When filmmaker Raine Allen-Miller pictured her debut film, she had a few ideas she couldn’t shake. It would be set in her own stomping grounds of South London, and it definitely had to be funny. One thing she didn’t consider? “I can tell you that it wouldn’t have been a rom-com. I never really thought I would direct a rom-com,” the director told IndieWire during a recent interview.
Surprise! With “Rye Lane,” Allen-Miller didn’t just make a rom-com, she made a great rom-com. The film, which debuted at Sundance in January to acclaim, winningly mashes up everything from “Before Sunrise” to “Notting Hill” as it follows the charming Dom (David Jonsson) and the effervescent Yas (Vivian Oparah) as they walk and talk their way through South London after a meet-cute in a public bathroom.
“I think it was the right thing because I was able to add so much of myself to this,” the director said of the finished film. “If you remove the words ‘rom-com’ [when you’re talking about it], it’s a funny film, and it’s a really simple film about two people walking around and getting to know each other. The simplicity of that was definitely appealing to me.”
Screenwriters Nathan Byron and Tom Melia developed the script alongside Allen-Miller for two years — she’s quick to note that the effort was a collective and collaborative one — and the director offered plenty of ideas to help shape the feature to her desires (a notable one: The original script was set in Camden, and Allen-Miller changed locations to Brixton and Peckham).
Allen-Miller also wanted to play up the “more surreal moments” of the film — like when Dom and Yas bring the other into key memories, including a movie theater sequence that takes us inside the end of Dom’s previous relationship — to keep the story “slightly more elevated.” She also wanted to make sure that Dom didn’t make off with all the best gags, subtly twisting a rom-com trope to keep her stars on a level field.
“Naturally, I really wanted to make sure that it wasn’t a story where it was a guy bumbling and being funny and a woman just absorbing the jokes along with the audience,” she said. “It was really important note for me to make sure that Yas was almost funnier than Dom, but that also came through in the casting.”
Casting the film’s lead roles — the heart-broken Dom is reeling from a bad breakup when he meets Yas, a warm-hearted would-be costume designer with her own romantic demons — was maddening, especially during lockdown when they couldn’t immediately put their leads together.
“My casting director, Kharmel Cochrane, is brilliant. We’re mates, we have similar taste, and we just have fun when we cast,” she said. “When we were looking for Dom and Yas, we obviously met some really amazing actors that I’d love to meet again. But there was just, oh, I’m going to say the cliché line, ‘There was just something about them!’ For Dom and Yas, there was something about those two. We met them, and we were like, ‘Wow, oh, my God, they’re incredible.’ I was kind of already sold, but obviously you need to put them together [to see].”
Allen-Miller and Cochrane were so taken with Jonsson and Oparah, they were afraid to put them together. What if that romantic spark didn’t catch?
“I was so scared that once we put them in the room together, maybe they’re not going to have chemistry, but when they went in together, it was even better than I could have imagined,” she said. “I kind of was like, ‘OK, worst case scenario, I’m just going to have to coach them to have chemistry.’ But I didn’t, I can’t take credit for any of that.”
Allen-Miller’s style is a mix of the films she grew up watching and loving, a cinematic diet that consisted of everything from “Beverly Hills Cop” to “The Jerk.” She loves Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee. She was “obsessed” with “Pretty Woman” even when it was a bit too mature for her (just like this writer).
“My mom used to take us to Blockbuster all the time, and I was kind of allowed to watch whatever,” she said. “I’m the oldest of three, so it was almost like this weird sort of like, ‘Ooh, I’m the one who gets to stay up on the latest thing, I can watch a 15 film.'”
Another favorite? Frank Oz’s “Bowfinger,” which stars her perpetual faves, Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy. “The reason I love it so much is because I love Steve Martin and I love Eddie Murphy, but also it’s about filmmaking, and it’s so ridiculous,” she said. “It’s so funny. But it really inspired me as a kid. Weirdly, on the way to L.A. after Sundance, I re-watched it, and it was such an amazing film to watch when you’re about to go to L.A. as a director.”
And, yes, she does love rom-coms — “50 First Dates,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” and “Clueless” rank high with her — but though she enjoys them, she did note, “I definitely don’t identify with them. They’re fun. If there’s one on telly, then I’ll watch it, but I definitely went into this [film] wanting this to feel like a bit more than that.”
When it came to directing “Rye Lane,” Allen-Miller leaned on her classic favorites, though her number one inspiration was David Mitchell and Robert Webb’s long-running British sitcom “Peep Show.” That series, which followed a pair of dysfunctional BFFs (Mitchell and Webb, plus a key supporting turn from a rising Olivia Colman), was aces at getting into the heads of its characters through clever camera work.
“It’s such a great show, and there’s a shot they do, where they kind of go straight in, right into the face and the eye-line is just above the lens so that you’re not breaking the fourth wall, but you’re in their head,” she said. “That was definitely a big inspiration.”
After the film’s well-received Sundance premiere, “Rye Lane” was released in U.K. theaters in March and hits Hulu to stream for American audiences March 31. Allen-Miller hasn’t yet watched the film the way her American audience will, but she’s staying optimistic about how people will see it and what they will take away from the experience.
“I actually haven’t watched it not projected before,” she said. “I’m scared to watch it on a television at home or on a laptop. I really hope as many people as possible get to see it, and that’s the beauty of streamers, is that it’s even more accessible. The thing that was so beautiful about Sundance was that American people loved it, even though it’s incredibly British, which sometimes doesn’t translate.”
Next up, the filmmaker is staying busy. She’s writing another film and developing a TV show, and while she doesn’t expect to return to the rom-com genre any time soon, “Rye Lane” does provide a window into her bent. “I always like using humor to talk about what I want to talk about,” she said. “I can tell you, it won’t be a rom-com. I’m not going to be the rom-com guy.”
“Rye Lane” starts streaming on Hulu on Friday, March 31.