Recently, the so-called demise of the romantic comedy has been well-documented. Aside from a few outliers and indie gems, it’s been a long time since there was a big romantic comedy hit of the kind that were commonplace in the 1990s and early 00s, and even longer since there was one that could sit with “When Harry Met Sally,” “Four Weddings And A Funeral” and the other films at the top of the genre.
Thank god then for “Man Up.” The film, directed by “The Inbetweeners Movie” helmer Ben Palmer, stars Lake Bell as Nancy, thirtysomething and single, who is mistaken for the blind date of fortysomething divorcé Jack (Simon Pegg), and decides to roll with it, leading to an evening of drunkenness, dancing and possibly more. As our review from Tribeca revealed, it’s one of the best films of its kind in years, funny, sweet and refreshing, showcasing two terrific performances from Bell (with a faultless English accent) and Pegg (in his most charming turn in some time) across a witty and surprising script.
The person responsible for the latter is Tess Morris, one of our On The Rise screenwriters last year, who after over a decade of work has her first produced script with “Man Up,” and her clear love of the genre shines through in the result. With the film opening in the U.K. today, ahead of its U.S. release later in the year, we sat down with Morris to discuss her excellent screenplay, the state of the romantic comedy, and much more.
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It feels like every few months, there’s some kind of article about the death of the rom-com…
And then the rise of the rom-com! And then the death again.
What do you think has led people to think that the genre’s been in trouble?
I think sometimes people forget that they’re watching a rom-com. “Silver Linings Playbook,” that’s a massive, massive rom-com that won Oscars and did incredibly well at the box office, but people weirdly didn’t put it into a romantic comedy bracket. Maybe because of the Oscars, it became “a proper film.”
It became An Oscar Movie.
Yes, exactly, rather than a romantic comedy. Similarly something like “Crazy Stupid Love,” which I thought was brilliant, didn’t get tagged in the genre, because it had Steve Carell and Julianne Moore. “Oh, so it’s a serious movie that was funny as well.” Well, no, it’s a romantic comedy! It’s endlessly fascinating to me why people dismiss it as a genre. There are good ones and there are bad ones, just like every single genre in film history. You never get people going “Oh, I don’t like thrillers” or “I don’t like dramas.” But it’s a complex thing, I think everyone’s been trying to remake “When Harry Met Sally” for the last 25 years. And some people have succeeded, and some have not. I’m not blaming “When Harry Met Sally,” I’m very glad it exists, but I think people forget that just as much work should go into a romantic comedy as any other film. You don’t just have a man or a woman want to get together with someone, and then do. It’s not enough.
It’s one of the things I liked about the film: it’s not about commitment-phobia, or friends with benefits, the sort of thing that we’ve seen many times before. It’s about these two wounded people who need to learn to trust each other. Was that your starting point with “Man Up,” the two characters?
The starting point for me, was very much a personal thing, because obviously—not obviously, I feel like I’ve done so many interviews now. “Obviously it happened to me, I was under the clock at Waterloo, everyone knows that” [the film’s inspired by a real-life incident where Morris was mistaken for someone’s blind date]. That gave me the nub of the premise and things. When I wrote it, I was like 33 or 34, and had found myself in this situation where I was heartbroken again, and I didn’t really understand why it kept happening to me, and why all my friends were married with babies and I wasn’t, and felt very disjointed from that kind of world. Through that, I inadvertently also found my own voice in terms of the type of female character I wanted to write. And with Jack, I wanted to give him as much attention, I didn’t want it to be just that he’s the bloke she ends up with, I needed him to be as nuanced, as messy and complicated as her. Often what I do when I write, if I’m struggling, I’ll take a subject and take my two characters and have them argue about it. Often that can give you quite a nice basis for who they are as people. They should really be big ideological things, not like “do you like water?” Once I started writing it, I realized that I was writing a lot of the conversations that I’d been having with lots of my male friends who are in their forties, and continue to have with my male friends in their forties…
They haven’t seen the film yet, then?
Well, a few of them have! And I love them dearly, but I just sometimes think (whispers) “Shut the fuck up!” Why are you moaning about your life when you’re dating a 24-year-old? Hopefully, I’m not being mean about anyone in this film. I wanted everyone to feel like they were real people that you would know.
There’s a generosity to it towards the characters. Even someone like Ophelia Lovibond’s character, who could have been a caricature or an antagonist…
That was actually a good turning point in the writing of it, because I remember writing that scene and thinking…. It’s like when Nancy tells Jack that she’s not his blind date, when I initially wrote that, he wasn’t that annoyed about it. But that’s not dramatic, that’s not going to work, so I made him furious. So similarly with Ophelia’s moment there, she could be annoyed and storm off, but that’s not very nice, and she’s young, she’s excited that she’s helped someone meet someone!
Do you remember the romantic comedy that made you fall in love with the genre?
“Moonstruck.” Definitely “Moonstruck.” I’d seen lots of other romantic comedies before, and watched a lot of John Hughes movies, that kind of stuff, but if I had to pick one that made me realize how rich a film could be, it’d be that. I used to watch it with my mum and dad, it’s a really nice family rom-com. It’s just really underrated, I don’t know the last time you saw it…
It’s been a while.
Go back to it, it’s got a really lovely, simple premise, it’s high-concept, but lo-fi, which is what I really like. Similarly with “Man Up,” it’s a big idea, but delivered in a small way. That’s definitely one of my go-to films to watch and get a bit lost in, romantic-comedy wise.
Did you go back and watch it when you were getting ready to write “Man Up?”
I watch it at least once a year anyway. But I definitely watched ‘Silver Linings’ for this, it came about a year after I wrote the first draft, and I remember thinking “oh, this is good bantz.” “Bridesmaids” obviously was quite a big thing when I was writing it, I wrote it just before it came out, and I thought “oh, good, female stuff, girl things!” But I remember I watched “When Harry Met Sally,” then I didn’t watch it for a long time, until I was in my mid-20s, and I was struck by “why haven’t I been watching this once a month? What have I been doing with my time?”
“Man Up” was on the Brit List back in 2011, did it change once that first draft was done and you were watching things like ‘Silver Linings’ and “Bridesmaids?”
No, not really. Those films gave me some confidence that you could still have a hit film that was a romantic comedy. The first draft was much more Nancy-based, and once Simon came on board, I did quite a big draft with him. Once you’ve had Simon Pegg say your lines, it’s such a gift, you realize, “Oh, I can do so much more with this.” It freed me up. The first draft, it was a decent draft of a film, I remember thinking “it’s not shit, this is good,” but it could have been an even smaller movie, it was very walky-talky, and there were not as many set pieces in it,You want five-to-ten moments that people remember, and what I like to think with “Man Up” is that you have “The Reflex,” Whitesnake, the porn star speech, the under-the-clock scene, so there’s now enough moments in it, that you go “Oh, I like the bit where she did that, I like the bit where she did that.”
You mentioned the sort of walky-talky movie—were you influenced much by Richard Linklater’s ‘Before’ trilogy?
I love those films. The latest one, “Before Midnight,” that’s quite painful to watch when you’re 38 and they’re the same age as you and they’re just as mucked up. But yeah, I like films set over a contained period of time, I like the poetry of that, you can’t go anywhere else, you don’t have to have time passing, you’re in the moment with these characters and you’re never going anywhere else. So definitely the first one. Obviously they’re far slower and more beautiful films in that sense of the word, and touching. But that said, I like the one night thing. Some of my writer friends think that’s really difficult to do, but I find it easier to be contained, than I do to be all over the place.
I’m a bit of a structure nerd when it comes to writing…
Join the club!
And you have such a lovely, elegant structure here, the sort of there-and-back-again, making its way to the bowling alley, then retracing its steps. Was that always in place?
Yeah, I love structure. I mention this book in every interview that I do, the Billy Mernit book, “Writing The Romantic Comedy,” but it’s so structurally on point, that book, it’s one of the few screenwriting books I’ve read that actually unlocked stuff for me. I could suddenly see the film in my head, and realized where I had to have the rise and the fall. I’m a big fan of the callback, and not that I’m encouraging people to go and see it twice, but on the second viewing, you see more of that sort of thing.
Do you have a sort of hidden gem rom-com, one that people don’t necessarily think of being in the canon, as it were?
It’s hidden so much, because it did win Oscars and things, but “As Good As It Gets” is a big favorite of mine.
It has sort of fallen between the cracks now, yeah.
It’s a great, great movie, really emotional, really upsetting. I think it’s slightly forgotten again because people don’t think of it as a romantic comedy, people didn’t put it in that bracket because it won awards. Definitely that. Not that it’s forgotten, but “Tootsie” is pretty much a perfect screenplay. But they’re still quite biggish movies. Smaller ones, I really enjoyed “In Search Of A Midnight Kiss,” that was a lovely little film, another contained time-period one, and more recently I loved “Enough Said,” a very beautiful little film. But like I was saying earlier, “Muriel’s Wedding” is a romantic comedy, “Sideways” is a romantic comedy, all of these films I’ve loved for ages, but I have to remind people that they’re watching a romantic comedy.
You were saying that you were going to bring back the soundtrack, and you definitely have, the “Man Up” one is terrific. Do you have a favorite rom-com soundtrack?
Um, no, that’s part of the thing. There aren’t that many romantic comedy soundtracks… I actually love the ‘Silver Linings’ one, it’s got that great Alabama Shakes song on it. Obviously “When Harry Met Sally,” whenever you hear “It Had To Be You,” you think about the film, but romantic comedies in general aren’t known for having big soundtracks.
I guess Cameron Crowe is the main exception, I’ve just been writing about his soundtracks.
Yeah, “Jerry Maguire,” you’ve got “Free Fallin’,” a load more there. But there aren’t many more, for me, I’m all about Tarantino soundtracks and Scorsese, and all of those sort of things. And scores, I love Carter Burwell, those kind of… I wanted people to remember the songs…
Something a bit more esoteric, rather than, say, Jessie J doing a cover version…
Yeah, here it’s more like: “Here’s [Duran Duran’s] ’The Reflex’! Excellent!” And obviously, with Elbow [who contributed a new song to the end of the film], we hadn’t locked the picture, we were nearly locked, but they watched it and wrote this beautiful song to go on the end of it, which was just perfect. It’s a very eclectic soundtrack, I don’t think you’d get Phyllis Nelson’s “Move Closer” next to Elbow in many places.
The Elbow song was the cherry on the top for me. They’re my break-up band, I get very mixed feelings when I hear they’ve got a record coming out, because I always seem to have a break-up when they release an album, but then I have the album there for comfort.
I know! That song, believe me, those lyrics, they got it right, put it that way. They got it very right.
“Man Up” is in UK cinemas from today, and will be released in the U.S. later this year.