Filmmaker Michael Dowse hasn’t exactly broken out in the United States, although in his home country of Canada, he’s known for a couple of cult favorites like the two “FUBAR” movies and the hockey comedy Goon, starring Seann William Scott and Jay Baruchel. Neither of those movies could possibly prepare his fans for his decision to direct What If, a comedy that looks at the relationship between two young people whose situation forces one of them into “the friend zone.”
In this case, it’s Daniel Radcliffe’s Wallace, a British ex-med student living in Toronto, who meets Zoe Kazan’s Chantry at a party. They instantly connect, but she already has a boyfriend in Rafe Spall’s Ben, leaving Wallace to have to settle for being friends with Chantry while secretly wanting there to be more. So begins the type of will-they or won’t-they relationship comedy that defies the normal romantic comedy clichés, while harking back to classics like When Harry Met Sally.
Bolstering the awkward chemistry between the two leads is a hilarious supporting cast that includes Adam Driver (from HBO’s “Girls”), MacKenzie Davis (That Awkward Moment), Megan Park (“The Secret Life of an American Teenager”) and more, allowing the movie to explore all sides of love, romance and the relationships between men and women.
Again, Dowse may not be the first director one might think of for what turns out to be a comedy about unrequited love that’s as meaningful and resonant as it is witty, but he did a great job bringing Elan Mastai’s adaptation of the play “Toothpaste and Cigars” to the screen with all its divergent elements fitting together like a finished puzzle.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Dowse to try and figure out how he did it early last week.
ComingSoon.net: I went into this movie not really knowing much about it, including who directed it, so it was exciting to see the end credits and realize it was directed by “the guy who did Goon” which I really enjoyed. Maybe at one point I knew you directed it, like at Toronto, but when I saw your name, I went “Oh, yeah ” Michael Dowse: It makes sense, yeah.
CS: It did make sense and some of the things I liked about “Goon” were definitely in this as well, such as the character interactions. Dowse: Yeah, it’s funny. Probably three of my previous films all support a strong romantic subplot. It’s sort of part of being a director these days. There seems to always be a romantic subplot you have to support throughout the movie. I felt going into this one, I had a bit of experience in it, but this movie’s definitely a counterpoint to “Goon.” It’s a complete reaction to “Goon.” I wanted to do something completely different and something a little kinder, gentler compared to “Goon,” even though I loved “Goon,” but I was ready to do something in the opposite, almost, you know?
CS: In that movie, having any romance was surprising because it was not something you’d expect from a comedy that follows in the footsteps of “Slapshot”–another movie I love–but it gave the movie humanity. How did you get involved with this movie? Was Daniel already attached? Dowse: Yeah, there was a script out there that Searchlight was trying to make, and they put it in turnaround and one of the producers on “Goon” had been kind of tracking the project, so we financed it out of Canada and we knew we would qualify. When we were doing pick-ups on “Goon,” I reread the script and I had a chance to sit down and talk with Elan about it. It just made sense. I loved the script. I loved how funny it was. I loved the voice of the script, but more than anything, I liked how there was this great slow boil to their romance and it was all about slow boil. The heat underneath that was their comedy and their common point of their shared sense of humor, which is a trick. I thought, “It’s so simple. Why not let comedy sort of be the cornerstone to their romance, you know?” Most romantic comedies are neither funny nor romantic and this one had both and used it to create a beautiful sense of tension throughout the movie.
CS: The script has received a lot of acclaim, being included on the Black List, and being a writer yourself, is it harder to direct a project where you have a script that’s already in such great shape? Dowse: No. (Laughs) I’ll take a fully developed, pretty perfect script any day. No, I mean, when I got involved, we did a bit of work with Elan sort of fleshing out sort of some scenes with the ex-girlfriend and we did a couple table reads and just tried to flush out a couple of themes of the film, but a lot of the work had already been done in terms of the script. It was just a matter of actually shaving it and just making it even more concise.
CS: Did the cast come together fairly quickly? Dowse: Yeah, yeah, it was really quick. We sort of circled Daniel, put him in our sites and I wrote him a letter and met him. Five days later, I was Skyping with him and 10 days later, I was in London and three weeks later he was signed on and we were off to the races, so relatively quick. Then, once we had Daniel, we kind of built the cast around him as a cornerstone. Zoe was perfect. You needed somebody that would work with Daniel and made sense and would seem realistic. Zoe not only was very funny and smart, but she just had this great physical sense to her that I thought complimented Dan’s sort of English sense of humor, where one’s more rope-a-dopey. She’s more rope-a-dopey and he’s stiffer, and I thought it was a nice compliment, too.
CS: It’s interesting that they come from such different backgrounds with Daniel going headfirst into studio movies and doing those for ten years and Zoe coming from the most independent improvisational movies. Dowse: Yeah, they compliment each other very well, very well. I mean, we used to joke that Dan’s probably the most experienced person on set. Definitely, he’s one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with, and he’s gone toe to toe with our generation’s best actors, so Ralph Fiennes or David Thewlis. He knows what he’s doing. He was excited to branch into comedy and my only question was, “Is he funny?” Within 15 minutes of sitting down with him, you’re like, “Yeah, he’s funny. He knows what he’s doing and he can definitely go toe to toe.” It was fun to get those two together and let them riff and let them improv and see what comes out of that. It’s a great way to build honesty into a performance and to also let these characters sort of inject their own personality and sense of humor into it.
CS: I’ve interviewed Daniel before and he’s always had that sense of humor. Dowse: No, exactly. You never see it in a film. It’s very classically British, but I think he was excited to play a character that was really close to him–not that he’s stretching in the other movies–but just to live in a character that’s as close to him as a human being. I think it’s fun for an actor to do that.
CS: Had Adam Driver already been on “Girls” when you cast him? Dowse: Yeah, we got him after his second season. He was coming off the second season and I was a huge fan of his, and Ronna, our casting director was like, “We should go for him.” I was like, “Yeah, absolutely. Let’s try and get him.” We had to move the schedule a little bit to make it work, but he was great. I remember just the way the schedule worked, he could only come in for the last two weeks in Toronto, so the first three weeks, I remember talking to the editor, because all the lovey-dovey scenes were up there. Where’s the grit? I need to shoot one more scene of people talking about their feelings, then Adam shows up and there’s the grit, and it was a perfect compliment to everything else.
CS: His pairing with MacKenzie Davis makes quite a counterpoint with the Daniel/Zoe relationship, each of them meeting the other at the same party. Dowse: Yeah, exactly.
CS: Why set the movie in Toronto, because you obviously could have used Toronto without distinctly making it Toronto? Dowse: No, there were a couple of different iterations of it. I think when the script was first written it was Vancouver and Paris and then when they tried to make it in the States it became Chicago and Buenos Aires. Then, for us, Toronto just made sense. It was a beautiful, huge city that I thought had been treated quite coldly in other movies, and Cronenberg and Egoyan sort of treat it very gray blue, and it’s not like that at all. It’s a vibrant, beautiful city, and I thought the trick for me, what I liked about the East end of the city was all the water, and I thought the boardwalk and the beaches was quite a beautiful sort of place to set the film, so I was excited to showcase it. I’m a Montrealer, and people were blown away by how their city looks. I’m like, “It’s not that hard. You’ve just got to shoot the city.” We were fortunate to have three or four days where I could just focus on shooting the city without the talent, which is a nice way to build those montages.
CS: I was also curious about the animation in the movie. Was that something in the script? Dowse: No, when I first read the script, there was a version with some more graffiti-based animation that did come alive in a sense. I’d seen this technique, where these guys had projected a running tiger in Paris off of a moving vehicle, and I just liked the way that not only did the image look beautiful and vibrant because it was projected and illuminated, but it was also living within the world and I thought it was an interesting way to incorporate her work into the living world of the film. It was also a nice sort of snapshot into her head at that moment and could effectively sort of give an idea of where her head’s at.
CS: You’ve done a number of other movies before this, but do you look to any other movies for inspiration? Dowse: Yeah, for sure. I looked at all the romantic comedies, but also a lot of just the pure romances. I looked at “Love Story” or even the movie I always look at “The Conformist.” (Laughs) I try to look at that for every movie, but yeah, I just looked at how they shot these sort of great romances, like “Manhattan” or “When Harry Met Sally.” For me, the big test or the big thing I tried to do is just try to keep stuff in two-shots and keep the actors within the frame acting and less trying to build them out with editing and more of letting the performances happen in the frame and letting them breathe a bit more. I come from an editing background, so I tend to cover like a maniac, and I tried to not do that on this film and just be happy with the long takes and move on and just let the actors act. I think cumulatively, it has a nice effect on the film.
CS: One of the surprising things for me–besides finding out you directed it–was that the humor gets pretty dark. I don’t want to spoil it but one particular scene was unexpected in how dark it gets while still being funny. That’s when Daniel comes over to Zoe and her boyfriend’s place for dinner and something bad happens. Dowse: Don’t worry, CBS has spoiled it. It’s in the trailer.
CS: Oh, it’s in the trailer? Dowse: Yeah. (Laughs)
CS: I had no idea. When I first saw it, I was laughing really hard and I thought, “That’s really dark. Why am I laughing so hard at this really dark moment?” Did the script have that sort of dark sense of humor as well? Dowse: Yeah, the humor definitely did have a bit of an edge, and that was one of the things that attracted me to it for sure was the voice of the comedy, but also, you need these sorts of moments of physical comedy throughout the film to sort of break it up. All these movies where it’s people talking in a room, it’s got to look beautiful, it’s got to be vibrant, the production design’s got to be good. It can’t just be a drab sort of world that these people live in. It’s got to compliment that and support that, but also, these moments of physical comedy are very important because they kind of shake people out of the rhythm of the movie a little bit and have them pay attention a little bit. It’s a bit of a tilt to get people to sit up and pay attention again. So we tried to do that throughout the movie.
CS: It really worked, so I guess this being your sixth movie, do you feel like you’ve gotten the romantic comedy out of your system with this? Dowse: Yup, definitely. (laughs)
CS: So where do you go from here? Are you involved in the sequel to “Goon” at all? Dowse: Yeah, I mean, a little bit. Jay (Baruchel’s) writing it right now, so we’ll see how that progresses, but no, what I want to do next is an action-comedy, like a big old R rated action-comedy that’s a hard R, but action first in the spirit of “48 Hours” or “Lethal Weapon” or those great sort of Joel Silver movies from the 80s. I think that’s sort of a maligned genre as well.
CS: So would you call up Joel Silver and say “Hey, I have this idea”? Dowse: No, I mean, it looks like I’ll probably do one early next year or at the end of this year, so that seems to be progressing, but I think the action-comedy is the great genre that I grew up watching. These days, it’s either not too much comedy or the comedy sort of makes the action feel a little too stunty or it’s not funny at all in an action movie. I think that balance is what makes an amazing movie.
CS: It’s tough to mix genres. Even a romantic comedy, it’s often hard balancing those two elements. Dowse: Yeah, yeah. I want to do something completely different and I’m very, very comfortable shooting action. It’s one of my favorite things to shoot, and I think when it’s done right, at the scale of something like “Blues Brothers” or “Pineapple Express,” it can be ridiculously funny, so I’m excited to do something at that scale, but it’s both funny and has real bad guys and real tension to it.
CS: Do you do still write a lot of your own scripts? Dowse: Yeah, that’s all I’m doing right now is writing. I’m adapting a Parisian movie about a divorced couple. It’s a road trip movie, a remake of a French movie. I have a TV series at Amazon Studios that I’m developing and writing something for Fox right now, and yeah, I’m probably going to make this action-comedy.
CS: You’re a busy guy. Dowse: Very busy.
CS: Since this premiered at Toronto last September, I assume that it was pretty much done when it showed there? Dowse: Yeah, sure. I mean, we added an epilogue to the end of the movie and tightened it up a little bit in the third act. Did a bit more work, but nothing crazy, so kept working on it.
After the interview had officially wrapped, we continued to talk with Dowse about how close to home this movie hit for us and he told us a story about when he was touring across Canada with the movie along with screenwriter Elan Mastai, and they both ran into women who had put them into the friend zone.
What If is now playing in select cities and will expand wider this Friday, August 15. In case you missed it, you can watch our short interview with Radcliffe and Kazan right here.