‘Set It Up’ Director Claire Scanlon Is Bringing Back the Rom-Com
Netflix’s Set It Up is about to be your new favorite rom-com. Directed by Claire Scanlon and starring Zoey Deutch, Glen Powell, Lucy Liu, and Taye Diggs, it’s the perfect movie to watch on a cozy night in with either your significant other or your BFFs. Scanlon and screenwriter Katie Silberman are fans of the genre themselves, and they made it Set It Up in the tradition of other great rom-coms of decades past. We chatted with Scanlon about her personal favorite date-night movies, her directing style, and what it was like to make the film while eight months pregnant (!) with her second child.
Brit + Co: We love a good rom-com, and it seems like Hollywood just doesn’t make that many of them anymore.
Claire Scanlon: Yeah, what’s up with that?!
B+C: What is up with that?
CS: I just think that there’s been a vacuum in that area. There’s been a vacuum in a lot of areas. Like, where’s the movie that was made for me as the audience? There’s a lot of comic book movies out there, and there’s a lot of really gross-out comedies, but where’s just a grounded, well-told story? As much as I love those gut-wrenching dramas — and I do love them and I watch them — when I’ve been watching hard news, I just want a little escapism. And that’s harder to come by.
B+C: On the subject of rom-coms, do you have any personal favorites? Or did you have any in mind as you were directing Set It Up?
CS: I did. You know, I really love the comedies from the ’30s and ’40s. So, specifically, It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday. The pinnacle would be The Philadelphia Story, but I’m almost embarrassed to even put that in the same sentence, because nobody will ever make a movie better than that — it’s so perfect. But those are all films that I asked Zoey and Glen to watch before working on the film.
B+C: What drew you to this script?
CS: Intelligent, grounded characters in real-life situations. That drew me in. And then the bonus was that there were a million jokes that made me laugh. So many. One of my favorite jokes ended up on the cutting room floor, which is sad, but there were just so many good, good moments. The original cut of the film was two-and-a-half hours, and I’m a firm believer that comedies should only be 90 minutes. I think we made it to an hour and 40 minutes. So, victory in my mind.
B+C: How did you prepare before you got on set?
CS: The month before, I worked heavily with the DP. I’d say that relationship is priceless, because if you have a good relationship with your director of photography, you really are a united front on set, which is very necessary. And the more prepared you are with what your shots are and where you’re shooting and how you want to shoot each scene, the more you allow the actors the freedom to do other things, to improv, to do fun runs, just to get looser. And I think that’s also a really, really important part of the process. Not because I think improv is always going to be better than the script — more often than not, I find that the script is the best version of everything. I worked on The Office, and everyone thinks that show is improv, but rarely did we ever use improv on The Office. It was always scripted because it was really beautifully written. But what fun runs do is they allow everyone to loosen up a little and just get into a very joyful, playful spirit, and then you can go back to the script version and get an even looser take, which is so important when you’re doing a comedy. You can’t be funny when you’re afraid.
B+C: What was your relationship with Zoey and Glen?
CS: Glen came on a long time ago. This was originally an MGM film, and he came on when it was with MGM, and he stuck by our sides throughout the whole process. He would do chemistry reads with everybody we asked him to — just such a team player. And Zoey wanted this gig. She worked her butt off. She and I are very similar in that we’re both insanely prepared people. I just like to be prepared because then you can throw it all to the wind. You have a plan, and then you’re more willing to adjust your plan for any given circumstance because you feel prepared. So she and I talked a lot about Harper’s backstory. And I think that’s important, just to make everyone feel like they’re fully realized, fleshed-out characters.
The character I relate to the most is the Kirsten [Lucy Liu] character, given that I too prioritized work over family initially for a really long time. By the skin of my teeth, I have two kids, but I was very pregnant on the set of Set It Up. We finished the film on July 1 and I had my son on July 29. Talk about pushing it.
B+C: What was that like?
CS: I found both of my pregnancies not hard at all. I was running around, because who wants to sit on the couch eating bonbons? You forget you’re pregnant when you’re working really hard, and I really like work. I worked with my first child — I remember doing Last Man on Earth and doing my director’s cut in the hospital when I was getting induced. Will Forte was like, “You know you can let go of your director’s cut now.” I was like, “I’m just sitting around here, man. I’m bored!” Also, being pregnant, it just made everyone very kind. It kind of brought a family element to the set.
B+C: You mentioned The Office and Last Man on Earth, and you’ve also done some work on Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Mindy Project, among others. What are the differences and challenges in directing a feature vs. directing an episode of a TV show? Do you prefer one over the other?
CS: I found the experiences very similar. One thing about television is that in order to get asked back to do a second episode of any given series, you have to make your days, you have to finish in a timely fashion. If you go over time or over budget too much, they’re not going to ask you back, even if they like the end product. So that’s always in the back of your mind when you’re directing a television show, and it forces you to be very efficient, very economical, very decisive. And I think I brought all of those skills to the feature. It’s obviously a different type of storytelling, but the way I approached production was with the same kind of economy. And the difference was, I got so much more time in post.
B+C: What do you like about directing comedy, specifically?
CS: Comedy’s hard — if it’s not funny, something’s falling flat, you have to fix it. And you can’t fix it in post. You have to fix it right there. I love that pressure.
B+C: What advice would you give to aspiring directors?
CS: I would say, don’t be an assistant. Go and shoot something. Do it poorly, mess it up, edit it yourself, see where you screwed up, and go back and do the same thing again. Take the same story, take the same sketch, do it again and again until you start to actually like your work. And now you’ve got something. There’s nothing better than failing to learn something. Think about a time when you messed something up — you probably never messed it up again. The best thing to do is fail. And fail and fail and fail and fail, until you’re like, “Oh, this isn’t half bad.” And then fail some more.
And don’t try to appease the masses. Tell your own story. You’re your only self. You have your story. Don’t water it down, don’t go for the common denominator — it doesn’t work. What makes you special is your individual voice, and the moment you start diluting that is the moment you give up.
(photos via KC Bally + Netflix)