Filmmaker Jonah Feingold has always been charmed by the idea of happily ever after. But as a hardened New Yorker, born and raised in Manhattan, he’s not naive enough to believe that’s always the way a love story ends.
In his first film, the modern romantic comedy “Dating and New York,” which follows two commitment-phobic millennials, he let audiences fall for the central couple (played by Jaboukie Young-White and Francesca Reale) for 90 minutes before breaking them up in the final seconds of the story. After the movie, which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in 2021, was released by IFC Films to the world, he recalls getting a few angry emails about the ending.
“I don’t think, in a modern New York dating world, they would end up together,” Feingold, 32, says over coffee at Manhattan’s Marlton Hotel. “I was just trying to be honest.”
Feingold is revisiting the idea of fairytales in “At Midnight,” a romantic comedy starring Diego Boneta (“Terminator: Dark Fate) as a hotel manager and Monica Barbaro (“Top Gun: Maverick”) as a rising movie star, whose lives unexpectedly collide when her film starts shooting at the tropical Mexican resort where he works. Anders Holm, Whitney Cummings and Catherine Cohen also star in the movie, which debuts on Paramount+ on Feb. 10 in time for Valentine’s Day.
You independently produced and secured financing for your first film, “Dating and New York.” What happened to your career after it was released?
“Dating and New York” came out in September 2021 and, as any filmmaker does, I had complete panic and fear of what would happen next. What if people don’t see the film? What if I never get to make a movie again? I had a project that I was really excited about called “The Bar Downstairs.” I wrote a script that I had ready to go, and I was going to independently finance it the same way we made “Dating and New York.” It was an empowering process with 33 investors and no one to tell me what I could and couldn’t do. My agents were like, “Look, you just did that. Take a second and breathe.” I was like, “I gotta work. I didn’t make any money off ‘Dating and New York.'” So they sent it around to some places. We got a call from Miramax, and a wonderful executive loved the script. The same week, I got a call from my manager who was like, “There’s this project at Paramount+ with Diego Boneta. I think it’s really right for you.” I was drinking a martini, and I’m like, “Are you fucking with me?”
Did you have to meet with studio executives before getting the job?
There were five directors up for the job. [My agents] were like, “You’re going to have to pitch the producers and meet Diego Boneta.” When I read the script that night, I was like, “This is exactly what I’m looking for.” So I pitched a 60-page deck to the producers. They were texting the entire time, and I’m like, “Wow, I don’t have their attention.” But I found out they were just loving the pitch. It all happened very quickly.
What is the biggest difference in making a movie independently compared to working at a major company like Paramount?
The difference is you don’t have to worry about craft services. On “Dating and New York,” I was deeply concerned about my actors being fed. For “At Midnight,” I did not have to worry about paying for travel. And marketing has been really wonderful. We didn’t have that luxury on “Dating.” With “Dating,” I was like, “worst case-scenario, it goes on Vimeo.” This one has a release date.
Was there any desire to pull a “White Lotus” and set your film in a beautiful location on the studio’s dime?
It was set in Mexico because Diego is passionate about where he’s from. He’s like, “I’ve never seen a rom com that shows the beauty of Mexico City, and I want to do that.” And that’s the whole reason the movie exists. But a mentor of mine, the director Pete Segal, has a great story where “50 First Dates” was originally set in Alaska. Adam Sandler was like, “Love this, but we’re not going to Alaska. Let’s do this in Hawaii.” Pete told me, “If you can set your movies in nice tropical places, it’ll be a much better experience.”
Relationship dynamics seem to be a recurring theme in your movies. What interests you about them?
I’ve tried to unpack that. I’m always fascinated by how people get to happily-ever-after. My parents have a wonderful meet-cute story. My mom wrote my dad a letter on a piece of toilet paper, because she saw him flying a kite on the beach. She wrote, “Hey, you look cute” and put it on his Jeep. We had that letter framed in our house. My parents are now divorced, but there’s something interesting in there to me.
Also, I challenge you to walk down the street in New York City and not overhear a conversation about love or romance or someone texting back. There’s nothing more interesting to me than a breakup happening on the subway. Everyone’s listening. You can act like you’re not, but everyone’s trying to hear what’s going on. It’s just an inherent part of our life. And I like to romanticize stuff.
With “At Midnight,” are you trying to subvert rom-com tropes?
Yes, I want to try to do something different and will continue to try to do something different. I love a good meet-cute. But our movie focuses on character over the plot — who Monica’s character really is, which is why the sequence in Mexico City where you meet Diego’s family turns into this whole family drama. I don’t mind the tropes. But I want to bring a strong filmmaking aesthetic that honors classic cinema techniques to the genre.
How did you put the cast together?
Diego was attached, and the next part became who is our leading lady? There has to be chemistry. We read a lot of people and we got tapes. My agent was like, ‘I represent Monica. She’s done some great work. She has a great reel.’ I loved the material on her reel. I instantly felt like I knew her. “Top Gun: Maverick” had not come out yet. Monica and Diego read first over Zoom, and I wrote in my notes, “They’re fucking incredible.” I sent it to Paramount, and they loved her.
I noticed you regularly post advice to aspiring filmmakers on social media. Why is that important to you?
No one in my family works in the film business. You know the joke on TikTok that’s like “Why don’t you just call Taylor [Swift] up?” My dad was always like, “Tell Spielberg about your movie.” I’ve written letters to filmmakers; David Koepp wrote me back when I was very young, which I freaked out about. I interned for Hans Zimmer because I wrote him. For the longest time, the only advice was to tell a great story, which is totally true. But no one in film school is talking about how to really get an agent, or how to respond to an email, or how to establish a start date for your film. So every Saturday, I respond to three hours of emails. It makes me happy when people reach out and say, “Your advice helped me finish my short.”