BWW Interviews: WHAT IF Director Michael Dowse Discusses Working with Stage Vets Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan
In the new movie "What If," Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) is a medical school dropout who's been repeatedly burned by bad relationships. Everyone around him seems to be finding the perfect partner, including his friend Allan (Adam Driver) who meets his new girlfriend Nicole (Mackenzie Davis) right in front of him. Wallace decides to put his love life on hold, until he meets Chantry (Zoe Kazan), an animator who lives with her longtime boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall). Wallace and Chantry form an instant connection, striking up a close friendship. There is no denying the chemistry between them, leading the pair to wonder, what if the love of your life is actually your best friend?
I recently spoke to the director of "What If," Michael Dowse, about the film's intelligent, cliche-defying approach to the familiar Rom-Com genre, and directing actors with extensive stage experience like Radcliffe, Kazan, and Driver. I also spoke to screenwriter Elan Mastai, and that conversation will be available on BroadwayWorld tomorrow, as will my review of the film, so check back with us on Friday for all the "What If" you can handle.
BWW: I wanted to start by letting you know that I really enjoyed the film. I hadn't heard much about the storyline before I saw it, so I wasn't sure what to expect, but it was really funny, and sweet, and smart. Definitely something different for the summer season.
Dowse: Aw thanks, we like to keep people's expectations low going in.
(Laughing) No, it wasn't that at all. Going in, I just wasn't sure what the movie was all about, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.
How did you get involved with the film?
I got involved because one of the producers had been tracking it because Elan is Canadian, and he knew the script was great, and he said, "There's a chance we could get this at a turnaround." So I read the script, and loved it. I mean, I was literally doing reshoots for "Goon," and was looking to do something completely different for my next project. I had been a big fan of the genre, and I think it's just if you can nail that particular genre, it can be one of those perennial films that people just watch every year. So, after reading the script, I thought we had a chance to make a film that could sort of enter into that cannon. So, I was excited to make it, and it was a conscious decision to make something that was a little kinder and gentler.
You mentioned how this film fits into the Romantic-Comedy genre, and a lot of the talk about it centers on it being a new take on the "When Harry Met Sally" question of can men and women just be friends. But to me, it is more about the fact that love sometimes has to be patient, and has to suffer through some difficulties before two people can find each other. When you approached the script, how did you think it fit into the Romantic-Comedy spectrum?
I thought what was smart about it, the storytelling and what I wanted to bring to it, was that it is such a beautiful slow-boil. And it's because the gears are very subtle and normal, and not like, you know, somebody doesn't pretend to have cancer to get the love of somebody. There wasn't crazy shenanigans; and it was just a very simple story, there's a beauty in simplicity, because everyone can relate to it, and it's very honest. And I thought it equated to a lovely, emotional payoff at the end, where you're really rooting for these two people to get together, because they've made you laugh, you care about them, because nobody's been an asshole in the process.
And the gears were simple; the boyfriend going away, the sister showing interest, and then (Chantry) having a job offer in Taiwan, where they could be separated. That's how it works in real life; it's simple little things like that that test how you feel about someone, and draw you closer to the person. And so I thought it was completely relatable, and a beautiful slow-boil.
Yea, absolutely. You mentioned all of the characters that are a part this story, so I wanted to talk about the cast a little bit. Obviously it starts with Daniel and Zoe, and I loved that you started the movie right at the start of their relationship, and we really saw the chemistry they had together pop off the screen, right from the beginning. Can you talk about how they both became involved, and the first time you put them in a room together?
Yea, we approached Daniel, I wrote him a letter, and I knew he was a guy that was looking to do a bunch of different things, and looking to spread his wings a bit; and comedy was one of those things he wanted to tackle a little bit more. And he would be perfect for the part, and this film would be a nice step for him in that direction. It was quite quick. I wrote him a letter, then we met with him 10 days later, and he was on board three weeks later.
Once we had Dan, we looked for the right counterpoint... and Zoe was immediately a great choice. Her film "Ruby Sparks" was coming out, so I had a chance to see that and see her talk after the film, and do a Q&A with Paul (Dano), her boyfriend. And I was just really impressed by her and her sense of humor. Then I had a chance to meet with her, and you just have to give it your best guess. They're both very funny and intelligent and self-deprecating people; they've got their heads screwed on right. It wasn't really until that we put them on camera for makeup and hair for the camera test that we saw them on film sharing a frame together. Right from that point, I think we knew we had no problems, they looked perfect together. We were very fortunate to get both of them.
I completely agree. And the supporting cast, from Adam Driver to Rafe Spall to Mackenzie Davis to Megan Park, it's not exactly the traditional make-up of a romantic comedy; in terms of the actors or their characters. How did you go about creating a really authentic feel to the group?
I try to use a lot of improve, and keep it a creative and fun place to be at work. A lot of the actors talk about staying past their calls, and wanting to just hang out. It's fun; using improv lets the actors jump in and contribute creatively. I think it also brings a lot of honesty to the performance. We didn't really have a villain to the cast, so, it did have that sort of independent feel. I just wanted to keep it fun, and make sure that people are having fun, but also working hard. And especially making each other laugh.