'Isn't It Romantic?' Director Todd Strauss-Schulson Watched Every Romantic Comedy Made Between 1988 And 2007 To Prepare [Interview]

Isn't It Romantic? is in theaters right now. The story follows a New York architect named Natalie (Rebel Wilson) who works hard to get noticed at her job. But more often than not gets relegated to the sidelines, sent out for coffee instead of presenting her big ideas for her firm's clients. Life takes an odd turn when Natalie gets knocked unconscious and wakes up in her own romantic comedy. It's both an unsettling nightmare and a hilarious dream.

Director Todd Strauss-Schulson (A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, The Final Girls) has created an vibrant romantic comedy world that emulates all of the genre's tropes. But it's also a love letter to romcoms, packed with a big beating heart that it wears on its sleeve. In order to bring this cinematic, romantic world to life, the filmmaker immersed himself in dozens of romcoms in the span of two weeks. In fact, he watched every romantic comedy made between 1988 and 2007, and it shows.

We sat down for an interview with Todd Strauss-Schulson where he talked about the extensive preparation for the movie that no one asked him to do. Plus, he discussed attempting to decode the genome of romantic comedies, making a meta comedy without feeling like a spoof, and bringing to life a scene that he's dreamed about since he was 10 years old.

Your last movie was The Final Girls, which has a premise similar to Isn't It Romantic? where a female character gets stuck in a horror movie instead of a romantic comedy. Was there any hesitation about doing something so similar?

I would say right in the beginning there was a little bit of hesitation, yeah. But then I thought this would be good because more people would maybe see it. And it was different enough that I thought I could do something else innovative. I thought it would maybe be like El Mariachi and Desperado.

That's an interesting comparison to make.

Well, they're kind of the same movie, but they're not. One of them is big, and one of them is small. They both work but for different reasons. I also always wanted to make a New York Romance and this offered me a big playground to give it a shot.

You watched a ton of romantic comedies to prepare for this. Did you keep track of how many you watched?

Oh man, it was somewhere between 80 and 100. I watched every romantic comedy between 1988 and 2007 in the course of, like, two weeks, alone in my apartment like a true lunatic. It made my heart so tender and my brain turn to mush.

Was there any reason you decided to go back as far as 1988 and up through 2007?

Yeah, because that was the modern heyday of romantic comedies. When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle were kind of the beginning of that trend. And it was also like the heyday when America and the UK were tottling back and forth to see who could make the best romantic comedy. The Working Title ones and the American ones. It was an interesting time because everyone was trying to outdo each other, like [Sylvester] Stallone and [Arnold] Schwarzenegger.

On top of that, a lot of those 90s romcoms were referencing the great romances from the 1940s and 1950s. I didn't want to go back to the same reference point. I wanted to reference the more modern ones. And also, Rebel Wilson's character in the movie is around my age, so she would have grown up with those movies. So if she's gonna be stuck in a dream world of romcoms, it would be made out of that kind of 90s pastiche.

Isn't It Romantic - Todd Strauss-SchulsonAfter watching all of these romantic comedies, what did you find were the elements that made up the best romantic comedies? I think we'd both agree that there are a lot of bad ones out there, so what are the most common threads in the good ones?

I would say that a true, sweet answer to that question is that romances and romantic comedies are the only genres you can go to that celebrates what's good in life, that celebrates aliveness and joy. You can't really get that from superhero movies, you can't really get that from horror, and you can't really get that from action. You can't really get it from war epics and period costume drama, at least not in the same way. Romantic comedies are the ones that can remind you of a shared humanity. They can bring out the emotion in you. That's the beautiful thing about movies. That's what they're for, actually.

The most acute example for me, and I loved when I found it again, was Notting Hill.

Yeah, I love Notting Hill.

It's top three for me. Besides being hilarious, and a great idea, and a great cast, it's that circle of friends that surround Hugh Grant that is really the star of that movie. The moment in that movie when I cry is not when they get together or when he gives the big speech at the end. It's when they're all pouring into the car to the press conference, and that husband gets out of the car and picks up his paraplegic wife out of the wheelchair and looks at her with so much affection and says, "You're coming with us." That is just so human, and it reminds you of something you already know you are. It breaks my heart in the best way, and I think that's the best of a romcom.

So we've talked before about the preparation you've done for this movie, but you also created an extensively researched portfolio of trends and tropes in romantic comedies. Can you talk a little more about what you found out from this process?

Well, I did something insane. No one asked me to do it. But I watched all of those romantic comedies like a nut. I wanted to try to crack the code of what romantic comedies were. I wanted to decode the genome and break the DNA down. I wanted to find the patterns that repeated in terms of story, but also whatever little visual things might be part and parcel of the genre. Obviously you find the big ones that everyone knows about: running to stop a wedding, the gay best friend, their gigantic closets, falling in love when it's raining or snowing or hailing. Any kind of precipitation coming down from the sky is somehow a good moment to let your love come forth. I'd imagine if you asked a Freudian what that's about – moisture from heaven in the moment that sexuality is expressed – they would have something to say about it.

But watching all of them in a row like a mad scientist was actually amazing to see how many weird, small things were repeated. Half-moon windows, or lunettes, are in almost every romantic comedy somewhere. I don't know what the deal is, but it's in a ton of them. Bridget Jones, Working Girl, you can see it in the deck (below). Repeated locations in New York: Bow Bridge, Bathesda Fountain. Cute dogs and dog walkers constantly. Moonstruck, How to Lose a Guy famously. So I would see these things and take a screengrab. And in this movie, when there's a dog walker, every breed of dog from every romantic comedy I watched is represented.

That's great.

I'll keep on going. Shellfish! There's shellfish in a lot of these movies. Crabs and oysters, I'm telling you, it's true. It's so weird. Maybe it's because it's an aphrodisiac. Gigantic hats, French doors, cupcakes and topless hunks. Cute bookshops and dates that start on helicopters or boats. Anyways, it was about finding all these textures and isolating them so that I could rebuild them into something modern and fresh for our movie. I always thought of Isn't It Romantic? like pop art, like a Jeff Koons or a Roy Lichtenstein, using familiar pop forms to subvert and deepen. I wanted to make something irreverent and authentic.

The Instagram above is a small part of the research Todd Strauss-Schulson did for Isn't It Romantic?, and if you'd like to check out the full romcom deck, you can download it right here.I think that's one of the great things I love about this movie. Even though it feels like you're in the world of a romantic comedy, you're not in a specific movie. It has that vibe of Last Action Hero where it captures the tropes of the genre without necessarily adhering to a single one of them.

Which is very Final Girls-y. It's a way to prevent it from being too much of a parody or a spoof, which would be a dirty word for us. It's also a way to make this feel more like a dream. Because in a dream, a lot of disparate ideas and elements congeal together to create some new place in your mind. That was why I did all that research, so we could create a world that feels like a romantic comedy. And it's because all these subtle things are like the building blocks of that world.

Isn't It Romantic ReviewWas it hard to make sure you didn't veer into spoof territory? Because when I heard the premise of this movie, I thought it might be a retread of They Came Together, which is a great straight-up spoof of romantic comedies. So how did you make sure you didn't make something that felt like an Airplane! version of romantic comedies again?

Well, Final Girls does this also, which is it tries to use the genre and the meta-ness to say a new thing and to tell its own story. With Final Girls, the story we were telling was about losing a parent. The world was this slasher. In Isn't It Romantic?, the intent was to make a comedy about romance with a real warmth and heart to it.

Also, with the kind of performances in the movie, I think Rebel is able to pin it down in a really grounded way, which is good. And I think Adam [DeVine] is his most authentic self in this movie.Like with Final Girls, the meta-ness is a tool, a bit of a storytelling strategy. I find that in romantic comedies, and movies in general, they are told in a fairly familiar and formulaic way. They have tropes and cliches at this point that are so hyper-recognizable that I think it's why a movie like Deadpool feels so refreshing. These tropes and cliches are supposed to feel like emotion, but they feel weirdly unemotional when you're watching it because they don't reflect what your own life looks or feels like. It feels like some other thing, like a pantomime, or a carbon copy of a carbon copy of a carbon copy of how things really feel. I wonder if that's why people have turned away from movies like this a little bit and are more interested in watching Instagram stories and the lives of their friends in a way that feels more authentic.

I think that when you do a movie that has a little bit of meta awareness, it might be a way to connect back to an audience and say, "Hey, we know you. We're like you. We experience these movies the same cheesy way you do. You can trust us as we tell you this story." That bridge can help disarm the audience so the emotion hits deeper.

Isn't It Romantic?Something else fantastic in this movie is how you represent that visually. The real world in this movie doesn't even feel like it's in a movie the way most romantic comedies do. Even the more grounded ones still have this polished feel to them. And when you compare the romantic comedy dream world that Rebel's character Natalie is in to the real world, there's a very clear different between the two. So when you tried to create that romantic comedy world, were you emulating certain styles of romantic comedies?

Well, I'm from New York. And I really wanted to do two different versions of New York. That was one of the exciting things about this movie, doing a dream of a romance. Like the most dreamy, romantic New York. And also a New York that felt real and not like a studio movie. Some movies get New York right, and I wanted to be one of them. I watched movies like like Hannah and Her Sisters and Sidney Lumet movies where the camera is all over the place. Spike Jonze movies where everyone is really down and there's this monochromatic look. Like Rebel's office in real New York just looks dreadful. Another great representation of New York is in Die Hard with a Vengeance. The city feels untouched, even though there's so much that's obviously touched. But it's amazing how that movie really feels like July in Manhattan. The idea was for it to not feel like it was contrived or designed at all. So when Rebel wakes up in a romantic comedy that can feel hyper-cinematic and hyper-styled and slick. The way the camera is moving and the way all the background extras are suddenly very attractive, and how the world is populated with couples everywhere. It was very conscious to do that.

One recurring bit I loved in the romcom world was every time she stumbles or trips, someone is there to catch her as another meet-cute. It's like every mistake is an opportunity for romance in this world.

Yeah, and for her it's a nightmare. Could you imagine what it would be like? What if suddenly everyone out in the world thought you were cute and wanted to go out on a date with you? It sounds really good at first, but I bet also you'd feel like a deer in someone's target constantly.

I think that actually speaks more true to women even outside of a fantasy like that too. Because a lot of women do face that. No matter what they're doing, at any turn, they're getting hit on by somebody.

Yeah, and that was not an accident. That's why Rebel is so terrified, the terror of being a romantic or sexual object like that. In that part of the movie, it is trying to feel a bit like a nightmare. This would be her nightmare.

Even though this isn't a spoof, there were elements that felt like they pulled from Airplane! or a Mel Brooks movie. Like the juxtaposition of the subway ads between the real world and the romcom world. There's that billboard that says "If you see something, say something" in the real world, and it changes to "If you see someone, say something. It could be the love of your life!"

Oh, look at you! You caught that on the first viewing?

I happened to catch it, and it had me looking around for other little details like that in the background. So is there anything else like that the audiences might not notice the first time around?

There are some. There were more. But that started to heir on the side of parody. So things like that got trimmed down a bit. I thought that was clever, but I was alone on that one. "Injured?" and "Smitten?" is a good one. The New York City subway map is a heart. My favorite one, because it felt like it was pretty culturally satirical was a lottery one in the real world that said "Win for life!" and then in the romcom world it said, "Be a wife!"

Other background things were really just small, Easter egg kind of things. Everyone is coupled up and dressed so nice, street signs are in romcom fonts, stuff like that. A lady in the romcom world subway is reading Love in the Time of Cholera, which is a shout out to Serendipity, another one of my favorites.

Isn't It Romantic - Todd Strauss-Schulson and Rebel WilsonOne other thing I think noticed, you're in the background of the romcom world architecture office riding a hoverboard, aren't you?

Look at you again, paying attention! I will tell you, that was me, and I also had a line that got cut out of the movie because I'm not a good actor. But I tried to create an experience on set where there was a familial feeling of intimacy and love around us. Kind of like how in GoodFellas they had real gangsters hanging around all the time so that authenticity would waft into the film.

My mom and sister are in the background Washington Square Park with the steel drummer. There's also a real couple who introduced my mother and father to each other in the movie. They're in Central Park when Priyanka [Chopra] is getting the Heimlich. And that couple in Washington Square Park that Rebel and Adam bust through, that's a real couple I found on the street and put in the movie. Three crew members got into relationships with each other while they were shooting. So there some kind of romantic thing that maybe was contagious. And then Liam [Hemsworth] and Priyanka got married afterwards [not to each other]. So I don't know what's going on. I might be a wild witch.

You mentioned being raised in New York, and you really tried to bring that authentic side of the city into the movie. Was there anything in the movie from your childhood or formative years that you brought with you into this movie?

The ice cream shop scene. I'm from New York and I've always wanted to make a big movie there. I tried to put a ton of locations that were meaningful to me in the movie. When we were location scouting, it literally felt like taking a road trip through my childhood. My speech pathologist's office, we drove right past that. It was amazing. But the ice cream scene on the date, that's the one for me. I fought for that scene. I fought for that location. It's a place called Eddie's Sweet Shop. It's in Forest Hills, where I'm from. I would eat there all the time as a kid. It's still there, it's still delicious. I remember being 10 years old and being like "One day, I'm gonna shoot a movie in here." I put that scene in the script. I put that ice cream idea in there. And on the last night we did it.

Below you can see the storyboard drawing Todd Strauss-Schulson crudely drew himself. That was turned into a piece of concept art by Carl Sprague, who also did concept art for La La Land and The Grand Budapest Hotel. And then there's the final shot, which brings it to life perfectly.Isn't It Romantic StoryboardIsn't It Romantic Concept Art

Isn't It Romantic?

REBEL WILSON as Natalie and LIAM HEMSWORTH as Blake in New Line Cinema's comedy "ISN'T IT ROMANTIC," a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

I love the way it looks. I had a very clear idea of how that would be lit with the moonlight blue and the green coming out of the freezer. The dome of whipped cream, and them sitting on the counters, and that beautiful dress. It was very much a thing that was in my head for years and years, and to be able to do it and put it against that Annie Lennox song, I'm very proud of that moment. That was very much a childhood dream come true. It was the last night of the shoot, so everyone from my childhood came to visit set and threw a block party on the street. It was just special.

One of the best things about that scene, for me, is that it's the moment where Rebel Wilson's character and Liam Hemsworth's character share a real connection. It's more than just a meet-cute because she's in a romantic comedy. It feels like a scene in a real romantic comedy if it wasn't made to be a dream.

The idea of that scene is something out of romantic comedies. There's always a scene where the hunk says something that reveals a detail about themselves that is ridiculous. And that's what's so charming about them. In The Wedding Planner, Matthew McConaughey says he loves M&M's but he only eats the brown ones because they're the color of chocolate, and that's how to be healthy. It's insane. But it's kinda cute that he believes something so ridiculous. So in this movie, the idea that Liam likes those two flavors of ice cream, that's where it's a little bit inspired by.

That is genuinely romantic, that moment. And I think you could feel that vibe on set. Rebel is really cracking up. They're enjoying themselves, and I'm enjoying it. And the hope is that audiences will feel how we felt on set. A transmission of feeling from the moment of shooting to the screen months later.


Isn't It Romantic? is in theaters everywhere now.