Catching Up With What If Director Michael Dowse

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We all walk into the movie theatre—or into a film screening— with certain expectations, and we can thank (or blame) the very notion of “genre” for that. A rom-com yields certain expectations, and if it’s an indie rom-com we adjust them a bit to factor in the varying levels of obligatory quirk. But What If actually dances around those expectations, and we can thank (or blame) director Michael Dowse for that (I say, we thank him). With Zoe Kazan and Daniel Radcliffe in the lead as friends-possibly-turned-lovers Chantry and Wallace, the Canadian filmmaker (who often finds himself in good company, having recently worked with fellow Canuck Don McKellar on The Grand Seduction) is bringing back actual romance and actual comedy to the romantic comedy. Paste caught up with Dowse to talk about the making of What If, and the Canadian aesthetic.

Paste Magazine: I wanted to talk about the adaptation process a little bit, particularly concerning the animation used in the film. Was that something screenwriter Elan Mastai wrote into the script, or did that come about later?
Michael Dowse: Yes, there was always an element of animation, but it was in a very different style. So, when I came on board we started working on the script together. It didn’t need a lot of work in terms of structure or anything like that, but one of the things we looked at was animation. I had seen this clip of these guys projecting this animated tiger onto the streets of Paris, and I thought it looked really cool. I thought we could do something like that with [Chantry’s] animation and bring it into the real world—do it on a large scale, where we’re projecting onto the side of a building, and also do it on a small scale with pocket projectors, where we’re projecting onto her face, or onto the ceilings.

I thought it was an interesting way to not only get into her head, but also put her work into the film in a way that was creative and interesting.

Paste: Absolutely. When you first got a hold of the script was there one particular scene that made you feel like you had to direct this movie?
Dowse: You know what it was for me? It was the end—it was about how much I cared about whether or not these two people came together.

Paste: Sure.
Dowse: It also wasn’t one particular thing, but it was more of a great slow boil in the script that was really related to their sense of humor. And that was the thing that made me yearn for them to get together. And when they start ripping each other at the end, there’s just so much forgiveness there. Basically, their comedy becomes a symbol of their love for each other. This is a beautiful trick for a romantic comedy, where most of them are neither funny nor romantic.

Paste: Yes, I know you’ve said in the past that comedy is a huge part of a romantic or sexual relationship.
Dowse: Yes. It’s mostly sexual relationships for me (laughs). I’m kidding.

Paste: (laughs) Well, I thought we definitely got to see that play out.

I’ve been lucky enough to interview a few French Canadian filmmakers over the years. Do you think there’s a certain aesthetic among you guys?
Dowse: I’m an Anglo director living in Montreal, and I have to say being in that Montreal scene, it’s a really exciting time. I think what happens in Canada—and specifically in Montreal—is that directors are really allowed to make their own stories. And I think people are starting to recognize their ability to tell stories in a different way—Philippe Falardeau and Denis Villeneuve, Xavier Dolan, and Ken Scott are all examples of that. And now that all these guys are starting to get their due, it’s a truly exciting time. I think it’s because they’ve had a lot of creative freedom in Canada to tell stories in their own way.

But I think our best director is Jean-Marc Vallée [Dallas Buyer’s Club]. He’s a guy who’s had extreme highs and extreme lows in his career, but has kept on making films. I think he’s doing incredible things. What he did with Café de Flore was just incredible in terms of narrative filmmaking. I think people will look back on that film as a masterpiece in years to come.

Paste: Can you talk about some other directors who might have influenced you, even going back to your childhood?
Dowse: First you get influenced by all of the sort of obvious choices, like [Martin] Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick. As I got more and more into it, I really loved the directors who made a lot of films and covered a wide range of genres. Guys like John Huston, Sidney Lumet and John Boorman were really working-man directors that just kept working, and kept their nose to the grindstone. And they also had some failures every once in a while! I think Lumet did The Wiz after he did Network. (laughs) And then later he did Dog Day Afternoon!

Paste: In What If, there’s some great chemistry between your leads, Zoe Kazan and Daniel Radcliffe. What was it like working with them?
Dowse: These are two very funny, intelligent, self-deprecating people. (laughs) So when you meet them both individually, you kind of do your best guesswork and assume that they’ll cook on screen together. And, sure enough, they did. They couldn’t be smarter or more professional people, so they were great to direct. It was a real pleasure working with them.

Paste: Are there any upcoming projects that we should know about?
Dowse: I’m going to do an action-comedy in the States. I just can’t say too much else, but that’ll be my next film.

Paste: I’m looking forward to it! Thanks so much for this.
Dowse: Thank you.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.