It could be argued that the romantic comedy is one of the most difficult genres to execute with finesse. Too heavy or moody, the film will sink into melodrama. Too wacky or frivolous, the film loses its emotional pull. Like a pastry, a romantic comedy requires perfect technique to avoid the dismissive labels it’s been given.
Sophie Brooks, a 27-year-old first-time filmmaker, understands the artful craft needed to execute modern day romantic comedy, with more than a touch of screwball. The Boy Downstairs, which premiered at Tribeca this week, Brooks pairs Zosia Mamet (Girls) with Matthew Shear (Mistress America) as a former couple forced to reunite by the realities of New York’s competitive real estate market. Co-starring Sarah Ramos, Diana Irvine, Deirdre O’Connell and Arliss Howard, the film proves to be a witty and winning successor to genre classics such as Annie Hall and When Harry Met Sally.
Lesley Coffin: I read that one of your first mentors was Delia Ephron. How did you first connect?
Sophie Brooks: I met her through my dad. He was going to work with her on a film, and he connected me to her when I first got out of college. She was generous enough to read a couple of my draft and give me notes, which I was so grateful for. She’s a remarkable writer and woman.
Lesley Coffin: When making your debut film, a romantic comedy feels like a big challenge because the bar you have to clear is so high. Romantic comedies have so often been given the unfair dismissed as chick-flicks, judged by the worst entries in the genre by, maybe, male critics. Were you apprehensive when first taking it on, essentially making this your industry calling card?
Sophie Brooks: I knew from the get-go that I would have to be very specific with my characters, to avoid falling into the trap so many of those films do. But in order to be true to myself, I needed to do a romantic comedy. It’s my favorite genre, I’m always in the mood to see a good one. And I’ve always wanted to make that kind of movie. I think it would have been dishonest to do any other kind of movie. And I just wanted to be diligent and honest with the romantic comedy I made.
Lesley Coffin: Did you pull from your own experiences in the romance department?
Sophie Brooks: A lot of Diana comes from me, she comes from a very personal place. The movie isn’t autobiographical, but a lot of her fears and hopes about adulthood come from my own fears and hopes. But all the characters are based on some degree on people I know.
Lesley Coffin: I thought it was interesting that unlike a film like When Harry Met Sally, the flashbacks you incorporated only go two years back. We’re used to seeing flashbacks, but rarely do we see characters where we’re watching the growth in baby steps. Why have such a contained timeline?
Sophie Brooks: I’m only 27, but I think that your early 20s, when you’ve just gotten out of college are a time of massive change. Right when I graduated from college, I was in a completely different state of mind than I am now. So that time of settling into adulthood is a very rich time period to explore. And people who have on-again/off-again relationship usually have them within five years. It’s rare to hear about a couple getting back together after 15 years apart. There was a time when I toyed with it being a five-year period, but decided it should be two because the break up would have still been fresh enough on her soul and psyche to have the effect on her and lead to the story that develops. Had she been reacting this year after breaking up with him, it would have been a very different story.
Lesley Coffin: And I have to congratulate you for not doing something I hate in romantic comedies, presenting his new girlfriend as someone hateful or as some terrible person. It’s my biggest pet peeve because then you start wondering what’s wrong with this guy we want her to be with. I thought Sarah was really charming as Meg. How did you two approach the character?
Sophie Brooks: She’s a great actress, and is in life so charming. Sarah has a great, dry wit. So I think she’s a very desirable woman for Ben, and I completely understand why he’d choose to be with her. What I tried to do with that conflict between Zosia and Sarah’s characters was show that they’re just two different types of funny. When Meg doesn’t get Diana’s jokes, that’s a point of tension, and the audience is hopefully on Diana’s side already, although I never wanted Meg to be just the bad new girlfriend or just an obstacle. And I also think there could be a completely different movie told from Meg’s perspective. She calls Diana out and says she’s trying to be cool about the situation, but she sees what Diana’s doing.
Lesley Coffin: You took a very subtle directorial approach to the film, and allowed the dialogue to really be the driving force. Did you approach writing and directing as a single craft?
Sophie Brooks: I always knew I wanted to direct it, but even while writing the script, I tried not to limit what I wrote with the thought of what I wouldn’t be able to get. I just wanted to write the most compelling story and then when I started directing or planning to direct it, that’s the point that I started to refine the script. But I think that writing the script first really helped me direct because it gave me the freedom to make changes right on set.
© Lesley Coffin (4/28/17) FF2 Media
Photos: Zosia Mamet and Matthew Shear in The Boy Downstairs
Photo Credits: Tribeca Film Festival