‘Set It Up’ Filmmakers on How They Brought the Rom-Com Into the Modern Age

While romantic comedies ruled the box office in the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s, the past few years have been rough for fans of the genre. But viewers found a bright spot recently with Netflix’s buzzy film “Set It Up.

Starring Zoey Deutch, Glen Powell, Lucy Liu, and Taye Diggs, the story of two overworked New York assistants who set up their high-maintenance bosses in an attempt to get some free time and end up — surprise! — falling in love themselves has become a hit for the streamer, and provided a modern twist on the familiar rom-com conventions.

In their race to greenlight superhero tentpoles and sequels, studios haven’t been big on producing original romantic comedies. “The Big Sick” showed there’s an appetite for a different approach to the genre, but 2015’s “Trainwreck” is the only rom-com to gross over $50 million in the past six years. But original films with complex female characters are starting to thrive on Netflix, without the pressure to cast expensive stars or run a big marketing campaign.

One requirement of a successful rom-com is smart and snappy dialogue. Director Claire Scanlon knew this, and said she looked not only to classics like “When Harry Met Sally,” but also older films like “The Philadelphia Story” and “It Happened One Night,” because of “the kind of verbal repartee that you would see from films in the ‘30s and ‘40s, which I still feel like, when you go back and watch those films, it’s so fresh, it’s such witty dialogue and so well-written.” Bringing the story into 2018 meant incorporating modern technologies like texting, social media, and dating apps, but on a larger scale, it also meant portraying working women in a modern, accurate light. 

“Harper’s [Deutch] raison d’etre is not to get a boyfriend. In fact, everything that she really focuses her energy on is trying to be a good writer and worthy of working in that capacity for Kirsten [Liu]. She really loves Kirsten’s worth ethic, her quality output — she’s there for a reason, and that’s where a big chunk of her concerns and anxieties lie, not with getting a boyfriend,” Scanlon explained. “She’s a three-dimensional person with more than just ‘I need a boyfriend’ which I think also resonates in today’s time. We did this movie before the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements but this is a pretty female-heavy production team. Not by choice, it was just the best people for the job and just happened to be available. All the people that we ended up hiring, aside from pretty much our DP and our prop master, were women.”

This female-led team also pushed for diversity on screen. Scanlon admitted she was “appalled” at how white recent movies shot in New York City have been.

“I was like ‘What Manhattan are you shooting in? Where is this background from?’ When we were meeting with casting I was like ‘I want this to look the way it looks when I walk out the door of this building we’re having a meeting in right now.’ People of all ages, all colors, all creeds. It’s just weird how un-2018 so many films feel that are shot in New York, and that’s frustrating.”

Before ending up at Netflix, “Set It Up” was originally greenlit at MGM with Emilia Clarke set to take on the lead role, before she had depart the film due to “Game of Thrones” scheduling conflicts. The story is loosely based on producer Juliet Berman’s own real-life experiences as a Hollywood assistant, and she discussed her struggles with screenwriter Katie Silberman, who had also worked as an assistant. 

Berman admits that most of the film’s outrageous demands from bosses actually did happen to someone. “There are a lot of true stories in the movie, but I don’t think many of them were specific to my or Katie’s experience. That said, we did a lot of research with our friends and we collected the worst horror stories we could find and we put them in the movie.”

One, experienced by star Powell, was even too bad to put in the film.

“I think Glen, when he was prepping the movie, told a story about an assistant at an agency, who during a bomb threat was told by his boss that he couldn’t leave the desk in case somebody called, so he made him hide under the desk while they swept the building to make sure it was evacuated,” Berman said. “That did not make it into the script because it was so broad but I thought that was pretty crazy.” 

While a sequel has not yet been offered to the “Set It Up” team, Scanlon and the producers agree they would definitely consider making a second film and exploring the characters further.

Matt Brodlie, director of original film at Netflix, said a sequel is something the streamer is considering. “It’s not necessarily a one-weekend, two-weekend thing, it’s a much longer-term prospect. We’ll see how it does over the next little bit, but it continues to grow, which is cool that it can do on our platform.”

Brodlie said the movie has been successful all over the world, and that Netflix is pushing into the rom-com space. 

“The success that we’ve seen with ‘When We First Met’ and then ‘Kissing Booth’ and then this, it’s clear that people are hungry for this genre and enjoy watching it,” he said. “They’re all chugging along in a great way — so we’re looking for more, certainly.”

Also coming up this summer are “Like Father,” starring Seth Rogen and Kristen Bell, on Netflix Aug. 3 and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” a teen-oriented romance arriving Aug. 17.

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