From classics like Libeled Lady and The Awful Truth to Working Girl and Bridget Jones’s Diary, romantic comedies can be cinematic comfort food. But with the rise of the mega-million dollar blockbusters and the fall of modest-budget films, the genre has largely been lost. While decades past turned out eight to 10 money-making romantic comedies a year, we now get three or four in wide release. The audience’s desire for these films is still there, according to the success of this year’s Love, Simon and Book Club and yet-to-be-released Crazy Rich Asians, but the cinematic output has decreased dramatically – until now.
Hoping to revive the romantic comedy with a diverse selection of films, Netflix is providing counter programming to theatrical tentpoles by producing original content with a host of talented new writers and directors – including writer Katie Silberman and director Claire Scanlon, both making their feature debuts with Set It Up. The screwball rom-com tells the story of two overworked assistants (Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell) who try to set up their bosses (Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs) and hope their romantic satisfaction trickles down into a happier work environment for all.
The already-buzzed-about Netflix original is now a hit for the streaming site, initially stemming from the filmmakers’ own experiences in the stressful, fast-paced world of television. Silberman, who was an assistant to Ben and Kate creator Dana Fox, penned a script which won over the soon-to-be-director Scanlon, who was familiar with the series. “I felt like I met Katie on the page because her script was so strong and she had this very unique voice,” Scanlon told FF2 Media. “It wasn’t just that her characters were three-dimensional and grounded in reality, which they were, but the jokes were clever without being mean-spirited.”
Calling the collaboration “a dream,” production began in the heat of a New York City summer – with Scanlon seven-and-eight months pregnant at the time. Encouraging positive vibes as a strong believer in the idea that the tone on a set will impact the output, Scanlon opened the doors to family and friends. Thankfully, the “no jerks” policy created an on-set working environment that encouraged the cast and crew to be on their best behavior. “[She] made sure to remind everyone what a dream it is just to get to make a movie,” Silberman recalled. “You can’t be funny if you’re afraid.”
Scanlon’s extensive background in editing (credits which include The Office, Hello Ladies and The Wrecking Crew) informed the improvisational spirit of Set It Up, shooting both actors concurrently. “That is the best way to shoot comedy,” she says. “Because if someone ad-libs, you will get the priceless reaction, which can be just as important as the joke itself. [Directors of Photography] frequently loath to do cross-coverage, because it’s their job to make people look beautiful, but no one sticks with a comedy for beauty alone. You want to catch people being funny and capture the other person’s authentic reactions.” Cross-coverage also saved Scanlon time, a vital element in shooting 169 scenes on a tight schedule. She drew from her television experience to produce the film economically and efficiently by knowing which shortcuts to take on coverage, giving the film the breezy, fast-paced style similar to Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail.
This also meant incorporating the selective but liberal use of montages peppered throughout the film, a “sometimes cliché” device used for narrative purpose. “I love directing montages,” Scanlon admitted. “When a writer puts a montage into a film, it’s a time to take a break. And an audience needs a break from that exhaustive, witty dialogue. And they were thoughtfully placed by Katie in the script. It gives the audience a chance to kind of decide where the characters are at this moment in the story.”
The witty, exhaustive dialogue needed to be rapid-fire as the screenplay was 117 pages, lengthy for a 105-minute movie. That quick delivery was a key ingredient in those classic examples of the genre and one the things which appealed the most to Silberman in creating this story. “I have been inspired my whole career, probably my whole life, by screwball comedies. The dialogue in those films was so rhythmic and beautiful, and that was always my goal and intention with this movie.”
Fortunately, the foursome of actors led by Deutch (whose comic timing is reminiscent of her Back to the Future-famed mother Lea Thompson) were perfectly cast for their roles. Powell, the biggest unknown factor of the group, impressed both filmmakers with his physical comedy. “We had to cut a couple scenes and it was shame because Glen is an astoundingly good physical comedian … He was very good at moving his body in these unexpected, funny ways. It was our second day of filming and I was comparing him to Cary Grant.” (Note: Scanlon edited the American Masters documentary Cary Grant: A Class Apart.)
Powell had enough chemistry with Deutch to translate on screen, partly due to their real-life friendship having previously starred in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some – and perhaps too much for the director. Scanlon encouraged the friends to downplay their relationship in their first scenes, telling them not to make eye contact. “At the beginning they’re not supposed to like each other. And I had to do little tricks like that with them because they really have a special connection with each other.”
Audiences, too, have connected not only with the characters but the thematic take on what love means. If the most frequent criticism of the traditional romantic comedy is fantastical versions of love, the screwball comedy mission is to show that love can prevail in disastrous elements. In one of the film’s best moments, Meredith Hagner (Search Party) delivers the line, “You like because, you love despite.” To Silberman, that is the most romantic way to describe what love means – something her grandmother passed down to her. Fortunately, for Scanlon and Netflix, she wrote it down.
© Lesley Coffin (6/21/18) FF2 Media
Photos courtesy of Netflix & KC Baily