I recently had a wonderful conversation with Tess in which we covered a lot of territory. I will be rolling out that interview in several installments this week.
Today in Part 5, Tess talks about the “dance fight” as well as how important setups and payoffs are in comedy:
Scott: OK, let’s talk about two great things in the script. One is there’s a montage where Nancy and Jack… this is where he thinks she’s Jessica… and they’re bowling.
Scott: But, essentially what you’re doing, it’s like a seduction scene. You’re using all these visual cliches in which they’re kind of trying to seduce each other. I can’t think of any less sexy environment than a bowling alley, and yet you pull it off.
Then, later, you mirror it in a way. This is after the truth has come out, and now they’re on the dance floor. You think, “Oh, great.” Then Duran Duran comes on, so they’re doing this whole thing, but they’re having a fight.
I’m thinking, “Is this your mentality where you go, OK, I’ve got to do X, what could be the most un‑obvious way to do it? Oh, how about Y?” Is that fair to say?
Tess: Yeah. Oh my God, definitely. But I get very angry when people use the word ‘subvert’ or talk about the anti‑Rom‑Com. Oh, I’m writing an anti‑Rom‑Com, I’m subverting the genre. Please, you don’t say that about any other genre. It’s just bizarre.
You wouldn’t say you were writing an anti‑thriller. So basically, when I use the word subvert, I think what we’re talking about is that I think it’s important to adhere to the rules of romantic comedy, but then find ways to do them in a different kind of way.
For example, you’ve got to have a montage. You can’t not have a montage. But why not do it somewhere, that like you say, that is not a traditional place to do it. We had so much fun shooting that scene. We just put on loads of soft rock classics and Lake and Simon just went for it.
We had some kids there to look at them awkwardly, like, what is she doing? And those older, cool dudes, they were professional bowlers. I think they called themselves The Big Lebowskis! Loved those men.
It was a very fun day. We had another montage in in the script actually, and we ended up cutting it… it was before they got to the bowling thing, we had them on London’s South Bank, doing lots of different rom com montage tropes… a bit like when “They Came Together.” You’ve seen the Amy Pohler and Paul Rudd one?
Scott: Oh, yeah.
Tess: Last year? Which actually did it brilliantly, in terms of those tropes of the Rom‑Com montage. It was to our favor that we ended up not doing it in our film. It’s about a minute long, but it’s a lot of fun, that minute, and you tell a really big story within that, because they’re not just getting absolutely drunk, but really connecting as well, through the medium of bowling and fun.
Scott: There’s that dance thing. I think you said it was like a dance fight. That was very inspired. This would be typically where they’re kind of getting it on and physically connecting. No. It’s the exact opposite of that.
Tess: Yeah. This is also where he calls her out. This is Nancy’s moment, because she’s such a wise guy about everything, and this is where he says to her, “Stop judging me for everything I’m doing.” But I didn’t just want them to have a fight.
Actually, it’s funny because we rehearsed it so much and actually Lake and Simon got too good at doing the dance. [laughs] They’re just really good dancers, and it was a brilliantly choreographed routine. We ended up re‑editing some stuff, actually, just to make it look slightly messier in the end because they were too good. [laughs]
I put that song in the script, so we were lucky to get it. It’s one of my favorites. I love Duran Duran anyway. I just wanted to have a song that they could do quite silly movements to while saying quite deep and meaningful things to each other. It’s quite a sad scene in some ways, but set to a Duran Duran soundtrack.
Scott: Not to get too intellectual about it, it also was a little bit meta because Duran Duran’s the most archetypal ’80s band you can think of. You have those ’80s romantic comedies, and whatnot, this is going against the grain of that.
Tess: I will take that meta, thank you!
Scott: It sort of accentuates that point.
Tess: Yeah. We have a very eclectic soundtrack. I’m a big music fan, and I wanted music to be a really big part of the film, without being too heavy‑handed. I think we get away with that actually quite well because it’s very eclectic, very eclectic. [laughs]
Scott: I write comedies myself, and I’m such a huge fan of scripts when I read these, callbacks, setups and payoffs. This script is just filled with them. For example, Nancy posing as Jessica the triathlete. Then there’s a scene where she gets to essentially do a mini triathlon.
Tess: She does. Yep.
Scott: There’s a scene where Jack enters a women’s bathroom to find her. Then, later on, there’s a scene where she enters a men’s bathroom to find him. How conscious are you of setups, payoffs, callbacks?
Tess: So conscious. Actually now, I probably do it too much. I try to put them in everything that I write! But when they work, they’re so rewarding. But you also have to know when to lose them. For example, the last line of the film was originally “Sweet baby Jesus’ to pay off something earlier, but we had to lose that, because we lost some of the setup when we came to editing, which meant that we couldn’t do the payoff… which was quite an interesting exercise as a writer. I had to come up with a line that still made sense, that we got late in ADR, and things like that.
We didn’t lose that many, overall. I think that would be the main one that we lost. I’m really conscious of them, but I also try and make them organic, because otherwise you can sort of see them coming, obviously. There were probably a lot more in earlier drafts, but I think my script editor was like “OK. Let’s get rid of some of these.” And rightly so. [laughs]
Scott: It’s very much Nancy’s story… from her perspective. And yet, because you do that twist where his ex‑wife, Jack’s ex‑wife, comes into the play, and there’s a reversal there where now Nancy’s playing the part of his girlfriend and you get to explore his experience. There really is a feeling of equal time for these two characters.
In fact, you’ve got, not just one big confessional speech at the end of the story, when they all show up at that event, but two. Both Nancy and Jack get a chance to have these monologues. My question for you is this. That’s like twice the pressure to pull off those monologues, right? How many times did you rewrite those things, do you think?
Tess: Do you know what? Looking back now, those speeches didn’t change that much… Obviously, they changed from the first initial spec, but the essence of them didn’t change.
Originally the film was very much her story, and then it evolved in a really nice way, especially when Simon came on board, which was before Lake, probably about eight months before Lake, in fact.
I did some work with him on the script, which was obviously really exciting, because I love his writing. He said, “Oh, I’ve got some notes. Want some of them?” I was like, “Yes, yes, please give me your notes, Simon Pegg.”
And then once I’d heard him read the part as Jack, I suddenly realized that it needed to be much more of a two hander. Especially when you’ve got access to someone like Simon, you’d be crazy not to let it evolve like that.
Essentially, it’s obviously Nancy’s story, but I really enjoyed, once Simon came on board, bringing a lot more of Jack’s side to it. When they both do the speeches, it’s very important that Nancy doesn’t think he’s going to turn up, and that she actually says at the end of her speech, “I’m alright, though. Don’t worry. I did something that was crazy, but I’m glad that I did…” She’s not going, “Oh, boo‑hoo, my life’s over.” She’s actually saying, “Oh, well. It’s OK.” And then it’s an added bonus when he does turn up with a load of drunk teenagers. [laughs] Yeah, I think those speeches were very much from the heart, and thus, they were probably the thing we tweaked the least.
And you know, in When Harry Met Sally, what Harry says to Sally is obviously one of the most iconic things ever said. I wanted at least to try and pay homage to that, and have Jack say some really quirky but beautiful things to Nancy. Likewise, she’s ready for it at that point, because she’s had her little speech and said, “You know what, I’m all right.”
For GITS readers in the U.K. who want to see more original movies, especially those of you waiting for an increase in romantic comedies, although I have yet to see it, I can tell you from reading the script, Man Up is an excellent story – funny, touching, human, and surprising – and by all accounts really great entertainment.
Tess is repped by WME and Julia Tyrrell Management.