Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson in Cha Cha Real Smooth

Cooper Raiff plays the lead characters in his movies Shithouse and the brand-new Cha Cha Real Smooth, and his Cha Cha co-star Dakota Johnson says there’s a lot of him in the film’s script. But Raiff swears that Andrew, his Cha Cha character, isn’t him.  

“I’m not a great writer, so Andrew probably sounds like me because my worldview is small,” says Raiff. “But the way that Andrew jokes around and the love he has for people around him is similar to me.”

Raiff is incredibly accomplished for a 25-year-old — Apple bought Cha Cha Real Smooth out of Sundance for $15 million — but he’s also happy to discuss what he sees as his blind spots. 

Raiff’s approach to moviemaking is similar: He doesn’t like to control every decision his collaborators make. Instead, he lets their expertise shape their contributions. 

For example, when the movie’s director of cinematography, Cristina Dunlap, presented Raiff with a look book of color palettes, she discovered that he’s colorblind. 

“He would describe scenes as warm or cool,” says Dunlap. “I realized that warmth to him had more to do with the closeness of the people and their body language.”

So Raiff put his trust in Dunlap to decide which colors to use for each bar mitzvah scene in the movie. 

In Cha Cha Real Smooth, Raiff plays Andrew, a directionless college graduate who becomes a party starter at bar mitzvahs. At one of the parties he befriends Domino (Johnson), a local single mom who’s also in need of stability. Their stars align, and clash, in this coming-of-age comedy. 

The movie arrives on Apple TV+ on Friday, and you can watch it in person at the Provincetown Film Festival on Saturday.

We spoke with Raiff about naming his movie after the Cha Cha Slide, Este Haim’s score, how colorblindness helps him focus on what he cares about the most in moviemaking, and his love for co-stars Dakota Johnson, Leslie Mann, and newcomer Vanessa Burghardt. 

Joshua Encinias: The song Cha Cha Slide plays once in the movie and it’s in the background during a pivotal moment. Why did you name the movie after the song?

Cooper Raiff: I wanted a title that felt big enough to be a movie about bar mitzvahs, but also about all the other things in my growing up that I kind of wanted to feel. What I told myself too is Cha Cha Real Smooth is the part of this song where you do your own dance, and I think Andrew’s big hurdle in life is trying to figure out what his own dance is. 

Joshua Encinias: Tell me about your idea to center Cha Cha Real Smooth around bar mitzvahs. Are you the life of the party like your character, Andrew?

Cooper Raiff: The idea for the setting is I went to school with a lot of Jewish people and my seventh grade year was wild because I went to a service and party every Saturday. I don’t feel like I’m the life of the party. I really liked to dance, but I’m not as extroverted as Andrew, and I think it would take a lot out of me to be a professional party starter.

Joshua Encinias: Did you pick the songs for the soundtrack? There’s so many great songs by Alex G, Rostam, and of course, Cardi B.

Cooper Raiff: I love Alex G. Este Haim did the score and were talking about if we should score this montage and she showed me this song From the Back of the Cab by Rostam. We were both like, this song is really good and it worked for that montage so well, and so that was how it came into the movie. Everything else came from our music supervisor Rob Lowry. I think he knew my taste and knew what I was trying to do with the movie. He would send me playlists of all these song options for different moments. It was just so fun working with him and listening to music and discovering people like Cardi B — just kidding. I always wanted “WAP” in the movie but we didn’t get the actual song. We just got the karaoke version, which we tried to hide. That’s the reason why my character was singing along, because we tried to hide the fact it’s the karaoke version.

Joshua Encinias: Your director of photography, Cristina Dunlap, says that you’re colorblind and you use a shorthand with her to explain how you want the color in a scene. How does it affect you as a filmmaker?

Cooper Raiff: It makes me focus on things that don’t involve color palettes. Cristina really was the director of photography and I wanted to convey to her how I wanted each scene to feel. I thought we could accomplish that with the juxtaposition of how something feels or how something’s shot. I care about the movement of the camera, how shaky it is, how still it is. I care about how far away we are for a long lens perspective shot. But I don’t really care so much about the colors. I just want it to feel as inviting as possible and accessible. I don’t want us to be thinking about how artful a shot is. So I left a lot of the color stuff up to her.

Joshua Encinias: Does lighting become really important because you’re colorblind?

Cooper Raiff: Not really. I know when something feels too stylized. I let lighting people do what they do. I always tell everyone that working on the image is more personal and I want it accessible but I also want them to do their thing. Cristina has worked with this lighting team on a bunch of other stuff and I let her work with them and figure out what works the best.

Joshua Encinias: You’re balancing a lot with writing, directing, producing and acting in your movies, but it sounds like you’re also pretty good at delegating. Does that come naturally to you or did you have to develop that skill?

Cooper Raiff: It comes naturally. I think there’s certain things that I feel really not controlling about, and there’s other things that I do have to work on delegating better. I care about a few things so intensely, and lighting, color and framing aren’t it. I have things that I don’t like; I always tell them I don’t want the framing to feel like it was constructed. In certain spots, I want it to feel organic and not symmetrical.

Joshua Encinias: What are the few things you like to hyper focus on?

Cooper Raiff: Performance in the kinetic energy of something and making sure nothing’s taking you out of the things we’re trying to say with each scene and the ultimate thing we’re trying to say with the movie. I’m trying to make sure someone watching thinks it’s very real, and they feel absorbed in it so they don’t know they’re being fed a message.

Joshua Encinias: How does it feel being thrust into success so young in your career at SXSW and then at Sundance where Apple bought Cha Cha Real Smooth?

Cooper Raiff: It’s overwhelming. I feel like I made a movie and where it goes from here isn’t up to me. We picked Apple to be its home, and it’s like, let Apple do their thing. I try not to let it overwhelm me, but it is overwhelming. I don’t have my hands on the movie anymore. 

Cooper Raiff and Evan Assante in Cha Cha Real Smooth

Cooper Raiff and Evan Assante in Cha Cha Real Smooth

Joshua Encinias: I think the funniest line and delivery in any movie is Leslie Mann in The 40-Year-Old Virgin when she says, “Let’s get some fucking french toast.” Will you talk about working with her?

Cooper Raiff: She’s truly amazing. She’s my favorite actress in the world. … Her role is instrumental in setting the movie’s tone. That’s what I wrote the character to do, and Leslie Mann is the ultimate human being. Some people think of her as this incredible performer who’s so good at balancing comedy and drama, but it’s really just that she’s such a full person, and she’s just such a joy to talk to whether it’s on camera or in her trailer. She’s so emotionally available and has a deep well of empathy and massive interior emotional life. She’s also so fucking funny. Even more than her deliveries, it’s the way that she is so alive and so aware. I think that’s what makes her so funny.

Joshua Encinias: Will you talk about Dakota Johnson helping develop the script?

Cooper Raiff: She was my script buddy from the very beginning. I really wanted her character Domino to give Dakota room to do what was personal to her, and what she’s really good at as a performer. We were trying to make a marriage of Domino and Dakota, making it the most exciting, dangerous, funniest, most meaningful marriage possible. And she really wanted me to ask questions while I was writing. I was asking what she thought about certain strengths that Domino had or things that she wanted to say. I asked her a lot of things and she was game to spend that time with me.

Joshua Encinias: How did you find first-time actress Vanessa Burghardt to play Lola? And how did you develop such an authentic autistic character?

Cooper Raiff: The Lola that was on the page is very different from Vanessa. When I watched her audition, something about it really overwhelmed me emotionally. I was like, this is the heart of the movie and I want Vanessa to play Lola. I rewrote the character in a major way when we cast her because she was older than what we had on the page and she’s so unique in different ways. Without trying to put the onus on her and to do my job as a writer, I met with her a lot and rewrote Lola to play to Vanessa’s strengths and what’s so special about her. 

Joshua Encinias: Is there anything you can say about Exciting Times, the new TV show you’re working on?

Cooper Raiff: It’s based on a book called Exciting Times. I’m writing it with the author Naoise Dolan and she’s the smartest person I’ve ever met. Writing with her has been so much fun because she’s really leading the way. It’s been my dream writing experience because I’m just in awe of her and trying to help her as much as I can with the limited knowledge and perspectives that I have. It’s been really nice getting to know her and getting to write with her and see how her brain works. I think the show is going to be great because it’s such great material.

Cha Cha Real Smooth is on Apple TV+ Friday, and screening at the Provincetown Film Festival on Saturday.

Main image: Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson in Cha Cha Real Smooth.