When it comes to the cinematic history of romantic comedies, the neurotic inner monologue concerning how successful a first date was usually appears in a scene immediately after the events have unfolded. In José Lourenço’s Romance Language, however, we watch as that dialogue is delivered amidst those very moments that a romance is formed, albeit not in the most successful manner. As an audience, we’re unable to judge these characters for their actions in ways we’re used to because already they’ve beaten us to it. It’s a hilarious premise and makes for a painfully realistic, and somewhat heightened, portrayal of dating. DN reached out to Lourenço to talk about forming the perfect team to execute his authentically awkward premise.
What were you looking for when you set out to make Romance Language?
Romance Language started out as an idea for a short story, two people admitting to each other all the uncomfortable things they’d have no problem telling their best friend the day after a bad first date. I tried a couple drafts but I couldn’t get the tone where I wanted it to be. The brutal honesty between them just always seemed too harsh and cold, and it wasn’t making me laugh. So, I put it away for a while. Years later I was watching Annie Hall, and there’s that scene when Alvy Singer stops a couple on the street and asks them how they account for their happiness, and they calmly admit they’re shallow, empty people with nothing interesting to say. The actor’s delivery in that scene made me think back on the story I’d been trying to write. I felt like a version of it could be worth trying again, that it could work as a film with the right actors and the right tone.
It’s a film that only works if the dialogue is good and, as you said, you have the right actors to perfectly deliver it. How was the search for that symbiosis?
I wrote the script and won funding for the film with Jen Shin, a producer I’d been in development with on a few other projects. We cast two actors I was excited about, and then we pushed and pushed and pushed our shooting dates because the actors’ availability kept changing. Eventually we made the choice to recast, and were lucky to find Dan and Claire, who are both so funny, and impressed me so much with their timing and restraint. It’s difficult dialogue, essentially half-page monologues being traded back and forth at Howard Hawks speed, but they found the rhythm and delivery quickly in rehearsal.
I feel like there’s an immediate and compelling energy when you’re watching actors in an unbroken shot in perfect rat-tat-tat rhythm with each other.
We talked a lot about their exchanges evoking the sensation of thoughts racing through your mind, and I wanted to shoot long, uncut takes that showed the actors nailing those lines. It would have far been easier in the edit if we’d just done masters of each scene and then overs on each character, and then fine-tuned the pace and the timing of the comedy afterwards. Which is probably a smarter approach, honestly, it’s how most comedy is shot, it gives you more control in post. But I feel like there’s an immediate and compelling energy when you’re watching actors in an unbroken shot in perfect rat-tat-tat rhythm with each other. It’s a tricky balancing act, but worth it in the end.
And in terms of forming the team around you to pull Romance Language off, what were you looking for and what did they bring that you couldn’t to the film?
While we were recasting, Katie Nolan from Babe Nation Films came on to produce. Katie is amazing to work with, so smart and positive, has such great sensibilities. She understood the film instantly and crewed us up with one of the best groups I’ve ever been on set with. Luckily Zazu Myers, an exceptionally talented production designer who’s always booked solid in commercials and features, had a window. I love comedy that looks like drama, and I wanted the look of the film to take some cues from romantic thrillers and feel just a bit unsettling; the moody lighting, wider shots, a creeping, breathing camera. Zazu had such strong instincts about the look of the space, and she and Katie and I scouted together and found a relatively blank canvas with an interesting layout that Zazu and our Art Director Ciara Vernon, transformed beautifully with their teams.
We were excited about shooting anamorphic, giving a little more absurd cinematic weight to frames with a fairly high joke density.
I’d worked with our Cinematographer Rob Scarborough once before. It was on an Audi commercial I directed that was meant to look like security camera footage, not the usual brief for a car spot, and Rob was great about digging into all the different ways we could achieve what the client asked for.
What was it like working with Rob to achieve the visuals?
For the short, Rob and I talked a lot about the photography in preproduction, and looked at a variety of references. Romantic comedies, dramas, thrillers, Fatal Attraction to Master of None, and we were excited about shooting anamorphic, giving a little more absurd cinematic weight to frames with a fairly high joke density. Rob suggested filming with an Alexa Mini, and his instincts were correct, the image is always lovely, and the nimble size of the camera proved immensely helpful for some of the tracking setups. We were very grateful to William Whites for the Cooke anamorphics, one of those wish-list items you’re so happy to have in the truck on the day.
Did all those elements allow you for a smoother shoot in the end?
Once it was recast and we set our dates, it was a fairly quick process. From scouting to shooting was just under a month. Post was unhurried. Cam McLauchlan, the very best guy, and a wonderful editor who’s been cutting with Guillermo del Toro for years and just edited Lone Scherfig’s latest film worked on the edit on and off over the course of a few weeks. We showed cuts to friends and our EPs and fine-tuned it all, and then coloured at Rolling Picture over two days. Matt Hannam, a cinematic genius and one of my very very best pals, was particularly helpful during this time.
And last but not least, what have you got coming up?
I recently finished a draft of a feature for Rhombus Films about the events leading up to the ‘Jazz at Massey Hall’ concert in 1953, it’s about the only time Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Bud Powell and Charles Mingus played on the same stage. I have another feature in development I’m excited about that I wrote and am going to direct, a contemporary adaptation of The Sorrows of Young Werther. I have a short story called Admn being published soon on Hazlitt, a soft sci-fi thing about how, even in the near future, there is no ethical courtship under capitalism. If you liked Romance Language, I feel like you might like Admn too.
Romance Language is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.