There’s a gag in “What If” that’s been done before, but as is typical of a film directed by Michael Dowse, it goes one step further than it ever has in the past. Beginning with the traditional set-up of an inappropriate phone call received at a most inopportune moment, it could’ve ended there as an amusing throwaway moment, relying solely on the strength of Elan Mastai’s clever script. Yet when Dowse had reached the end of the shoot, a week spent in Dublin after filming the bulk of the Zoe Kazan-Daniel Radcliffe comedy in Toronto, he discovered he had enough money for a proper payoff, one that involved a full set made to look like it cost a billion dollars to make an awkward situation worse by the number of extras he planned to hire (50). Just the fact he was headed to Dublin in the first place as opposed to faking it on Bloor and Queen Streets suggested a commitment most filmmakers can’t or don’t make, but this was something else.
“I’m total slut for a joke,” says Dowse. “Whatever it takes, I’ll get there.”
Those who have been paying attention to Dowse since the Canadian helmer busted through with the raucous “Fubar” in 2002 with the same ferocity as he once did with defensive lines as an offensive tackle at the University of Calgary likely already know this. Yet lately Dowse has somehow smuggled his go-for-broke comic sensibilities into more mainstream films, teaming up with Evan Goldberg and Jay Baruchel on the unapologetic hockey sendup “Goon” and now shaking up the romcom formula with Mastai on “What If,” which transcends its will-they-won’t-they roots as a story of friends prevented from becoming a couple by the relationships they’re already in by exploring the tenuous verbal divide between playful teasing and the language of love. With a particularly feisty Radcliffe and Kazan going at it, Dowse has one of his strongest casts to date, but his ability to wring the full comic potential out of every scene, both rare in the sea of filmmakers willing to settle for the cheap laugh and unusually cinematic in his approach, changes the meaning of “What If”‘s title from a wimpy suggestion of romance into a bold dare for the director to do something new.
Dowse more than lives up to his own challenge and shortly before “What If” debuts in theaters everywhere, he spoke about why he took the road less traveled with his latest film, building chemistry between the cast and crew with his shooting schedule and why in comedy or to make a career in it, it’s important to keep moving.
Were you actually looking to do something different?
I was looking for a good script, but I am always looking to do something completely different from the last project that I do. There’s a real trend to pigeonhole directors into things and I love directors that do different genres and challenge themselves with each film, so after doing “Goon,” [which was] just very violent and more male-oriented, I was excited when I heard about this script. I thought it was a great script that had a specific voice and a nice slow boil of emotional impact, so this would be something kinder and gentler I could sink my teeth into.
You usually find the heart while leading with the edge. Was this a bit of reverse-engineering?
It was, actually, because I feel like in a lot of my movies, I’m always supporting the romantic subplot, so I was versed in those scenes and how to play them without looking too hokey, but I was excited to do it as an A-story, and explore the idea of getting an emotional impact out of two people falling in love. I thought the script gave me a really good chance of doing that because it carried its own emotional impact.
Daniel Radcliffe has said that there was a fair amount of improv, which was new to him, but since the script seems as though it was a very strong structure to begin with, how much did you want to play within that?
The improv is always a part of anything I do and I’m always encouraging actors to go off-page, but you’re right, the structure was so great in this film, I just tried to find specific moments where the two actors in the scene could improvise. We picked moments like at the diner or at the first party [scene in the film] where we could cover both sides of the conversation. We just let them go off and infuse the story with their own sense of humor, their own character and their own stories. Even if it doesn’t make it to the screen, it lets the actors get familiar with each other and understand their own rhythm and sense of humor. I think it’s so integral to making a film. This film had such great dialogue to begin with, it was just like adding icing to the cake.
Is it true you actually think about that while putting together the shooting schedule?
What was funny was you try your best to put the heavier scenes later and give them some days to warm up. But eventually push comes to shove, and you can only move so much. For us, it was the diner scene. There are two diner scenes in the film. One when they first meet [at night], and one when they have this big fight [near the end of the film that takes place in the day] and it’s just the nature of the schedule that we had to do the scene with the big fight first. But the nice thing was that the other half of that day, at night, was just improvising and monkeying around, talking about things like deep fried pickles and stuff. It took so much pressure off them because they had accomplished the hard scene first that they really just let it fly. There was such a comfortable feeling on set, and they just felt so comfortable with each other because they’d gone through the trenches of the earlier scene. It benefited both of them so well.
Sarah Gadon isn’t credited, but she comes in and kills it in a single scene as Daniel’s character Wallace’s ex-girlfriend. Was she doing it as a favor?
We just asked her. We were shooting in Toronto and and we had talked to her about some other parts. Then I just met up with her and had coffee, and she agreed to do just that one scene. She chose to be uncredited. We were like, “Whatever you want. That’s fine.” She was great. And a very tough scene for her to shoot, because Dan and Zoe were just cruising on chemistry. To have her just step in for one day and do this scene where she’s maybe the closest thing to having a villain in the movie, was tough, but she did a great job. She’s a great, great actress.
I loved the rhythm of the film, which is something that wasn’t just considered in the editing room, but actually on the set in terms of how you’re able to move the camera within scenes from one character or conversation to another. Was that something that was particularly appealing to you?
Yeah, that was one of the things that I was excited to sink my teeth into — longer takes and letting the actors act, rather than building moments with editing. It was a real lesson for me as a director, in terms of trusting the performance in a two-shot and just covering that and that’s all, which you can do when you have great actors like this and they know their lines. It just helps the realism of the whole film and the natural feel of it because the audience has a much more observatory standpoint on what’s happening. They feel like they’re walking on the street with them, looking at the scene.
Usually, as an audience member, you’d know the two people on the film’s poster are going to get together romantically by the end of the film, but here I didn’t feel like you do necessarily and that these two characters actually could be friends. Is that something that’s just the strength of the acting or a tone you have to get just right?
It is difficult to achieve. Zoe and Dan are just two really grounded, really funny, really smart people and when casting them, you just take your best guess. You meet them both individually, and you think, “Okay, I think these two will get along.” Then you do a bit of rehearsal with them and that feels good as well, but it wasn’t really until we did the makeup and hair tests where they first shared the frames where I thought, “Oh yeah, this feels great. These guys feel like a real couple. These guys feel like they could be friends.” That is an interesting element to the dramatic structure of the film is it’s not whether or not these people will be together. It’s whether or not these people will just be friends or will they take it further than that? The basis of that is just in their chemistry, which was so strong right from the get go. It was a pleasure to just push that even further as a director.
Was there a point while reading the script where you thought I’ve got to do this movie?
It was the end. Obviously, I loved a lot of the script, and the writing is very funny, the dialogue and all that jazz. But it wasn’t really until the end, where I really realized what you could do with the film, which was do this slow boil based on their sense of humor with each other. Their sense of humor really becomes a symbol of their affection. It has such an impact because it means everything — it means that they care about each other because they’re willing to take the piss out of each other. I thought it was such a clever use of comedy, to be romantic.
It’s been great to see how you’ve been able to make high-profile films such as “Goon” and “What If” in Canada after your first studio film “Take Me Home Tonight,” which has sounded like it may not have been the best experience. Has it been important to do bigger movies while doing it on your own terms?
Yeah, for sure. Obviously, I love directing films, and at the time, “Take Me Home Tonight” wasn’t a great experience for me, but it definitely falls under what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’m a better director because of it, and much wiser, understanding a little bit more about how the industry actually works. For me, it’s just important to be prolific and to keep directing and keep making movies. Just don’t stop. That’s the biggest thing you can do as a director, and what I’ve just been trying to do. You can’t let those things get in your way. You’ve got to learn from them, but don’t let them stop you from making other movies. That was a $20-odd million dollar budget, and I went back to do a $4 million sequel to my first film [“Fubar”], which was a blast. It was so much fun to work like that again.
I’ve heard your next film may be “Cul-de-sac,” which is something you had originally planned as a follow-up to the first “Fubar.”
Yeah, I don’t know if I’m going to make that next, but it’s an ongoing process. It’s an insane script about a suicide club that’s correct [about predicting the apocalypse]. It’s tricky to finance, but it’s an ongoing process. I’d love to make it at one point. We might even make it as a cable series or something. We’re not sure yet.
How did you actually gravitate towards directing comedy?
I just worked in the stand-up club going to college and I was a massive fan of “SCTV,” “Saturday Night Live” and Monty Python. I just like comedy and found myself making comedy movies, even with my friends when we were drunk, so I just keep pushing that until it became a career. But it’s a hard thing to figure out. I did it on a very low-budget movie, where you can kind of afford to make mistakes and figure out the picture. Somebody asked me [earlier about] some of my favorite comedies and I [thought] about the importance of watching the DVD extras of “This is Spinal Tap” and how that influenced cutting “Fubar,” where you just learn about pushing stuff to the background, making stuff more subtle. The subtler it is, the funnier it is.
“What If” opens wide on August 8th.
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