Zoe Kazan on her New Movie 'What If,' Rom Coms, and Quirk

Zoe Kazan's new movie, What If, feels totally fresh, and a worthy choice for the woman who wrote and starred in 2012's Ruby Sparks, which explored what men and women expect out of relationships with a fantastical bent. 

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In Zoe Kazan's new movie, What If, her character, an animator named Chantry, has a meet cute with Daniel Radcliffe's Wallace in front of a fridge covered in magnetic poetry. They have an instant connection. She has a boyfriend. Over the course of the film, which charts Chantry and Wallace's friendship—he, naturally, likes her, despite the fact that she's otherwise romantically attached—there are grand romantic gestures both failed (an ill-advised trip across seas) and adorable (a Fool's Gold sandwich will warm your heart from here on out). The movie feels on many levels like a classic romantic comedy.

And, yet, What If feels totally fresh, and a worthy choice for Kazan, a multi-hyphenate Broadway veteran who wrote and starred in 2012's Ruby Sparks, which explored what men and women expect out of relationships with a fantastical bent. 

The Wire grabbed a few moments with Kazan during the What If press day earlier this week and chatted about the movie, romantic comedies, and the current state of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

The movie had a bunch of familiar rom com traits, but was really well written and did it in an interesting way. What drew you in? 

Exactly what you're talking about. The script I thought was so funny and so sharp. It made me laugh out loud just reading it, and I thought it did what you're talking about, taking a lot of romantic comedy tropes and turning them on their head. When I talked to [screenwriter] Elan [Mastai] about that, he told me that was very much purposeful on his part.

I just thought it was a really relatable situation. I know I and a lot of my girlfriends have been in some degree of a situation like that. I think a lot of women respond to that.

People keep sounding the death knell for romantic comedy, but these stories can still be told in interesting ways. You are also a screenwriter and who explored relationships in Ruby Sparks. When you're reading a script how are you looking at gender roles? 

Look, I think a great romantic comedy is just a great movie. The ones that we love and return to are the ones that speak to us at a cinematic level and at a personal level. I think there's a lot of fluff that gets made and stored under the romantic comedy label, that dilutes the genre. When I read this I just thought, well, they're not going to make this movie. Then when I met with Mike Dowse and having seen Goon, I thought he comes to it from a really unique perspective. He's an ex-football player, ex-hockey player. He's an enormous dude with a very masculine sense of humor. And then Elan Mastai, our writer, is a very sweet, sensitive, neurotic feminist. There was a good balance between them where I thought this is not going to be sentimental, this going to represent women well. I had a lot of confidence in them.

Obviously a lot of the members of the creative team are men, but it felt like it very evenly told each side of the story. Did you have any input in that? 

No, it was just there from the start and it was definitely one of the things that I really got into about it. I think there are good romantic comedies that are from a solely male or solely female perspective, but I think back to Sleepless in Seattle or When Harry Met Sally... or The Apartment. I really like movies where I feel you get both sides of the issue. It's not so clear cut.

Switching gears a little, I saw that you tweeted out Nathan Rabin's recent story about about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which quoted you. I was wondering what your reaction to reading that piece was. 

I thought he wrote a really intelligent essay about what had happened to the trope that he had identified. The reason that I wrote to him was that I felt like there had been a lot of unintelligent discussion about it which was using the trope or the label as a way of putting a box around any character that was quirky in any way. I thought that when he first coined the term that it was a really smart way of identifying a way in which women were being underwritten—female characters—and I thought that what had happened to the label is that it had become too widely applied in a way that was actually denigrating to women. So I was really impressed. He could have just disavowed the term entirely, but I thought he did a really good job of parsing out why he had invented this trope and what had happened to it, and I appreciated the nuance with which he was writing about it.

I had read the piece and your tweet before seeing What If, and Chantry is a well-written character, but you could also see people labeling her, because of say the fact that she goes to a knitting group and has quirky interests—

But I don't even know how quirky those interests are. First of all the knitting culture is very widespread! But I do think there's a way in which in which non-mainstream girls can get codified in a way that makes them not subject by object.

What If uses The Princess Bride as a jumping off point for a discussion of love. What did you think about that cultural reference as the thing that frames their viewpoints on the subjects, especially since Chantry is the one standing up for the romantic and he's the true romantic in a way? 

I think she is in a funny position because she is having to erect a boundary between them that she feels ambivalent about. She's attracted to him but she's still having to be the person that's forcing the boundary. That could make her look like a very cold person, and I think that discussion, but even her going by herself to such a romantic movie allows us to see a soft part about her early in the film when she's really having to be the one cutting the evening short and making a lot of the boundaries.

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