Michael Dowse and Elan Mastai on The F Word

The Calgary-raised director and his screenwriting partner’s romantic comedy comes out this weekend

Michael Dowse’s first full-length film, FUBAR, turned the camera on two everymen Calgarians and has garnered cult status since it’s 2002 release. Since then, he’s directed films like It’s All Gone Pete Tong, Take Me Home Tonight and Goon. The Calgary-raised director’s latest project, The F Word, tackles the typical romantic comedy trope: boy meets girl, girl has boyfriend, boy befriends girl and feelings ensue. It’s like a hipper, quirkier version of When Harry Met Sally but with Daniel Radcliffe instead of Meg Ryan.

We sat down with Dowse and writer Elan Mastai to talk about Calgary food, fool’s gold, FUBAR sequels and The F Word.

What are you trying to say with this movie?

Elan Mastai: The theme of the movie has always been “You can’t lie your way to happiness.” I wrote the movie because I am fascinated by human relationships, men, women, friendship and romance. I like to get into the grey zone. A lot of movies in this genre traffic in the black and white, but the grey zone is where the comedy and the drama is. I wanted to write a movie about people who were trying to make the right decision, because in real life, you can try to do that – be an ethical person – and still make a mess of your life. I like the idea of an ethical romantic comedy that still throws the characters into disarray.

One thing that’s unusual about this movie is that there’s no typical “bad guy.” Why is that?

EM: A huge pet peeve of mine is when the boyfriend is just a douchebag. What does it say about a character if they’re so blind to what’s obvious to even the most dense audience member? I don’t think it’s realistic.

Did it occur to you to not deliver on the typical rom-com promised ending? Is that feasible in today’s movie market?

Michael Dowse: [Laughs] No, the big question for us was how much do they get together at the ending. To answer the first part of the question; yes, they do need to get together at the end. I don’t think the point of seeing them not kiss works.

EM: I remember people in film school writing these art films where the ending is dramatically unsatisfying, and I was like “Congratulations, the ending of your movie is unsatisfying. You’ve succeeded.” The genre has imperatives, but you have to put characters through enough to make you wonder whether or not they will.

MD: I think you’ve invested so much in these characters you have to root for them, because they’re perfect for each other.

EM: Unless you have a black piece of coal where your heart should be.

MD: Which some people do.

EM: They deserve to have movies made for them too.

MD: Do they?

EM: Well, they can go watch Breaking Bad. You know, in my original draft, Radcliffe’s character was a meth kingpin who died in a hail of bullets, but Breaking Bad stole all my ideas. [Laughs]

Director Michael Dowse with stars Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan.

Can men and women actually be friends?

EM: That’s why I wrote the movie. I think it’s a perennial question. When Harry Met Sally asked that question 25 years ago and fortunately for us, in the ensuing 25 years men and women have not figured it out yet. I think when Neanderthals first developed language, their first question was “Can men and women be friends?”

In the film, the characters bond over a peculiar sandwich popularized by Elvis called Fool’s Gold, a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jam, and a pound of bacon. Have either of you eaten it before?

EM: Of course.

MD: Oh yeah. I wouldn’t pack it for lunch, but if I was hungry and there was nothing else, I’d eat it.

EM: It’s like an explosion of everything that’s unhealthy for you all in one thing. I think it’s delicious, but you can’t eat much of it because it’s remarkably filling.

MD: The Americans love the Fool’s Gold. Every single screening they hand out the sandwiches, it’s like their gimmick for releasing the film.

You’re joking.

MD: No, you literally go into screenings and there’s mountains of tinfoil wrapped Fool’s Gold. They’ve done national partnerships with peanut butter companies.

EM: It’s funny, because it’s such an obscure thing. It’s a sandwich Elvis discovered 40 years ago in Colorado. This random, gross thing I thought was funny is now at parties and people are eating them and we’re talking about it in an interview. It’s a weird thing about writing where these things from your subconscious and your Id suddenly become real.

The title of the film is considered raunchy enough it was renamed “What If” for the U.S. market. Where did the original name come from?

EM: I came out of relative obscurity when I wrote the script originally. You’re trying to get people to read it, to give your work a chance. Giving a cheeky, provocative title that teases the themes was something that got people to read my script.

You are both Canadian, the movie is set and shot in Canada, with characters sporting hocking jerseys and flying Air Canada. How important is “Canadianness” to you?

MD: For me, it’s nothing at all. I think people talk far too much about it. I think it’s just: we’re Canadian, we made a film in Canada, it’s set in Canada proudly, but not to a point where we’re doing anything on purpose. It’s just the context through which we made the film. It’s not a cognizant thing to be ‘Rah-rah Canada’. It’s such a shitty thing people do when they try to pigeonhole something into being Canadian or not Canadian. I think people should just focus on making their films good and not worry about if it’s Canadian enough.

EM: Toronto recently overtook Chicago as the fourth biggest city in North America, I think it’s really come into it’s own as a world class, multi-cultural city so setting it there was pretty matter of fact for us. People fall in love in Toronto, as it turns out.

Michael, your first full-length film, FUBAR, was released in 2002, and in 2010, you released a sequel. When can we expect FUBAR 3 through 6 to come out?

MD: I love that franchise; I would love to make a new movie once every five years or whenever we can do it. We started to talk recently about FUBAR 3 again, about how we would do it. To me it’s that you’ve already got the cast. They’re great and everybody knows them, so narratively, what you can do with those storylines, where you already have a character who’s lost both his nuts and now has a rock opera voice? Where we could go with that story is great. The other thing we want to do is an animated TV series, where we could go crazy and it doesn’t matter how old they are, we could just use the actor’s voices. It would be kind of like South Park or the The Simpsons where, creatively, we could do anything.

Michael, you grew up here though you now live in Montreal. Has your Calgarian upbringing had any effect on your work?

MD: Of course. I actually think Calgary and Montreal share many similarities in that there’s a very independent spirit in both. I don’t know concretely what growing up in Calgary did for me. I just think people work very hard here, they’re ambitious and when they set their mind to something they go and do it. It was a good place to make movies because there weren’t a lot of people making movies. It wasn’t burnt out. It was small enough you could get cameras, but not big enough that it was overwhelming and impossible to do stuff. I also worked at Yuk-Yuks on Blackfoot Trail for years and I watched stand-up comedy three years straight. That was probably the biggest influence on me comedically. Probably the biggest education I’ve had in anything was that. I think Calgary is a good place to start out and then go to a bigger city to do bigger things.

EM: I grew up in Vancouver, but Keith Johnstone and the Loose Moose Theater were huge influences on me. I started out in improv and they were influences on my approach to comedy and my writing as well. I draw on lessons I learned from [Johnstone’s] book everyday. So even though I’m not from Calgary, I’ve always felt an affinity for being here due to that influential comedy style and I think that’s one of the reasons Mike and I hit it off right away. That’s my Calgary plug.

Any place in particular you like to visit when you’re back in town?

MD: Besides my parents’ place? If I had time, I would go to Peter’s Drive-in and have a banana chocolate milk shake and a cheeseburger.

EM: Well that sounds delicious, why aren’t we doing that?

MD: We should have just done the interview there.

The F Word is in theatres Friday, August 22.

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