In putting the pieces together for her first feature script, Tess Morris recalled some words of wisdom bestowed upon a friend of hers who had been told they were “an emotional jigsaw.”
“I elaborated on it a little bit… but for me, it’s a really great way to describe something very physical but also very emotional,” says Morris, who found a prominent place for it in “Man Up,” which at once is a rollicking romantic comedy as well as a sharply perceptive and tender story of two people who have been wounded by love. “Everyone understands what you mean when you say that.”
Such common emotional truths are laced throughout “Man Up” no matter how outlandish the circumstances become, which under the direction of Ben Palmer (“The Inbetweeners”) and featuring Simon Pegg and Lake Bell as Jack and Nancy, the couple in question, is bound to get a little wild. Still, they really happened at least in part to Morris, who believed she stumbled upon something special when she was standing in the center of London’s Waterloo Station and she was approached by a man who asked if she was his blind date. Although she had to tell him no, she imagines what might happened if she had said yes instead and pretended to be someone else, envisioning Nancy and Jack on a first date that goes swimmingly, with the two volleying quotes from “Silence of the Lambs” and “Wall Street” back to one another, before Jack discovers Nancy isn’t who she says she is.
Then again, over the course of the evening, Nancy learns Jack isn’t all that he appears to be at first, either and “Man Up” becomes an enormously entertaining romp through London over the course of a single night as the two find themselves coming back to one another in order to survive her parents’ 40th wedding anniversary and a run-in with his ex-wife (Olivia Williams), with the baggage they carry at first as an obstacle transforming into what bonds them together. Both incredibly sophisticated and cheekily mischievous, the movie is fast-paced and exceptionally funny, due in no small part to its winning leads and its perfectly paired duo behind the camera. Shortly after the film’s debut at the Tribeca Film Festival, Morris and Palmer spoke about their collaboration, how they reconfigured the shoot to bring energy between Pegg and Lake to the screen in all its glory, and letting the audience feel their own emotions.
Ben Palmer: It was Tess’ writing, to be honest. When I first got sent it, I thought it’d been sent to the wrong person because I didn’t think I’d ever do a romantic comedy. But why Man Up excites me so much is because it challenges those preconceptions and misconceptions of romantic comedies. When I got it, the amount of value I put in it initially was I opened it on my phone and thought, “Well, I’ll flick through the first few pages and it probably won’t be for me and then I’ll say thanks very much.” But Tess’ brilliant writing grabbed me straight away. They’re such brilliant characters and so realistically drawn and the dialogue is the thing that suckered me in.
Tess Morris: I overwrite everything. I love a bit of dialogue.
Ben Palmer: But great dialogue, that’s what you want. It felt very real and very true to people that I know. It didn’t feel patronizing or cloying or saccharine sweet. It felt very honest and raw and that’s why it was quite exciting.
The rhythm of it is also quite energetic. Was that implied by the screenplay or did you find it with the actors or even in the editing room?
Tess Morris: Once Lake and Simon came on board, we had two weeks of rehearsal and we could get a bit more relaxed and actually work out how they talk with each other and their chemistry. Then Ben decided to cross shoot everything as well…
Ben Palmer: When I first read the script, the dialogue that Tess had written felt very fast, like how you would normally talk. [In real life] you never really leave a beat and then wait for somebody to come back. You start crashing lines and you butt in. So when Lake and Simon did their first chemistry read together, it was the first time we did one blast straight through the script and naturally, because it’s so brilliantly conversational, they would throw and chop lines in.
Tess Morris: That was brilliant.
Ben Palmer: It was very messy and very cluttered. Off the back of that, it became a case of, “Okay, we’ll cross shoot every single scene, so they can [speak at that pace]. We’ll do the first few takes where we preserve the script and the beat so nobody’s overlapping, and then we’ll ratchet it up.” It got faster and more conversational. We’re shaving full stops off and it becomes more of a fluid conversation. I’m a sucker for fast comedy as well. You don’t have to be too heavy-handed and sign post a joke, but you rely on the words and the speed of it.
Tess Morris: Quite a lot of people who’ve seen this film twice say the second time they start to get even more of the jokes. The first time you are, probably, like, “Oh yeah, great.” The second time you can relax a bit and go, “Oh yes.” Just encouraging people to pay twice to see the film.
Ben Palmer: Purely mercenary. [laughs]
This is structured in such a way you never ask why these characters stick together throughout the night, but was it difficult to keep coming up with reasons as they learn more about each other and realize it all started with a misunderstanding?
Tess Morris: I’m quite a geek about romantic comedies and the structure of them. I always had my seven emotional turning points within the script. They never changed from the first draft all the way through to shooting. The cute meet was always the clock and her reasons for why she did it, and the midpoint was always bumping into his ex in the bar. That’s one of the things I’m actually the proudest of in the film, that whether you like it or not, you believe why they’re doing everything because it’s very much grounded, hopefully in actual human emotion and not just coincidence.
Did you actually write most of the music into the script?
Tess Morris: Some but not all of it. “Here I Go Again” and “The Reflex” were the main two I wrote into the script.
Ben Palmer: Those were the set pieces that we had from the start. The music is a really big thing actually because very early on in the edit, we discovered if you start putting more traditional score on it, it felt like we were leading viewers and telling them how they should be feeling at certain times, which plays to more of that traditional romantic comedy convention. What we were trying to do was make it feel a little bit more contemporary.
We stumbled on a track, a cover of The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind,” which is very stripped back, with minimal piano and that seemed to really work at a really emotional bit. That seemed to button that scene really nicely and it got us in to playing the score a lot more stripped back, a lot more minimalist.
Tess Morris: Our composer Dickon [Hinchliffe] did a great job of balancing of [how] you’re feeling something but you’re not being told how to feel.
The handheld camerawork was also a really nice fit for this, given the knockabout nature of the relationship. Was that an obvious way to go about it?
Ben Palmer: From the start, it was because it was going for something that you wanted to feel very naturalistic and very raw [to fit the] speed of their dialogue. After 10 minutes of meeting and the confession comes, they have that whole big thing in the bowling alley where they’re at each other’s throats. I wanted it to be very fluid and in there, but I was also trying to play to something that could have a Hollywood aesthetic. A big visual reference for Lava Cantina scenes [where they run into his ex] was the bar in “Crazy Stupid Love.” I started talking a lot about that and Nira [Park, the producer] said, “Well, we’ll get the guy who shot ‘Crazy Stupid Love.'”
Tess Morris: Then we did.
Ben Palmer: Andrew Dunn, who’s a genius [cinematographer], came in straight away and he said, “I love it. I love the writing. I love the characters. I just want to do it.” And I told him, “Okay, before you say that, you’re not going to like this idea but we’re going to cross shoot every single scene.” Obviously, a lot of [cinematographers] don’t like that because it compromises the lighting of one shot because you’re lighting both directions, but he thought for a second and then went, “No. I agree. It’s what we’ll do.” So that became a plan for what we’d do with every single scene, purely for performance.
Within that, you have to look for those moments where you can poke up a little bit of cinematic scale now and again. The opening sequence [which appears as a long tracking shot that wends its way through a Hawaiian-themed wedding reception as Nancy sits upstairs afraid to go down] was an opportunity to do that, a little bit of visual storytelling to show how other people are getting on with their life and how other relationships are going to underpin Nancy’s isolation in her room.
This film is also distinctive in how it travels through London. It’s one thing to say you want to shoot all around the city, but is it another to pull it off?
Ben Palmer: That was a really big thing because we had very early conversations with location mangers, going, “Well okay, this chase that Tess has written through the streets …”
Tess Morris: I’m born and bred in London and we wanted it to feel like a very real London. That’s why we were excited about premiering it at Tribeca because New York’s got the same kind of vibe to it. British rom-coms, traditionally, are very much in the countryside or in very wealthy areas. Which is fine, don’t get me wrong, some great films have been made there, but I was like, “Let’s just put it in London. That’s what it is.”
Ben Palmer: Yeah, she knows it inside out. The location managers would say, “We’ll just do it over in this area on a Saturday because it’ll be quiet and we can control it.” But [we’d have to say], “But they wouldn’t go there. That bar wouldn’t be there. That would be in Soho and that’s where it would happen.” The [scene in] South Bank where they’re walking and talking, that’s how it would all be – to try and make that feel as real as possible, not as a twinkly, pretty London. London is a stunning city like New York, but throwing that beauty away a little bit and shooting it for what that city is rather than trying to make this fairy tale landscape.
Is it true that Lake Bell had an accent the entire time she was in London for the shoot?
Tess Morris: Yeah, the whole time until the very end when she wrapped. She did an American accent [at the wrap party] and everyone was like, “Who the hell are you?” She was incredible. It freaked me out when she finally spoke American. Even now, seeing her again, and she’s American. I’m like, “No.”
Ben Palmer: The first readthrough [of the script] was the last time we heard her speak [like an] American. Throughout all the Skype conversations after that, all of our rehearsal period, in between takes, it’s always in her [British] accent. It’s that whole thing of the more she does then she doesn’t have to think about it. It’s just inhabiting that character.
Tess Morris: She was encyclopedic. She asked me, “Where exactly are you from in London?” Because I guess it’s like New York – are you from upstate? Are you from The Bronx? She found out exactly where I was from because we also didn’t want her to be posh and Bridget Jones-like. I love Bridget Jones but I am not Bridget Jones, so that was the idea as well. She nailed it.
Ben Palmer: There’s a few scripted things. Originally, we were going to shoot that as a very choreographed and storyboarded sequence. Then the more the shooting went on, they were so playful with each other. Because of the way that we wanted this film to feel with that raw energy, we basically cranked the music up and [were] yelling in odd little suggestions and they’d be mucking about and doing their own thing.
Tess Morris: Everyone sat watching them having an absolute ball. The scripted bits were the reactions from the kids and the dudes [sitting around] and a couple of other tiny things. It was a very fun day.
The film is this rollicking comedy, but it really does have a poignancy to it. Was that layer always there naturally?
Tess Morris: I don’t know, but a lot of it is based on me and my friends, fellow single ladies. When I wrote it, I definitely had a sense of, “I have to get this out for all the ladies in the world.”
Ben Palmer: It’s quite a personal thing for you.
Tess Morris: It’s really personal. It’s actually quite exposing now. I’m suddenly like, “Oh god.” And obviously it’s a romantic comedy, but if people come out feeling hopeful generally about life, that’s actually more important in some ways. If you’re single and you go and see it, you should still come out and not feel sad that you’re not with someone. You should be like, “Oh wow. Maybe I will steal someone’s date from under a clock.”
Ben Palmer: When we did the first screening, at the end I was walking out and some guy came up to me and he put his hands on both my shoulders and went, “I just loved it. I’m going to go out there and get myself a girlfriend now,” and ran out the door.
Tess Morris: We were like, “Yeah!”
Ben Palmer: That’s the best recommendation.
“Man Up” will open in Los Angeles and New York on November 13th.