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Love is a Conversation: Michael Jacobs on Maybe I Do

Director Michael Jacobs, now 67 years old, adapted his 1978 play for “Maybe I Do.” The title’s contradiction between the tentative and the declarative reflects the different views on love and marriage represented by three couples: a young woman (Emma Roberts) who wants to marry a boyfriend (Luke Bracey) who is not ready to commit. Her parents (Richard Gere and Diane Keaton) are sadly estranged, and his parents (William H. Macy and Susan Sarandon) are bitterly estranged. The two families meet for dinner, not knowing that some of them have already met. The Gere/Sarandon characters have been having an affair and the Macy/Keaton characters met the evening before and had a long, intimate conversation. In an interview, Jacobs talked about which actor’s character had a backstory and which did not need one and what he told his children about love.

The costume and production design really helped to establish the characters.

Our costume designer is Sarah Fleming. And Sarah and I hit it off right from our first Zoom conversation. She put together the costume boards, and she just showed me that she fully understood who all of these people were, the differences in their personalities. And she expressed it through her costumes. I had so few notes for Sarah. You want to have something to say, but she was just so good at what she did. Except there was one moment that happened that was the opposite of good. It was horrible and this is the moment. We started the shooting. One of the first scenes we did was Diane and Bill in the exterior walk and talk in the city street after they meet in the movie theater, and they walk down this street together, which is a sort of dangerous street. 

And it's going to be bitter cold that evening, which no one was happy about, but it did cause some tension, which worked for us. Anyway, Sarah says, “I want to show you what Diane wants to wear.” And I said, “Oh gosh, Diane Keaton great. This is going to be fabulous.”

It was the most hideous tent of a gray, neck to feet, puffy coat that ... I don't know where this could have been found. This was terrible. And I'm looking at it and thinking that's the end of that scene and the movie and the rest of my life. 

It's funny because there's a writing partner I had named Bob Young, and he taught me something that I thought was great. There was something one day that somebody pitched that was not good and everybody in the room knew it was not good. And how Bob handled it was, "You know, I love that, but I just love that a little less than everything else you told me that I really love.” And the person said, “Oh thanks.” And I never forgot that. I wanted to say to Sarah, “You know I love this,” but what came out of my mouth is, “This is awful! It's a terrible costume.” And she said, “I know.” And I said, “What are we going to do?” And she said, “I don't know.” I said, “Okay, I need to think about this.” 

The bottom line of this story, which is great, is that it took me 24 hours, but I realized that Diane wasn't going to wear this coat. We found another coat. It was a puffy coat because she definitely wanted to be warm, but it was white and beautiful and great. But what Diane was saying to me is, “I understand who this character is. This is what this person would wear.” And she was right. This is what this person would wear. And that communication between Diane and me on day one through a costume made me not only understand her, but her care in how she was going to choose to play this character. And this spiraled into a lot of things. I started thinking about the movie, one of which is, you spend your life and comedy rhythms are important to you. And if you're doing a romantic comedy, those rhythms have to be important. Well, no matter what they market this film as and no matter what reviewers say. 

And there was one reviewer already who hit us pretty hard and said it's a rom-com with not a lot of romance and not a lot of comedy. She's exactly right because it's not a romantic comedy. It really is an observation. It's an observation about people of a certain age and what they're going to do to their children by their behavior and how they're going to end up themselves. And that's not terribly romantic. And a lot of it is funny, but I think it's much more a serio-comedy. I think it's much more, “you have to take a look at this.” I do think that Diane was astute and exactly right about the coat in that the reality has to be taken into absolute consideration. And if we're going to rely on the music and rhythms of the script, it's not going to be all it can be, because there are, frankly, moments in the movie that are the most touching, that are stilted. And I wouldn't say you wince, but I will say that when Richard is kneeling to his wife of an entire lifetime at the end of the movie, and she's breaking down because how could he possibly do this to her? He's trying to find something to say. And Diane just keeps repeating, “What, what, what, what?” Diane, who has been searching the whole movie for conversation from him, realizes that even now, he's got not much to say. And the realization of the audience is that even though it's Richard Gere this was something he stumbled into once in his life. And the torture and the mortality that he's facing has really altered the basic persona of this particular everyman. And I'm very hopeful that the audience will understand that's the takeaway. That we are every part of these four adult characters, that they really are fractions of a whole. And we can recognize ourselves in every one of them and recognize moments we've had. And I hope that's why the movie works.

For me, the movie was about the difference between the fairy tale version of love, the Hollywood version of happily ever after love, and what it is like to actually make a life with somebody and go through things and argue about the garbage and the clothes left on the floor or whatever it is, and still retain that connection to the romantic part of your relationship. 

I really appreciate you not only saying it but seeing it. Because it's funny, when you say the Hollywood version of romantic comedy or what a romantic film is, this is a much more halting you...there are moments in this thing that not only are not funny, but you just you want to hit the pause button because yes, I've just said that. I've just felt that. And I think there are particular moments that are so small and I would call them lesser moments. I'll give you one. When Richard walks out of his relationship with Susan, he can't come home. And we know he's sitting having a cup of coffee in some diner because he needs two hours before he can go home from what is ostensibly where he's told his wife he really was. And in this very short scene, there's a young couple and I don't want to give away what goes on but Richard is looking at something he no longer recognizes or fears that he will no longer ever have and then achieves it at the end of the film. But a waitress comes up. And the waitress notices Richard looking at this young couple and simply says, “Not our world anymore.” And that's the way that I feel at 67 years old. The world belongs to my children. Soon will belong to their children. What have we left them? And I certainly didn't write a grand sweeping what have we left our kids? I wrote a very specific what do you leave your kids in your own behavior with your wife and your husband? What do they see? What do they become? What do they inherit? And that's what I hope people will take away from this.

Two of the couples in the film are middle-aged, with decades of relationship behind them. Did your actors explore the backstories?

Bill arrived two days before everybody else. And he's just a consummate actor. For what it's worth an absolutely lovely man. We had dinner every other night and learned so much about him. It was such a pleasure and an honor to work with him every day. He was very concerned about who this man was and how could he find himself in this terrible position. And at his core, what he knew was that this man was, I'm going to use the word “decent,” that there was a core decency to this man that creates a rooting interest that you hope that everything will be okay with him and it isn't. And what he felt was that he had some wealth, he had all of the trappings, the material trappings, but none of the emotional quality he wanted. And that was the great contradiction in his character. And what he felt was he was a man who had a successful company, sold the company and now turned inward finally to look at what his life was and found it wanting. And so, he ends up in a movie theater alone, literally crying into his popcorn about a loving couple he sees on screen. And then there shows up another woman going through a similar circumstance. That was his character’s backstory.

For Bill it was right. But it was different with Richard. He kept asking me, “What's the guy in? What's he do? What is he?” You've got to remember, this is Richard Gere. From the first second I met him, we were like old friends. The relationship that Richard and I had was like he was a buddy that we played baseball together. And our conversation was absolutely what both of us, I think, wanted. I mean, we cut through to...he was able to ask me, “What specifically does this guy come from?” And I said to him, “What specifically would be the difference?” And he said, “I love that.” And I go, “Why?” And he says, “Because you're telling me that we're going to focus on what happens in front of us.” And I said, “Yeah, the more important thing is not where he's come from, but where he wants to go, given a clear choice. And why has he done what he's done now? That's great, Michael, because what I think is certainly more important is what the audience is going to view right in front of them.” 

Richard and I, of course, we talked about who this guy might be. And of course, we talked about character. But what was more important were moments in the movie and how Richard arrived at them and how his character, Howard, like Diane’s character Grace is, very easily relatable, even though he's done what he's done. I don't think there's one moment in the picture where you even think about disliking the character. Whereas Luke has a much more interesting reaction in the beginning because Emma, who is this perfectly lovely girl, she's what everybody wants. “I love you and I want to marry you and give you myself for the rest of your life. Will you have me?” And Luke says, “No.” And so, the thing is, we hate you for saying no to this love. Luke, who is this wonderful, tall, great-looking guy, everything, he has to make the audience hate him even more, except for his core persona, which is so lovely and so frightened and so vulnerable. 

And then about halfway into the movie, when you realize it's because Luke was raised by Susan. He watched Susan and Bill and the people they were. And Susan is not a villain. She and I talked about this a number of times. She is simply feeling that she is deserving more than she has received. And so, she's unfulfilled. And that has done something to her. That's recognizable. Not everybody believes they are Cruella de Vil who could murder dalmatians. But what Susan has done is enable the audience to see at some point you have felt these things. And so, there's a truth to that. And the ultimate truth that Luke’s responses are come from this upbringing. All of a sudden, not only do you not have a negative feeling about Luke, you pity him and you understand that it's been Emma who is basically been questioning what's wrong with me when it's Luke that has a severe flaw. And I think that's interesting. I didn't make it as obvious as I might have. And I hope that the audience appreciates how difficult that role actually is.

It’s part of the human dilemma that we desperately desire to love and be loved and we're desperately afraid of it, too, because it makes us vulnerable. That’s what you present with Luke and Emma.

Yes, and the metaphor we used is that the thing we are afraid of is actually holding hands, closing our eyes, and jumping off a cliff. That's what we do because we're making a promise for the rest of our lives. And as Bill says in one of my favorite scenes in the piece, when he's talking to his son and says, “They put you in my arms, and the doctor said, take him home. And I understood the relationship completely. But you're supposed to find a partner for the rest of your life and take your partner home. And there's no doctor to say, ‘This one's yours.’ How can we do this?” And so, there are moments that say, yes, this is what I want you to think about.

What’s the most important thing that you've learned about love?

Love is a conversation. My feeling is, when I was 22 years old when I wrote this play [then called Cheaters], I was able to easily say, “I love you” to multiple people. It came out of my mouth as easily as “hello.” It was the time that I was living in. And as we are results of our parents, we are also results of the time that we are brought up. And I think that the thing as I became an adult and now see how sacred the conversation is. I would without hesitancy say when something happens to you, something out of the ordinary, when something is worth talking about, the person you first want to tell, that's the person you love. And so, that's what I learned about love. It's not being able to wait to have my next conversation with my wife. When we're so young we think of love as this loud parade when it's really this quiet moment. That's what I've learned.

Nell Minow

Nell Minow is the Contributing Editor at

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