The F Word: Q and A with director Michael Dowse and screenwriter Elan Mastai

The F Word (opening Friday, August 22, in Halifax), is a bit of a rare breed in the summer of 2014. It’s an unmistakable romantic comedy and wears its genre tropes on its big, puffy sleeves.

There’s the main young, attractive couple who spark, the obstacle to keep them apart, the quirky, appealing supporting cast (a part of romcoms since The Philadelphia Story but perfected by Richard Curtis in Four Weddings & A Funeral) and a quip-filled script. All this, as I mentioned, in 2014, when romcoms are pretty much dead in the water.

It somehow manages to be very of the moment—consider the undeniable hipster names Wallace and Chantry—and a throwback to movies like When Harry Met Sally. I ask myself whether someone who’s the age of the characters in this movie (mid-20s ish) has ever seen When Harry Met Sally, made before they were born.

Maybe that’s part of why the picture is so refreshing, because we haven’t seen something like it in awhile, let alone one this good. The F Word (aka What If in the US and UK) also has a stellar cast: former wand-waver Daniel Radcliffe (as Wallace) in his first romantic lead role, the delightful Zoe Kazan (as Chantry), the recently ubiquitous Adam Driver as “the best friend,” along with great work from Megan Park, Mackenzie Davis, Rafe Spall, and Jemima Rooper.

Within the first 10 minutes it features clips from John Carpenter’s The Thing and Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, further connecting it with the spirit of the 1980s. But this is anything but a throwback. It feels fresh, while at the same time, grooving on all those romcom tropes that are so familiar. The gorgeous Patrick Watson tunes underlay many scenes, perfect for the mood setting and oh-so-Canuck.

Even more so, it has a terrific sense of place: Toronto, starring as Toronto, is showing its most lovely side. In some ways, The F Word functions as a lighter, more whimsical version of Sarah Polley’s drama Take This Waltz, sharing a couple of filming locations and a similar love-triangle structure.

And it has a hardworking Canadian creative pair at its helm: Michael Dowse (FUBAR, Goon), and Elan Mastai (Alone In The Dark, The Samaritan) in the director and screenwriter roles, respectively, as well as executive producers.

I sat down with them at the Lord Nelson in Halifax to find out whether Daniel Radcliffe is a prima donna (quite the opposite, actually), what makes a good romantic comedy, why Toronto rocks, how Phil Collins figures into their work, and why The F Word is called What If in the US.

…amongst other things:

Flaw In The Iris: I recently read in The Guardian that your star, Daniel Radcliffe, is a little embarrassed by his early work in Harry Potter. That he grew up and learned to act in this very visible, popular film series, and he doesn’t think he was very good. How did you find him to work with on your project?

Elan Mastai: I think he’s somebody who takes acting very seriously, as a craft. They surrounded him in those movies with the best actors in the world. So I think he absorbed a very strong work ethic and commitment to the craft of acting. He knows he’s in a privileged position, having been in this incredibly successful series, and he has all this fame. But what justifies all of that is getting to be the best possible actor. I see all that on set every day, how prepared, hardworking, and professional. Sometimes actors will come out of a situation like that and it can warp their point of view of the world. But he’s managed to stay very grounded, very self-effacing. It was a real pleasure working with him.

FITI: Was he your first choice for this role?

Michael Dowse: Absolutely. We knew he wanted to do something different, that he was interested in doing more comedy. He’s at the same agency as me, so we had a direct line to him. We sent him the script, he loved it. We were meeting with him within 10 days and we were off to the races. It was very quick. Usually it doesn’t go that easily. He’s amazing, we were lucky to get him.

FITI: I know the material is based on a play [Toothpaste and Cigars by TJ Dawe and Michael Rinaldi], how did it come to you?

EM: A friend of mine named Marc Stephenson, who is a producer on this, took me to see the play. It was a fringe festival production. I found it very funny and charming, with great characters. It wasn’t really a movie—it’s a one-act play, a two-hander, with Daniel and Zoe’s characters—but it felt like a great springboard, to write about the scenes I was interested in. Take the source material and expand it. Sometimes short stories make better movies than novels, because you get to expand and add rather than stripping away. I felt like that was the case with this, too.

FITI: It can be a bit embarrassing to admit this amongst some of my guy friends, but I’m a sucker for a solid romantic comedy.

MD: Me too.

FITI: But the genre is going through a real fallow period right now. It used to be that every Valentine’s Day there was one released, but not any more. Something’s changed in the industry and the audience if these films aren’t being made much. Now you’ve gone and done one, how did you keep it fresh? Is there a trick to doing these well?

MD: For me, I looked at older romantic comedies. I wanted to bring back something that was more classic in feeling. Something quieter, a little more stable. The script dictated a very realistic story. It doesn’t need crazy camera movements, anything like that. I just wanted to make a very subtle treatment to it. And I also wanted it to be beautiful, vibrant, and colourful. I think you need that to counteract how dialogue-driven those movies are. There’s not as much action as some other movies, with all the talking. For me it’s just approaching it was a classical sense.

EM: For me, I really love the genre. Many of my favourite movies would be considered romantic comedies: The Apartment, His Girl Friday, or Annie Hall. I just wanted a romantic comedy that was actually romantic and actually funny. That seems self evident because that’s the title of the genre, but you see a lot of them and they are neither romantic and they’re not funny. They’re full of phoney, contrived sitcom setups but they don’t actually make you laugh. I just wanted to invest a genre that I loved with the care and attention to make the jokes funny, and help the audience care about the characters. And, I think a lot of what you’re seeing in terms of the dearth of good romantic comedies out there is an economic imperative. Hollywood is making a lot of really, really big movies, and some very small movies, the model of super low-budget horror or giant franchise tentpoles. So the middle ground, which a lot of audiences love, a midrange movie that spends time with characters, where you fall in love with simple stories of real lives. They’re not really making those much anymore. Some of that has gravitated to television and some to the independent film world. That’s a real opportunity. You can still put together an amazing cast. A lot of actors are hungry to do real, grounded, emotional work, they just don’t get the opportunity in Hollywood.

FITI: I got the sense your cast was having fun. Especially Adam Driver. He’s in a lot right now—he’s an actor who everyone is paying attention to.

MD: We were lucky to get him, too. He was just coming off the second season of Girls, and the casting director suggested him. We said, of course, but we didn’t know if we’d have a chance to get him. As Elan said, they’re hungry to work. It’s not brain surgery to get them. You have to make a healthy offer—in the same breath they’re not greedy, but you have to make it worth their time. Have good material, a good team, and they’ll work.

EM: That was a big part of the joy of making the movie, our incredible cast. Daniel and Zoe had palpable chemistry right away, and a movie like this lives or dies by that chemistry. I love that we were able to fill the film with great supporting characters. Megan Park, who plays Zoe’s sister in the movie, I love that dynamic between them. I have two sisters, and what I wrote was inspired by my sisters. But you’ve got to capture that. As a fluke, we discovered after casting them that Zoe has a sister the same age as Megan, and Megan has a sister the same age as Zoe. They immediately fell into their own rhythms.

FITI: As a former Torontonian, I loved how this film made a character of the city itself. It’s something Toronto doesn’t get to be very often. How much was that part of your plan from the start?

MD: It was fun. I gravitated towards the east end of the city. It’s where Elan lives and where he wrote most of the film. I also think it hadn’t been captured a lot, and hadn’t been gentrified, so there’s a nice mix of old and new. And our production office ended up right there, so we’d walk around and Elan would show me parts of the neighbourhood. It was nice to set a movie there and not have to go too far. And, as I said, if you have a movie where people do a lot of sitting around and talking, it’s nice to mix that up. We found the lawn bowling, which was a great spot. The knitting store. Something to give it more vibrancy. The Beaches are very romantic and beautiful. It was a pleasure to shoot Toronto. It’s gorgeous and multicultural, but it’s treated so coldly in a lot of other movies. People look like they’re having no fun.

EM: People fall in love in Toronto, too.

MD: And they get divorced there.

EM: Yes, but they have to fall in love first! I was really thrilled to be able to show the city I’ve been living in this past decade in a more warm, romantic light. I also felt there was an opportunity to capture  the city its become. It’s changed a lot, come into its own as an international city, culturally vibrant, economic centre. It recently overtook Chicago as the fourth largest city in North America. Feels very matter of fact now to have it just be itself. Not try to conceal it as Anytown, USA. Part of that is that it’s great to shoot a movie where it’s set. It’s very liberating and makes it more specific. We all live in specific places. I find that by making it more specific, you actually make it more universal.

FITI: It was great to see the George Street Diner.

EM: Which this month is serving Fool’s Gold on the menu.

[Fool’s Gold is a modern delicacy with ingredients including bacon, jam, and peanut butter. It’s a key element in the film. ]

FITI: Mike, we spoke years ago when I interviewed you about an earlier film of yours, It’s All Gone Pete Tong. I’ve enjoyed watching where your career has taken you. And I just read recently that Film4 chose Goon as one of the 100 must-see films of the 21st Century.

MD: What? I had no idea. It’s early still in the 21st Century.

FITI: Goon must really have a following in the UK, which is weird since they don’t play a lot of hockey there.

MD: It does. It did really well over there. Sean [William Scott]’s films have always over-performed. I literally spit out my coffee when I heard they’d bought the film in the UK. Wow, they just lost a ton of money. But they did an old-school campaign, put out a lot of posters and released it wide. It made its money back. The English like violence in general, any beer and violence combination.

FITI: A lot of people are getting to see your movies and I would guess you’re getting to choose your projects more easily, do the work you really want to do. How is that going and what are your plans for the future?

MD: Yeah, I think you do get to a point where you get a body of work behind you, and that has some of its own momentum. For me, I always want to do something different the next time. I think I’m going to do an action comedy. I think that’s another maligned genre that needs help. I look at 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon, Midnight Run. 80s movies. That’s where I’m gravitating towards. I’m in a great position. I can make films here and can try to make films in the States. I can bridge those two worlds, and always have something going. And television. Elan has a television series, I have one at Amazon. It’s a great time to be making TV, too.

EM: I sold a TV series to FX in the States, and I’m adapting an episode of the radio show This American Life into a movie. It’s the breakup episode, a true story about a woman who gets dumped by the guy she thought she’d spend the rest of her life with, and she’s really into music, so she wants to write a love song to win him back, to say all the things she wishes she could say to him. She decides the best person to help her do that would be Phil Collins. So she tracks him down. And Phil is going through his third divorce and is really miserable, and is kind of retired from the music business, and really doesn’t want to help her, but they strike up a friendship. It’s about love, and heartbreak, and music. It’s very funny.

MD: Will Phil play himself?

EM: It’s a conversation we’re having. We’ll see.

FITI: Last question: Why does the picture have different titles in the Canadian and American markets?

EM: We just wanted to keep it…

MD: Confusing.

EM: Yeah. The MPAA, the ratings board, basically told us you can’t call the movie The F Word in the US. So, you know, it’s obviously very challenging when you retitle the movie. But, look, it’s difficult for a Canadian film to get a theatrical release in Canada, let along all across the US. We’re getting the movie shown all around the world, so the title change is a small price to pay. In Mexico it’s called ¿Solo Amigos?. And we’re really happy that Canadian audiences get to see the movie, not only with the original title, but the original cut. We had to make some adjustments in the film for the US market, but Canadians get to see the dirtiest, edgiest version.




About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.