A taste of romance

Sophie Brooks on first dates, food and The Boy Downstairs

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Sophie Brooks on the visual cues in The Boy Downstairs, starring Zosia Mamet and Matthew Shear: "Ben wears glasses in the past and not in the present. And Diana has extensions, has longer hair in the past than in the present."
Sophie Brooks on the visual cues in The Boy Downstairs, starring Zosia Mamet and Matthew Shear: "Ben wears glasses in the past and not in the present. And Diana has extensions, has longer hair in the past than in the present." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Sophie Brooks, writer/director of The Boy Downstairs, speaks about how she sees a first date, confusing social agreements, and the importance of food in building a relationship with family and friends. Improv from Matthew Shear, sweater girl Zosia Mamet, the performances of Arliss Howard, Sarah Ramos and Fabrizio Brienza, flashbacks and visual cues, dry cleaners, and filming in Prospect Park, Brooklyn round out the final chapter of our Valentine's Day conversation.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Diana and Ben's first date takes place in Prospect Park with the Boathouse in the background. They don't have rowboats there.

Diana (Zosia Mamet) with Gabby (Diana Irvine)
Diana (Zosia Mamet) with Gabby (Diana Irvine)

Sophie Brooks: Correct. Originally it was set in Central Park where they do have rowboats but we couldn't afford to shoot there. So a little poetic license.

AKT: I know this location very well, I rescued swans there in that exact location. I removed barbed fishing hooks from their beaks and legs.

SB: Wow! That's amazing. It's so beautiful.

AKT: I loved seeing the Boathouse in your film with a mute swan in the background. I also noticed the yellow Balthazar bakery pastry box Ben brings to the picnic. These are nice touches.

SB: Thank you. I like to think that Ben really put in a lot of effort in that first date. He was really trying to impress her.

AKT: Another great date is the one with the wonderful lemon waiter [Fabrizio Brienza]. How did that come about?

SB: That scene always goes over really well in screenings, which is exciting. That just came to me and I thought it was funny.

AKT: It never actually happened?

Diana (Zosia Mamet) and Ben's (Matthew Shear) first date in Prospect Park, Brooklyn
Diana (Zosia Mamet) and Ben's (Matthew Shear) first date in Prospect Park, Brooklyn

SB: That never happened, no. I just thought it's always funny when there are like all these social agreements that we make. She's trying to still be polite. We riffed on it a little on the day and did some improv, but the lemon line was written. Matt's [Shear] joke about the butter - that was an improv.

AKT: Food is important in the film. People actually eat, which in many American movies is not the case. In European films you often see people eat and cook, here in many movies, if at all, it's people chopping vegetables demonstratively as if they've never done it before. And there's always a red pepper. You make food a natural part of the action.

SB: I feel like food is such a massive part of my life. I'm obsessed with food. If I wasn't in film...

AKT: When Diana calls food her hobby, that's an autobiographical line?

SB: Yeah. Definitely. I love cooking, I love food. Yeah, I'm kind of obsessed. And I also think it's a really big part of a relationship and a family. So when you're making a story about people falling in love or meeting families it feels natural that food would be involved because that's how people get to know each other.

AKT: People talk about bananas. They talk about baby wipes. Oh, there was a line I didn't get. Can you please explain: "He panced me."?

Cygnet rescue from barbed hook by Martin Woess and Anne-Katrin Titze at the Boathouse in Prospect Park
Cygnet rescue from barbed hook by Martin Woess and Anne-Katrin Titze at the Boathouse in Prospect Park Photo: Ed Bahlman

SB: Right. That doesn't translate. It's funny, we played at BFI in London and nobody in the audience understood what pantsing was and I realised it's an American thing which I hadn't realised originally. It's when you pull someone's pants down.

AKT: Oh, as in pants with a t!

SB: Yes, when you pull someone's trousers down in public to sort of expose their bum.

AKT: The meeting with Diana's father and Ben makes you cringe. Was part of that improvised?

SB: Mostly written. Arliss Howard came in to play the dad which was great. He's so lovely and such a great actor. It was mostly written. I think Matt had a little bit of improv around the mints at the end of the scene.

AKT: The worst thing anyone could do at that moment.

SB: I thought the same kind of thing with Meg [Sarah Ramos] and Diana being opposites. I thought it was interesting to have her dad and him just not align on sense of humor. You know when Ben is joking, the dad doesn't pick it up and kind of vice versa.

AKT: Had Matthew Shear done Mistress America already?

SB: Yes, he had done it before.

Diana (Zosia Mamet) with mute swan on Boathouse pond in Prospect Park
Diana (Zosia Mamet) with mute swan on Boathouse pond in Prospect Park

AKT: Regarding the time structure of the film, at the start you give us 'Three Years Later' and 'Four Years Earlier' and then the training wheels come off for the audience?

SB: Yes.

AKT: And you make us figure it out ourselves. You trained us and now it's up to us?

SB: Originally with the flashbacks we decided we would have a couple of visual cues. Ben wears glasses in the past and not in the present. And Diana has extensions, has longer hair in the past than in the present. When we were editing the movie we realised we needed to make it a little more clear so we added those two title cards. People kind of picked up on it.

AKT: You have the sweater scene at the beginning.

SB: Like a bookend.

AKT: The clothing again. She is wearing it also at some point in the middle, isn't she? It's a nice object to link the threads, this oatmeal coloured sweater with the fine orange stripes.

Sophie Brooks on the Balthazar pastry box: "I like to think that Ben really put in a lot of effort in that first date."
Sophie Brooks on the Balthazar pastry box: "I like to think that Ben really put in a lot of effort in that first date." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

SB: I'm so happy you picked up on all these things. No one else has asked me any of these questions. And I feel like, you as a filmmaker try and put these details in and then hope that people pick up on them. But like no one else has asked me, so it feels nice to have them be noticed.

AKT: There was an article in The New York Times recently about people not dating in their neighbourhoods [Romance? Not in My Backyard by Joanne Kaufman, February 2, 2018]. The reasoning was that they would run into each other and don't want to run into each other so they only pick from a pool outside their immediate neighbourhood.

SB: How weird! That's so odd.

AKT: I think it was some guy on the Upper East Side explaining his technique.

SB: How depressing.

AKT: Last night I saw Sally Potter's The Party.

SB: Oh, yeah, I want to see it.

AKT: Talking about people not having it figured out. The people in her film are older but the relationship messes remain. Today is Valentine's Day combined with Ash Wednesday.

The Boy Downstairs poster at Village East City Cinemas
The Boy Downstairs poster at Village East City Cinemas Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

SB: I noticed that!

AKT: What's coming up for you?

SB: I'm finishing up a new script. I really hope to make that next. And I'm writing a new thing that's kind of a departure, a different genre. It's a zombie comedy. Which i don't know that I would necessarily direct. I might but I didn't write it with that intention. The one I want to make is in the same tone as The Boy Downstairs. It's a little expanded, it's more of a family ensemble.

Read what Sophie Brooks had to say on costume designer Keri Langerman, 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".

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