Filmmaker Dan Mazer gives the rom com genre a fresh spin in his debut as a feature film director. In his hilarious new comedy, I Give It a Year, about the trials and tribulations of a newlywed couple, the writer of Borat and Bruno starts where other romantic comedies finish and delivers a witty, entertaining movie that plays against all those set pieces that audiences have seen a million times. Opening August 9th, the film stars Rose Byrne, Rafe Spall, Anna Faris and Simon Baker and features a strong supporting cast that includes Stephen Merchant, Minnie Driver, Jason Flemyng and Olivia Colman.
In an exclusive interview, Mazer talked about what inspired him to make an edgy comedy about the realities of first year marriage, how the key to directing is to surround yourself with brilliant people and let them do their thing, why writing compelling characters and casting the right actors to play them was essential to capturing the right tone, what Baker who has the least comedic background brought to his role, how he discovered he enjoys directing a lot more than writing, and his upcoming projects, all comedies, including an as yet untitled TV pilot for Fox and several film scripts that he’s considering directing. Hit the jump for the full interview.
Dan Mazer: I always did plan to direct it just because this is quite a personal film in an odd way. It felt quite contained, and because the words were so uniquely mine, I didn’t want to hand it over to somebody else necessarily. In terms of inspiration, it’s kind of two-fold. Number one, it was a reaction to the romantic comedy, to being burnt too many times going to see romantic comedies, and then finding out they’re neither particularly romantic nor particularly comedic and were weirdly fabricated stories about ditsy New York PR girls who have to team up with gruff Australian sheep farmers to find a wedding ring that’s been swallowed by a dog in Venice. And, against all the odds, they fall in love during that journey, that mission, and end up in a fairy tale wedding at the end. And like I say, that sort of thing doesn’t say anything about relationships. It doesn’t say anything about romance. It’s an entirely fabricated confection. I’m much more interested in that sort of film. I think, well hold on. You really shouldn’t be together. Why are we celebrating this union? Because the truth is, in six months’ time, you’re going to be at each other’s throats. It’s going to be rancorous, acrimonious. The sheep farmer is going to want a piece of the New York PR agency and vice versa, and it’s going to be miserable. This isn’t real life.
To me, there was an interesting movie to be made about two people who had been on that whirlwind romance and what happens after the fairy tale wedding. And this thought coincided or coalesced when I was at a wedding of a friend who got married to somebody that literally everybody in the congregation thought that you definitely should not get married to. This was the worst idea either of you have ever had. And almost in unison at the same time as she was saying “I do,” everyone was turning to each other and saying, “I give it a year.” And that just struck me as an interesting jumping off point for a film. At what point do you bail? At what point do you acknowledge this isn’t going right.
With a great cast like this, to what extent do you give them a sense of the scene and then just let them do their thing? What’s your directing style?
Mazer: I think actors like to be directed. Actors like to know where they’re headed and what they want, so I’m very encouraging. I like to foster an atmosphere on set of collaboration and openness and risk taking. The beauty is when you have such brilliantly talented people as I did in my cast, you definitely don’t want to fetter them in any sense. You want them to be able to go out there and do their thing and feel confident in doing their thing, because ultimately I’m the person who gets the credit which is great. I know what I want. I try and convey that at the beginning and set that out, but within those parameters, I’m very happy for them to experiment and try things and give it a go. To me, it’s important. It’s incredibly easy as a director to be egotistical. Of course, it is because you have 200 people on set every day listening to your every word and whatever you say goes, and that can be slightly corrupting. And actually, to be a good director, you have to take ego out of it, because hopefully what you’ve done is surrounded yourself with brilliant people. Let them be brilliant and you just shepherd that and marshal that and hopefully guide it however you can, but definitely not to the extent that you’re overbearing.
Mazer: You’re absolutely right about that. My casting process was slightly different and slightly interesting insofar as I knew everybody could act. That’s something you’ve seen. You know people can. You’ve seen them on the screen and you think either they’re a good actor or a bad actor. So that’s not the point. What I wanted to do was find people who I thought would have a similar comic sensibility. So, as opposed to getting people in to read the script and read scenes with me, what I wanted to do was sit down and chat to these people and just say, “Okay. Do you share my sense of humor? Do you understand what this film is getting at? Do you know the tone that we’re trying to get to?” And it was interesting. I spoke to lots of actors who, particularly when it came to casting Josh, the role that Rafe plays, were probably more eminent than Rafe, or more well-known, but they just weren’t funny people. I felt myself struggling when I spoke to them. I just thought this is going to be an uphill struggle on set because there isn’t an inbuilt sense of humor there, which is what you need. Fortunately, everybody I got was fantastically funny, much funnier than I am, and I let them go off and do their thing when needs be. They just understood what I wanted the film to be and embraced that and delivered it.
All of the actors have impeccable comedic timing, but especially Simon Baker. What did he bring to the role?
Mazer: Simon is really interesting because he’s the one with probably the least – and he wouldn’t mind me saying this – comic pedigree. We don’t know him as being a comedian. But what was fantastic was that he really embraced the idea that I was trying to get for it. When Simon Baker comes on screen, there is a preconception about what you’re going to get. You’re going to get the suave, charming, debonair lothario who cuts a swathe through the women in the cast and is the dreamboat. He was interested in slightly undercutting that which is what his character does. He walks on stage. You have an expectation that he is going to be this dreamboat, but ultimately, his character is a bit of a dick. Not massively so, but he isn’t the cookie cutter romantic hero that you would anticipate. Simon was primed to play against preconceived ideas of what he might be and really embraced that and it was great.
How did the final film compare to what you had originally envisioned?
Mazar: As I’ve said to people, and I’ve come to use this sporting terminology, if you had offered me this 18 months ago, I’d have bitten your arm off. Essentially, I loved it. It was great. I’m really proud of it. I think the performances and the cast – I mean, universally people say wow, what a fantastic cast, and they really were. They completely delivered. Like I say, it was like playing fancy football where all these people that I had admired for year and had thought wouldn’t it be great if I could get them in my film, they agreed to do it. They came in and they all completely delivered. I was delighted. For a first feature, and for any feature, I’m just proud of how it turned out.
Mazar: I mean, it’s weird. I’ve been on lots of film sets. I’ve produced films and written films and been around, so it wasn’t my first rodeo in terms of that stuff. Nothing particularly surprised me, I have to say. I came in and I enjoyed the first day and I enjoyed the last day. I don’t want to sound arrogant and say that I know everything about directing and I’ve got it cracked, but it was just all in all a joyous experience. To me, the key to directing, to be honest, is just surround yourself with brilliant people and let them do their thing. Actually the key was, I had a brilliant director of photography in Ben Davis who just made everything look lovely and held my hand through the things that I didn’t understand. He was incredibly collaborative and generous. The art department was fantastic and Simon Elliott (the film’s production designer). Every department was great and I let them do their things and trusted in them. I’d step in if there was something that I didn’t like the look of, which left me to concentrate on the acting and the characters and the jokes and all of that which I’m pretty comfortable with. Ultimately, the whole thing was just a happy experience.
The film has wonderful music and a terrific score, too.
Mazar: Thank you. The score is great. It’s a guy called Ilan Eshkeri. He’s very talented. And there was a music supervisor called Nick Angel who corralled all these great bands to do these fantastic cover versions for us.
What did you discover about yourself in the process of directing this film?
Mazar: I learned that I enjoy directing a lot more than I enjoy writing, which is interesting, because writing is lonely and infamous basically. You sit down in the morning on your own to write something. You get to the end of the day and it’s not like you’ve cracked it and it’s finished and it’s done, because it can always be improved. It can always be changed. There is no right answer, so you can drive yourself crazy with just the expanse of infinite possibilities when it comes to writing. With directing, your day is done. When you hit seven o’clock, it’s “Cut.” That’s what it is. For better or worse, that’s what you’ve got and you have to make that work, and there’s something incredibly liberating about that because you can’t torture yourself. You have to focus on the moment, and you have to embrace every second and opportunity and maximize that, whereas with writing, there’s no imperative there. You just amble along.
What are you working on next?
Mazer: I’ve just shot a pilot for TV for Fox that hopefully the response is good and that will get picked up. We’ll find out soon. It doesn’t have a title yet. It’s a comedy. And then, movie-wise, I’m writing a couple of things. They’re all comedies. It’s the only way I know. I’m also being sent scripts, which is really nice, kind of off the back of this, so I don’t necessarily have to generate my own stuff. I’m just looking for something that’s explosively funny and relatable in equal measure. It’s tough to make funny films. And the truth is, with this process, especially if you write your own movie, then you’re giving three years of your life to it. And so, I just have to be sure that when I embark on it that I’m happy to think that in three years’ time I’m going to be sitting in a room on the tenth floor of an odd office building at Ginsberg Libby talking about it. (laughs) So I’m keen not to jump into it too quickly and just make sure it’s something that I really want.