Exclusive Interview: ScreenAnarchy Talks THE F WORD/WHAT IF With Michael Dowse

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
Exclusive Interview: ScreenAnarchy Talks THE F WORD/WHAT IF With Michael Dowse

When I called Michael Dowse for our interview, I tried hard not to sound like a crazy person. I admit that I've been a bit vocal about his films on Twitter, and believe (without any sarcasm or irony) that a decade from now his name will be associated with the great directors that have come out of Canada.

There's a deftness to his filmmaking that's refreshing, a wonderful blend of the silly and the serious that's often so hard to pull off. I first recognized the spark of genius when Fubar 2 played as part of TIFF's Midnight Madness programme back in 2010. While the first film was juvenile and silly, the sequel was in many way astonishing - yes, it's a stoner comedy, but more than that it's biting social commentary, and one of the most probing looks at the culture surrounding Alberta's Oil Sands economic boom.

My views of 2011's Goon also haven't been kept quiet (I still believe it to be "the apotheosis of Jewish wish fulfilment" as per this essay). Having seen the film a half dozen times since I wrote that piece, I still believe it to be one of the great English language films to come out of this country.

This year brings The F Word (released in the US and UK as What If), which opens across Canada on Friday, August 22. When I saw it last TIFF, I felt it to be "an extraordinary portrayal" of my hometown of Toronto, and that it "transcends its formulaic pretenses, resulting in a charming, quite effective film." It's been tweaked a bit since then, and despite what I felt to be remarkable performances by Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Megan Park and Adam Driver, and a clever, self-aware script that both spoke to classics of the genre while making its own way, others haven't quite bought into its shtick.

I spoke at length with Michael about this project, about working in Canada, and how he convinced Radcliffe to jump aboard this project, one that he's been tirelessly helping to promote over the last several weeks.

THE F WORD was kicking around the blacklist for a long time. How did it come to you and how did the project get shaped once it got in the hands of a writer-director?

Michael Dowse: The script was great. One of the producers on Goon brought it to my attention and I liked it immediately. I thought it was funny, but more than anything, I liked the emotional punch that it had at the end of the movie, which I thought was an amazing feature of the script.

I thought that if I could translate that into a film, we'd be in good shape.

We were actually re-shooting, doing pickups on Goon when I met with [writer] Elan [Mastai] for the first time. From there, we did a bit of shaping, but it didn't need a lot of work. We just tried to flesh it out, we figured out the animation bit.

I really liked the structure, where the gears to the film were quite simple but totally realistic and therefore really effective. Things like the boyfriend moving away and her getting a job offer and the sister becoming interested. Because I cared about the characters so much because of how much they made me laugh, I was really rooting for them to come together and wanted to make sure that translated to the movie.

When you're reading a script, do you find it a challenge of not immediately putting on both either a director hat or a script editing hat?

Yeah, sure. Sometimes what happens is you get scripts where people know they need work and they want your help, so you have to learn to put the fire hat on a little bit when you read it, but that wasn't this script at all. yeah, every time you read a script, you read it as a director and of course as a story editor because that's part of your job.

What I'm getting at is is it possible now to engage with a script without feeling a need to modify it? You're saying you didn't modify this one a lot, but some directors can't touch a project without feeling they need to make it somehow their own.

If it doesn't need any help, why fix something that works? I don't feel a need to modify it just for the need of modification.


Can you talk about the casting process?

It starts with Dan. He's the first guy we got on board.

It was a really quick process to get him. Usually, it takes months, and he really responded to the script. I wrote him a letter and I was meeting with him 10 days later and then he was on in three weeks after writing that first letter.

Once we had him, it was important to find a counterpart that would work well with him, and Zoe was a very easy choice to make. I'd seen Ruby Sparks and liked it, had heard her talk after a screening, and then met with her and she was very intelligent, had interesting insights into the script. She was excited to work with Daniel, so it made a lot of sense to put them together.

I think it was a camera test for me when we first saw them, when they started the hair and makeup test where we first saw them share a frame and I thought we had something really great there.

We were lucky to get Adam. He was just coming off his second season of Girls and we just went after him and held the offer and he jumped on board. We had to move the schedule around a bit to make it work, but it was all worth it.

Yeah, you got him before STAR WARS, so nicely done.

[Laughs] Yeah, we got him pre-Star Wars

Without betraying any confidence, what was in that letter. What could you possibly write to Daniel Radcliffe to convince him to do your film?

I just thought he would be looking to do different stuff, that this would be a good comedic part for him to play and to spread his wings in the comedy world a little bit. We also talked a bit about the improv that I use and how I approach making films and he seemed to jive with that. I haven't read the letter in three years, so I don't know exactly, but I think that was the gist of it.

Do you think THE F WORD is substantially different from your other projects, or is it a continuation of what you've been doing?

I think there's a continuation to the tone of the comedy for sure and the heart in the movie as well. I think you can tell that it's my film, hopefully you can. But yes, it's a much different film and that was a conscious decision to try to do something a little bit different and challenge myself in a different way.

I think it's different because it's less edited than my other films. I try to cover as much as I can and accent everything with the editing. This one, because the script was so strong and the actors were so great, I thought it needed a lighter hand and I was excited to do something where the actors could just act in the frame and it wouldn't get edited a lot. I was relying on longer two shots and stuff like that, a more placid feel.

Last TIFF there were two great Toronto movies shot by guys from Montreal. Denis Villeneuve shot all the horrors of this city, the concrete jungle, and yours seemed perfect attuned to the great parts of this city that are rarely documents.

Yeah, Enemy is a great film, but brings out the cold side of Toronto, unlike what we were trying to do.

ENEMY makes Toronto look like Mogadishu does in war films, and you make Toronto look like how Woody Allen shoots the Island of Manhattan.

I was trying to go for the Mogadishu thing.

You failed! [Laughter] Could talk about what the process was of actually doing it, of not just checking off the regular tourist boxes of shooting this city?

Obviously I didn't want to do an homage to Queen Street West and I wanted to avoid the trappings of that highly gentrified area. When I scouted, I fell in love with the Beaches and the boardwalk there and the East end of the city. Elan lived in the East end as well and wrote it in and around there and it just made a lot of sense to shoot it there.

I just thought there's a really nice mix of old and new there where you have 80 year old hardware shops going right beside brand new restaurants and I just like the texture of that part of the city.

The water was a thing that I thought a lot of people missed about Toronto, that it has all of these gorgeous beaches and sand and romantic walks on the water side, but being from Montreal, I was pessimistic about trying to make Toronto romantic.

Once I actually got into the nitty gritty of location scouting, actually, our production office was in that area too, so we got a chance to really know the neighbourhood and walk around it, and I lived in that neighbourhood as well, so some of the bars were the bars right across the street from where I was living and we tried to pick locations that showed a different side of the town.

I would be remiss if I didn't talk about what I consider one of the best Canadian films of all time, GOON. Could you talk about what that film has meant to you, both personally and professionally, and whether you also see that as a touchstone, an elevation of your craft.

For me personally, it was obviously a hunger to make a good hockey film again. As a hockey fan, and a movie fan, I wanted to do something that stood the test of time as a hockey film and I was very proud that it has and it seems to have continually grown an audience.

Professionally, it was exiting to do something that was more based in action and speed as a director and capture that side of directing and be able to do that properly. I think that was the biggest challenge for me and the biggest thing I took away professionally from that so you don't get pigeon holed into the comedies or stuff like that. It shows that I can handle fights, I can handle action very well.

I couldn't be happier with the reaction to the film, and as the film gets older and older I get more and more proud of it, as more people watch it and respond to it.

I'm not a huge fan of the first FUBAR, but I adore FUBAR II - bless both the combination of lowered expectations and the recognition of some supremely great filmmaking.

Yeah, the first 10 minutes of FUBAR II are my finest moments as a director. In a way, it was sort of a reaction to doing a Hollywood film where you have less control and a few more cooks in the kitchen. I just wanted to make something fucking amazing right at the opening to FUBAR II.

Are going to getting a pull towards doing larger budget, more mainstream cinema, and do you still see a little bit of a way of keeping your own voice with the projects that you have coming through the pipe?

I think it's impossible to lose your own voice. I think that's why people come to me as a director is because they want my stance, the tone of the comedy and the heart. I think most importantly the heart that I bring to the projects so I don't think I'll ever lose that tone and I don't think I should.

What does THE PRINCESS BRIDE mean to you?

It's a Rob Reiner movie. I never list it as one of my favourites, but it's just such a great movie. You just can't go wrong with that, you can't fault that movie in any way.

Is there one of his films, be it WHEN HARRY MET SALLY or another film of that ilk, like where would you take the girl that you wanted to impress, to show her the film that means the closest thing to your heart?

Man Bites Dog ? That might be one I'd take her to. Christmas Vacation might be another. In terms of comedy, those might be the two twin towers, but obviously Rob Reiner's the master. Probably Spinal Tap would be the Rob Reiner film I'd take her to.

I actually dumped a girl named Heather who didn't like HEATHERS, so I think that we're on the same page here.

Exactly. There can be no room for that.

Could you talk a little bit about the change of title? You wouldn't have had much to do with it, but if you have any reaction to that whatsoever?

Yeah, obviously, I always think of this film first and foremost as called The F Word, but I understand the reasons they had to do it and it wasn't for a bad reason at all. It had to happen, so that's the title.

I also found out in process that I know little about renaming movies. You try to poll people and see what they think about different titles and it changes with the wind. It changes with each personality of the person, so in my heart it will always be The F Word, but I understand why they called it What If.

And the film been edited since I saw it at TIFF, correct?

Oh yeah, we shot a bit more of an epilogue for the end of it and we did a few trims to the Ireland trip but not a lot.

What prompted those changes, testing or simply sitting with the film for a little bit?

CBS gave us a little money to add a few shots, but we didn't do it blindly. We tested it after TIFF in Boston and Nashville and got information about how we thought we could improve the film. We re-shot in November and I think it was locked by February in L.A.

It's great, anytime they give me more money to keep improving the film, I will. I don't think I ever finish anything. You just stop.

Is there a film or a book or even a song that would set the tone of the film that didn't quite make it into the film? Is there something in your own background that you brought to this project that might surprise us?

MD: That's interesting. Like a book or a song? No, the music that I got was that Patrick Watson album "Adventures in Your Own Backyard" which was a song and album that I heard when I was in early prep that I thought this should be in the film and we were lucky to get a lot of those songs. Working with [composer] Carl [Newman] was a lovely counterpoint to Patrick's music as well.

I think it's more just the films that I saw that informed the look, the rom-com genre, films like When Harry Met Sally orThe Apartment or Manhattan or It Happened one Night. More romantic films, , like Love Story, which has a hockey fight in the middle of it!

How they shot those movies and how they evoke that romantic emotion in an audience is what I was really interested in capturing as a director.

like with a hockey film, there's given expectations, with a comedy, especially a romantic comedy, there's the genre tropes that you're dealing with. On a strictly directorial, functional, structural basis, what are the pitfalls that you had to avoid, and during the editing phase, what did you have to do to maintain the tone between it being sweet without being saccharine, it being sad without being depressing?

As a director, you have a bullshit meter and that's your biggest asset on set. I think you keep the film from being too hokey by keeping it honest, making sure in the reactions and just the acting is really, always has a lick of honesty and doesn't get too teary or too emotional. You kind of just let the emotions slow boil with the characters.

I think it's really all about honesty and that rings true for comedy as well, if the comedy isn't honest, it's not going to be funny. Even the emotional side has to have a leg in reality to make sure it's honest so that people won't think oh, that's bullshit.

Are there things that you shoot on set and then later the decisions are made in post, or is that bullshitometer mostly done on set on the day?

It's on set.

I'm not a big fan of rehearsals, I usually shoot the rehearsal, and you just kind of figure it out from take 1 to takes 4 or 5 and get that performance fine tuned. So it's definitely something that happens on set.

It's funny, when I find myself in the edit suite, I have these internal conversations when I look at the dailies with the editor, we're looking at a specific take and I have conversations with myself because I talk a lot on set, where I have the same reactions in the edit suite as I do on set and you can hear me directing the performance. I'll react to it first in the edit suite and then you'll hear me on the tape actually saying the same thing on set. I've totally forgotten about it but I'll watch and say oh, that's bullshit and then you'll hear me on set say oh, that's bullshit, or not that's bullshit, but we've got to tune it down a little bit.

Is there a specific time you think you didn't make the right call on set and then in edit you thought, no this actually totally works here in context within the greater whole?

No. It's more like what you do sometimes is you try to get a range of certain scenes that are hinge scenes where the important dramatic things happen. You might push the performance to be a little more dramatic, just to have that option in case you need to dial it up a little bit more, or, in the same breath, dial it back a little bit more.

For some actors who I felt could handle that range, I would ask them to go even further, and then in the edit suite you have a little bit of an option, but you can't do that all of the time. You have to know what you want going in. But occasionally there's a scene where it was very important to the narrative, you would cover yourself a little bit.

We like to both pump up our heroes and put them down, particularly if they haven't left the country. What does it mean for you to be a Canadian filmmaker and what does Canadian filmmaking mean to you?

It means a lot because I'm Canadian obviously and I live here and I'm proudly Canadian. But I think if anything the most positive thing that's happened is more and more Canadians are making great movies and there's less of a tendency to ghettoize as Canadian movies which 5 or 10 years ago might have been a negative stamp on your work.

I think it's more and more directors and filmmakers and great films are made in this country. I think people are getting over themselves in that whole idea of stamping it as Canadian and giving yourself either an excuse or something like that, it's just a Canadian movie or whatever.

What I love about making films is that we all screen on the same screens and if you can nail something that works internationally and be a story that works all over the world. That's something I go for.

What's geat about the Canadian scene is that there's still financing available to make your films. What you're seeing is a lot of directors, especially in Quebec, are working in the States now because they've been able to fine tune their storytelling in Montreal with medium level budgets and do a great job of that and that's give them the step up to be able to move on to bigger and better things.

What are the bigger and greater things that you are working towards?

I'm hopefully going to do an action comedy in the States. I think that's what I'm heading towards. That's a whole other genre that could use some help and one that I grew up watching and love.

Is there a particular film that you wish to echo with your next project without giving too much away?

48 Hours or Midnight Run would be one, or Blues Brothers. Those would be an example of the tone of action comedies that I adored, that I think are missing. I find they're either funny and their stunts feel really stunty or the action is great but there is no comedy to it.

I find that the movies like the old Joel Silver films when they actually worked, they were amazing because they worked as action films and as comedies. And I think there's massive need for those films again in the marketplace.

How has the Canadian audience supported the film from the screenings that you've seen and how has it been different than when you've shown it internationally?

I don't think it's been different at all. I think Canadian audience react the same as American audiences. I haven't seen the film yet in England or had that experience yet, but I think the Canadian audiences have reacted positively to it, and it's not tailored for Canadians, it's tailored for everybody, so I had to do that.

Is there an audience reaction, positive or negative that has surprised you?

Every audience reacts a bit differently. Some people love the sister, some don't like the sister, it really shifts, so I'm just surprised by the variance in people's reactions. Obviously, all the gay jokes work, but it's interesting to see the more subtle B&T jokes, how those play to different audiences, that always surprises me.

Can you talk about the Goon 2 sequel? Do you have any role in it?

Goon 2 is in the works, and that's all I know about it.

You're having nothing to do with it?

No, it's in the process of being written.

As for THE F WORD, is that something you wish to continue? Or are you the kind of guy who isn't necessarily into doing sequels of their own projects and wants to keep moving forward?

I don't know. It's just come out and I have no idea if I'd want to do a sequel at all. It would depend on the script and the story and what you'd want to do with it. So I would say no but I'd be curious to see how we could do a sequel, but it's also way too early to start talking about that.

In fairness, they did it with Planet of the Apes after they blew up the planet.


Is there a film you love that would surprise us?

It's hard to say what would surprise you. Love Story? I think that movie's pretty great.

Plus, as I just learned from you, it has a hockey fight in the middle. Thanks so much for this.

My pleasure

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