Q&A with Elan Mastai, screenwriter, The F Word

The road to getting a film made is never easy, but if you’ve got a great script, then you’ve got a jump start. Or so you’d think.

Elan Mastai’s much buzzed about script forThe F Word has traveled in many circles, getting picked up by indie producers, and even Fox Searchlight along the way. Nothing quite stuck, until the right people got involved.

When the “right” people include director Michael Dowse, and actor Daniel Radcliffe, projects tend to go places.

The romantic comedy, which also stars Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Mackenzie Davis, and Megan Park, is set to open in August in both Canada and the U.S. (titled What If stateside).

First Weekend Club caught up with the busy scribe, recently named one of Variety’s 10 Screenwriters to Watch:

How did you come to write the F Word? What was the inspiration?

I’d been screenwriting professionally for several years and had a few movies made, but I felt like I hadn’t really written anything that had my distinct voice, point of view, and sense of humour. I’d mostly been doing work-for-hire gigs for various producers and directors. So the inspiration was to take what I’d learned working for other people and write something more personal, even if it never got made.

The project went through a long process in terms of finding a studio home, and casting… Did you always feel like, yes, it will eventually get made? What kept you going?

Actually, the project found homes quite quickly, it was getting it made that took some time. It started with Sheep Noir Films as a low-budget Canadian indie. But then the script caught heat in the US, landing on the annual Black List of Hollywood’s best screenplays and got acquired by Fox Searchlight. Where it came agonizingly close to being made as a studio movie but fell apart for various reasons. Which turned out to be very good for the movie because then director Michael Dowse and the producers from No Tracing Camping got involved and we put it together as an international co-production — and actually made it.

Which is all to say, I was fortunate that there was never a lack of people who wanted to make the movie over the years. It just took a while to cross the finish line. The other thing is, as a working screenwriter, the script for THE F WORD became my main writing sample. So while I was trying to get it made, it was also helping me get hired on other projects.

Why was Michael Dowse the right person to direct, did you know right away?

I was a big fan of Michael’s films before we ever met to discuss THE F WORD. I knew with him at the helm the movie would be as hilarious as I wrote it to be, but that he’d also pull rich character work and genuine emotion from our cast, which he definitely did. I’ll admit that in light of his movies like FUBAR and GOON, I didn’t expect Michael to want to make a romantic comedy, but that’s also why THE F WORD turned out to be much more than just another throw-away rom-com.

How do you feel about writing a so-called “Rom-Com”?

I love the genre. When done well, romantic comedies are funny and moving and speak to a universal longing for genuine connection that we all share. When done poorly, well, they can be painful. And I think that comes down to the simple fact that basically everyone is an expert in this stuff. Love, romance, flirtation, heartbreak, infatuation, bittersweet longing, everyone has real, honest life experience in these things. Unlike almost every other movie genre, everyone is an expert in romantic comedy. So that means everyone intuitively knows when it’s phony.

What do you find often doesn’t work in “Rom-Coms”?

Being phony. Having characters act in ways no real human being ever would just to make some plot contrivance work. Like a character concocting a ridiculous and borderline sociopathic scheme to trick a person they supposedly love into doing something they don’t and shouldn’t want to do. All the crap. I believe most of us are more than capable of making a colossal mess of our love-lives while still behaving like normal people. Because at some point in our lives, all of us do. The more real a romantic comedy, the funnier and more moving it is.

Any favourites in the genre?


How much of what you write tends to be autobiographical? How much of yourself do you put in writing something like The F-Word, which is a more personal seeming story?

I write a lot of autobiography but then I mischievously cloak it in fiction. Everything I write comes from personal questions, some issue or conflict I’m trying to work through in my own life. Writing the movie is my way of working out my personal dilemmas through the vivid conflicts of drama.

What was it like to see it with the great cast? Did the actors fit the roles how you thought they would?

Our cast isn’t just great, it’s AMAZING. It was a thrill, every day, to be on set watching my words come to life with such a killer ensemble. I tend to write with no particular actor in mind because I don’t want my preconceptions of some specific actor to limit where the character might need to go on the page. So, sure, I wasn’t imagining Daniel Radcliffe as the lead because at most points in the development process it would’ve been insane to imagine a movie star of his stature playing the part. But once we cast him and he so effortlessly embodied the role, it became impossible to imagine anyone else. And that’s the same for the rest of our cast, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Mackenzie Davis, Megan Park, Rafe Spall, everyone.

Did anything surprise you (in terms of what the cast brought to the roles)?

Of course. All the time. Because they’re all fantastic actors bringing the scenes to life. As opposed to, you know, black ink on a white page.

As a writer, what was your involvement in the production process?

I was on set every day. I was fortunate to work with a director like Michael Dowse, who has a very strong vision and is commanding leader on set but is also a genuine collaborator. So, I was at the monitors for the whole shoot, giving my input when necessary, talking through whatever challenges we faced on set that day. When we improvised, I was part of that process, contributing ideas and riffing with Michael and the actors. Michael’s an immensely talented director, so I knew my script was in good hands. But I couldn’t have asked for a more inclusive role in actually making the movie, not just in production but also in post-production and leading up to the release.

You’ve worked in LA as a writer, as well as Canada… What are some of the major differences in how the industry operates in these different geographical areas?

Well, on the one hand, you’re still just writing movies. Three acts, 100 or so pages, courier font. On the other hand, they’re basically the opposite in nearly every way. When I’m writing a movie for one of the Hollywood studios, there are vast financial resources but they come with rigid commercial necessities. And that’s not a criticism. If you want someone to spend a hundred million dollars on some funny little idea you came up with, they’d better make their money back. In Canada, the resources are much more limited but that lack of money buys you creative freedom. Which I think sometimes our filmmakers don’t always appreciate, because not having experienced working in the studio system and what that entails, they can’t help but focus on all the resources we don’t have here.

In LA, they’re also a lot hungrier for new voices. Nobody wants to be the person who missed out on the hot next thing. My career in the US took off because people I don’t know, all these nameless execs working for dozens, even hundreds of different companies, passed my script around and talked me up without ever having met me. That’s kind of crazy when you think about it. That’s a lot less likely to happen in Canada. On the other hand, there’s a real sense of community in Canadian filmmaking, because it’s tough and you have to be scrappy and everyone needs help. I think Canada is a way more supportive environment in terms of how filmmakers relate to one another.

Let’s talk a bit about your writing process… 

Where do you write?
In my home office.

Is there music playing the background? If so, what kind?
I think of a movie like an album, and the various sequences are like individual songs. So I’ll often make a playlist of songs that “feel” like the sequence should. And then I’ll listen to that same song over and over and over again while I’m writing the sequence. By the end of it, I’m pretty sick of the song, but everything I loved about it is hopefully now in the sequence.

How many hours a day?
I write 10-5 every weekday with an hour for lunch. I treat it like a job, not a hobby, because it is my job.

How disciplined are you?
Very. Nobody owes me a screenwriting career. I have to earn it one word at a time.

Do you wait for inspiration or deadlines?
There’s a W. Somerset Maugham quote I like: “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

I’m a big believer in just sitting down at my desk and writing through the suck. I’d rather get something crappy written than nothing at all, because I can rewrite something crappy, but I can’t rewrite a scene that doesn’t exist.

How many rewrites do you usually go through?
A lot. It depends on the project. Rule of thumb, I write three drafts for every draft I show anyone.

Do you read your script out-loud as your characters?
Yes. I also like to do regular live table-reads with a cast of actors to help fine-tune the script.

How do you make sure that a screenplay has your own “voice”?  
You think to yourself — what’s the version of this that nobody else could write? And then you do your best to write that version. And you never stop challenging yourself, even on the umpteenth rewrite, to make it better, more unique and specific and true. It seems like the easiest thing in the world, write it your way. But it’s hard. And it’s normal for it to take a while to close that mental gap between what it sounds like in your head and what’s coming out on the page. You just have to keep writing until you close that gap.

What makes you different than any other writer?
My DNA. Literally and figuratively. I am different, physically, biologically, genetically. But also in terms of my influences, my history, my experiences, my cultural background, my taste, my point of view. All of that goes in the mix. I try to write to specificity, because every universal experience is also hyper-specific. Your personality makes you different than everyone else. Your writing should feel like that too. It should be you.

What’s next for you? What are you working on?
I sold a TV series to the FX network in the US, so I’m writing the pilot. And I’m adapting an episode of the Peabody-winning radio show “This American Life” into a movie.

(Photo credit – Caitlin Cronenberg)

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