Just in time for Valentine’s Day, a new romantic comedy is premiering this Friday, February 10th, on Prime Video, and it is an utter delight. “Somebody I Used to Know” marks the second directorial feature effort of Dave Franco (his first being the 2020 thriller, “The Rental”), who wrote the script with his wife, Alison Brie, star of the hit shows “Community” and “GLOW.” Brie plays Ally, a television producer shaken by the abrupt cancellation of her reality series with the laughable yet all too probable title of “Dessert Island.” Upon heading back to her hometown of Leavenworth, Washington, Ally runs into her ex, Sean (Jay Ellis), with whom she spends an overtly flirtatious day.
All nostalgic romantic fantasies are upended, however, when Ally learns that he is engaged to be married to a singer, Cassidy (Kiersey Clemons), whose character proves to be refreshingly three-dimensional in her own right. Practically walking away with the picture is Haley Joel Osment as Sean’s brother, Jeremy, whose very first line—involving an out-of-left-field Brendan Fraser reference—had me laughing out loud. Yet it is Franco and Brie’s rich understanding of character that gives this bittersweet gem a distinctively human touch.
During their recent stop in Chicago, Franco and Brie took time to speak with RogerEbert.com about their love of collaborating with one another, their euphoric experience of shooting at a nudist club and how they went about infusing the script with their shared sense of humor.
I’m curious about what films you would cite as your favorite romantic comedies, and how you both wanted to approach the genre on your own terms.
Alison Brie (AB): Part of our process while we were writing together consisted of rewatching a lot of our favorite classic rom-coms from the ’90s. We looked at the major ones like “When Harry Met Sally”…
Dave Franco (DF): “Pretty Woman”…
AB: “Sleepless in Seattle,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “While You Were Sleeping”…
DF: And the newer ones that we love, such as “Palm Springs,” “Fire Island,” “The Big Sick,” “Sleeping with Other People” that Alison’s in, “Enough Said” with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini…
AB: Oh we love “Enough Said”! But I have been watching those ones from the ’90s for what feels like my whole life. I go back to them all the time and will watch them again and again. We wanted to tap into that nostalgic feeling of those older rom-coms and one of the first things we noticed about them is that they are shot like dramas, they are acted like dramas, and they are actually very dramatic. We watched “Pretty Woman” and we were like, “This is more of a ‘rom-drom.’” [laughs] I feel like that became a guiding force as we were making this film. We really just wanted to tap into the relationships and complex emotions that these characters are going through, and that’s at the heart of it.
That is part of what makes this film so special in that the humor doesn’t feel imposed on the story but rather spawns organically from it.
DF: That’s very nice of you to say. I think that comes from Alison and my natural sensibilities. Our aim is to create interesting characters, put them in bizarre scenarios and play it as real and as grounded as possible while letting the humor come from that as opposed to throwing out a bunch of one-liners. That’s kind of how we approached the comedy in the movie.
AB: Because we were writing this together, the whole movie is sort of in the tone of us and our personal sense of humor, so you start to realize when you are writing dialogue that all of the characters kind of sound like you. I mean, we tried to differentiate between the characters, but the way that everybody jokes with each other is similar to how we joke with one another, and the kind of comedic vocabulary that we have.
DF: All that said, we didn’t want to be afraid of going deeper than people might expect when things get more dramatic. It was important for us to not shy away from some confrontational moments where there may be an inclination for us to ask ourselves whether we should infuse a dramatic scene with a couple of jokes. Our answer to that was, “No, this deserves to be its own thing. Let’s allow the emotion to really land.”
I’ve interviewed Joe Swanberg—who co-wrote your previous film, “The Rental”—and his ex-wife Kris Rey many times over the years, and they spoke with me about how they wanted to normalize nudity in their early work, particularly Swanberg’s directorial debut, “Kissing on the Mouth.” I felt a similar power in “Somebody I Used to Know,” specifically in its final scene.
AB: Well, a lot of the film’s nudist storyline is pulled from my own life and my streaking, particularly during my nudist days in college. While working on “GLOW,” we did a lot of non-sexual nudity, and it sounds so strange to say this, but it really felt like that’s a big part of who I am. I am a comfortably naked person. I love representations of nudity in film that are not over-sexualized, and in this movie, it also made a lot of sense to incorporate it. Somehow nudity was the perfect metaphor for Ally’s journey in going from being a very self-serious person to finding herself in need of reconnecting to her essence. It just made sense that this is where it would all land.
DF: It is a literal metaphor in that Alison’s character is extremely buttoned up at the very beginning of the film.
AB: Could I be wearing any more clothes? [laughs]
DF: And then by the end…
AB: What you see in that final scene is so real. We shot it at the Serenity Mountain Retreat.
DF: It is the oldest nudist club west of the Mississippi, and we actually scouted it during one of their biggest days of the year. They were holding a big festival, so there were more nudists in attendance than there generally are there. When you first walk into that kind of situation, there’s a little bit of trepidation in not being sure how to conduct oneself, but almost immediately, we felt so at ease. It’s just such a warm, welcoming environment, to the point where the festival went on through the weekend and we had crew members going back just to hang out and be a part of the good vibes!
AB: The people at this nudist club are the most joyful people I have ever met in my life. They are so comfortable with themselves in who they are, and it was a great spirit with which to infuse our whole movie.
DF: Yes, and it is shown through that character Ally interviews at the end, who is very much inspired by us just visiting the actual retreat.
I could watch a whole movie about the dynamic between Alison’s character and her mother, played hilariously here by Julie Hagerty, who has starred in so many of the all-time greatest comedies. Did you write the role of the mother specifically for her?
DF: Essentially yes.
AB: We wrote the role with her in mind. It’s always helpful to have people in your mind when you are writing just to give yourself a sense of who that person is, and we one hundred percent wrote that with Julie Hagerty in mind.
DF: There are certain actors whom you just watch while thinking to yourself, “That’s my mom.” We both felt that about Julie Hagerty at different points.
AB: And now we feel that even more. I do feel like she is my mom now.
DF: Her character, aside from her sexual proclivities, is somewhat based on my mom, just in terms of her essence, her quirkiness and the fact that she is just very funny in a way that escapes her own awareness, which is very warmhearted.
AB: Julie is so good at toeing the line between comedic gold and true heartfelt emotionality, and that’s what you want from that character and her bond with Ally. What I hope comes across is that even though Ally has a lot going on and is obviously very dismissive of her mom early on in the film, that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t love her or they don’t have a great bond. If anything, they have such a strong bond that Ally is like, “I know she’s going to see the deeper issues that I’m struggling with.”
DF: I don’t know if it’s just me or if it’s a universal thing, but sometimes you find yourself not being as nice to the people that you are closest with just because you are so comfortable and you’re so at ease with them. We wanted to tap into that here.
AB: Yes, and that feeling of going back to your parents’ house, where you find yourself kind of reverting back to how you were when you were a teenager. Suddenly you find yourself groaning, “Mom, I’m on the phone!” [laughs] It’s that vibe.
Many of the biggest laughs in the film are the result of small details, such as the note Hagerty leaves for Ally to assure her that there is “no cheese in the cookies.”
AB: [laughs] That was so sweet.
DF: That’s an example of a moment where we really tried to toe the line and find moments that are so genuinely warm and sweet, but you’re also laughing. I think that final scene at the nudist retreat also serves a similar purpose. It’s a really genuine moment, but you’re kind of laughing along with it for various reasons, such as the way everybody else in the scene shows their support.
AB: It’s fun and funny, but we’re not making fun of anyone. It’s more about joy.
DF: From a distance, the situation is very comical, but we’re playing it so earnestly.
AB: And that actress whom I share the scene with is just incredible.
You have one of my longtime acting heroes, Haley Joel Osment, in this film, and he steals every one of his scenes.
AB: Absolutely. We wrote that role with him in mind as well! I worked with Haley eleven years ago on a very small indie movie called “The Misadventures of the Dunderheads,” where he and I played brother and sister, and Olympia Dukakis was our grandmother. It was a zany road trip movie, and I’ve known him since then. We have loosely stayed in touch, and I don’t know specifically why he came into our minds for this role, though he has been doing a lot of funny stuff.
DF: He was in an episode of “What We Do in the Shadows,” and was so funny and memorable in it. The character he plays in our film is probably the most “comedic” role on the page, and I think in the wrong hands, there’s a danger in leaning a little too hard into the jokes because what he’s saying is very ridiculous. We just wanted a great actor who understood comedy and could simply inhabit that character by playing it very straight and very earnestly.
AB: He became like a good luck charm and was very helpful for us in the editing room. Anytime we needed a button for a scene, we’d be like, “Go back to the Haley footage! Let’s have more Haley.”
DF: Even when we were onset, if Haley was nearby, we’d be like, “Okay, what can we do with Haley?”
Do you have any interest in directing a feature yourself, Alison?
AB: Yes, I absolutely have an interest in directing, but I am also well aware of what an undertaking that is. For me, it’s so much about finding the right thing, and I’m not sure if it would be something that I would write or we would write together or it would just be something that I would find.
DF: She directed an episode of “GLOW,” which was amazing.
AB: I also directed an episode of “Marvel 616” for Disney, so I love it, but in the interim and the meantime, Dave and I definitely want to write more stuff together. We already have some ideas that we’re kind of kicking around.
DF: There are also practical reasons for these collaborations. When one of us is away doing a job, it is hard to be apart for months at a time. With a film like “Somebody I Used to Know,” it feels like we cracked into something where we can build these projects from the ground up, travel to wherever we need to go with our two cats and we’ve got the whole family with us! [laughs]
"Somebody I Used to Know" will be available on Prime Video on February 10th.