British screenwriter Tess Morris (pictured below) has been one to watch for a few years now, since claiming a spot on the Brit List – the UK equivalent of the Black List (the yearly compilation of Hollywood’s top executives’ favorite unproduced scripts) – back in 2011. Man Up is the script that earned her that accolade and the film is now available on DVD in the UK. We chatted to Tess about writing funny, working with Simon Pegg and the new wave of rom-coms.
So, first of all I’d like to say how much I enjoyed Man Up. I’ve seen it twice now and the two things that came through most strongly for me are your voice as a writer and Lake Bell as Nancy. Do you feel she captured what you were going for with the character?
Oh my god yes. It was very difficult to cast that part. We needed someone who could match Simon in terms of the comedic banter they have together, so she was an amazing find. Then we realised she could do accents.
When I first saw it I had no idea that she was American.
No, most people don’t. And she stayed in her British voice for the whole shoot. She did a little speech at the end when we wrapped and all of the crew were like: “What the fuck? She’s American?”
Man Up felt very balanced in its gender dynamics. I can imagine the audience for it being very evenly split. Is that something you were consciously aiming for?
I always like to think I write people rather than women. It’s quite important to me that whoever you’re portraying is a person rather than a gender a lot of the time. With romantic comedy it’s usually skewed – or it has been in previous times – towards the female, and then Judd Apatow came along and made it much more about the man. I think now hopefully there’s a bit of evenness occurring where it can be about both of them and both of their journeys in the film.
You developed Jack’s character with Simon a bit, is that right?
When I first wrote it, it was much more towards Nancy, and as the script evolved and Simon came on board that was a brilliant opportunity to really go for it and make it an unashamed two-hander. I knew I could really exploit Simon’s comedic skills, so we sat down with the script and came up with new jokes together. It could have gone really badly because they’re both writers, but they were both so respectful. For me it was just a bonus. You have two people who can write and be funny and they’re offering you up ideas. You’re not going to say no to that, are you?
Was that kind of collaboration easy for you? Because it was your first feature to get made so I’m sure the script was quite precious to you.
No, you know what, it was really easy. It was so exciting for me that the thought of not being open to what happens when you actually make a film didn’t cross my mind. Often basic facts stop you from doing the thing you put on the page. At one point we didn’t think we were going to be able to shoot at Waterloo station just because of the logistics, which would have been a fucking nightmare!
Just the main location for the film. No big deal.
In the end, our director and our cinematographer realised that we could do it in more of a guerrilla fashion. We shot very late at night, so we were able to keep it a bit more under control. As a writer you present 120 people with a blueprint for a film and then everyone else helps you bring that film to life. So, when it gets to shooting point it gets so collaborative that it’s amazing. That’s sort of the biggest thrill of it I think.
You’ve talked about how the script is partly based on your own dating experiences, or at least the Waterloo set-up was. One thing that I hope wasn’t based on real-life was Sean (Rory Kinnear)?
Well, Sean is an extreme version of the person from school who fancies you, that really is the person you don’t want to fancy you. It’s always the way isn’t it; the person you fancy doesn’t fancy you back. But I obviously needed to heighten him and make him slightly on the edge… [laughs]
He’s fantastic, I love his character. Rory Kinnear is just delightfully mad.
I think Rory’s brilliant. He’s one of my favourite things in it because he just fucking went for it. He’s very hyper-real compared to Lake and Simon’s characters; he actually gave it some dramatic weight. I mean, admittedly, it’s quite creepy dramatic weight… [laughs]
One thing I find fascinating about recent romcoms like Man Up or Trainwreck for example, is the fact that they feature strong women who end up with the man, and that’s been written about as some kind of failing. Like the leads are sacrificing their principles as opposed to just getting what they want, which is a happy relationship. Do you feel under particular scrutiny as a romcom writer when people are saying things like that?
Yeah, I feel that quite a lot because I think that when men write romcoms they don’t get asked half as many questions. I feel like if you’re just going to write a comedy you don’t need to get people together. If you’re writing a romantic comedy, people should damn well expect that, you know?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting a little bit of love and romance in your life. I find it very strange that people look down on it as a genre and seem to think it doesn’t have as much weight just because it’s funny and just because it’s romantic when actually it’s one of the hardest things to get right on screen. You’ve got to find new ways to tell the same old stories but in your own unique fashion.
Nira Park has also spoken about ‘The Bridesmaids Effect’ and how she got your Man Up script straight after and it felt like the British equivalent she’d been looking for. I think anyone with half a brain is well-aware that the film industry has a problem with representing female voices as much as men, and I’m curious what you think the best way is to solve that problem?
I think the best way really is to level the playing field. I think that what Bridesmaids was, was a really great film that was about female friendship. So the reason it was such a tipping point, was that it made people realise audiences wanted those kinds of film again. They were ready for them.
You’re clearly a bit of a rom-com expert, so let’s say you’ve written your dream script and you can pick any director, leading man and leading lady – living or dead – to join you in making your film. Who would you pick?
Ok, I’d pick Diane Keaton to be in it. Who could she have a thing with that’s slightly younger? Let’s mix it up a bit. Maybe Diane Keaton and Bradley Cooper. And I would get Nora Ephron back from… where she’s gone unfortunately… to direct it. Or Rob Reiner. No, let’s go with Nora. Diane Keaton, Bradley Cooper and Nora Ephron.
Good choice. So lastly, what are you working on at that moment?
I’m writing a new film, another rom-com, technically a follow-up to Man Up, so it’s a nice time for me. I feel quite lucky at the moment. It won’t last obviously.
Oh I’m sure it will.
Man Up is available on DVD in the UK from September 28th