The Boy Downstairs director Sophie Brooks on writing the script: "I always wanted a strong kind of female friendship." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Sophie Brooks's The Boy Downstairs stars Zosia Mamet and Matthew Shear with a remarkable supporting cast, including Diana Irvine, Sarah Ramos, Deirdre O'Connell, Arliss Howard, Jeff Ward, David Wohl, Sabina Friedman-Seitz, and a memorable appearance by Fabrizio Brienza as the lemon-difficult waiter.
Working with costume designer Keri Langerman (Mona Fastvold's The Sleepwalker, starring The Childhood Of A Leader director Brady Corbet and Jim Strouse's People Places Things), Reese Witherspoon's Tracy Flick in Alexander Payne's Election, a Halloween party with Marie Antoinette and Steve Jobs, finding the right name for the film, developing the screenplay, and how to make an actor "feel more vulnerable" came up in my conversation inside the offices of Falco Ink. with writer/director Sophie Brooks on Valentine's Day which fell on Ash Wednesday this year.
Sophie Brooks on Ben and Diana: "The Ben character is really the catalyst for Diana's change."
Diana (Zosia Mamet) an aspiring writer, returns to New York City after two years in London and finds herself by chance living in the same brownstone as Ben (Matthew Shear), her ex-boyfriend. Back and forth in time we jump to find out about those two, their relationship and the people surrounding them.
There is precocious Gabby (Diana Irvine), Diana's best friend who has a very different temperament, a timeless commit-a-phobe love interest named Marcus (Jeff Ward), and an open ear. So does Amy (Deirdre O'Connell), Diana's landlady, a former actress. We get to witness Diana's father's (Arliss Howard) first quietly disastrous meeting with Ben, which couldn't be any more awkward, and a Volvo-ride out of town that introduces Diana to Ben's parents Barry (David Wohl) and Jenny (Sabina Friedman-Seitz) who are worried about their child on a different note.
Brooks's debut feature catches subtle truths about all kinds of relationships along the way. From the footwear to the snacks - the attention to detail pays off.
Anne-Katrin Titze: I'd like to start with the title. It has some old-fashioned flair to it. I was thinking of Meet Me in St Louis and the boy next door. I also found myself referring to it as The Girl Upstairs.
Ben (Matthew Shear) amuses Diana (Zosia Mamet)
Sophie Brooks: You know, I had such a hard time coming up with the title. I was kind of thinking about other romantic comedies. Annie Hall, for example. The movie's called Annie Hall because I think she is the catalyst for his change. The Ben character is really the catalyst for Diana's change. And then obviously it's set in an apartment building, so I thought The Boy Downstairs just worked. But I get a lot of people thinking it's a horror movie.
SB: Because a movie came out called The Boy Next Door that was a horror movie with Jennifer Lopez.
AKT: You say apartment building, but it's really a brownstone.
SB: Yeah, it's definitely only a few apartments in a brownstone, yeah.
AKT: The character of Meg - was she inspired by Tracy Flick from Election?
AKT: You know who I'm talking about?
Gabby (Diana Irvine) with Diana: "I always had the Diana and Gabby friendship in the script from the beginning."
SB: Yeah, I love Election. And I love Reese Witherspoon. Not at all, that's so funny. A lot of that comes from Sarah Ramos who plays Meg. She has such a dry sense of humour. I think Diana also has a dry sense of humour but theirs don't collide, they conflict. Sarah brought this really interesting tone to the character.
AKT: It's clear from the start that those two don't match. And the third one in between, Gabby, which makes for an interesting constellation that sometimes happens. It's chemistry also. Did you work on the constellation first? It's rarely seen in films.
SB: I always had the Diana and Gabby friendship in the script from the beginning. I always wanted a strong kind of female friendship. And then, I certainly have friends who have other friends that I don't connect with. And I think that's so odd that we don't connect but we love this person together.
Also Gabby and Meg aren't close friends but they had this kind of college friendship. And I thought it would be an extra thing for Diana to be a little jealous about. Because it starts with her being like "Who is this girl? You've a best friend I don't know about?" And she's like "No, no no, it's a casual friendship." And then on top of that she ends up being the new girlfriend.
AKT: She pops up unexpectedly several times. There is Meg, bright-eyed, opening the door. I liked the costume design of your film. It's in the Wendy Chuck school of costume design. She is Alexander Payne's longtime costume designer and an expert on capturing the real.
In your film I am thinking for example of Ben's parents - her cardigan, his sweater or the landlady's necklace. I noticed your costume designer worked on The Sleepwalker and People Places Things.
Diana with Ben: "I was kind of thinking about other romantic comedies. Annie Hall, for example."
SB: Keri is amazing. She was actually eight or nine months pregnant when we shot the movie, which is even more impressive. We were working with a really tight budget so we used a lot of the actors' own clothes.
AKT: So Diana's clothes are actually …
SB: … a lot of them are Zosia's. We did buy some things. We made the dress that she wears on the first date in Brooklyn based off a dress that I have that just is one of my favorite dresses. Keri and I thought really diligently about who these characters are and how they dress. For the Halloween scene for example, that Gabby would be the type of girl to plan weeks ahead.
AKT: And dress up as Marie Antoinette!
SB: Dress up as Marie Antoinette, do her hair, you know, the whole thing so perfectly put together. For a random rooftop party!
AKT: For Halloween outside on the roof!
On Zosia Mamet playing Diana: "I noticed as a director having actors in certain clothes makes them feel a certain way."
SB: Yeah! And Diana would be the girl who the day of Halloween would look in her closet and go "Okay, I have a turtleneck, I have jeans, I can go buy some random glasses and I guess I'll be Steve Jobs."
AKT: Which I didn't even get.
SB: Which I kind of like that people don't get. I had a great time working with her [Keri]. We went shopping together which was really fun and we went to Zosia's house and picked out a bunch of clothes for her to wear. Same for Diana Irvine who plays Gabby.
AKT: What you get so right is how people dress very differently at home compared to outside. Diana is wearing those little blue shorts and the sweatshirt - that feels totally right, most people don't dress up for themselves at home. You capture that well.
SB: Thank you. I noticed as a director having actors in certain clothes makes them feel a certain way. At home I wear sweatshirts and shorts. I don't wear jeans when I'm on the couch usually. There's a scene in the movie where Zosia's character is crying in bed and I wanted her to wear a robe with nothing underneath with wet hair. And she at first was like "Can I just wear sweatpants? I'd rather wear sweatpants."
The Boy Downstairs poster
And I said "I think it's really important that you wear the robe because you've just come home, you don't even have the energy to put on the sweatpants." And she trusted me and said that it felt so right, that wearing the robe with nothing underneath made her feel more vulnerable. I mean, she had underwear on, but opposed to wearing like pants or something.
AKT: Jacques Demy's Donkey Skin, I don't know if you know the film?
SB: I'm not familiar with it.
AKT: Catherine Deneuve is walking around in a nightgown with a donkey skin over her shoulders throughout most of the film. The vulnerability in wearing just that translates to the audience. On another note, are the clogs Rachel Comey?
SB: Yes! Are they Rachel Comey? We borrowed some which were amazing. No.7! [a little number confusion, it is No.6]. Amazing boots that they lent us which was so nice.
Coming up - Sophie Brooks on first dates, confusing social agreements, the importance of food in building a relationship, flashbacks and visual cues, dry cleaners, and filming in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.
The Boy Downstairs opens today, February 16 in the US.