Hixson High grad talks about producing hit movie "You Again"
By David Carroll
CHATTANOOGA (WRCB)- For many Chattanoogans, Betsy Sullenger's name may be a familiar one as it rolls through the credits of "You Again." The movie, which stars Jamie Lee Curtis, Sigourney Weaver and Betty White is in theaters now, and Sullenger is co-producer. The 1984 Hixson High graduate answered our questions about her past, present and future.
WRCB: Tell us about your background, and your connections to Chattanooga.
Betsy: "I'm originally from Pittsburgh but moved to Hixson when I was 9. I've always found Chattanooga a kind of idyllic place – not too big, not too small. And so beautiful. Anytime friends or family came to town we always took them to the Choo Choo, of course. That was a big deal, and I never got tired of going there. It seemed so fancy, plus they had that great gift shop. I constantly tried to convince my parents to take me to stay in one of those passenger car hotel rooms, even for a night. As a kid, the notion of spending the night in a train car struck me as incredibly glamorous. Now it's on my bucket list. To this day, hearing the song "Chattanooga Choo Choo" always takes me straight back to my childhood and my time spent at the Choo Choo."
WRCB: What do you remember about your days at Hixson High?
Betsy: "I was a cheerleader at Hixson, and was also very active in extracurricular activities. English was my subject. To this day, few things in life get me more jazzed than a good story, well told. I suppose that's why I chose the job that I have. I get to tell stories for a living. My 12th grade English teacher, Alice Hageman, used to give us great creative writing exercises. It was the only class that I remember having where I could be as imaginative as I wanted to be, which was incredibly liberating."
WRCB: How did you get to Hollywood?
Betsy: "Like so many kids, I dreamed of working in the movies. But to a kid from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Hollywood seemed like a world away. Since I loved writing so much I decided to study Broadcast Journalism, which would still allow me to tell stories, just in a different way. I worked in a few newsrooms while I was in college, which I truly loved. After college I moved to Nashville, and while I was figuring out my next step I wrote some theatre features for the Nashville Scene and got involved in the theatre community. That's where I met my husband, Chambers Stevens, who was a member of the Tennessee Rep acting company and started the Nashville Shakespeare Festival. He shared my dream of working in Hollywood and we just decided, why not? Now's the time to take chances. So we got married and moved to California a few weeks later."
WRCB: Once you got there, how did you make connections?
Betsy: "We didn't know anybody in Los Angeles but I lucked into a job working for a really wonderful TV comedy writer, Bob Ellison. I worked with him on several shows, including Cheers and Wings. After a few years I decided that television was great but movies continued to be my dream. I blindly sent out a bunch of resumes to film production companies and got an interview with my current partner, Andy Fickman. We bonded over the fact that we were both kids from the south who loved theatre, and I got hired as an assistant. The first film we worked on together was Anaconda. Andy and I spent 10 years working together as executives at that company, Middle Fork productions, and then his film directing career took off. After he made a name for himself as a director, we got a production deal at Disney with our company, Oops Doughnuts Productions. We make films for Disney, as well as other studios."
WRCB: Any advice for young people who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Betsy: "The blessing and the curse of working in the entertainment industry is that there's no one way of doing it. If you want to become a lawyer or a doctor, there's a clear path to doing so. It's pretty straight forward. Not so for the entertainment industry. You just have to get in there and start working, start meeting people. It's impossible to plan. But if you're persistent, have a very strong work ethic and are willing to pay your dues, someone will give you a shot. It's a very competitive industry but it's an industry full of people who are willing to help you if you're willing to give it your all."
WRCB: "You Again" is a comedy, but it also strikes a nerve to those who are being, or have been bullied in some way. How did you get involved in the movie?
Betsy: "You Again is a project that Disney brought to us. Andy and I instantly related to it. I don't know anybody who didn't have some difficulty navigating their way through high school. It's such a vulnerable age, and you feel like everyone is watching your every move. Now imagine the person who picked on you the most marrying into your family! One of the things we loved most about the script was that we got to show two generations of women still licking their wounds. It's one thing to have Kristen Bell and Odette Yustman, who are less than 10 years out of high school, reliving their high school horrors. But to have Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver dealing with the same issues really speaks to how the damage that we inflict upon one another, no matter how young we were at the time, sticks with us."
WRCB: What kind of reaction have you gotten from moviegoers?
Betsy: "At a time when the issue of bullying has become something we see in the news regularly, it's been gratifying to hear from so many parents from around the country who took their kids to see the film, realized that it was full of teaching moments and afterwards used the film as a jumping off point to talk with their kids about bullying. Inasmuch as we're not a "message movie," we are a movie with something to say. It's one of the things that I'm proudest of about the film."
WRCB: "Betty White is great in the movie. Did you know she was in Chattanooga recently?
Betsy: "I heard Betty visited Chattanooga. In fact she was there around the time that she was doing publicity on the film, which speaks to how tireless she is. The woman is a machine! We have a few dancing sequences in the film, and we had Betty on her feet dancing for hours at a time. We were constantly offering her water or a chair, but she always declined. She never once complained. If only everyone was as utterly delightful to work with as Betty White! I think she's a lesson to us all: if you find something you love to do in life, you'll always be young at heart."
WRCB: What's next for you?
Betsy: "We have films set up at most studios, but only a fraction of those films will ever get made. We're also getting into television, so it looks like my life is coming full circle. I've found that to be successful in Hollywood you have to juggle a lot of balls, and you have to try to keep all of those balls in the air at one time. Currently, Andy is attached to direct a Parenthood-type comedy with Billy Crystal as well as a romantic comedy with Anna Faris. Both projects are waiting on script rewrites."
WRCB: When do you plan to visit Chattanooga again?
Betsy: "I have lots of dear friends in Chattanooga, though sadly I don't get back as often as I would like. My parents moved away after I graduated college. I have a 3 year old son and I can't wait to take him on his first trip to Chattanooga. First stop: the Choo Choo. Maybe I'll finally get to stay in one of those trains!"
"You Again" is showing at Northgate 14, Battlefield Cinema in Fort Oglethorpe and Premiere Theater in Cleveland. It is rated PG.