Claire Scanlon has had a lot of time to think about romantic comedy. A veteran TV director, Scanlon has worked on The Office, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, among other television shows. Set It Up, one of Netflix's spiffiest forays into romantic comedy, is her first feature film. The movie, which arrives on Netflix Friday June 15, smacks of TV comedy, down to its television-specific cast. (Titus Burgess of Kimmy Schmidt makes a memorable appearance in the movie.) It's clever, specific, and moves at TV's breathless pace.
The premise is this: Two assistants, played by Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell, decide to set up their respective bosses. She calls it a Cyrano, à la Cyrano de Bergerac. He says they're "Parent Trapping them." Chaos, romance, and comedy ensue. Katie Silberthau's screenplay allows for commentary on the genre while still operating happily within the genre. Harper and Charlie (the assistants) are effectively making their own romantic comedy. They're also participating in one. The tropes are still there: Harper, an aspiring journalist, is always eating, and the closing speech will eventually be sewn onto a pillow and shared on Pinterest. But, the movie has the freedom to comment on them just slightly, as when Harper complains that "guys think they like girls who like sports."
"What they actually like is a girl in a very tight sports jersey serving them wings and getting the terminology wrong. Guys like girls who like guys who like sports," she rants. In this scene, she's sitting at a Yankee game spying on her boss with Charlie. Harper and Charlie both "set up" the Yankee date and are enjoying the Yankee date.
"The idea is these two assistants are puppet-mastering their bosses. Their bosses are going on all these dates that they set them up on. But Harper and Charlie are essentially going on the same dates, too!" Scanlon told Refinery29 on a recent phone call, gushing a little. (Actually, a lot!) Scanlon's enthusiasm for the film is infectious — the same goes for the movie's perky leads, who have been hawing the movie over social media with the energy of pre-schoolers.
Refinery29 spoke to Scanlon about the state of romantic comedies, Harper's eating habit ("She's broke!"), and getting chemistry just right.
Refinery29: Were you a fan of rom-coms growing up? Which ones were you trying to reference with Set It Up?
Claire Scanlon: "I'm pretty much like any woman or girl. When you get those, like, warm, fuzzy feelings — I just really love leaving the theater on a high. No matter what the story was, it gave you a bounce to your step in a way that — there was something that would give you that warm feeling that I loved about romantic comedies. Frankly, I love the ones from the '30s and '40s. And I feel like this one harkens back to those a little more. I hope it does. Because I just love how smart the women are in those films. Like His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby. Well, Bringing Up Baby, Katharine Hepburn in that particular one isn't as — she's very intelligent but she's a little scatterbrained. But, like, they're charming. They hold their own. They're equals. I love that same-level footing from those films especially. And I really loved that about Set It Up when I read it. The conversation was very witty the same way those were. And the characters were on equal footing."
Romantic comedies as a genre have kind of faded, at least at the box office. Why do you think that is, as a newly minted rom-com director?
"I was just talking to someone about this. And I think it's a multi-faceted situation. One, I think a good rom-com is a lot of different things. It has to do with great writing and great casting. You can't just cast the two A-listers and then put them in the movie. They have to have chemistry. The writing has to be clean and clear and great. It has to be grounded. It has to be real. It can go broad — like this one goes broad. Someone pees in an elevator and gets naked! At the same time, it's still grounded in reality. You don't feel like you've left the world of Manhattan. It's still Manhattan.
"But I think what's happened is they — they being, like, studios — just meddled too much with the process in general. [They] probably overwrote, over-script-doctored, just tried to use the same template. Guy meets girl, girl has a problem, guy has a problem, girl fixes guy, guy fixes girl. Conflict ensues, and they're reunited in the end. They took that very literally without thinking of real human beings. So everything felt a little two-dimensional. It felt like, 'Oh, I feel like I'm watching a formula.' And I think in a lot of ways, we were. People are smart! They caught on, and they were like, 'I don't want to watch this formula. It's not good.' And that's not speaking specifically to any one film. I think it this overall takeaway.
"I also think television got really interesting. And more nuanced and individual. So I think that when we're putting these two-dimensional characters in a very formulaic genre or a genre that you're forcing to be formulaic. And then you're getting much more realized characters on television, it started to be like, 'Well, why would I go see a bad rom-com in the theaters when I can watch a fully developed character in a very interesting story at home?'
"As the genre of rom-com went to the lowest common denominator, television was rising to the occasion with nuance and three-dimensional characters. And now, I hope — maybe the genre itself can be revived if you just assume a certain level of intelligence both on the characters themselves. I find Harper [to be] a very relatable character. Being afraid to do something that she loves. Fear of failure is very relatable. I get that. Everyone has that. If you don't, wow. Kudos to you!
"So I think that it was a confluence of events. And the artifice — just the artifice of the genre — became overwhelming. This is just me pontificating. I don't know that that's all true. That's just my personal takeaway. That's just what I think happened. They kind of burnt out the genre
As the genre of rom-com went to the lowest common denominator, television was rising to the occasion with nuance and three-dimensional characters.
So, if you could give the three ingredients for a perfect rom-com, what would they be?
"Grounded situations. Three-dimensional. Real people with real fears and problems living in the real world. Someone I really could relate to. Real stakes. Like, these assistants, they need money. They're not rich! They're broke. Harper's always eating. She's not always eating because she's starving herself at home. She's broke! She's mooching off the free food at work. I mean, I did that. When I was in my 20s and barely making rent, I needed to eat at work. And a third thing... I think chemistry. There's no way around it. Good storytelling, good chemistry. You need people who really click. Because people, again, I come back to your audience is smart. If there's no chemistry, the whole thing falls apart. The whole thing is predicated on good casting.
"And also, by the way, comedy. I would almost say that this is a com-rom. That's terrible, but it's very heavy on the comedy. And there's romance, too. But you can't short-shift the comedy part of a rom-com. Getting people to laugh is also a very universal experience. Once you get someone to laugh, you've got them."
How as a director do you make sure that the two leads have chemistry?
"You know, it's interesting. Glen [Powell] and Zoey [Deutch] — they'd already worked together on Everybody Wants Some. And they just really get along. They pop on screen together. My biggest problem with directing those two specifically was making it so that you didn't see how great their chemistry was at first. Because there'd be no where for the film to go. I'd be like, 'Guys, how do we tone it down?' Because they do have such great chemistry. I was like, 'More disdain. More — not like contempt, but you guys are too busy to look up and make eye contact! You don't care about what that person's feeling. You don't care that she has to get her boss dinner or she's going to get fired. And vice versa.'"
The cast is filled with comedians, like Pete Davidson, Jon Rudnitsky, Titus Burgess, and Meredith Hagner. Was keeping the movie comedy-heavy in terms of casting important to you?
"I personally think that this movie is heavy on the comedy as much as it is on the 'rom' of it all. Because Zoey and Glen are more straight men, if you will, then putting them in ridiculous situations and just watching them react is so delightful. Trying to keep the levity on set and the playfulness on set so that — it's one of those things where, as a viewer, you really feel like it's all very real, because it kind of is. We were having fun on set. Those were fun days. I feel like you can tell the sets that are really fun and funny."
Lastly, Harper's article at the end. How long is this esteemed piece of journalism?
"Katie [Silberman, the screenwriter] wrote it. Katie actually wrote her final piece. I think it was probably — I don't know specifically, but in my mind it was probably too long by a third. So, let's just say the article was like eight pages."
Did she write the whole thing?
"Yes. She was really good. For props! Anytime you see Harper with her computer, depending how far along she was in the article, that version of the article [would be on the screen]. We tracked very firmly how far — every time you see her sit down to write, you know where she is in the article, why she gives up, where she goes back from scratch, and what she kept from the first draft to the second draft to the third draft to what she ultimately does. We didn't necessarily show it all [because] we cut scenes."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.