In Netflix’s teen comedy Do Revenge, out Friday, queen bee Drea (Riverdale’s Camila Mendes) teams up with wallflower Eleanor (Stranger Things’ Maya Hawke) to take down each other’s enemies. The film, co-written and directed by Someone Great’s Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, is loosely inspired by Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 psychological thriller Strangers on a Train, in which two men decide to “trade” murders. (It’s also the inspiration for the 1951 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name). No one actually dies in Do Revenge, but countless acts of character assassination are committed by these savvy young women. And in high school, a tarnished reputation is far worse than death itself. It’s why it was so easy for Robinson to put a Gen Z spin on Highsmith’s 72-year-old novel: Hell hath no fury like a teenage girl scorned.
“It was one of those things where it almost immediately clicked,” Robinson tells TIME when recalling the original pitch to adapt the novel. “The book’s base concept fits so beautifully in the high school ecosystem.” If anything, she thought it was more exciting that Drea and Eleanor aren’t complete strangers, but classmates that run in entirely different social circles. There is so much at risk for these young women if they get caught, but they’re too full of rage to rethink their grammatically incorrect plan.
Robinson, who also co-wrote Thor: Love and Thunder, explains how Sarah Michelle Gellar, Olivia Rodrigo, and Glenn Close helped inspire her new movie.
Do Revenge is a love letter to ‘90s teen movies
Robinson filled Do Revenge with Easter eggs that pay homage to the “movies that I would go to Blockbuster and pray were in the store.” The director’s Gen Z prep schoolers gather around a fountain as a nod to Scream, play croquet just like the prototypical mean girls in Heathers, and go on paintball dates that rival Kat Stratford’s in 10 Things I Hate About You.
Robinson has come to realize she included “subconscious Easter eggs” in the film that made it in without her realizing it. Do Revenge’s opening shot of a license plate that reads “DUMBTCH” is an inadvertent reference to a similarly cheeky vanity plate in 1999’s Jawbreaker, a dark teen comedy about a kidnapping that goes horribly wrong. “That came because Netflix told me to cut [the line] ‘that dumb bitch’ and I thought it would be funny to start off the frame with that license plate,” she says. Though she the Jawbreaker shoutout “was not intentional,” she notes that “as a fan of the genre, this stuff just lives in your brain and your soul so it probably came from somewhere deep in my psyche.”
Some references were deliberate. Robinson knew she wanted Sarah Michelle Gellar to play the bonsai tree-trimming headmaster of Drea and Eleanor’s private high school. The Cruel Intentions star plays the movie’s only adult character, a “juicy and fun role” for the former teen queen that was inspired by her cocaine-filled cross-wearing character in the above mentioned film. “I agonized over the dialogue,” Robinson says, worried it wouldn’t be good enough for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “But Sarah read it and we met and she said yes and now we have lunch every month and are best friends … They say don’t meet your heroes, but you should meet Sarah Michelle Gellar.”
Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Miami connection
Robinson is an incredibly visual filmmaker who is often “writing while Pinteresting.” For Do Revenge, she wanted to embrace the bold color palette of Miami, where the film is set. It’s why the prep school uniforms are less Gossip Girl and more Harry Potter’s Fleur Delacour at a Bad Bunny concert. “We really blew it out and wanted it to feel color soaked,” she says. “It’s loud, vibrant, and boisterous like Miami.”
Robinson would know since she grew up there. “I actually went to a Miami prep school so some of the parties [in the film] are parties I have been to,” she says. Even the hedonistic admissions party where the film’s final act takes place is inspired by more than a few celebrations she went to as a teen. “It was a weird time,” she says. “It was Miami, no rules.”
How Do Revenge gets Gen Z right
Robinson worked closely with her film’s two leads, Mendes and Hawke, to make sure their characters felt true to life. For her, collaboration is key to making a film feel lived in. “It sounds like I’m really selfless, but it’s not, it’s incredibly selfish what I do,” she says. “I hire all these amazing people and they do their thing and make me look better.” Not that it was hard for the actors. “They’re very tapped in and really understand the demographic,” Robinson says. She often “mind melded” with Mendes about how far they should go in terms of the camp factor. “Cami really created her character visually: the hair, makeup, the snatched wardrobe,” she says. Mendes had the idea that Drea’s wardrobe would get more unhinged as the character began to feel less in control.
To play the duplicitous Eleanor, Hawke read Malcolm Gladwell’s 2019 book Talking to Strangers, which is about the challenges of learning to trust those we don’t know. “She really brought so much insight and nuance to the character,” she says. A lot of her favorite lines in the film were Hawke “looking at what was on the page and making it a thousand times better,” Robinson says. That includes Hawke’s ad-libbed line “bitchasaurus rex,” her nickname for Drea as she goes further down the revenge rabbithole. “I heard her say it and was just like, ‘Yeah, Maya, that’s perfect,’” she says. “I couldn’t have written something so good.”
Bridging the musical generation gap with Olivia Rodrigo and Hole
With Do Revenge’s soundtrack, Robinson wanted to throwback to the music of her youth without getting too bogged down by nostalgia. “I wanted it to elicit a feeling in you,” she says. “Whether that is, ‘Oh, this is exciting and new,’ or, ‘Oh, I’ve heard this before and I miss this.’” Initially, she planned for the soundtrack to include covers of her favorite ‘90s teen movie songs done by young artists of today. “But I don’t want a cover of ‘Flagpole Sitta,’” Robinson says, referencing the iconic Harvey Danger single that plays in Disturbing Behavior, the 1998 teen sci-fi movie starring Katie Holmes and James Marsden. “I just want ‘Flagpole Sitta.’” (Do Revenge does feature a cover of Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America,” a song which also got the cover treatment for Clueless.)
She realized that Do Revenge is a fresh, new take on the movies she grew up loving and the soundtrack should strike the same balance. That’s why the movie includes tracks from current pop stars such as Hayley Kiyoko, Billie Eilish, and MUNA, as well as ‘90s faves like Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch.” The two songs that Robinson believes represent the soundtrack best are Olivia Rodrigo’s “Brutal” and Hole’s “Celebrity Skin,” two rock songs that feel spiritually linked in how they represent teen girl angst. (Last year, Hole’s lead singer Courtney Love also addressed their similarities, accusing Rodrigo of ripping off her band’s cover art.)
There is one artist who doesn’t appear on the soundtrack, but whose influence on the film Robinson won’t deny: Taylor Swift. “There are definitely some Reputation undertones in the film,” says Robinson, who is a fan of the singer. Eleanor even puts her own spin on the most infamous line from Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” to explain her recent makeover: “The old Eleanor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Because she’s dead.” Robinson chose to stay mum on why there isn’t a Swift song on the film’s soundtrack. (“Yeah, I’m not going to say anymore, I don’t want to ruin anything.”) But did offer perhaps a clue as to why: “Don’t stream Reputation until she has a Taylor’s Version.”
How Do Revenge taps into teenage girl rage
Robinson sees a lot of herself in Drea, specifically when it comes to the anger the character feels towards her ex-boyfriend Max (Euphoria’s Austin Abrams) and anyone else who has taken advantage of her. “That feeling that it hurts to exist starts in those middle school and high school years, but it doesn’t go away. I still feel like this today,” she says. “So I really tried to tap into the emotions that started then because I don’t think they go away. You just ebb and flow and learn to deal with it.”
The film even coined a phrase to describe that perfect cocktail of rage and drive that Drea has: Glennergy. “That is a [Do Revenge co-writer] Celeste Ballard original. It was in the very first draft that she wrote,” Robinson says of the term inspired by Glenn Close’s bunny killing turn in Fatal Attraction. “I think if you have Glennergy, you have swag. There’s a fire in your eyes that is both alluring and very unsettling.” Knowing that, Robinson hopes viewers feel seen by Do Revenge. “But,” she adds. “I also hope they don’t try to copy anything that Eleanor or Drea are doing.”
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