Having established himself with the scrappy indies FUBAR, It's All Gone Pete Tong and FUBAR 2, Michael Dowse shifted into a somewhat more ambitious scale of filmmaking with complex comedies like Take Me Home Tonight and Goon. The F Word [link to review] lets him show a softer, sweeter side, following ideally suited Toronto 20-somethings Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) and Chantry (Zoe Kazan) as they try to form a friendship without getting involved romantically.
So, The F Word is like the east end's answer to Take This Waltz, which takes place predominantly on the other side of Toronto. And they're both clearly fantasies, because neither movie has any mention of roadwork, construction or streetcar detours.
[laughs] Aw, fuck, we had to deal with that. The first day we shot, we had to shoot on Broadview just south of Rooster Coffee, where the smaller Chinatown is. They were re-routing streetcars - there were literally 30 of them while we were right on the street. It was insane.
Did anything specifically draw you to that part of the city?
When we started scouting, I really liked the east end. There was a lot of water, it didn't feel as gentrified as Queen West - you know, so hip it hurts. It was a very interesting place to set a film. Location scouting was just like going for a walk; our production office was down the street, so we'd kind of walk around the neighbourhood and say, "That looks interesting." It's a vibrant location.
The movie's undergone a little surgery since TIFF. You trimmed a few things and shot a new epilogue. And then there's the matter of retitling it What If for the American market.
When we sold the film to CBS, they were very clear with what they wanted to change in the film. They said, "The title's not gonna work for the MPAA." They said, "We'd like more of an ending, and we'd like to trim a little bit in the third quarter of the film." For me, I looked at that as awesome: "Oh, we get to open up the film and keep improving it." Because you never really finish editing. You just kinda stop, or people take the machines away.
[Laughs] It's always a process of uncovering problems and solving them, or thinking you've solved them - so with CBS we tried to do it as logically as possible. We did test screenings in Boston and Nashville, and got some data back, and across the board everybody was like, "What happens to them? What happens to them?" The script [was] much more open-ended, and there's an argument that "Oh, something should be left up to people's imaginations," but I think the stronger [argument] was that people have invested so much in these characters, they deserve the reward of, like, what happened to these people. Did they end up together? Did they not? And it did have a good effect on the film. I think it's a stronger film now, for sure.
Every genre has its own expectations, I guess.
There's something about embracing that and making the best of it, and I think this film does that. It's not complicated; there's no madness or craziness that drops out of the sky. There's no zaniness. That's what I liked about the script. It's a very simple story - all the steps and the gears of the film felt natural and real and relatable. And it had a wonderful slow boil. Even at the script stage, I felt so attached to these characters that I'm rooting for them to come together as we head into the third act.
How did you settle on Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan for the lead roles?
You just do your best. You meet Dan and you meet Zoe and get a sense of their sense of humour, and you just kind of make an educated guess: "I bet these two smart, educated, talented people will get along." The first time we saw them in character was at a hair or makeup test, about three or four days out. I knew as soon as I saw them together, they just felt magical and great and made a nice couple.
Their conversations have such a naturalistic, charming rhythm. Did you do anything special to achieve that?
What I try to do in the film is just to give them the time to be able to improvise and create that bond between them on screen. So we tried to find those moments where we can have two cameras and cover both sides of the dialogue, and they just have time to talk - to put themselves in the film, and put their own sense of humour in there, and to really bond as characters. That's the thing I really try to protect, because many times the mechanics of making the film sort of take over and you never stake out that time for the stuff that happens. The schedule becomes paramount. For me, that's the cart leading the horse. It's gotta be the other way around.