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The 10 Films That Shaped Me: 'What If' Director Michael Dowse Lists the Comedies That Influenced Him

Photo of Drew Taylor By Drew Taylor | Indiewire August 6, 2014 at 9:03AM

"What If," the new romantic comedy starring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan as star-crossed lovers who find themselves awkwardly stuck in the dreaded friend-zone, is jazzy and pop-culture infused, so we decided to quiz director Michael Dowse ("FUBAR," "Goon") about the 10 comedies that influenced him the most.
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What If

"Man Bites Dog" (Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, Benoit Poelvoorde, 1992)

Dowse's first pick is an odd one, even for him: the pitch black Belgian faux documentary follows a serial killer as he stalks his prey. "There would be no 'Fubar' without 'Man Bites Dog.' That's probably the most influential film I've ever seen. It's a Belgian film and the first film that I saw that made me realize I could make a film for $30,000 and it could find an audience and be that funny. It was a massive influence."

"Torrente" (Santiago Segura, 1998)

Another somewhat offbeat pick is this Spanish comedy that follows a morally unfathomable cop. "It's one of the funniest films I've ever seen," Dowse said. "It's about a corrupt cop. I think Sacha Baron Cohen has been trying to remake it for years. It's one of the crudest, funniest comedies I've ever seen." What he took away from the film? "Don't hold back – push beyond what you can do to offend people and it will be way funnier. It's such an offensive movie but it doesn't bat an eyelash. It just keeps going. It was a huge success and they made three or four more sequels in Spain."

"National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" (Jeremiah Chechik, 1989)

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation photo

A more mainstream, but no less surprising choice, was "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," the third film in the popular "Vacation" series that starred Chevy Chase as a hapless, put-upon suburban dad. "This is one of my guilty pleasures, but I don't feel guilty at all," Dowse admitted. "I think it's one of the funniest comedies ever made. But it was one of these movies that I rented from Blockbuster and I never returned and I think me and my friend saw it 120 times and quote it non-stop. But Randy Quaid in that movie as Uncle Eddie is a master-performances in comedy." When asked if there was anything from "Christmas Vacation" that snuck its way into "What If," Dowse said yes, there was: "In this film there's a part where Adam Driver offers Daniel a beer and then drinks half of it and gives it to him. And that's a direct rip-off of Uncle Eddie in the original 'Vacation' where he offers Clark Griswald a beer and then drinks half of him before he gives it to him."

"Meet the Feebles" (Peter Jackson, 1989)

Dowse offered another curveball with his choice of Peter Jackson's underrated cult classic "Meet the Feebles," in which Muppet-style puppet characters are engaged in all sorts of sex-and-violence-filled depravity. "It's up there as one of the most disgusting movies I've ever seen but since it's like the Muppets on crack, it's also one of the funniest movies I've ever seen. Anytime one of your main characters is dying of AIDS but it's puppets, I think you've stepped in the right direction." When asked to choose a highlight from the film, Dowse was quick to point one out: "There's a scene where a walrus puppet is banging a cat, his secretary, over the desk, and it's one of the weirdest scenes I've ever seen."

"Raising Arizona" (Coen Brothers, 1987)

Raising Arizona

It should come as no surprise that the Coen Brothers make an appearance on the list, and for their breakthrough comedy starring Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter. "It's just one of the greatest comedies ever made – the way it's shot, and it's full of some of the greatest dialogue ever committed to film." Dowse then quoted the film for a few minutes, before becoming more specific about the film's influence: "The diaper stealing scene is something back on at any time, in terms of how to put together a proper action comedy sequence." 

"This Is Spinal Tap" (Rob Reiner, 1984)

Spinal Tap
While choosing Rob Reiner's deeply funny fake rock documentary isn't all that surprising, what Dowse took from the film is. "Probably looking at the outtakes for 'Spinal Tap' were super influential for cutting improv. It taught me what to leave out and how to push a joke to be as subtle as possible. If you look at the outtakes for the movie, they overplay a herpes joke and what ends up in the film is much more effective. It's one shot and it plays out in the background. It teaches you that if you downplay things they'll be much funnier." 

"Sweet Smell of Success" (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

"I don't think it's really funny," Dowse admitted, about the Burt Lancaster drama from 1957. Still, he found something to take away from the classic anyway: "The dialogue is razor sharp."

"The Blues Brothers" (John Landis, 1980)

The reason Dowse chose this rollicking John Landis-directed comedy that starred John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd (based on characters they had created on "Saturday Night Live")? "The stunt work," Dowse said. "And just what a crazy movie that was to make at that time – like let's make a musical action comedy. And they pulled it off. I think it was like a 200-page script or something insane that they went crazy with. It's just a masterpiece." But back to the stunts: "Nobody does stunts like that anymore. The scale is so crazy and the style of the movie, nobody makes a movie like that. And all of these great dance sequences. Carrie Fisher has a flame thrower and a bazooka in the film. There are these great elements of action in that film."

"Trading Places" (John Landis, 1983)

Trading Places, Eddie Murphy

Again, Dowse's reason for choosing this film (another John Landis classic!) was simple and straightforward: "Mostly for Dan Aykroyd eating a salmon through his beard. It's one of the great down-and-out sequences ever committed to film." There are other things he loves about the movie, though, too. "The whole ending where they go to New York. But also the character of Clarence Beeks, played by Paul Gleason, the guy who sets them up – just one of the greatest comedy characters of all time." 

"Kind Hearts and Coronets" (Robert Hamer, 1949)

"Last but not least" was Dowse's pick for the great British black comedy, which is regularly listed as one of the greatest British comedies of all time. Again, Dowse's reasoning is simple and to-the-point: "Everyone talks about Peter Sellers and how great Peter Sellers was but he owes everything to Alec Guinness and his ability to play nine parts in one film."

The Princess Bride

We then had to ask about "The Princess Bride," which is featured prominently in the film. Dowse said that he only wanted to choose "one Rob Reiner film" and that it wound up in the movie because, "It was in the script." "It was one of our many direct nods to Rob Reiner, and a little bit of 'When Harry Met Sally,'" he explained. "It would have been stupid to have them go watch 'When Harry Met Sally.' And it's such a beautiful movie. I love 'The Princess Bride' as well." When we asked about what other romantic comedies (specifically) he took a look at, he cited "When Harry Met Sally," "It Happened One Night," "The Apartment" ("There's a lot of young Jack Lemmon in Daniel Radcliffe"), "Manhattan," and he also studied a lot of romances like "Love Story" and "The Way We Were," "just to look at how they shot and treated romance movies." 

John Carpenter's "The Thing" also features prominently in the film during a sequence where Radcliffe is babysitting his nephew and watching an inappropriately scary movie with him. "It was originally supposed to be 'Aliens,' because at one point it was a Fox movie. And they could clear it. Then the funny coincidence was that 'The Thing' is one of my favorite movies. When the scene came across my desk to clear it I was actually happy because it's a better scene than 'Aliens' – it's something that people know but it hasn't been overused. And when I pointed it out to the writer, he said, 'Oh that was the first movie I took my wife to.' That was his first date with his wife – taking her to 'The Thing.' So it had a romantic connotation with the crew."  

This article is related to: Michael Dowse, What If, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Romantic Comedy, Lists, Lists, List, Movie Lists, Features