First-time feature filmmaker Sophie Brooks‘ The Boy Downstairs reimagines the all-too-familiar New York City love story — mythologized in such classic films as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally, and even Sex and the City — with a more realistic, women-first narrative that is guaranteed to resonate with today’s woke audiences. In the endearing romantic comedy, an aspiring writer (played by GIRLS’s Zosia Mamet) returns to Manhattan after three years abroad to find the perfect apartment, only to later discover that her ex-boyfriend Ben (Matthew Shear) resides downstairs and that, worse yet, she’s still in love with him.
SF Weekly spoke to Brooks and Mamet about upending the traditional love story and gender norms in The Boy Downstairs, which saw its West Coast premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on Saturday, the lack of women directors, and about the immense pressures today’s women face to “have it all.”
How did you two first begin your collaboration?
Sophie Brooks: Zosia was the first actor we sent the script to, and as soon as we met and talked about the script and I got her take on it, it was really clear that she was my lady.
Why was Zosia your first choice?
SB: She’s a really good actress and has such a wonderful grasp on comedy and drama, and that was really important to me. For the character of Diana, I wanted her to have an intense sincerity, but I also wanted whoever played her to have comic timing and a sense of irony, and Zosia certainly has all of those things. Once we met, we bonded over our mutual health anxiety…
Zosia Mamet: General anxiety…
SB: And there were a lot of things that Zosia related to in terms of the character, and that was very important to me.
Zosia, what drew you to the project?
ZM: I immediately fell in love with Sophie’s script. The moment I met her, I fell in love with her. I did super-relate to a lot of what the character experiences, and that was an initial entry point that Sophie and I could both grasp onto. We both experienced that in our lives and could commiserate about it. It was a match made in heaven.
Sophie, you’ve lamented the lack of women directors in Hollywood. What will it take to remedy this?
SB: There certainly is a pattern of a lot of female directors at festivals. Women get festival hits, but their male counterparts get big-budget studio movies as their second or third feature, which doesn’t really happen as often for female directors. I don’t know if I can speak to why that is or what the solution is. But I think there’s certainly a problem of women not being on studio lists of people to consider. So I hope that the fact that Wonder Woman was such a massive hit, and Patty Jenkins did such a great job with it, that it’ll help get women on the list.
But I think the problem now is that there just aren’t an equal number of people of color or women on those lists. It’s mostly white men, and they’re great, too. I love white men, but maybe just make the list more diverse and give other people the opportunity to pitch their takes on things.
Zosia, millions of women in New York City are searching for professional success and romance, and your character, Diana, is no different. You’re married to actor Evan Jonigkeit now, but can you still relate to your character’s struggle to achieve both of these dreams?
ZM: Yes, I’m an old married lady now, but I think that’s something that even once you find a wonderful relationship, there’s a constant figuring out. I think particularly in today’s day and age, with the feminist idea that women can have it all, it’s in a way almost more difficult, because we’re expected to be the perfect mom, the perfect wife, and run a Fortune 500 company, so women put a lot of pressure on themselves to be everything. I think, in many ways, the climate has changed for the women of our generation, because in some ways they look at dating like a job. But I absolutely think that struggle in Diana is very real. I don’t think her particular struggle of choosing a career or choosing love is anything new, and that was something I personally related to.
Sophie writes like a great writer from the days of yore. We watched When Harry Met Sally and a lot of Woody Allen movies, like Annie Hall and Manhattan, so this story was obviously set in today’s world and felt modern in that way, but it also felt very timeless to me.
I loved how the film upended gender norms by making the woman success focused and the man supportive of her dreams.
SB: A lot of people have asked me about the Ben character, who’s sensitive and kind of the wounded bird at the beginning, but that feels very real to me. Zosia and I both grew up in L.A. and went to the same high school — Crossroads — and there’s actually a sensitive breed of man that comes out of my world. So the idea that he would be willing to go to England for her or follow her lead didn’t feel like I was deliberately trying to make a statement. It just felt realistic to the story I was telling.
We’re in a time where dating has changed and that it isn’t an assumption that the woman’s just going to follow the man and do what he wants. That’s not the world we live in anymore, and I’m very glad that it isn’t the assumption that because the person I’m dating wants me to move somewhere that I’m going to do it. It’s important for me to show gender roles that are more nuanced, that aren’t just what’s necessarily expected but also felt honest.
Zosia, how do you ensure that you’re still getting your own needs met within your marriage?
ZM: It’s sort of a constantly shifting thing. My husband and I both work in this industry, so there’s a lot of give and take and a lot of new information thrown into the mix on a daily basis, so we’re just endlessly figuring it out. It’s kind of our lives. But I also think that is something really great — that I have a partner whose life is as fluid as mine and is as down to go with the flow as I am. So there isn’t a magic potion or rubric for that; it’s just a constant negotiation.
Zosia, as the daughter of acclaimed playwright and moviemaker David Mamet and actress Lindsay Crouse and the granddaughter of playwright Russel Crouse, who co-wrote classic American musicals Anything Goes and The Sound of Music, do you ever feel that you have a lot to live up to?
ZM: No. I think if I thought of it that way, I’d never leave my house. I’ve come from a family of artists that I love and respect, but I am also my own person.
SB: Yeah, it’s like you’ve just entered the family business.
ZM: Yeah, I’m just making shoes like my dad did.
The Boy Downstairs, at Albany Twin, 1115 Solano Ave., Albany, on August 5.