BWW Interviews: WHAT IF Director Michael Dowse Discusses Working with Stage Vets Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan

By: Aug. 07, 2014
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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.

Sure, I went into it not expecting to like Zoe's boyfriend character Ben (played by Spall), because that's what you expect in Romantic-Comedies. Then the first time we see him, he is holding a big knife, but I was pleasantly surprised that he didn't turn out to be a buffoonish jerk, just for the sake of us rooting against him.

One nice thing about the script is that every time it tries to act like a normal Romantic-Comedy, the character gets beat down. (Wallace) runs to the boyfriend's house in Dublin, and he gets punched in the face. All these things we tried to go against cliché as much as possible.

I was looking into the history of the film, and I know that you have done a lot of the film festivals, and it was released last year in Canada. And one of the things made me laugh is kind of tangential to the film itself, is the fact that you had to change the name from "the F Word" for the release in the US, correct?


Which is funny to me, because we had a movie come out this summer called "Sex Tape" that had no trouble getting past the censors, but...

(Laughs) Well, that's an R-Rated comedy though.

I know, but can you just tell a little bit of the story as to why it was "The F Word" in Canada and elsewhere, and "What If" in the US.

"The F Word" was the original title, and when CBS bought the film, they told us that they thought it would have to change because of the MPAA, and so we went in with our eyes wide open. It wasn't like it was thrust upon us after the sale or anything like that. So, as a team, we came up with the (new) title. It was a long process to do it, but I'm happy with the title. I think it works. It definitely speaks to the audience. And probably what I learned most about renaming this movie, is that I know nothing about naming the title of a movie. It's a very hard thing to do, but I think we did a good job with it.

Did you have other options that were in the running at some point?

No, I mean, there's so many. We discussed so many.

Obviously, for me as a writer for BroadwayWorld, I know about the stage history of Daniel and Zoe and Adam, and also the fact that this film started its life as a stage work, but do you see a different approach from actors who have a background in the theatre, as opposed to those that work more exclusively on screen?

Yea, I see a real workingman's perspective on being an actor. It's something I noticed when I worked in England. Working with English actors who come from a theatre-background, they're much more from the lunch-pail crew of showing up and getting the work done. There's a lot less dramatics, and a lot less ego involved. And I think people are really into the material, and into making it as good as it can be. There's less B.S., I find, to be honest. I love working with people who are trained on the stage. They just understand the mentality.

The first time I was in England, they treat it almost like a 9-5 job, when they're working in the West End. And that professionalism and sense of community translates to the film set, which makes it a really nice place to work every day.

Very cool. When Elan adapted the script from stage, obviously that makes your job a lot different. Rather than having it being mostly dialogue in one location, you incorporated a lot of really interesting locations and brought in a bunch of really fun movement to it as well.

For me, it was a lot about the performances. I started as an editor, and I'm always a bit of a coverage monkey, in terms of making sure that I've covered every (camera) angle possible. In this one, I really just tried to let the actors live within the frame, and tried to capture things in two shots, and in one long take. And just let the actors act, and not try to build it all with editing. And that was a big take away for me as a director, and something that I am trying to work on on set; just having faith in the performances and knowing that we have it here within one shot, and we don't need to cut it. We can walk away from this, and it's awesome. And I think all of that culminates in a film where you feel like you're living within it; you're sort of observing these characters, and not being blown away by them. Does that make sense?

Yea, absolutely. It always felt like you were able to get an insight into what the characters were thinking, without having to be hit over the head with it. Another thing that I really enjoyed about the movie was the motif of the winged-character that Chantry creates appearing at different times throughout the movie.

The original script I read, there was a much more spray-painty feel; it was much more graffiti based. I had seen this clip of these people that had projected this running tiger on the streets of Paris from this moving car, and it just had this beautiful feel, where it was living within this world. And I thought this would be an interesting thing to do in the film, not only because it is beautiful, but it also sort of gives us a little look inside her head, and what her animation could do. It could sort of represent how she's feeling at the moment. It was a fun thing to explore, that's for sure, and sort of ground-one for light-mapping, which is a great technique. It's pretty mind-blowing what you can do with light-mapping, so I was excited to bring that to this film.

Because, I think a lot of these movies that are stage adaptations, where it is a lot of people talking, it has to be visually engaging; it has to be beautiful. You have to do stuff to grab people. I think if people are talking, and it looks sort of drab or mundane, you're stacking the odds against yourself.

Well, as we wrap-up; if you could summarize the experience audiences will have when they come to see "What If," what would that be?

You'll be surprised by how much you laugh about the film, but, I also think you'll be surprised by the emotional impact that has. It will be satisfying in the sense that they'll entertain you, and you'll laugh, but that laughter is feeding into a much greater emotional stake in the story.

Remember to come back tomorrow for my interview with screenwriter Elan Mastai, and my review. Are you excited to see the erstwhile Harry Potter in his first Rom-Com? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter @BWWMatt.

Photo Credit:
1) Radcliffe and Kazan | Caitlin Cronenberg
2) Radcliffe and Kazan | Caitlin Cronenberg
3) Driver and Davis | Caitlin Cronenberg
4) Radcliffe, Kazan, and Dowse | Caitlin Cronenberg