After decades in TV, writer and director Michael Patrick King makes his big-screen debut with Sex and the City, the movie.
It’s been said that New York was so essential to Sex and the City that it functioned as the HBO megahit’s fifth lead character. If that’s true, then Scranton, Pennsylvania, hometown of the show’s executive producer, Michael Patrick King, also deserves a spot on the credits list. As a boy, King had the unusual hobby of staging elaborate theatrical productions in his front yard. “I’d cast all of the neighborhood girls in these shows,” he says. “My mom would be leaving the house and she’d say, ‘Don’t you pull out all of the old dresses in the attic and put on a show again!’ And the door would close, and that’s exactly what I’d do. The show was calling me!”
Those neighborhood girls didn’t know it back then, but even without the pink cocktails and designer wardrobes, they were King’s prototypes for Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte. And four years after the TV version’s series finale, King is bringing the ladies back. The movie version of Sex and the City, which he wrote and directed, hits theaters in May.
“In the beginning, it was Darren and I in the room, saying things like ‘What if she said, ‘Up the butt’?” says King, recalling his earliest Sex and the City brainstorming sessions with the show’s creator, Darren Star. “‘Mrs. Up-the-Butt!’ When I wrote that, I was like, ‘Nobody ever wrote lines like this.’ There was no template for the series, and there isn’t one for the movie, either.”
Sex and the City is not, of course, the first television show to make the jump to the big screen, but most of the others have been lowbrow comedies (think Starsky & Hutch) or nostalgic spoofs (The Brady Bunch). “I guess The X-Files is the only one with the original cast, but how do you compare this with that?” says King, a fit, salt-and-pepper-haired extrovert who lives in Los Angeles with his boyfriend of six years.
In this case, lack of precedent seems only to have increased expectations. Gossip blogs tipped the public off about the film’s location schedule and hundreds of fans showed up to watch shoots. Add to that the high financial hopes—DVDs of the series have netted more than $300 million—and the fact that this is King’s first feature film, and the stakes couldn’t be much higher. “The first-time director thing is just another label somebody puts on you,” says King, who directed 10 episodes of the show and wrote 16 of them. “The real pressure, for me, is I have these four characters that people care about and know so well. There’s a lot of expectation about what these women should be doing.”
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King, 53, moved to New York as a 20-year-old college dropout in order to pursue an acting career. When that didn’t pan out, he started doing stand-up, eventually working the comedy club circuit alongside Ray Romano and Jerry Seinfeld. After a young HBO executive named Carolyn Strauss caught his act, she encouraged him to write sitcom scripts for the fledgling Comedy Central. That eventually led to a job on Murphy Brown. “I joined the show the year the Dan Quayle thing happened,” says King, referring to the then vice president’s 1992 condemnation of Brown’s single-parent lifestyle. “It was a smart, smart place. I remember staying up at night thinking, ‘I’ve got to get my mind to think faster.’”
In 1997, after Murphy Brown had ended, Strauss came calling again, this time recruiting King for Sex and the City, which was just getting off the ground. King instantly felt comfortable with the raunchy subject matter, but the saltier bits of the show came as a shock to his conservative Irish Catholic mother, who complained that one episode left her so embarrassed that she couldn’t even watch it in front of the dog. “And the dog’s a girl!” she added.
Fortunately, the rest of the world was less squeamish: The series won 11 Emmys and eight Golden Globes and was an unqualified international hit. But by 2004 the buzz had dimmed a bit. Samantha was on the mend from breast cancer, Miranda was sponge-bathing her senile mother-in-law, and Carrie was ending a puzzling love affair with Mikhail Baryshnikov to pick up with Mr. Big—again. It seemed that the time had come for the ladies of Sex and the City to hang up their Manolos and for Kim Cattrall, who had spent much of the series naked, to put on some clothes. “When Michael and I decided to end the show, we thought we had told the best stories we could,” says Sarah Jessica Parker. “If he didn’t think he could make the show great anymore, I didn’t want to do it.”
But King had a few Sex stories left in him after all. While he and Parker were in Paris filming the series finale, they started talking about the possibility of doing a full-length feature, and King wrote an outline. “It was a romp,” remembers Parker. “It reminded me of one of those Bob Hope–Bing Crosby buddy movies.”
The film, however, hit some snags: Contract negotiations with the cast fell through, and rumors of tension (mainly that Cattrall wasn’t cooperating) were all over the gossip columns. King claims such stories were “blown up in the press beyond belief” but does admit that “the first time around, Kim said, ‘I don’t know if I want to be Samantha again right now.’”
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Not one to sit around waiting for the phone to ring, King jumped straight into another project, directing the mock reality series The Comeback, which he cowrote and cocreated with Lisa Kudrow. The show, in which Kudrow starred as Valerie Cherish, an aging TV sweetheart who’d do anything to stay in the spotlight, was well reviewed, but audiences seemed to find Valerie’s desperation just too cringe-inducing. “It was ahead of its time,” says King, with obvious disappointment, of the series, which lasted only one season. “But there were people who loved it. One day I got a call from David Bowie. He was going out of the country and wanted to know what happened to Valerie.”
King didn’t have too much time to wallow. In 2006 Parker finally decided to throw her weight behind the Sex and the City film, and King, feeling his original outline no longer worked, came up with a new script. “Of course, he went off and wrote a five-hour movie,” Parker says, laughing. “He always goes big. He’s got an ego that way.”
Returning to the world of Carrie and company, says King, feels like a homecoming: “I love these characters. They were always alive for me.” And though he’s tight-lipped about the film’s plot, he’s happy to share the underlying message. “One of the themes is that your 20s become 40s, and you’re still whoever you are,” King says, in a rare moment of quiet reflection—which he quickly turns into a modified stand-up routine, unwittingly demonstrating that the generalization applies to himself. “Only two things change when you get older: the energy in your voice and the time of night you feel it’s appropriate to call someone. In your 20s, people call at 2 a.m. and yell, ‘Are you up?’ into the answering machine. Now, someone calls after 8 p.m., and my boyfriend is like, ‘Who is that? Who could be calling at this hour?’”