Hollywood legends Bergen, Fonda, Keaton, Steenburgen form friendship while making ‘Book Club’ movies

Candice Bergen hatched the idea for a sequel to “Book Club” before the first had even come out.

It was 2017 and they were flying to a convention of movie theater owners to drum up excitement for their movie where she, Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen and Diane Keaton play friends who decide to read “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Like all movies, it wasn’t the easiest to get made – somewhere along the line someone even suggested a younger cast. But they were pretty sure they had something that audiences were going to like and that a sequel would happen. Bergen said, “It has to be Italy.”

Why Italy? Well, about the same reasons anyone would choose Italy: the food, the wine, the history, the art, the people.

And their dream came true: “Book Club: The Next Chapter,” out Friday, finds the women traveling to Rome, Venice and Tuscany. It’s part bachelorette party for Fonda’s character, who is getting married for the first time (to Don Johnson) and part bucket list fulfillment – years ago, life got in the way of a trip and post-pandemic they’re all feeling a little more adventurous.

“On the first film, we were only together when we got together for a book club meeting. It was about our individual storylines,” Fonda said. “This time we were together all the time.”

That meant full filming days, dinners out with everyone and weekend excursions to Florence and gelato in between takes. One morning, a makeup artist spotted Fonda at 5:30 am outside the Pantheon with a map in hand and hat on her head. A few hours later, while filming, she’d exclaim she’d already hit 10,000 steps.

“We had a schedule,” Bergen said. “It wasn’t like anarchy. When the day wrapped we went to dinner.”

“But the dinners out were very important,” Steenburgen added. “There were a lot of discussions about where we were eating, who was eating and dreaming about Aperol Spritzes. At least for me.”

Though there was support for a sequel after the first made over $100 million at the box office, at the studio there was a fixation on the book choice being the hook. But director Bill Holderman and his co-writer Erin Simms were pretty sure that wasn’t it.

“We felt like the driver of the success was the women, their friendship and the bond,” Holderman said. “We had to go through a bit of a journey to convince everyone that we didn’t need another 50 Shades style book.”

Ultimately, they chose Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist,” inspired by something Steenburgen had said about getting written off after a certain age.

Their four stars, though of somewhat similar generations with ages ranging from 70 (Steenburgen) to 85 (Fonda) hadn’t known each other very well and had never worked together before the first film. But they soon became real friends and have stayed in close touch – usually waiting for “Candy,” as they call Bergen, who lives on the East Coast, to tell them she’s coming to Los Angeles. Then they scramble to figure out whose house they’ll go to for dinner. All have hosted at least one.

“The biggest gift by far of these two movies for me is just the friendships with these beloveds in my life,” Steenburgen said.

Italy was a dream for everyone. Some had filmed there before. Fonda had once stayed in Rome for a year doing “Barbarella” with Roger Vadim, and Bergen had shot Lina Wertmüller’s “A Night Full of Rain” there. When it came time to make “The Next Chapter,” she suggested they call on her co-star from the 1978 film, Giancarlo Giannini, to play a part.

“He definitely has a little crush on you,” Steenburgen teased. “He couldn’t keep his eyes off of you.”

Bergen politely disagreed. Besides, they were all focused on being together.

By the time the rest of their male counterparts arrived for the final scenes, including Johnson, Craig T. Nelson and Andy Garcia, Fonda laughed it was like, “Who are you? We felt very complete unto ourselves.”

None took the film for granted, either.

“They really understood how lucky they were to be together and to be doing this,” Simms said. “Not everybody sends older women to Italy to go make a movie. I think they really felt that and it bonded them more deeply.”

Steenburgen thought back to when she was starting out, in the late 1970s, looking at women in the business who were just a generation ahead of her and wondering why there weren’t more opportunities for them.

“They were brilliant and amazing and still just had so much to offer and there was nothing happening for them,” Steenburgen said. “I’ve been in the business long enough to know that it wasn’t a given that something like this could happen.”

But times have changed for the better. “Book Club 2″ is Fonda’s third release this year, after “80 for Brady” and “Moving On.”

“Studios are noticing that older women are the fastest growing demographic,” Fonda said. “It’s just good business.”

Bergen added: “They’re not quite so dismissive of us anymore.”

Fonda and her co-stars have also noticed that it’s often younger people who talk to them about “Book Club.” She thinks part of it is that it’s simply comforting to see more mature women having fun, which, she hopes takes some of the stigma and fear out of aging. And, yes, they’re already scheming up a possible third movie with Bergen driving the brainstorm.

“Our next one will be in Hong Kong,” Bergen said.

Steenburgen reminded her she also suggested Burning Man.

Bergen: Did I?

Steenburgen: You forget, but I make notes on all your ideas.

Bergen: That would be funny.

Steenburgen: And hot. And uncomfortable.

Fonda: I’ll phone that one in.

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