READ MORE: Lake Bell on Going Full-On British for ‘Man Up’ and Fooling the Film’s Crew
Mishaps, misadventures and misunderstandings tend to fuel the wackiest of rom-coms, but the Tess Morris-penned “Man Up” stays mostly rooted in the real world — it was, after all, partially inspired by some of Morris’ own experiences in the dating pool — to tell a story that manages to be funny while also keeping things from turning too silly. The films stars Lake Bell and Simon Pegg as a pair of hapless daters who get thrown together by chance and spend one wild night (maybe) connecting in an unexpected way.
As Nancy, Bell is a perpetual loser in love who can’t seem to find the right guy, while Pegg’s Jack is a bit of a smoothie who has been dating way too long. When Jack spies Nancy waiting under the clock at Waterloo Station, he’s convinced that she’s his blind date. And Nancy, well, she goes for it, sending the pair off on an a somewhat strange and mostly sweet date that could end with a true happy ending.
Morris recently got on the phone with Indiewire to talk about how her own life inspired the film, why she almost quit the business and why she wishes people would stop calling her a “female screenwriter.”
What inspired you to write a romantic comedy? It’s not something we see in theaters nearly as often as we did even one or two decades ago.
I’m really an accidental specialist in some ways. I’ve always loved them and one of the first movies I remember watching with my parents was “Moonstruck,” which remains one of my all-time favorite films, not just rom-coms, but films. I have really vivid memories of enjoying that film, and then things like “Trading Places.” It’s not a rom-com, but a very bromance-y kind of film and a precursor to buddy comedies. I’m also John Hughes-tastic. I blame the ’80s for my entire relationship status. I spent a lot of time watching “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink” and “16 Candles,” not really knowing at the time that they were really romantic comedies.
It’s fair to say that I do love the genre a lot, but I’d never really written in it. I’ve been writing mainly television through most of my twenties, mostly soap opera and sitcom things, but I often got the episodes that were more like romantic comedy style. No one ever gave me anything particularly dramatic [laughs].
Did your personal life inform the film?
I just kept getting dumped, so I had all this material of failed relationships [laughs]. Then I was under the clock at Waterloo, and some guy did come up to me and think that I was his blind date, so it was really one of those moments in life as a writer where you go, “Thank you. Something happened to me and I can actually put it into a good premise for a film.” When it first happened, he walked off and I thought, “What if I’d said yes?” It wasn’t until later that night when I was out with a friend who I was actually meeting under the clock, and I said, “I think that’s quite a good set-up for a rom-com.”
It’s also a nice throwback to romances that don’t rely on modern trappings.
It came about from a unique fusion of failed relationships, something actually happening to me, a love of the genre, and finding an idea that was modern and I actually found interesting to me, not just, “Oh, we met at work.”
The screenplay got on the Brit List back in 2011. How did that impact the film’s production?
The Brit List is not quite as powerful as the Black List. We’re the Brits, we do it in a very formal way. There’s not much fanfare to it [laughs]. “Congratulations, you got on the Brit List.”
The script had actually been optioned before it got on that, because I wrote it as a last chance saloon script. I said to my friends and family, “If this doesn’t work, I promise I’ll go and get myself a proper job.” I genuinely meant that. I had gotten to the point where I felt that I hadn’t clicked into my career yet. It does take a long time, screenwriting is a long game and there is no such thing as overnight success. It took me 15 years.
I gave myself a deadline. I wrote it in three months. I wrote it and then I sent it to my agent and said, “It’s not shit.” I just put that in the email and she came back and said, “It’s not shit, it’s good.” I think Big Talk optioned it four months after that and got on the Brit List around that time. A lot of it is just validation within the industry. I think for a lot of people it’s a way to get the exposure they need if they were overlooked, but for me, it had already been optioned so it was kind of an added bonus.
Did it make you feel like, “Oh, it’s finally happening for me”?
I’m always cautious. I remember where I was when my agent rang me, because she didn’t really ring me all that much back then. I was in my car and I pulled over immediately to take the call, thinking, “It’s probably saying they didn’t go for it,” because we’d only sent it to Big Talk, and she said, “They want to do it.”
That was amazing, but then you still don’t ever believe until the day you’re on set that it’s ever going to get made. That’s how I approach most things in life [laughs]. Script to screen, it was four years, which is actually quite short for a film…I did think it was happening, but I told myself to stay calm.
It is so hard to get a film made! Let alone a film that you can then get people to go and see. To get people into the cinema these days is a nightmare. We’re obviously working in a genre that’s tough. It’s not like it used to be with people going out. I think it’s a great date night movie.
The main thing was getting Nancy cast. We had Simon quite early on, we had him after a year. That was a big turning point, when we got him, because he’s a comedy hero.
It’s fun to see Simon getting to play both funny and romantic.
I think it’s one of my favorite performances. Of course I’d say that because it’s my own film, but I think he’s so vulnerable and touching in it, and charming as well. As soon as he came aboard, it became much more of a two-hander because I suddenly thought, “Shit. We have Simon Pegg. I’ve got to up my game and rewrite some of this in a big way for him.”
Then we get Ben Palmer, an amazing director, next, about eight months after Simon. Then we still didn’t have Nancy and we were all like, “Fuck.” “In a World” came out — Lake Bell with all her amazing accents, as well as being funny, we knew she could do British. There was a version where we thought we could do with an American, but that would have unraveled so much of the script. It would have felt shoehorned in, as some of those movies tend to do just because you want an American star you make the parent American. It’s just such a quintessentially London film, that to have her be anything other than British felt wrong, and Lake was from accent heaven essentially.
There’s a trivia note on IMDb that says she stayed with the accent and that people didn’t know she was American until the last day.
The crew was horrified [laughs]. She did this speech at the end in her American accent and they were like, “What?! What’s going on?!” It was really funny. I think they felt a bit robbed [laughs]. Couldn’t you have googled Lake Bell in the six weeks we’ve been on set? Slightly odd.
Once we had Ben, Lake and Simon, that attracted loads more of the amazing cast. Then I relaxed and thought, “Okay, this is happening now.”
Were you on set often?
It’s funny because I love being on set. It’s one of my favorite things and, since I started in sitcoms, I became used to it. But I hadn’t been on set for ages and I said to Ben, “Do you want me to come on set?” and he looked at me like I was insane and said,” I want you there all the time, Tess.” Rom-coms are incredibly friendly to writers, so why should a writer not be on set of a film?
There are obviously examples of when you’re hired to do a job and you do the job and you don’t want to go on set, but I would argue that any job you do, you become emotionally involved with. It’s different if there’s loads of different writers on a film, but if it’s just you, you should go. I would say I went 85% of the time.
Do you have another rom-com in the wings?
I’m doing a new film for Big Talk, another rom-com, a heartbreak and panic rom-com called “Textbook Behavior.” I’m writing that at the moment. I’ve just co-written a TV pilot as well, which is back in the U.K. This year has been quite crazy with the film coming out, so I’m just trying to get to the end and get another one written so I can reset a bit next year. I like to spec, but this latest one I’m writing is not a spec, it was a pitch and a commission. I think next year I’ll probably try to spec again because I find it a better process for my brain to write within my own constraints. That way, no one has any expectations either, they just get it when it’s ready. It’s cooked.
Now that your career is “clicking in,” as you put it, are you able to reflect on it in terms of being a female filmmaker in an industry driven by men?
It’s funny, because I get asked this a lot since I write romantic comedies, which are traditionally seen as this female-driven genre when actually they’re not. There are just as many men who enjoy romantic comedy as women. My biggest mission is to write people and not women, if that makes sense.
Whenever I read things about me that say “female screenwriter,” I have to say, “Well, why can’t I just be a screenwriter?” Or when people say “rom-com writers,” “No, I am a person who has written a film that is in a genre.” For me, that is my continued mission.
It does seem that we are seeing a real sea change this year, at least in terms of awareness.
Me and Kelly Marcel recently did a women in film panel and there were lots of people, but I feel that you have to include men in the conversation. We both said at the beginning of the thing, “Why are there not any men on this panel or as many men in the audience?” That’s how we become truly equal. We don’t lock ourselves away and say, “Everyone is oppressing us,” we open it up so we can land on our own two feet and be seen exactly the same way as a male writer. It’s been amazing this year, the level of attention that women have gotten, with Amy Schumer and especially the precursor to that four or five years ago of “Bridesmaids” which, to me, was a really big turning point because it showed that women could do well at the box office.
I just think the trick is to keep saying, “I am not necessarily here to write from a female point of view, I am here to write.” Nancy in “Man Up” could be a man as well.
Totally! The title is for both of them trying to reclaim that. Sometimes in life, you just have to grow some balls as a woman and as a man. I got quite frustrated when some angry person on Twitter — and you shouldn’t listen to angry people on Twitter — but they said, “‘Man Up’ is like a white person’s romance fairy tale.” I was like, “For Christ’s sake. It’s a film. About a woman and a man. Who have a fun night out and stuff happens to them that is emotional and content-driven and I have thought about it hard.”
I hate that dismissiveness of people that, “Oh, it’s a rom-com, it’s just going to be women’s problems.” I had to introduce the film at Tribeca and I said, “Everybody relax, this is a romantic comedy. Let’s all just chill out and enjoy ourselves.”
“Man Up” is in limited release Friday, November 13.