Isn't It Romantic Interview - Todd Strauss-Schulson

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-Schulson

After 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.

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