What are the top 10 things that come to mind with the release of every new romantic comedy? Do you think of all the makeover montages (á la Bridget Jones’s Diary), the singing into random objects (like in 13 Going on 30) or the quirky, sardonic or sassy best friend (think Rosie O’Donnell in Sleepless in Seattle)? There’s also the one night stand that turns out to be the new boss, sliding down a wall while crying, elderly who say inappropriate things, shots of heads falling into the frame and landing on pillows, speeches to win over the girl, a falling in love montage and the chase to stop someone from doing something or going somewhere.
Romantic comedies have become formulaic and anything but appealing to the smart moviegoer. There is, of course, the occasional breakout movie that exceeds all expectations. But those are few and far between. Earlier comedies like The Philadelphia Story and Annie Hall wouldn’t be able to compete at the box office with the likes of Sex and the City: The Movie. But what if the best of these movies combined? It would probably result in a smart, funny, relatable story for both sexes. It would probably result in something like He’s Just Not That Into You.
Based on the book of the same name, which was inspired by one line of dialogue from “Sex and the City,” He’s Just Not That Into You is about the connections—romantic and otherwise—between nine Baltimore, Maryland residents. Guiding the ensemble of actors, which includes Ginnifer Goodwin (“Big Love”), Justin Long, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Connelly, Kevin Connolly (“Entourage”), Bradley Cooper (Yes Man) and Scarlett Johansson, is director Ken Kwapis.
Known largely for his work with television ensembles, Kwapis helmed the pilot episodes of such television comedies as “The Office,” “The Bernie Mac Show” and “The Larry Sanders Show.” Each, he says, “are unique in that they’re not about jokes, they’re about behavior and tone.” Much like He’s Just Not That Into You, “what stands out is the sense that comedy comes from how well we can observe behavior.”
Among the director’s other projects that have “observed behavior” are Sexual Life, an independent movie he wrote and directed starring an ensemble of actors that included Elizabeth Banks and Tim Weber, the movie adaptation of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and He Said, She Said. Here, Kwapis shares his thoughts on the behaviors that led to his latest movie.
Mallory Potosky (MM): You’ve worked on a movie that was based on a book before—and that’s common—but the book that this movie is based on doesn’t have an actual storyline. Did it prepare you at all to read the book before hand?
Ken Kwapis (KK): Well, I definitely read the book and what I realized was what we were making was a film where, in a way, the main character isn’t so much a character but a theme. Actually, that’s not a very good way to put it. It’s almost like the film is constructed like a piece of music with a theme in variations. But it definitely helped to read the book; just this whole idea of misreading signals can play out in different aspects of our lives.
MM: The book is based on a line from “Sex and the City” so it already has that female interest and it’s going to be marketed as a romantic comedy. Do you think that the final result will appeal to both genders?
KK: Oh yeah. I mean, I think the book was aimed squarely at women but the film attempts to represent men and women fairly equally. I think that the film shows that men are—can be—just as confounded by signs of women and that there are just as many men who pine after and are rebuffed by women as there are the opposite. Certainly Kevin Connolly’s character is smitten and so adores Scarlett Johansson, yet she’s really not that into him. Kevin is sort of like her default if something better doesn’t come through. I think that it might take a little more work to get guys to see it…
MM: But in the end…
KK: Well, I think once they’re there… for instance I think there’s a difference between romantic comedy and a film that kind of excludes men. I don’t think a lot of men were interested in Sex in the City: The Movie for instance. But I know a lot of men that would go see a film like an Annie Hall or a When Harry Met Sally. I don’t think romantic comedy, per se, is only for women. I also, weirdly enough, don’t really think of the film as a romantic comedy.
MM: It’s definitely not so in the traditional way, like the movies that are coming out now.
KK: I think this was our hope in developing the script and how we executed this. We wanted to, first of all, avoid certain rom-com clichés. We even shot a little promo that you can find online, entitled “10 Chick-Flick Clichés That Are Not In He’s Just Not That Into You.” It’s something that Kevin Connolly, Bradley Cooper and Justin Long and I put together in order to make guys less apprehensive about coming to see our film.
In adapting the book into the film we tried to do a number of things. One was to keep it very real. If you asked the female cast members what their favorite costume was, they’d probably scratch their heads cause it’s not that kind of film. It’s not a costume show. There are no scenes where people shop. We tried, on every level—photography, costume design, production design—to make these characters feel as real as possible, as relatable as possible, as successful as possible. And, by the way, for a director with a cast of very glamorous and, frankly, very beautiful people, it was hard.
The book really has a lot to do with rejection. But how do you take a group of people like Scarlett Johansson and Drew Barrymore and Jennifer Connelly and make them, in effect, rejectionable? Well, the way to do it was to try to keep it as real as possible. In working with the cast, I encouraged everyone to think of me as someone who is simply there to eavesdrop in the lives of these characters, as opposed to thinking of themselves as putting on a show for me. This is really about, How can I create this feeling in an audience that you’re eavesdropping on the lives of real people?
One of the compliments I’ve received on the film is that people feel like they know these characters, they’ve met them or they’ve been there and done that. Some people said they wished the movie didn’t end because they love the company of these characters. I think a lot of it has to do with, for instance, there’s a lot of humor in the film but it is humor that sort of comes up from behavior instead of jokes…
MM: Or slapstick…
KK: There’s no slapstick, no gags, no physical comedy and by and large there’s no jokes. So many comedies, in film and television, run on jokes; that’s the fuel of the comedy. The rhythm of a comedy goes joke to joke. This film couldn’t be further removed in a way. It’s like there’s a lot of funny stuff but then it will turn on a dime and become sort of heartbreaking in the blink of an eye. It’s very emotionally difficult for these characters.
Probably one of the strongest scenes is when, after Justin Long’s party, Ginnifer Goodwin throws herself at him. It’s a great example of comedy that’s so… you cringe and you laugh but you’re so embarrassed for her. She’s so blind to what’s really going on. It’s very funny and the audience finds it uproarious but a moment later he chastises her for being so unable to read the most obvious signals and the scene takes a very different turn. It actually ends up being a very sort of hugely positive scene for her but very emotional and she stands up for herself. So I find that one of the nice things about the script—and again, all credit to the writers, not to me—but they provided me with a blueprint that really suggests a film that, yes, it’s got humor in it but, I don’t know… romantic comedy? It’s almost like social observation with humor. It doesn’t feel like a rom-com.
MM: It’s more of a character study?
KK: It’s a character study but there’s a big idea at work. Whether it’s in love or other parts of your life, we tend to view life through the prism of our hopes and we don’t see what’s right in front of our faces. This whole issue of waiting for the phone to ring applies as much to, for instance my work life is my love life. I’ve been in situations where I’ve had a job audition and then I stare at the phone waiting for someone to say I got the job. So I think in some ways, the sort of blunt advice that Justin Long dispenses to Ginnifer Goodwin applies to not just men or women, it’s not even a men or woman thing, it extends beyond issues of romantic interest.
MM: There are a lot of characters in this movie and they each relate in different ways, so, indirectly or directly, there are a lot of different relationships going on. How did you maintain the flow of the movie—to make sure that the audience is getting the story in the way and order that they need to?
KK: The key is that when I read the script the first time I felt like I related to all nine characters equally. I feel like I understood each of their predicaments equally. I felt like, again, I’d either been there, done that, made that mistake, wanted to do this or that. I felt like in every case there was a point of entry, I knew these people. Some of them were me… all of them were me. So, I felt confident that I could keep you involved in all of them equally. I’ve had some experience with this. The film that you mentioned as the other adaptation, The Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants, was the same kind of thing. The book was about four young women who are friends but, by and large, they’re not even in the same frame together. There’s a short section that introduces and establishes their friendship and then most of the film they’re in separate parts of the world.
I felt like I had some practice in keeping people involved in a number of characters. And somebody said to me that when they saw He’s Just Not That Into You that wherever they were in the story they were happy to be there. It wasn’t like they were saying, “Oh, enough of that person, let’s get back to someone else.” But it’s hard because ultimately you have a lot of different stories that all reach their climaxes around the same time. You have to figure out how to modulate things so that you’re not overwhelmed with all these stories hitting their emotional peaks at once.
MM: Do you think there’s one storyline that stands out as the central storyline?
KK: I guess you could say that Ginnifer Goodwin’s character is first amongst equals just because her and Justin’s story relate. I guess I should say that Justin is, in effect, the voice of the book. So that their storyline contains material that you can draw from very literally from the book. There are many people who have told me how wonderful Ben Affleck is in this film and yet he has the least amount of real estate in the whole picture. There are many people who love Drew Barrymore and she’s in only a handful of scenes. But what’s nice is, Ben’s character, even when he’s not on screen, he’s having an impact.
MM: Whereas Drew Barrymore’s character doesn’t have that…
KK: No, I think that that character of Mary doesn’t undergo a dramatic transformation but her story is so compelling—the story of someone who feels the only way she’ll succeed in life is mastering technology. And, in fact, the resolution of her story is that she puts down her phone and walks across the room. I’m so thrilled with the writers. They created that penultimate scene for her when she sees Kevin and decides to approach him but can’t walk over. She calls him from five tables away. But then having done that, she puts down her phone and shakes his hand and it’s almost like after all this, after being so flummoxed by the world of MySpace, Facebook, text mail, voice mail, e-mail, she kind of has this simple human interaction and it’s sort of a huge breakthrough for her. In other words, that story might not occupy a lot of screen time but boy does it sure resonate with people.
MM: Aside from your film work, you’ve done a lot television directing. Do you find any similarity in directing television shows with ensembles when you compare it to an ensemble feature like this one?
KK: The experience on “The Office” gave me a lot of insight into how to orchestrate an ensemble. Unlike the British original, the American version is very much a true ensemble show. The original, which is one of the great television shows, really was very much about Ricky Gervais’ character, David Brent. When I directed the pilot for “The Office,” we tried to cast the show with people who were not stars. But we wanted people who didn’t look like they belonged on broadcast television. The opposite is the case for He’s Just Not That Into You, where the ensemble is made up of some of the most internationally, well-known actors. So in some ways, the challenges were very different.
MM: Since you graduated USC, you’ve been mostly directing (with the exception of Sexual Life). Is there more writing and directing in your future? You said you “got the blueprint” from the screenwriters of this movie—do you prefer getting the blueprint first and directing other people’s work?
KK: I’m really eager to shift in the direction of being a writer-director. I really admire writer-directors. At the same time, I love the idea of collaborating with strong writers and feel like one of the skills I’ve developed is the ability to work with really strong writers both in television and features. It’s very satisfying to work with a piece of material that is not mine because I can attack it almost as much as a critic as a director. I think it was Truffaut who said that the best directors approach the scripts as if they were critics. Not that you can’t do that with a script you’ve written for yourself, but it’s harder.