Interview: Elan Mastai, Screenwriter of Daniel Radcliffe’s Romantic Comedy “What If”

Posted on August 16, 2014 at 7:49 am

Copyright 2013 CBS Films

Daniel Radcliffe’s first romantic comedy is “What If,” co-starring Zoe Kazan. Radcliffe plays Wallace, a former medical student who dropped out after his romance fell apart. He meets a girl named Chantry (Kazan) who seems perfect, but she has a boyfriend (played by Rafe Spall as Ben).  Wallace and Chantry become friends. Will they ever become more?

I spoke to screenwriter Elan Mastai about the challenges and pleasures of romantic comedy.   He is just as charming as the characters he created.  (Don’t forget to enter the contest for free tickets to see “What If” in the theater.)

Why is it so hard to find a good romantic comedy?

Part of the problem is that romantic comedies are the one genre that we’re all experts in from our own lives. I mean, most of us do not live legal thrillers or space operas or horror stories.  But we all live romantic comedies.  We’re all experts in love and flirtation and missed connections witty banter and bittersweet longing and love. This is the stuff of our everyday lives and for a lot of us it’s the thing that kind of gives our lives meaning and it’s a reprieve from our work life or whatever our personal problems are.  Without getting too philosophical about it, we’re all experts in romantic comedy so we all immediately recognize when one is phony or glib or contrived. And it makes us angry because we know that it’s not the way it feels when it’s really happening to us. The good thing for me, I didn’t set out to revolutionize the genre. I just wanted to write a romantic comedy that was actually romantic and actually funny. We just took the situation seriously with both the comedy but also the emotion of what it really feels like when it’s happening to you.

We in the audience know before the characters do that they’re perfect for each other just from the rhythm of their conversation. 

Yeah, I absolutely agree but at the same time that’s both a marker of a potentially perfect romantic partner and also the marker of a great new friend. And I was interested in the messy line between those things.  When you meet somebody who you just have a great spark with and makes you laugh and gets your sense of humour and makes you feel like you could talk to them forever, that’s also where you are looking for a new friend. And as you get older it gets harder to make new friends because you don’t always have the time sit around and just shoot at the breeze and get to know each other that way. And so I was interested in the idea — if you have that connection with somebody and you know that it’s not going to get romantic because of their personal circumstances, what’s wrong with just being friends, what’s wrong in trying to make the friendship work and going into it open eyes but just saying,  “I’m can to make this work because I’m a grown up, because I like spending time with them?”

Well, the only problem with that is you can go and do something with good intentions but your feelings evolve, circumstances evolve and even in a situation where you went in trying to do the right thing, it can suddenly spiral out of control, emotionally speaking.

One of the hurdles that comes up in designing a romantic comedy is creating the character who is going to be dumped to make room for the happy ending.  He or she has to be good enough that we believe the lead character would like them but not so good we want them to stay together.

First of all I agree completely. I think that a problem with many movies in this genre is that the make the sort of Ralph Bellamy character, the boyfriend character, like such a clearly bad guy, like manipulative or a liar.  They make it so clear that it reflects negatively on the character that’s with them. I mean what would it say about Zoe if she was living with her boyfriend of five years and he was like totally a jerk and obviously a lying cheating scumbag. Why would we invest in her if she has such terrible taste?  I like the idea that this is a totally loving committed relationship and we get why they are together but also see that there’s a difference between her dynamic with Daniel and her dynamic with Rafe. They don’t talk and joke in the same way, but there is love commitment and support.

There are some sparks that she finds with Daniel that she’s obviously missing because she’s drawn toward him. Even though she sets up very clear boundaries early on to make sure that it can’t go anywhere. And I think in real life it’s not the obstacles about internal/external, you know when work takes Ben away from her it’s plot but also to me it’s realistic at a time in your life when you’re balancing out between the relationship you’re in but where you’re work is taking you. And when you’re committed and ambitious to your work, and you feel like it’s good and important work the way Ben does about his work.

I mean he’s got a very different job than Daniel does, Daniel doesn’t care about his job but Ben does and so it’s totally in character that he would go where his career is taking him, and that also he’s totally aware of the potential for damage it can have on his relationship and they’re very upfront when they’re having conversation about it.  He doesn’t want to sacrifice his relationship for his work but it’s also an amazing opportunity and they try to be open and honest with each other about it. That was important for me. I think it is funny because people have very different reactions to Ben and part of that was a divide, it was trying to find the right pitch of a character. Some people think that he’s just like a super nice, sweet, ambitious good guy. Some people perceive sort of like sinister motives or manipulation or controlling elements of this character which I don’t think were intentional, and often say more about the reviewer’s point of viewthan I think we actually are in there.  But that’s life, people are free to make their own interpretation.

I also like that you’re seeing this guy and he’s standing next to this attractive, very beautiful work colleague and even if he hasn’t done anything wrong there is this sort of just like implicit threat or Chantry can perceive it that way if she choose to. And so it becomes a marker of where the trust level is between them. And it’s likewise for him you know to be like actively threatened by Daniel being in her life in being a friend.  That could also imply a lack of trust and so Ben’s character has to decide, does he trust his girlfriend or not and he does.

Ben is aware that Wallace makes Chantry laugh, which is very intimate.

Again that is something that we were all — me as a writer, Michael Dowse as a director, our cast, Zoe and Daniel — that was something that we really wanted to embrace, that very messy and complicated question.  If you’re spending so much time with somebody and you love to be with them and they make you laugh and you’re revealing personal stuff to them and you have an intimacy that’s growing, when does that become cheating? If you’ve never touched, if you have never kissed, if the most physical contact you’ve ever had is a handshake but you’re connecting on a deep, deep level, when does that start counting as cheating?

A bacon and peanut butter and jelly sandwich called Fool’s Gold is an important part of the movie.  Have you tried one?

Yes, many times, many times and I have to admit even the day we made them on set I ate them because I was like, “Oh wow this is so great.”  We hired a chef to make it on camera, so I said, “I’m going to eat this.” Funny story actually, the only two people that tried it on set the day were Daniel and me, and then the props guy told me afterwards sheepishly that they had sprayed it with this weird kind of like lacquer to make it shiny on camera. So we just ate this thing that basically was partially poisoned but it still tasted delicious. I’ve had it many times and I don’t think that Daniel really knows that we were accidentally almost poisoned but the props master.

I think it’s hilarious that you think that whatever they put on the outside is more poisonous than the actual sandwich itself.

As Zoe says in the movie, bacon isn’t even a food; it’s technically just pure fat. Yes, I know it’s terribly unhealthy and really you can’t get through more than a couple of bites. It is delicious but it’s is kind of overwhelming. I go to these parties for the movie and there are plates of Fool’s Gold and trays of nachos and deep-fried pickles, and it’s just like my head has exploded out into the world. But it’s so funny and kind of a rewarding in a perverse way that these weird little obsessions of mine, because they’re in the movie, are being brought out into the world.

One thing I thought was both funny and true in the film is that everybody has got some friend couple that in every possible rational world would be a total train wreck of a relationship and yet it just works in some way that is incredibly frustrating to those of us who think we understand what the rules are.

On the one hand there’s a structural thing that’s I’m doing as a screenwriter, showing two couples who meet within minutes of each other, where one couple lunges into a relationship and one couple gets kind of caught in this complicated complex nuanced sort of emotional limbo. I love the idea of counter-pointing with a couple that was completely going for it. They have a lot of advice but it’s not like their advice is always good. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. It’s what works for them, but what works for them isn’t necessarily going to work for Wallace and Zoe because they are in different circumstances.

Like in real life, I don’t have any sage-like friends who are like relationship gurus. I have like friends who sometimes give me good advice and sometimes give me bad advice. But I love the idea that of just like one of them like really launching without all the sort of obsessive ethical kind of emotional debate into just for better or for worse they are going to try to make it work and they’re volatile and very sexually frank and they’re full of energy and it’s a great counterpoint, and I think a necessary counterpoint to a nuanced, witty, emotionally resonant story line.

What are you working on next?

We’re adapting an episode of “This American Life” into a movie. It’s a comedy about love, heartbreak, and how it can feel like the worst thing that can happen to you can turn to be the best thing that’s ever happened to you. It’s great and Ira Glass is amazing to work with, exactly as you hope he’d be. He’s a delight to work with, incredibly smart, incredibly insightful about the creative process, and has the best stories.

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