and brilliant, the smartest kids from their high school classes—but also very fun and different,” Silberman explains. “When I realized the spectrum of experiences and interests and how much fun they had, it rocked my world and refocused my point of view. People there were so multi-dimensional, it made me realize how one-dimensionally I’d treated myself.” 

Teen Films Get a Fresh Take 

The studio was sold on Silberman’s idea, and she got the gig. Booksmart hit theaters nationwide in May to widespread acclaim. It now boasts a 97 percent “Certified Fresh” rating on film review site Rotten Tomatoes. The Washington Post called it “hilarious and surprisingly heartfelt.” The New York Times commended its “exuberant, generous, matter-of-factly feminist sentiment.” Glamour called it “the first truly evolved high school movie.”  

Critics lauded Silberman’s and Wilde’s capacity to capture teen life in 2019. To do that, the duo did their homework: They spoke with as many young people as possible and relied on insight from their talented cast, helmed by Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein alongside a slew of supporting characters whose real-life personalities shaped the script. 

They also absorbed teen-created content, from YouTube videos to social media posts to political protests. Rewriting the script right around the same time as the Parkland shooting, Silberman found inspiration in high school students who came forward to protest gun violence. “They became such vocal, brave, and powerful symbols of a movement,” she says. “I was so constantly inspired by them.” Her admiration shines through in Booksmart, which highlights Gen Z’s progressive sensibilities and imbues its characters with unexpected complexity, rejecting tired tropes of high-school labels.

The teen movie might have been due for a 2019 upgrade, but Silberman sought to do precisely what the genre’s best have always done: to capture a generation. She ticks off a list of her favorites: Clueless, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Dazed and Confused

“Those movies are really timely in the way they depict what it’s like to be a teenager in a specific moment, and the way they examine the authenticity of friendships,” Silberman says. “We wanted to show what it’s like to be a teenage girl in 2019, while hopefully telling a story that’s evocative to people of all ages and genders. 

It may have taken Silberman longer than Booksmart’s characters to learn those valuable lessons about work and play, but these days she’s having a very good time. “Working on Booksmart was the most fun imaginable,” she says. 

Now, she’s writing and producing a Netflix romantic comedy titled Most Dangerous Game, and has already teamed up with Wilde again to work on two films, including a psychological thriller called Don’t Worry, Darling. “This is exactly what I wanted to be doing when I was at Dartmouth and trying to figure out how to spend my time,” she says. “I feel so lucky.”