BWW Interviews: WHAT IF Writer Elan Mastai Embraces & Subverts Rom-Com Conventions
In the new romantic comedy, Broadway regulars Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan play a couple who are struggling to stay "just friends." In my review, I wrote that, "the chemistry between the two threatens to light the screen on fire," (read the full review here). In advance of the opening in select cities, including New York and Los Angeles, I spoke with director Michael Dowse and screenwriter Elan Mastai about the film.
Mastai told me about how he tried to both embrace and subvert the conventions of the Romantic-Comedy genre, and how important the chemistry between Radcliffe and Kazan was in making the script feel real.
BWW: Congratulations on the film. I spoke to Michael (Dowse) earlier and told him that I hadn't heard too many details about the film before I saw it, so I wasn't sure what to expect, but I really enjoyed it; I thought it was really smart, and really funny. I think this could end up being a big success for you guys.
Mastai: Well, I hope that you are correct my friend, but thank you very much. That's really great to hear, and I know when people go to movies of this genre they're sort of, "We've all seen the bad versions of this kind of story," but of course, we hoped to make a good version. So, it's always nice to hear that people had their expectations exceeded.
Absolutely. You mentioned the genre, and a lot of the build-up for the film was that it is kind of a new take on the "When Harry Met Sally" question of whether or not men and women can just be friends, but to me, the question is much deeper. More about how much pain can love withstand, and what it takes for love to survive. What do you see as the message of the film?
If I had to boil the message of the film down, it would be that you can't lie your way to happiness; which is a theme that I like a lot as a writer. But, look, I'm kind of interested in the messy, gray zone. I think in this genre of movies, we create a lot of black and white divisions; friends or lovers, and nothing in between, but I think friendship, modern friendship, between people who could be attracted to each other, is messy, and there's lots of gray area. And to me, it's in the messy gray-zone that the comedy and drama exist. Most of our relationships are not black and white; they're complicated. So, I wanted to write about a real friendship, between a man and a woman that grows and evolves; I mean obviously attraction is part of it. I think that even to become friends with somebody, you have to be attracted to them, the question is whether you can be happy quote-unquote just being friends; whether you need more.
I think it's interesting to play around with how we value those things. Even using the phrase just friends implies friendship is less than a romance. But, we've all been there, we've all been in romances that have been incredibly intense, and over in months. And we've all had friendships that last years, decades, a lifetime, which are some of the most important relationships of our lives. And so I kind of like to explore that, and also try to take it seriously, and try to write, what I think of as, an ethical Romantic-Comedy, where everybody is trying to do the right thing.
People go into (relationships) and think, "I totally understand the situation, and I'm completely comfortable with it, and I'm being totally honest about how I feel," except what we say out loud, isn't always how we feel inside. And also, things change. I mean, that's what I really enjoyed depicting; how a friendship, can start with awkwardness, and tentative steps, and then it blossoms into something that's incredibly important. How you felt when you started, and how your feelings change, make the situation increasingly complicated.
The draw of these types of movies is when you do create these hokey black-and-white divisions; and when you just embrace the complexity of human relationships, that's where the humor comes. And that's where hopefully genuine insight and emotion comes from.
It's interesting, you talk about the black-and-white divisions that we often see in this type of movie, one thing that I really appreciated about "What If" is that, even though there are things that feel familiar as a romantic comedy, every time you think you are getting into one of those clichés, you completely go the other way. Was that a conscious decision to avoid those tropes, or was that just the byproduct of trying to boil down the story to that honesty you were trying to find?
You know, I think it's both. I mean, I love Romantic-Comedies, "The Apartment," "Annie Hall," and "His Girl Friday," and "When Harry Met Sally," and "Knocked Up," and "Before Sunrise," these are movies that I really loved. There's conventions of a genre; and then there are clichés. To me, a cliché is when you basically throw something into a movie that you've seen work before in another movie, and you're not really thinking about it. You're just using it as a bandage over some narrative obstacle, and hopefully nobody notices that it's been used a million times before.
I think you can use conventions to play with audience expectations, and I think that's one of the things we get to do as writers. You can sort of set something up in a way where people think, "Oh, I know where this is going," and then you subvert it; you undercut it. Or, you run directly into it, and you try to find the real heartfelt, genuine meaning in the convention.
There's a scene in the changing room, and this is a set-up that even if you haven't seen it exactly in another movie, it feels familiar. And then my job as a writer, and Mike's and Dan and Zoe's jobs on set is to find the genuine emotion, intensity, longing, the sense of humor, the embarrassment, the thrill in that familiar situation. And if you do that, I think you've reinvigorated it. In some cases, I'm ok embracing a cliché, and doing my version of it, and then other times, to use the cliché, "tease the audience," and then run in the different direction. It's just one of the tools you have in your toolkit, because you know everybody is super familiar with the genre, so it's how you use their familiarity to evoke an unexpected reaction; that's sort of where the artistry comes.
That reminds me tangentially of something Stephen Sondheim said in one of his books of lyrics, he said something to the effect of that his job was to surprise the audience in as many ways as possible.
Yea, I agree. And sometimes the surprise is, "Oh wow, I've seen a version of that moment before, but it didn't feel that intense, or it wasn't that funny."
Sometimes you can surprise somebody by taking something really seriously. Other times you surprise them by going a totally unexpected direction. They're both really delightful surprises in a movie.
And, I think you guys did a great job with that, and a lot of that is due to a great cast, especially Daniel and Zoe. From the moment they were on screen, their chemistry was electric, and it was a lot of fun to watch their relationship grow. What did you think about the work they did with their characters in the film?
Look, when you're writing a screenplay, and it's just words on a page, you're trying to evoke that sense of chemistry, but you know that it's going to live or die based on the actual chemistry, that sort of intangible spark, between the actors. And you kind of don't know what's going to happen, until you find the two of them.
You know with Daniel and Zoe, we had a very good feeling about both of them, but it was when we got them together at a table read, when we got really excited about what we saw developing between them. It kind of takes the pressure off me as a writer, when you see that chemistry. You're like, "Ok, all this hard work and sweat that I'm putting into making these characters feel charming, they're able to get there in such an effortless manner, it takes that pressure off. Then I can focus on the emotion, on the sharpness of the jokes and calibrating the timing, and all that under-the-hood stuff, because I know that chemistry is there already.
And yea, for Daniel, I was so thrilled to see him come into his own. I mean, this is someone I've enjoyed as an actor, and then to see him blossom on the screen like that was delightful. And Zoe is such an incredible actor, and such a great person. She has such an intelligence, and wit, and warmth, and sometimes it would be so pleasurable to watch them running lines, that you forget, "Oh yea, I wrote these lines."
We're really lucky, look Daniel, and Zoe, and Adam (Driver), and Rafe (Spall), they've done a ton of theatre, they're incredibly precise technical actors, and they're also such warm and funny performers. It's easy not to notice all of the technique going on there, because they make it look so effortless. And I always have such a respect for that. I think their experience in the theatre brought a real respect for the script, but also an effortless, genuine quality that was a joy to behold.
If you could wrap up what audience members can expect when they come and see this movie in a nice little package, if that's possible for a writer to do, what would it be?
I think you can already tell Matt, precision is not my forte, but I'll see what I can do. I think audiences can expect to laugh a lot; at really funny jokes and situations, but also at recognition. Because everybody has been in this kind of situation. Everybody has been in this type of situation, and I think what the audience is going to be surprised in is, while they're laughing, we're very quietly building up an emotional connection between these characters and between them and the audience. So when it takes an emotional turn, I think it will really take people by surprise. But they will still be laughing all the way through. This is a comedy first, but it's one that treats the audience with intelligence, and its characters with compassion.
"What If" is open in select cities now, and expands nationwise on Friday, August 15th. You can follow screenwriter Elan Mastai on Twitter @ElanMastai. Also, should also follow BWW Movies @BWWMoviesWorld and me at @BWWMatt.