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.