‘Sweet Home Alabama’ at 20: Director Andy Tennant and star Josh Lucas reveal never-before-told stories about the rom-com classic and their hopes for a sequel
In the two decades since it was made, “Sweet Home Alabama” went from an unwanted script to a surprise box-office hit to a rom-com classic.
Reese Witherspoon was just coming off the success of “Legally Blonde” when she agreed to play the southern troublemaker turned New York City fashion designer Melanie Carmichael.
But even in Witherspoon’s most optimistic moments, she probably didn’t imagine that teaming up with filmmaker Andy Tennant, who just a year earlier helmed a movie that performed so poorly he was thrown in “director jail,” and starring opposite an unknown leading man by the name of Josh Lucas would lead to enormous success.
That’s exactly what happened, though. With a $35.6 million opening weekend, the movie held the record for the best-ever September opening for 10 years.
“Sweet Home Alabama” follows Melanie as she travels to her Alabama hometown to finalize her divorce from her childhood sweetheart, Jake (Lucas), so she can marry Andrew (Patrick Dempsey), the son of the New York City mayor (Candice Bergen).
But things get complicated once Melanie comes face-to-face with Jake again.
Thanks to the on-screen chemistry between Witherspoon and Lucas that fuels the movie — along with the great supporting cast that included Fred Ward, Jean Smart, Melanie Lynskey, Ethan Embry, Mary Kay Place, and a very young Dakota Fanning — “Sweet Home Alabama” has become a beloved rom-com classic.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the movie’s theatrical release, Insider spoke with Tennant and Lucas, who shared never-before-told stories about the making of the movie, including details about the original ending that needed to be reshot, the multiple slaps to the face Lucas took from Witherspoon for a scene that ended up being cut, and how the rom-com almost starred Charlize Theron.
From being in ‘director jail’ to getting a reprieve thanks to ‘Legally Blonde’
Director Andy Tennant directed TV shows in the 1980s (“The Wonder Years,” “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose,” “The Adventures of Brisco Country, Jr”), then moved to feature films in the mid-1990s (“It Takes Two,” “Fools Rush In,” “Ever After: A Cinderella Story”). During that time, he was offered “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Tennant: I was given the script; it wasn’t very good. Everyone had passed on it in town. And then I went off to make “Anna and the King” (starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-fat, the 1999 movie received mixed reviews and stirred up controversy when the Thai government deemed it historically inaccurate). That led to me going to “director jail.” I was in director jail for about a year and then “Sweet Home Alabama” came around again.
The script was just as bad as I thought it was before, but I thought the idea was great. Also, I had four young kids to feed at the time. I think my big takeaway for the rewrite for me and my writing partner, Rick Parks, was that in the original script, I think the fiancé of Reese’s character was a complete tool and the guy down South was a hunky, handsome guy. I think he was a stock-car driver. Why don’t we do a love triangle where the love choices are between a great guy and the right guy? That kind of became our North Star.
Tennant recalled taking a trip to the South before rewriting the movie, and that helped cement its southern feel.
Tennant: Rick and I drove around Alabama. We went to Aliceville and we just talked to people who would invite us onto their porch for some sweet tea. It was an eye-opening experience.
But the main thing that happened when we were down there was we were having lunch and we heard these booms in the distance and it was like, “What the fuck is that?” It was a Civil War reenactment going on eight or 10 miles away. So we were talking to a waitress and we got into this whole conversation with some of the locals about how this is what it must have felt like back during the Civil War — hearing those cannons not too far from where you were. So we drove out to witness the reenactment and it was such a crazy thing that you can’t make up and we had to put it in the movie.
Charlize Theron was attached to play the lead role before Reese Witherspoon.
Tennant: Charlize and her production company were the original principals behind the project. They were developing it for Charlize to star. When I did the rewrite with Rick, I don’t think she was a fan and so everybody parted ways.
I knew Reese because I had done a TV movie with her when she was 15. So we kept in touch. We would have lunch every year or so. I had lunch with her not that long before I turned in the “Sweet Home Alabama” script. We were just catching up and I asked, “What have you been up to?” And she said, “I made this movie nobody is going to see. It’s silly but it was really fun to make.” And that turned out to be “Legally Blonde.” And she asked me what I was doing, and I was like, “We just wrote a movie, but I don’t know if it’s ever going to get made.” And then “Legally Blonde” came out, and I got a call from the studio and they were like, “What do you think of Reese Witherspoon?” And I was like, “I’ve known her since she was 15. She would be great.” And then Reese called me and said, “You are never going to believe this, they sent me your script!”
The only reason “Sweet Home Alabama” was made was because of “Legally Blonde.”
Josh Lucas was convinced he was going to be fired before the movie even started production
Josh Lucas began acting at 19 and found work through his 20s on TV shows and movies; he even a did a TV series in Australia. He moved to New York City in the mid-1990s and began acting onstage while getting bit parts in movies like “American Psycho” and “You Can Count on Me.” Then he auditioned to play the male lead, Jake, in “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Lucas: I remember the audition so well because I don’t know if there’s a handful of auditions that I’ve ever had that I felt worse about. I thought I bombed so badly that I called my agent at the time afterward and was like, “Listen, please tell them I’m so sorry but I deserve another chance, let me go back in and do it again correctly.” And my agent said, “We spoke to them and they thought you were great and they are going to bring you back.” And I was like, “What!?!”
Tennant: There was never a named actor attached to play Jake. It was always let’s just find someone good. Josh came in from New York and we had several women producers and casting directors say he was gorgeous, great, charming, and had a great voice. Everyone was like, “OK, that was easy.”
Lucas: I think that was true for Andy. My memory was that Andy felt I’m the guy and then he really went to bat for me. I don’t know if anybody else wanted me, and I mean Disney (which released the movie by its then theatrical distribution arm, Buena Vista Pictures) and everyone from the power positions. I was in no way established or had any real career to back that up. So the funny negotiation of it all is they called me up and said, “Disney doesn’t want you to do this movie, nobody wants you to do this movie except Andy, so they’re offering you nothing, so take it or leave it.” And I was like, “Hell, yeah, let’s take it.”
I might have been the lowest-paid actor in the entire movie. I’m talking every single person on the movie. But it’s still one of the best choices I ever made.
Lucas would be so serious in some takes that Tennant would call him “Ralph,” referring to the actor Ralph Fiennes, so he would loosen up.
Lucas: Absolutely I remember that. There was this scene late in shooting where we were in the bar and we were playing pool and I had done something, I don’t even remember what I did, but Andy turned to me and was like, “My God, when did you become funny? How come it took this long?”
Tennant: I have done two movies with Josh, I love Josh. It’s just a thing. Actors know what works for them and I needed him to loosen up a little bit. Some of it was, “Josh, punch line. It’s a joke.”
Lucas was convinced he wasn’t connecting with Witherspoon and was going to get fired.
Lucas: Reese was very unsure of me and had no reason not to be. And I think there was a lot of fear on her part about me and what I was going to bring because she couldn’t look at any past work of mine and understand why I was cast.
I was a bit terrified, to say the least. I had never done anything at that scale before. I was pretty uncomfortable, so that doesn’t make the person working across from you comfortable. So I think there was an intensity to the work experience that I think in some ways Andy was able to utilize. The early stuff in the movie, Melanie coming to Jake’s house with the divorce papers for him to sign, we rehearsed that and there’s a friction in the relationship and a real sense of love and passion underneath the surface.
But I was terrified I was going to be fired before we even started. I really was. I was so uncomfortable and felt it wasn’t working. That I wasn’t working. And my memory is on the second or third day, Andy came up to me and said, “Disney absolutely loves what you’re doing, we’re free.” It was interesting because I had this moment where I was like, “Really?” It did free me. Andy just kept having my back.
Tennant: I think what happens is you get the cast you deserve — Reese was coming off a huge hit with “Legally Blonde,” Patrick Dempsey had done movies before but he was the ’80s heartthrob and this was his start as a leading man, and then Josh was unknown — so I think if there was any kind of nervousness on Josh’s part he should have seen what it was like in my head.
Tennant had no clue the ‘baby in a bar’ line would become as famous as the movie itself, but he knew Dakota Fanning was a star in the making
Tennant: I didn’t realize how funny that line would be, but when Melanie [Lynskey] does her whole thing about Jaclyn Smith and the designer, she is just brilliant and can make anything work.
We needed someone who looked like Reese, and Dakota was 40 years old when she was 10. “Hello Mr. Tennant, is there anything you need me to do?” she would say to me. I was like, “Who are you?”
She’s great and committed, I knew she was going to be big. And I think that was her first on-camera kiss.
The marriage proposal scene was shot at the real Tiffany’s and was inspired by Tennant’s wife being proposed to there once
When Tennant and Parks handed in the rewrite, one of the major notes from the studio was that the proposal Andrew gives Melanie at the beginning of the movie wasn’t special enough.
Tennant: The studio felt the movie needed a better opening. So I went home and talked to my wife and she said, “I was proposed to at Tiffany’s.” And I was like, “What?” And she told me how a former boyfriend had proposed there. Now, not the way Patrick’s character did it where it’s private after-hours, but that began the idea.
We shot it at the actual Tiffany’s in New York City. We were the first movie to shoot there on the location since “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
The coon-dog cemetery scene was to end with Witherspoon slapping Lucas
In the movie’s most dramatic scene, Melanie goes to see the gravesite of her old dog Bear. She begins to cry, but about much more than the loss of her dog. She’s recalling the life she had with Jake and the baby they lost due to her miscarriage. When Jake shows up in the scene, Melanie is at her most vulnerable and they kiss. Jake pulls her away and tells her to go home, back to New York City. In the original scene, she slaps him and walks away. That part was eventually cut out of the movie.
Tennant: That’s a scene you don’t expect in this kind of movie. It’s just a lovely scene that has subtext, which Reese played beautifully. The loss of their kid, the loss of their dreams, the loss of innocence, all that stuff. And on top of that Josh’s character comes in and says he’s really happy for her. It works because of the talents of those two actors.
Lucas: We were in it. Reese and I were in this relationship in a sense, not in a real-life one, but in terms of the characters they were in this thing. There was an intensity of pain and past and history. All this stuff boiling. Reese brings that in the scene and I think I do too. I would say in some ways we pushed each other to try, I think, to find truth. So there were some intense moments.
At the end of that scene, where I say, “Go home,” originally we shot it where Reese slaps me and then walks away.
Tennant: Melanie slapped Jake for a variety of reasons. I think what we were going for was she’s slapping him because she’s embarrassed that she suddenly showed some vulnerability. He made her feel things she didn’t want to feel anymore and it erupted.
Lucas: We did that six to 10 times. Reese got me good every single time.
Tennant: When we tested the movie, people really didn’t like the slap so we cut around it. But poor Josh was whacked a good number of times. And it was cold out that night. When you get slapped and it’s cold, it’s a lot worse.
Lucas: She rung my bell a couple of times.
Tennant: I may have had Reese slap him a few more times just to fuck with him.
The dog hated Lucas
Tennant said Parks had a dog who would jump in the water and fetch rocks that were at the bottom. They put in the script a dog who dives for a bone — feeling it was a good example of small-town America — but the movie dog never wanted to go in the water.
Lucas: There were a few dogs who played Bryant, but the main one, in the scene where he jumps off the dock and swims for the bone, in order to do that scene the dog needed to jump and he wouldn’t do it. So I had to throw him off the dock and from that moment on he hated me.
Tennant: Yeah. We had to build a fake dog head to come out of the water because the dog was just — in an ideal world that dog was supposed to jump into the water. What do they say? Never work with kids or animals.
Lucas: In the movie, he’s my best friend but in reality, that dog was terrified of me. He would see me and just walk the other way. Bloodhounds are the most amazing dogs, but they aren’t good film dogs.
Fred Ward’s character is racist, says Tennant
Toward the end of the movie, Melanie’s gay Black friend Frederick (Nathan Lee Graham) is in her mother’s (Mary Kay Place) trailer talking about her decorative spoon collection. The scene cuts to Fred Ward, playing Melanie’s father, giving a snarky look as the two talk.
Tennant: I think we were tipping our hand to racial undertones. But at the same time, we were also making a comedy. Frankly, I don’t think you could make “Sweet Home Alabama” today. When Melanie’s mom says stuff like, “Go get them Yankees,” and we play it for laughs, I don’t know. Humor has changed and also I think it’s such a dark time right now that the divide between cultures is just not funny. It wouldn’t be appropriate.
What I think worked for us is it was all true. This is why Reese says, “People need a passport to come down here.” You can be a stranger in a strange land if you’re not from the South. Being from Illinois and I live in New York, I was fascinated by the history and I was always surprised by how generous, kind, and friendly the people in the South were.
The original ending was reshot because test audiences thought Reese Witherspoon’s character died
In the original ending of the movie, Melanie leaves her wedding and races to the beach to reconcile with Jake. There’s a flash of lightning and it cuts to a wedding reception. Jake walks in holding Melanie in his arms who looks unconscious. He tells everyone “Melanie Carmichael is dead.” Everyone is in shock. Then he says, “Long live Felony Melanie” and Melanie, who was just playing dead, gives him a kiss. They then go and dance as the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Sweet Home Alabama” plays.
Tennant: I don’t know why we thought that was really funny. It was funny on paper and then when we shot it, when Josh says “Melanie Carmichael is dead” and you cut to Mary Kay with that reaction that her daughter is dead it was just like, “Who thought this was funny?” Apparently, I did.
Lucas: I did think the ending would work. I thought it was funny and silly and weird.
Tennant: When we showed it to a test audience the whole room was just like, “What the fuck!” The audience loved the movie up until that shot. Literally, Nina Jacobson, head of Buena Vista Pictures, walked up the aisle before the lights had even come up and said to me, “We’re reshooting the ending.”
Lucas: It never bodes well when you hear you’re doing a major reshoot, but it worked out.
Lucas found instant fame after the movie was released, and it terrified him
Lucas: There wasn’t much heat on the movie, we didn’t have the premiere at a glitzy theater, but what happened there is to this day one of the strangest experiences of my life.
I think I had seen the movie before then and thought it was great, but I didn’t get the feeling that anyone else did. So at the premiere, I took my mom and had some of my friends and there was a party afterwards. As my mom and I left, I got attacked basically by paparazzi. I mean, truly attacked. They were laying on the limousine as we drove away. It was something I had never experienced before or since. I knew from then on that this was unique. And then that Friday the movie opened and Sunday I started getting calls from my agent telling me how huge the movie opened.
I felt that I had become a star overnight and I had zero anticipation of that. Nobody had told me beforehand this movie is going to be a big success. Zero. There’s this motto: Act like a movie star and people will treat you like a movie star. I never had that mentality. That’s not who I am, and maybe that’s why I was right for Jake and have a connection to him. I’m in many ways a lot like him. It was a real surprise that my life and career were going to change over this.
Tennant: I don’t know how anybody deals with fame, I really don’t. It’s a riddle to me.
My producing partner and my editor, who are both women, were in the edit room with me. I’m there tightening up things on the movie. They were watching the Deep South Glass scene where there’s a close up of Josh walking down the stairs, and I think I cut maybe six frames and they both noticed. They were like, “What did you do?” And I was like, “I cut six frames out of his close up.” And they were both like, “Put it back.”
Josh has that kind of charisma and star power that’s rare.
Lucas: I was scared of being famous. I was not someone who yearned to be famous and there was a point where I did see a shift. It has come and gone ever since and I’m now way further beyond that where I don’t give it much credence either way. There were moments where I felt it was an incredible blessing and other times, like that paparazzi incident, were terrifying.
20 years later, both Tennant and Lucas are constantly reminded of the movie — so they really want to do a sequel
Since “Sweet Home Alabama” opened in theaters Tennant made another rom-com hit, “Hitch,” starring Will Smith and Eva Mendes. Lucas has built an impressive career that includes movies like “Hulk,” “Glory Road,” and “Ford v Ferrari.” But neither can escape the fandom people have for “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Tennant: “Sweet Home Alabama” is on all the time. It held the record for best September opening for a decade. Unheard of.
But I remember my wife and I were in Tahiti for a second honeymoon, this was like 10 years ago, and I got to talking to a couple in the pool who were also on their honeymoon and they told me they had used some of the lines that were in “Sweet Home Alabama” in their vows.
Lucas: I’ll get stopped by firemen on the street in New York City and they will be like, “I hate romantic comedies, but I love that one.” People still revisit it not as a guilty pleasure but more as a soothing pleasure.
I’ve been acting for 30 years now and I regularly have people ask me if I’ve ever made another movie. I regularly have that happen.
Tennant: When I hear people still holding it dear to their heart I end up calling Josh and going, “God, I wish we were making Sweet Home Alabama 2.”
Tennant has written a treatment for a sequel to “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Tennant: What happened was Reese’s daughter, Ava, went to school with my son, so I would see Reese on occasion. When the movie got to like 13 to 14 years later, I started thinking where they would all be. Where are those four characters now: Melanie, Jake, Andrew, and Melanie Lynskey’s character, Lurlynn? My kids were going through college so it got me thinking about a new generation of kids going to school and young love and what that would do to parents when they see their kids being real grown-ups. If the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, what is Melanie’s daughter like?
Lucas: I know Andy has written something but I’ve never read it. Andy told me there would be an honesty to it. That Jake would have mid-life issues and that there are differences where Jake and Melanie landed. Hell, maybe Jake now lives in a trailer park while Melanie had built this perfect life.
Tennant: I wrote a treatment and a lot of it has to do with Reese’s character and Melanie Lynskey’s character taking their kids on a college tour. Melanie doesn’t know this. I haven’t seen her in years. (Insider contacted Lynskey to be interviewed for this story but didn’t get a response.) I’ve done two movies with her, I did “Ever After” and this. I would do everything and anything to work with Melanie Lynskey again. She is a director’s dream. The stuff she does in every take is wonderful. Josh and I continue to lobby Reese, but she’s busy. (Witherspoon’s rep told Insider she was unavailable to be interviewed for this story.)
Lucas: I frankly haven’t run into Reese since making the movie. I keep hearing that others from the movie would absolutely love to do it. I would love to do a “Sweet Home Alabama 2.”
Tennant: Even Reese’s lawyer loved the treatment. But that’s as close as I got.
The interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.