‘Man Up’ Writer Tess Morris and Director Ben Palmer Talk British Rom-Coms and Cute Meets
Don’t tell Tess Morris that the romantic comedy is dead. As a self-described “romantic comedy scientist,” she’s an ardent defender of not just her upcoming romantic comedy Man Up, but the genre as a whole. Her creative counterpart Ben Palmer wasn’t quite so bullish on the prospects of rom-com prior to reading Tess’ script. “I thought I would know what this script would be, I thought I knew what a British romantic comedy would entail, and it probably wasn’t for me.” Within the first couple of pages of Morris’ script, Palmer recognized that Man Up had qualities to make it an endearingly entertaining romantic comedy. Together with their lead actors Lake Bell and Simon Pegg, both Palmer and Morris crafted a sweet, funny film that feels fresh amidst its familiar beats.
Chatting with Way Too Indie at the Tribeca Film Festival, Man Up screenwriter Tess Morris and the film’s director Ben Palmer go over their new movie’s entry into a harsh climate for the romantic comedy. They also discuss the benefit of casting great actors to star in your comedy, being inspired by a real-life missed connection, and the origins of the term “cute meet.”
Romantic comedy, at least in recent years, has sort of taken on a negative connotation. Did you ever find that an obstacle when putting together Man Up?
Tess: No, I absolutely love the romantic comedy genre and I get very angry when people are dismissive of it.
Ben: Careful, Zach.
Tess: Sorry, careful, Zach. Yeah. I get quite irate when people say, “Oh the rom com is dead or whatever,” because I think you never hear that about thrillers or horrors or any other genre of filmmaking. For me, I wanted to write an unashamedly romantic, comedic film. It’s really only now that it’s coming out that we’re finding a lot of people saying to us, “I really enjoyed it! A romantic comedy!” And we’re like, [straining], “Yay!”
Ben: I think that’s good though. I think that’s good. It was certainly an obstacle for me because I’m the first to admit–
Tess: –because you’re an idiot.
Ben: Well, yeah, I am. When I was sent the script, I thought I knew what this script might be. Thought I knew what a British romantic comedy might entail and it probably wasn’t for me. It was within reading the first couple of pages of Tess’ script that you go, “Oh hang on a minute. This is very different. It’s sharp, it is really, and it’s very, very honest. And it’s really funny.”
At no point did it feel sort of schmaltzy or sentimental or patronizing, which was my expectation. At the same time it didn’t feel like it was trying to be snide and cynical, or take the piss out of the genre as well. It was very heartfelt and very emotional. It had all of those ingredients. That’s a very hard thing to pull off.
Tess: I like it when men respond to this film because—I like to think that I just write people. I’m not necessarily only writing the ladies.
It’s not a “chick flick”.
Tess: It’s not a “chick flick” in that sense but at the same time we also want to sell it as a “chick flick” in a good way because it is also a “chick flick” and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s kind of like, “It’s a film!” [laughs] It’s a romantic comedy that men and women, cats and dogs, whoever can go see. Of any sexual preference. Of any whatever. I was saying to someone earlier, I think when you come out of the film you should just feel hopeful. Not necessarily about your love life but about life in general.
Ben: When we did the screening somebody came over to me and grabbed me by my shoulders, a guy, and said, “I loved your film! I’m going to go out there and get myself a girlfriend now!” And he all but spun around and ran out the door.
Tess: And then we were like, “We should film him for a documentary!”
The follow up, Manning Up.
Tess: Yeah, exactly.
When did you first start writing the film?
Tess: Well it actually happened to me. I was under the clock at Waterloo and a guy came up and said, “Are you Claire?” And I said, “No, I’m not Claire.” Then he walked away and I thought, “Maybe I should have said that I was Claire.” Maybe just because I’m single and then I didn’t say that because I’m not a total maniac like Nancy. I then thought, “What a great premise for a set up in a film.” From that moment on I had my cute meet. I could then just run with it.
I also wanted to set something over a small period of time. Just mainly because I’m a lazy writer and I find it much easier when I’m given a sort of contained environment to do something in. Also I just feel like there hasn’t been a one crazy night British movie for a while. It was all based on something that actually happened to me and we were saying earlier I wish I could find that dude and thank him.
Ben: Well this is your opportunity.
Tess: Yes, if you’re out there guy that thought—this is like 5 years ago, probably, October 2010.
Ben: Describe him.
Tess: Kind of light brown hair.
Ben: Right. That’s narrowed it down. Waterloo.
Tess: You were a man.
Ben: You came and said something to her.
Tess: You thought I was Claire, you may be married to Claire now, that’s fantastic if you are. If you’re not…anyway, sorry.
You can throw him into the special thanks for the theatrical.
Is that a Britishism? The “cute meet”? I usually hear it as “meet cute”.
Tess: Yeah, I say it as “cute meet.” I use the Billy Mernit word. He’s a writer who wrote a brilliant book called Writing the Romantic Comedy.
Ben: Tess is a rom com scientist.
Tess: I am a rom com scientist. Badge.
Tess: Yes, PhD in Romantic Comedy. [Mernit] calls it the “cute meet” and it’s only recently actually that a few people have gone “meet cute.” I don’t really know, actually.
Ben, at what point did you become involved with the script?
Ben: You’d written the script quite a while ago, hadn’t you?
Tess: Yeah, I wrote it on spec in 2011 and then I think you came on in 2013 from the end of the summer.
Ben: Four or five months before shooting. Got sent the script. I thought I knew what to expect and I had to convince myself that I definitely wouldn’t be doing it. That they’d sent it to the wrong person because I have slightly more cynical, irreverent sort of humor I suppose. The sort of comedy that I normally do.
So I thought—I was away on holiday—I’ll look at this on my phone, I’ll read the first 10 pages maybe and then I’ll politely say no. And I didn’t, I read the whole thing because she’s a brilliant writer. It suckered me in within the first couple of pages and it totally challenged my expectations of a romantic comedy. So I finished that and found my agent and said I’d love to do this.
I know you mentioned that cute meet actually happened to you, but that whole misunderstanding as the impetus for romance it’s kind of a staple of the romantic comedy. Were there influences you were drawing from when you were putting together Man Up?
Tess: I would say what I definitely had a sense of is [that] I wanted to find a modern way to do it. I supposed the one that did it well quite recently was The Proposal but then he’s pretending to be someone else rather than mistaken kind of identity. I wanted to find a way to have two people meet without knowing anything about each other which is very, very difficult in the modern world. I’m basically a bit of an Internet detective. If someone says to me, “Do you wanna get set up with a guy?” Give me a name and a location and I’ll know everything about him. I’m not even on Facebook and I can do that. Sounds a bit stalkery [laughs].
It’s impressive Googling.
Ben: Terrifying Googling.
Tess: But the point is that I thought for the audience [that] I’m not, for the sake of the audience, that I’m not going to make a whole film that is about someone pretending to be someone that they’re not. I didn’t want to do that. I want her to reveal who she is within that end of act one beginning of act two sort of sequence. I definitely thought, “Right. How can I do this and make it believable?”
That’s the thing. Not to be too hard on the romantic comedy but a lot of the ones you see and don’t like it’s just that the believability, the authenticity isn’t there. Is it the characterization of these two, of Nancy, that makes Man Up work much better?
Tess: I think it’s a combo.
Ben: It’s a lot of everything like that.
Tess: I obviously wrote them like that and then we got a dream team of Pegg and Bell to bring them to life for us.
Ben: There’s so many facets that go into it. It’s the storytelling, obviously, and it’s not feeling like you’re being patronized. Or told how to feel. In combination with that you’ve got your two leads. The film effectively lives or dies by the chemistry of those two performances. Those two performers. Thankfully with Simon and Lake they are so brilliant and they had that sort of spark from the first time we did the read through. When Lake came over from the States and sat with Simon we did like one blast through the script. They were so…
Tess: They just liked each other.
Ben: Yeah, they’re funny performers and they would crash each other’s lines. There was a real spark but also it felt very real. It’s how people talk to each other. It’s not heavy handed or cloying.
How did Lake Bell and Simon Pegg first get involved and did you format the script with them in mind?
Tess: Well we got Simon first and that was brilliant because he was actually about six months before Lake. Maybe a bit before. I actually did a draft with Simon. He obviously had some thoughts, some notes, and it was obviously just fantastic for me. I remember him going to me, “Can I sort of, like, send you some notes?” And I was like, “Uh, yes! You’re like one of my favorite writers. Really! Please! Send me your notes!”
So he did that and brought loads more to Jack. I suppose the draft he read maybe was slightly more Nancy-centric, and obviously because Nancy is very much based on sort of…me. I loathe to say that, exposing soul. But you know what I mean, I felt like I had definitely nailed her and I remember Simon saying to me, “I like Jack but he’s a bit of an idiot, isn’t he?” I said, “Yes, that’s exactly what he is.” So it was great having his kind of input. His comic timing is genius obviously.
Then Lake came on board a bit later. It’s quite interesting. Two actors who also write… But it was like a dream scenario. Lake did exactly the same as Simon in terms of offering up her own, “Can I say it like that? What about this?” So really I got incredibly lucky. I can imagine if you got actors that don’t write but want to write. But I had Lake & Simon who were two brilliant writers going to me, like, “What about that bit? What about that bit?” I remember having a big conversation with Simon about the Barbie joke on the train. Lots of stuff like that.
Ben: Based on that read through because they were so messy with their dialog, like we do. You talk over people’s lines, you don’t hold back. That all helps with that authenticity that you’re talking about and that realism. When they did this read through you’re going, “We definitely need to cross-shoot this whole film.”
Which is what we did. Then that gave us the freedom to shoot multiple, multiple takes. So you do those first few takes where you preserve everything in the script and you don’t overlap any of the lines. Then you crank it up faster and faster.
It has that very ping-pongy nature to the dialog. How much of that is in the script and how much of that is just through the rehearsing and practicing of these scenes?
Ben: There’s a lot in the script. There’s a lot in the script straight away and that was the enticing thing from the off. That Tess had captured that dialog and that banter so perfectly.
Tess: I love dialog. It’s my favorite thing—I was going to say in film but just in life. I love listening to how people talk. I’m a bit weird like that, I’ll always have my notepad on me and if people say things—you can’t really be friends with me because things will end up in a film that you have said.
Ben: Let that be a warning.
How different or similar then is it from the one you first wrote or read?
Tess: It’s not different. I mean, obviously I’d say that, I wrote it.
Ben: There’s the usual cutting and trimming just to get that pace and that energy throughout.
Tess: We had a scene that we lost. I don’t know if it’s going to be in the deleted scenes but the “More Than Words” thing. It was quite a key scene where Simon and Lake sing “More Than Words” by Extreme. We have to put that on the internet somewhere at some point. But the problem is they got too good at it, they were too good at singing. They were like amazing.
Ben: There was restructuring as we were going along just a little bit. But I think because it was tightly script, the final film feels like there should be elements of improvisation in there because there’s a naturalism to it. There’s obviously quite heightened, big set pieces, but the core of it feels very realistic.
In a way it’s a compliment if people think that people think it isn’t heavily scripted. It means you’re doing something right. I think that was the approach, making those characters and that dialog feel as real and as honest as possible so then when you hit those more farcical set pieces you believe those characters and you roll with it. You don’t question it in a way.
There’s some very big moments and Sean is quite a heightened character but your bedrock of Jack and Nancy, you’re in and you’ve got them. So people just buy it after then.
And there’s a building to that absurdity as well.
Tess: Yeah, exactly. It builds. When I watch it now with people seeing it for the first time I’m really acutely aware how in the third act people suddenly go, “Ahhh.” Because I think they suddenly realize what’s been plotted for them. Someone was saying the second time they saw it they got even more from it the second time. I think there are quite a lot of jokes that maybe you could miss in the first viewing of it. Basically pay to go and see it twice.
Ben: It’s a very mercenary approach. But you need to I think.
Tess: Yes. Twice. Twice viewed.