Earlier this month, I got to chat with Elan Mastai, the writer of What If, and was blown away by what he had to say about writing women, adapting a romantic comedy for the modern times, and satisfying audiences. You can also check out our review on the movie, although quite honestly, I think much of what Mastai said speaks for itself.
The Mary Sue: Were there any romantic movies (or movies in general) that particularly influenced you when you were writing?
Elan Mastai: Yeah, absolutely. The Apartment is a big one, His Girl Friday, Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally, more recently Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, and Knocked Up too, actually. I mean, Knocked Up is a really good example of, essentially, a romantic comedy but trying to find what the modern version of that classic story is. I mean I don’t think we’re doing the same thing, but I was definitely like, “Oh! They’re doing something that is an interesting attempt to invigorate it.”
TMS: Absolutely. Chandry (Zoe Kazan’s character) was so interesting to me because she’s so totally different from anything you would see in Knocked Up.
EM: Oh, yeah. Totally. For me, one of the things I’m so proud of in this movie is we have so many hilarious women. Not just Zoe, but Megan Park, Mackenzie Davis, even in smaller parts, Oona Chaplin. I grew up with sisters, I have a lot of strong female role models around me, I have two daughters—from when I started writing the movie to when I made the movie I managed to have two daughters, it took a while to get it made, so for me I want to write—it’s not like I said, “I want to write role models,” I just want to write the kind of women I have in my life. To me, you know, I’m not interested in writing any kind of movie, romantic or otherwise, where women are just props or these idealized objects.
On the flip side of it is, you know, Rafe Spall’s character Ben in the movie, it’s important to me that he not be some cardboard cut out douchebag, because what does it say about Zoe if she spends five years of her life with an obvious douchebag. Likewise, with the female characters, what does it say about the male characters if your female characters are just some sort of marionette that you’re contorting through the plot. I want to write real people who are funny on their own terms, and I love that we have scenes where Zoe’s not just, you know, lobbing softballs for Dan to hit. She’s just as funny as he is. Likewise, all the girls, I mean, Mackenzie…you got to find a special kind of actress to hold their own against Adam Driver. And Mackenzie is amazing, she owns the screen. I love that Meghan, and Zoe and Mackenzie all have opportunities to be just as funny as any of the guys. I mean, it shouldn’t be a revolutionary thing, but unfortunately it often is. Often modern comedies don’t give women enough to do, and I think it’s bullshit.
TMS: Did you ever have a different ending?
TMS: I really appreciate your taking the time to talk to me!
EM.: Yeah! My pleasure! I like your website a lot!