Late one night not long after the making of “I Give It a Year,” Dan Mazer got a call from his producer Kris Thykier, who was quite excited to think that he had come up with the solution to the vexing problem of how to introduce the subversive comedy starring Rose Byrne and Rafe Spall as a mismatched couple who got married too soon to audiences.
“It’s bizarre even in the marketing of this is that people want to sell it as a rom-com because you understand what that is, but this isn’t a rom-com,” says Mazer. “It’s a comedy about romance, so Kris was trying to work out a way to encapsulate them [and] was very pleased that he’d come up with ‘com-rom.'”
While Mazer was skeptical of the Thykier’s creation catching on, it does precisely describe how the writer/director flipped the script for his feature debut, which even aside from defying such easy classification is a bit difficult to wrap your head around either because you’re too dizzy from laughing or you realize this slick, straightforward satire was constructed by one of the chief architects of “Borat,” “Bruno” and “The Dictator.” Yet not unlike the stealth missions he embarked on with Sacha Baron Cohen, Mazer infiltrates the romantic comedy genre with mischievous glee and brings out all of its inherent contradictions in the story of Nat and Josh, a pair whose whirlwind romance is only likely to happen in the movies and are left to discover they have little in common, particularly when they’re tempted by others (Simon Baker and Anna Faris).
Not only does Mazer succeed in creating singular moments as gutbustingly funny as anything he has in his collaborations with Cohen, but does so while smoothly making the transition into the director’s chair where he doesn’t simply cobble together a collection of comic set-ups — which would be easy enough given the cast he’s assembled, which also includes scene-stealers such as Minnie Driver and Stephen Merchant – but instead reverse engineers a tried-and-true formula for screen romance into something equally satisfying and agreeably piquant. While in Los Angeles recently, Mazer spoke about going it alone for the first time as a director, bringing his unique comic sensibilities to a familiar genre and Rose Byrne’s deathly fear of birds.
Had you been wanting to direct a feature for a while?
Yeah. Obviously, I love working with Sacha and that has been incredibly good to me and I’ve loved every second, but it’s nice to step out from the shadow certainly and do your own thing. I wanted to do something that felt unique and distinct from the stuff that we’d done together and that had my imprimatur on it in a way that it wasn’t just me trying to do a Sacha movie without Sacha being there, [though] that is my sense of humor. I like edgy, slightly alternative, iconoclastic humor and I didn’t want to completely ditch that. So the skill was to bring that sensibility to a slightly more mainstream topic and subject matter.
You couldn’t have had more experienced producers for this particular type of film than Working Title and everything from casting to the lighting schemes feel as though you’re playing it straight. Were they helpful in getting the feel right?
Definitely. I kind of wanted to go into the citadel and slightly destroy it from inside…[laughs] obviously, not destroy it because Working Title have been great collaborators, but there’s definitely something cheeky and mischievous about making this movie in the place that is renowned for making the kind of most iconic romantic comedies of recent times. The movie starts with a huge kind of grand, beautiful English wedding and I wanted that to feel like the archetypal Working Title movie. Obviously, they know how to do it, so when you sit with Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, they say don’t do it in a hall, do it in a marquis, do this and do that and “Do you want flowers?” They know how to do it and this film is about taking an acerbic view of those things and slightly parodying them, so as with all great parodies, you need to be accurate. You need to have your details right, so that it resonates.
I had heard you’ve had some miserable experiences sitting through romantic comedies – were there any you wanted to respond to in particular?
I don’t want to necessarily single out anything because everything has its merits and we all succeed and we all fail as filmmakers at different points, but generally as a genre, I think it is sort of mired in cliche. It’s very rare to see something that’s surprising and I feel romantic comedies are neither particularly romantic nor particularly comedic and you want one or the other really and sometimes you get neither.
You’ve said there are some personal elements that inspired the film. Was it an interesting experience to filter those through the certain formula for these type of films?
Definitely. Yeah, and I think there is a skill to combining the cynical with the format of a romantic comedy. My point of view is quite cynical and pessimistic and acerbic and I had all of these thoughts and observations from seven years of marriage that were bubbling around and I wanted to get them out and find a forum for them. This was the way to do it.
There are several memorable moments in the film – in fact, after I saw it at SXSW, I did that thing after of standing around and debating with others which scene was the funniest and my favorite was where Simon Baker’s Guy tries to impress Rose Byrne’s Nat with the most romantic setting possible, including some wayward doves. Did the experience on “Da Ali G Show” help with that kind of controlled chaos?
The thing that you say there that’s really interesting, and I think is key for comedies, is what you want to do is for all great comedies is to come out remembering four or five scenes. I really wanted that debate of “Did you prefer that scene to that scene?” because I think great comedies have great set pieces, whether it’s “Borat” with the naked fight or the rodeo… there’s things people come out with and remember because they stick their heads above the parapet.
The doves [scene] was definitely designed to be a set-piece, but what’s interesting about it is it turned out entirely different as scripted because Rose failed rather to reveal to us in advance that she had a morbid, paralyzing, crippling fear of birds. So we turned up on the day and she’s like, “I can’t do this. I can’t stand to be around birds.” I said, “Well, you’ve had the script for six months. We’ve done readthroughs and all those other things. So we had to embrace the fear of the birds and turn that into the comic dynamic of the scene rather than it being a distraction of birds. Rose, to her great credit, grasped the nettle and went with it. It was great.
Credits can be misleading, particularly in comedy, but after working in so many legendary writers’ rooms, whether on “Da Ali G Show” or on films such as “Borat,” was it different to go it alone as a writer/director where the buck stopped with you?
It was really nice and I have the arrogance to think that my jokes are always better than anybody else’s in the room anyway. [laughs] I don’t necessarily relish the debate over jokes, whether this is funny or this isn’t funny, that sort of thing. So it was really nice to have that solitude and the ability to be the boss and say how this is how it’s going to be. At the same time, it’s also incredibly inspiring to work with people like Sacha and Berg/Schaffer/Mandel on “The Dictator” and people like that who all have a brilliant comic output. You can really learn from them, so it’s always a double-edged sword. Fortunately, at this point in my life, I have enough confidence in what I write to think I know what’s funny and go with that. The thing about writing, obviously, is that there are infinite possibilities and it can always be better and it can always be funnier and you can always polish and keep going, but when you’re on your own, you’re your own taskmaster and that’s quite difficult.
“I Give It A Year” opens in Los Angeles at the Royal Theater and in New York at the Sunshine Cinema on August 9th and will expand on August 16th. A full list of dates can be found here. It is also currently available on iTunes and VOD.