CS Interview: Director Mark Steven Johnson on rom-com Love, Guaranteed
ComingSoon.net got the opportunity to chat with director Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil, When in Rome) to discuss his return to the rom-com genre for the first time in a decade, Love, Guaranteed, which is now available to stream on Netflix!
When he first heard word of the project’s concept and development, Johnson found he was very interested in helming the project, namely given he began his career in the romantic comedy field penning the well-received Grumpy Old Men and its poorly-received sequel, and expressed that the genre is “where my heart is.”
“I’ve done a lot of different things, but I always keep coming back to comedy, I really wanted to do rom-coms, like classics like When Harry Met Sally kind of rom-com, and when this one came along, I loved Rachael Leigh Cook’s idea,” Johnson explained. “I went into Netflix and I said, ‘I just want to do something that makes people feel really good.’ That’s enough for me right now, I just want to help people feel better than they did when it started and we all agreed and so that’s what we set out to do. Something with a big heart to it and something that felt like an old-fashioned classic romantic comedy and I think we accomplished it. It was so much fun to do, I loved making this movie so much and going back to comedy and working with Netflix and Damon and all of the local actors.”
While Cook naturally came with the project as its female lead, along with getting a story credit and executive producing, the next step became searching for his leading man and it didn’t take long for the 55-year-old filmmaker to land on Damon Wayans Jr., as he was already a big fan of his previous work and saw something in the film that was right for the star.
“I’m a big New Girl fan, so I love Damon and I love his stand-up and I love the movie Let’s Be Cops, I just think he’s so talented and I hadn’t seen him do anything like this before and he’s such a handsome guy, he would kill me if he heard me say all of this,” Johnson laughed. “But he’s such a great-looking guy and I wanted to be the first to really show off that side of him so when I met with Damon, what he said when he got to me was, ‘I’m always that guy in comedies that whenever any kind of emotion comes up it’s undercut.’ That’s the job of a comedian, ‘Don’t want to be sappy, don’t want to be too emotional, you’ve got to be too cool for that’ so he said, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’m going to really commit to it, I promised myself that if we were going to get to do this that if the emotion was there I was really going to be the guy and not go for the joke.’ That chemistry, that weird thing, is something that either happens or it doesn’t, I’ve had it where it doesn’t work and I’ve had it where it does and these two work. I think they’re great together, I’m really rooting for them on-screen together.”
Before the cameras started rolling, however, Johnson had one little change he wanted to make from Elizabeth Hackett and Hilary Galanoy’s script which was its setting, feeling he wanted to move the story from the oft-explored Los Angeles to the more romantic setting of Seattle.
“There was talks about maybe going to South Africa to shoot because it’s such a good deal financially,” Johnson recalled. “I said, ‘Look I want those leaves turning in the fall, I want coffee, I want rain, I want that cozy, fireside kind of vibe to it.’ I love Vancouver, it does double for Seattle, which I know has been done a lot, but when you go to Vancouver and you see those leaves turning in Stanley Park and you’ve got the city and the mountains and you’ve got Gastown and the cobblestone streets I mean, oh my god, it’s so romantic. I just said, ‘Look I’d rather shoot here and have less days to shoot,’ because it meant so much to me to have that look and I think you feel it. The scene, the walk and talk where the leaves are turning near the water, I loved that, you don’t have to fake anything, it’s beautiful and it’s fall. They meet at a coffee cart and it’s pouring out, which was actually not in the script, it was really pouring out and that was day one [laughing], but we went, ‘Look, we don’t even have to work for it, it’s actually pouring out,’ because that’s the way it is in Seattle, it rains a lot. You see them walk and talk together on that first time they meet on the way to her office, if you look behind them it’s just pouring out, I mean we were drenched. It wasn’t a cute little romantic rain, it was pouring, it was unbelievable [laughs].”
Changing this setting as well as the shorter nature of a smaller-budget shoot proved to a practical challenge for Johnson, as he has “never done a movie in 22 days” and found himself occasionally struggling with the time crunch as he was afraid of “feeling like you were losing anything” in the performances.
“We had a great local casting director and she really turned me on to Sean Amsing and Lisa Durupt, all these local wonderful actors,” Johnson brightly noted. “When people start improving and it’s working, it’s such a pleasure but you also have to watch the clock [chuckles], so it’s always the combination of trying to get as much as you can in the limited amount of time you have. As far as the comedy goes, that’s what I’ve loved so much and what feels natural to me since the very beginning, I was 25 when I wrote Grumpy and that’s how I started and where I’m so happy to be back to. I just want to make romantic comedies for Netflix forever, I’d be very happy doing that [laughs]. It’s funny, this is my first time doing anything for Netflix and that isn’t theatrical and this is usually the most stressful week of your life, because you’re like, ‘How is this going to do? Are people going to know about it? Are they going to go to it?’ When you’re working with Netflix, you’re like, ‘Yeah, they’re going to know about it, they got Netflix, they might watch it.’”
Despite this crunch, however, he found he had “100 percent” creative flexibility with Netflix behind the film in comparison to working with the theatrical studio system he’s mostly worked with throughout his career, crediting his Netflix executives for really “trusting you and supporting you” and “letting you do your thing, it’s wonderful.”
“It’s one little benefit to making a smaller movie like this is you’re know dealing with a $100 million budget where everybody is frightened that it may not work and they’re getting their hands involved,” Johnson explained. “It’s been the best experience of my career so far.”
With a cast of such comedic force, Johnson definitely allowed his talent to play with the material and their characters while also noting that they also shot “everything that was on the page” so they could have options in the editing room.
“That’s the tricky thing, because there are some great, great actors who can’t improv, they just weren’t taught that way, they’ll give you what’s on the page beautifully, but anything off the page they’re on their heels a bit,” Johnson related. “So the fact that all these people have a comedy background, it was like you had an improv troupe, so there’s a lot of lines, especially I’d say from Roberto and Denise in the office, a lot of that was them going off each other and they had never met before. They had never worked together before and they were like an old comedy gang, it was fun watching them play off each other.”
One of the most opportunistic parts of the production came in the form of the casting of Heather Graham (Desperados) in the role of the titular dating service’s CEO, with Jonson also calling himself a “huge Heather fan” and pointing to her work on another Vancouver production as helping land her for the role.
“I just watched Bowfinger the other day with my kids, it’s such a great movie,” Johnson warmly opined. “She’s so funny and she’s so beautiful and we were kind of playing off a Gwyneth Paltrow Goop kind of character, and we just got very fortunate because I brought her up because I realized she was in town shooting The Stand based on the Stephen King book. I knew she was there and knowing actors like I do, most actors want to work, they don’t want to sit around on days when they’re off, they want to play, so I thought, ‘Maybe she could do this while she’s here in town working on The Stand’ and that’s what happened, she’d come shoot a couple days with us and we’d have this really fun, gorgeous rom-com atmosphere and then she’d go to work and come back and I’d be like, ‘How was it yesterday?’ and she’d say ‘I had rats dropped on my head, that’s what happened to me yesterday’ [laughs]. So it was quite the difference from Stephen King to our movie, so I think she had quite the great time.”
Though he started his career in the romantic comedy genre, many audiences may know Johnson better for his works in the comic book world with the 2003 adaptation of Daredevil starring Ben Affleck (Justice League) and 2007 adaption of Ghost Rider starring Nicolas Cage (Mandy), both of which he wrote and directed. With the forthcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness opening up the possibility to pre-Marvel Cinematic Universe iterations of iconic heroes appearing in the film, Johnson found it could be “fantastic” to see his versions of the characters return to screen for the project.
“I’m the biggest Marvel fan in the world, especially the Marvel universe now, my movies were pre-all of that,” Johnson chuckled. “I think they’re probably going to wanna — who knows, who knows what they want to do? I love those films, I absolutely adore them and loved making them, but I’m happy to be back in comedy [laughs]. This is my comfort zone.”
Earnest, hard-working lawyer Susan (Rachael Leigh Cook) has taken one too many pro bono cases. To save her small law firm, Susan begrudgingly takes a high-paying, high-profile case from Nick (Damon Wayans Jr.), a charming new client who wants to sue a dating website that guarantees users will find love. But Susan and Nick soon find themselves in the middle of a media storm, and as the case heats up, so do their feelings for each other — which could jeopardize everything.
Love, Guaranteed also stars Heather Graham (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me). The movie was written by Elizabeth Hackett (Falling Inn Love) and Hilary Galanoy (Falling Inn Love) and directed by Mark Steven Johnson.
The movie is now streaming on Netflix.