Michael Dowse is a pretty no bullshit, down to Earth guy, and considering he’s one of Canada’s most notable filmmakers at the moment, it’s refreshing. The man behind Goon, It’s All Gone Pete Tong, and the Fubar films is the kind of guy who wouldn’t consider himself an auteur in any sense of the word. He never over thinks his projects or what he’s going to say, often just going with the most honest answer possible. He’s also perfectly relaxed about it, casually taking swigs from his glass bottle of soda between answers.
For his latest project the Montreal director heads to Toronto for The F Word (opening in Canada this Friday, or if you live in the US, you probably know this one from its santized South-of-the-border title What If). From a screenplay by Toronto native Elan Mastai, Dowse tells the story of two city dwellers (Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan) who strike up a friendship that leads towards a deeper potential romantic connection despite one of them having a boyfriend. It’s a comedy first and foremost about friendship (hence the title) and how personal attraction upon getting to know someone better can potentially ruin everything.
The laid back and conversational Dowse talked to us during a promotional stop for the film in its city of origin last month to talk about being an optimist at heart, sticking to your guns in the casting process, and why keeping things simple in genre films is often the best way to go.
Dork Shelf: I’ve seen this film three times now…
Michael Dowse: Oh no… (laughs)
DS: …and I think after watching this a few times, I’ve figured out what I like about you as a filmmaker.
MD: (laughs) Uh, oh. Okay…
DS: There’s something about your movies that are realistically optimistic. Everyone in your films tends to have things work out for them, but not always in the way that the characters expect them to.
MD: (laughs) That’s actually really true now that you say that! Thinking back through them all that definitely seems to be the case.
DS: It sounds like something you haven’t really thought of too much before right now, but would you consider yourself a bit of an optimistic filmmaker?
MD: Yeah, for sure. My wife might argue that I’m more of a pessimist in real life, but I think in terms of narrative in films I think it’s really important to be optimistic. I think it’s really important to have a sense of humanity to things. I mean, I don’t want to go to a movie to see somebody fail. I want to see somebody to learn something and to set out and accomplish what it was they set out to do. The construction of a successful story is a road to success and then along the way tilt the expectations of how the movie is going to end and that the happiest endings might not be full successes, but they aren’t full failures, either. I don’t know, though. I don’t really think about that stuff too much. I just try to be honest about it and tell an interesting story or find interesting stories that others have come up with to tell.
DS: Well, the stories you have chosen to tell have always had that sense of honesty that lends itself quite well to optimism.
MD: I really do like getting to the heart of the story, and that’s something that you get from just being really honest with the performances and trying to rid any false beats or anything that feels saccharine or too sentimental or anything like that, and you just try to make it funny. I think that humour really opens people up to stories. It gives you the real estate to make things a little more dramatic when you need to and so you can give it some heart. That goes really hand in hand with comedy and audiences can connect to that. I think people are naturally drawn to someone that can make them laugh. If I can couple that with a story that’s interesting, that’s more than half the battle.
DS: And with both this film and the one you made previously, Goon, you’re taking on two genres that are kind of infamous for being saccharine and sentimental in the form of romantic comedies and sports movies.
MD: Yeah! And I mean a bit of that was a conscious decision. I did Goon because I was a hockey fan, and I love really good sports comedies. And with hockey in particular I always thought, “Fuck, what the fuck have we been making? Why the fuck is The Rock playing a tooth fairy?” (laughs) So I was excited to jump into that genre, and it was the same with this. I love good romantic comedies. They make you laugh, they make you cry, and you’re emotionally connecting with these people. They’re wonderful genres and I thought Elan’s script gave me that chance to do that. A lot of that work for me was done already on the paper. What I especially loved about this script was just how emotional it gets by the end. It’s a slow boil on paper, and I wanted to make sure that came through in the script.
DS: One of the things that’s also great about the film is that it’s not about “friendzoning,” but just a great story about relationships and friendship on their own.
MD: Yeah, and I think people are really cynical these days. I’m not a big fan of cynicism and sarcasm and all that jazz. I like this film because there is a genuine degree of hope to it. It’s not all about irony. There are true and honest emotions on the table here. And it is about friendships first and foremost and what attracts people to one another. It starts with learning how these people care about each other at first, and the romantic side is something that boils slowly, and that’s how it really happens in real life.
DS: And it feels like even if by the end the feelings of one of these two main characters gets crushed that it won’t be the end of their world. They both have the strength and agency to move on and exist outside of each other.
MD: Yeah, exactly. What I liked about the structure of this story is that it keeps things simple. We aren’t trying to put a whole bunch of third party things in there like parents, or secret demons from someone’s past. We don’t need that to drive the story one way or the other. It had a very natural set of gears. They come together, they meet, he realizes she has a boyfriend, they meet again, then they become friends, then the boyfriend goes away. I thought that was a very smart, simple thing that still has a ton of weight to it. It doesn’t need more than that. It puts less pressure on relying on happenstance and shorthand and puts the focus on the characters in the story.
DS: Much like you did when you worked with people who weren’t exactly known for sports movies on Goon, you’re also working here with people who aren’t necessarily associated with romantic comedies. Is that something that you like to do when you take on these kinds of films, to get people outside their comfort zone?
MD: Yeah. If I had a nickel for every time someone pitched someone to me and I thought they just either wouldn’t do a movie or that I couldn’t make the movie the same way I envisioned it with them in it. Hollywood really makes a go of pigeonholing people whether they like it or not, and maybe sometimes it’s their own fault, but the point being is that I try to steer away from that as much as possible.
There’s always pressure financially because you need people who have proven to be a success in the genre to get the film made. It always comes down to the question of “Do you want to get the film made with a lesser cast or risk it not getting made with the cast you want?” There’s a stereotypical cast that people have in mind for every type of film, but I always try to steer those thoughts away as much as possible.
There’s always so much pressure to cast a big star or whatever, and for this Daniel was the perfect choice that we could have come up with. He had the best of both worlds. He was a big enough star that he could checklist boxes off that the financiers would be happy with, but he also hadn’t done a romantic comedy and he was funny enough to make the material work. He was really hungry to do something different, and I thought that was what I was really drawn to. His comedy was great, but as an actor he just seemed hungry to try anything and everything new that he could, and he would put anything and everything he has into the role.
DS: And Zoe interestingly enough was one of the writers and stars of Ruby Sparks, which is a film that kind of takes a staunch anti-rom-com stance.
MD: We saw Ruby Sparks at an advance screening of the film and we thought she was perfect for this. She was just so funny and smart, but she also has a great physical element to her. She’s gorgeous and smart, but she can also play awkward and strong at the same time. I thought her and Daniel would be perfect together after meeting with them both. It helps that they got along well, too. It always helps when your stars get along. It’s always hard when they don’t. (laughs)