The early 2000s was one of the golden ages of teen movies, but amongst the many, there were a few that truly stood out. One of those was 2003’s “What a Girl Wants,” which starred Amanda Bynes as Daphne, an American teenager who headed off to London to connect with the father, played by Colin Firth, she’d never known.
Bynes had just wrapped “All That” and “The Amanda Show” as well as her first movie, “Big Fat Liar” with Frankie Muniz, when she signed on for this Dennie Gordon-directed film, which celebrates its 15th anniversary Wednesday, April 4. The film is still remembered for being able to mix together an emotional father-daughter storyline with a teenage romance and then being able to wrap it all up with hilarious antics and backstabbing almost-step-sisters, all while having a strong female lead.
Those are things fans all know and love about “What a Girl Wants,” but, what don’t they know? International Business Times caught up with Gordon to reminisce about her time directing the movie and find out all of the behind-the-scenes details.
Here are nine secrets (plus, a little bonus!) she shared about the movie:
1. Before Colin Firth was convinced to take on the role of Daphne’s father, Hugh Grant was considered.
“I wanted to cast Colin Firth as the father, which entailed taking a trip to London to have lunch with, or have tea with him, at the Langham, a fantastic hotel…to convince him to play the father,” Gordon told IBT. “We had talked to Hugh Grant at one point, but Hugh Grant said ‘Are you crazy? I’m not old enough to have a teenage daughter,’ which we all thought was hilarious. But, we really wanted Colin…we all had massive crushes on him as Mr. Darcy and just knew he’d be fantastic in the role.”
Though Gordon knew he’d be perfect for the film, Firth wasn’t so sure about it. Though he’d just finished up the romantic comedy “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” he still considered himself to be more of a “strict drama guy,” according to the director.
“He wasn’t so comfortable about the genre initially, but we just kept talking and I finally won him over because I said, ‘Look, it has to be somebody of your stature and has to be somebody who has the gravitas and the dignity and yet the kind of innate charm and morality that Henry has to have, that’s you, Colin, we have to have that.’ So, we finally won him over. And he was really, really fun to work with.”
Seems it all worked out for everyone involved because Firth was very happy when he saw the final product.
“I remember when we finally screened the movie, Colin came up to me and said, ‘Well, Dennie, you’re a very clever girl,’” Gordon said. “I don’t need to hear any more praise than that. I’m good. I can live forever now.”
2. “What a Girl Wants” paved the way for future productions in London.
“Every time I turn on like ‘Downton Abbey’ or ‘The Crown,’ I’m seeing these locations that we were the first to use,” Gordon shared. “Daphne’s ball is at Lancaster House, which they’re using all the time for Buckingham Palace for ‘The Crown,’ but when we were using it, we were one of the first film crews allowed to shoot there.”
She also says that they were one of the first ones to really use Morocco as a filming location, but that it’s now used more often.
3. Alexis Bledel and Jessica Simpson wanted the lead role that ultimately went to Bynes.
While “the film wasn’t built around” Bynes, she landed the gig after many others, including “Gilmore Girls” star Bledel and singer Simpson, submitted for the part but didn’t have the exact qualities that Gordon and the producers were looking for.
“There were lots of wonderful teen girls who wanted to play this part and I met them all… like Alexis Bledel and Jessica Simpson,” she revealed. “Everybody who was in that age group at that time thought it was a really juicy part and wanted to play the role. But Amanda had starred on a television series here in the States, and she was a very up-and-coming young talent. And it was really fun to kind of capture her when she herself was exactly that age and when she herself was exactly going through the things that Daphne’s going through.”
Gordon loved that “even though Amanda had a presence on television, she was not very traveled and she just was a worker and hadn’t really seen the world” because it allowed her to have this “innocence” to her that could easily be captured on film.
“When she goes to London, when she meets her father, when she suddenly sees all these things, she’s truly floored and truly amazed,” she said.
4. The movie originally had a different title.
In the beginning, the movie script had the title “American Girl,” but was later changed to “What a Girl Wants.” Though the title changed, those Gordon and those involved “were always inspired by ‘The Reluctant Debutante,’ as kind of a model for what the story could be,” which was a coming-of-age movie about “the wish-fulfillment of little girls to grow up and find out who they really are.”
5. Bynes portrayed Daphne differently from how Gordon and the producers envisioned her playing the character.
“It was interesting because once we started shooting, we imagined her being, because she was a physical comedian, we imagined that she would be playing the role much broader and she did something very interesting that had us all a little scared initially because she was very small in her emotion and her eyes and kind of restrained at first and we were really wondering, like, ‘Is she getting it? Is she doing it?’”
“Oh, I think we all thought she’d be a little bit more goofy and slightly larger than life, but she was very inward with it and small and it wasn’t what we all thought, but it ended up being so truthful and so interesting.”
It was Dame Eileen Atkins (Jocelyn, Henry’s mother and Daphne’s grandmother) who assured Gordon that not only was Bynes understanding the part, but she was putting a great spin on it. According to the director, the actress had pulled her aside and said, “‘Darling, it’s all there, just wait until you see the dailies, she’s really doing some terribly interesting work.’”
“I think she arrived with a very clear idea on who this young woman was and a very clear idea of how she wanted to play her, and I think what was interesting was it wasn’t exactly what the producers and I had in mind, but we ended up being so delighted by it,” Gordon said.
It became clear to her that Bynes had really done her homework on this character and was playing Daphne the way she truly believed would be best.
“She had very carefully thought through this woman’s journey and she felt that at the beginning, there was something missing in this girl’s life and that she was going to play her sort of down and unfulfilled and unhappy but that she was deeply brave, and she wasn’t going to open up and become that girl that we knew from Nickelodeon until she landed at that place where she said, ‘I know who I am.’”
It was then that Gordon realized that this movie wasn’t just any teen movie, but “a teen movie for the ages with this amazing cast and with these wonderful performances and wonderful locations, that it kind of had a forever aspect to it, that it might just become a teen classic that you could enjoy again and again.”
6. Kelly Preston was a late addition to “What a Girl Wants” as Daphne’s mother, Libby.
“Kelly came in later,” Gordon said. “We had a lot of ideas for her and Kelly was sort of a late, breaking idea and we were so thrilled. I think we may have already started filming. I think we thought that maybe, the producers thought that maybe we’d find somebody in London who could play American or who was American and in the end, we just thought, ‘Kelly’s so great, she’s so classically American, she’s such a great beauty, she’s lovely.’ And we thought that the chemistry between her and Colin would be so great… She came in late in the game and fit right in and was just such a great part of the team.”
7. Oliver James beat out Henry Cavill and other U.K. actors with his charm and singing skills for the role of Ian, Bynes’ love interest.
“When [James] came in, he just knocked our socks off,” Gordon said. “He just was so boyishly good-looking and it’s so funny, I’ve seen all the other actors who’ve grown up around him… Henry Cavill was one of the guys who came in and he’s done extremely well. There were a lot of really fabulous, young U.K. men coming in to read for that part, but Oliver was just so charismatic and had such a beautiful singing voice that we just, that was sort of key for us that he could sing. And Oliver was just, I mean, why was this guy not a big pop star?”
What Gordon loved most about James was that he had everything she was wanted for Ian, which was the acting skills, the boyish charm and the singing chops.
“The authenticity of having a young face like that who can actually sing was so important to us that I don’t know what we would’ve done if we hadn’t found Oliver.”
8. Bynes’ and James’ chemistry lent its hand to the filming of a great kiss scene.
“Amanda really loved him,” Gordon said of Bynes’ bond with her romantic co-star. “I think when they kissed for that first time in the boat, I think it might’ve been one of her very first kisses, so it was like, ‘Wow, we’re really capturing something.’”
9. Some of the movie’s greatest lines were improv from the actors.
“[Dame Eileen Atkins] was a brilliant writer herself and so she was always taking the dialogue and plus-ing it up and making it hysterically funny, adding lines like, ‘No hugs, dear, we’re British. We only show affection for dogs and horses.’ That was pure Eileen. I don’t even remember what the original line was, but, of course, Eileen made everything she said more brilliant and better,” the director said.
Bonus: What does Gordon imagine the “What a Girl Wants” characters are up to now, 15 years later?
“Well, I imagine that Daphne’s married and has children and Henry’s a grandfather,” Gordon revealed. “Henry and Libby lived happily ever after. Jocelyn, the grandmother, is probably no longer with us, sadly. Glynnis [played by Anna Chancellor] is on welfare. Yeah, we last saw Alistair [played by Jonathan Pryce] as a tour guide. They’re just scraping along, the rats that they are… I am sure that Henry and Libby and Daphne and hopefully [Ian] are living happily ever after.”
With so many behind-the-scenes secrets shared and futures being imagined, perhaps it’s time to go ahead and rewatch the classic film. It is the best way to celebrate its anniversary, after all.