Elizabeth Sankey on Romantic Comedy at SXSW

Sophie Porter interviews filmmaker Elizabeth Sankey at SXSW in Austin, Texas, where her film, Romantic Comedy, was screened

Following its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, Romantic Comedy, which was screened at SXSW in Austin, Texas, takes us on an important journey to better understand love, romance and relationships in a genre which is just as “problematic as it is comforting.''

Check out what Elizabeth had to say below:

Sophie Porter: At the start of the film, you talk about how when you married you felt a little abandoned by romantic comedies - you were kind of like “Well, now what?” - because an inevitable goal with a lot of these films is marriage. Can you remember the first film or the moment you watched something when you felt that the spell had been broken?

Elizabeth Sankey: I think it was Runaway Bride. For people who don’t know the film, Julia Roberts is a woman who is continually in relationships and she gets to the point where she’s at the altar with this person and then she just can’t do it and she runs away - and I just realised that the whole way through the film no one said to her, ‘maybe just don’t get married!’ Maybe it’s not the men, it’s just marriage you don’t want to enter into”. At the end, she does end up getting married to somebody and that, I think, blew my mind because it was just - wow - it’s just so expected of women to aim for marriage and to have marriage as their end goal; that a film can’t even have that question entered into in a romantic comedy because it would just break down everything that people think that they’re supposed to want.

SP: How long was that process between that and then seeing more and more of certain archetypes that stuck out to you?

ES: I think at first, I was just thinking about the things that affected me as a white, straight woman - everyone is expected to be thin; everyone is expected to get married, and the idea that a story ends with a marriage, and [shows] no sex, which I find so bizarre. But then the more I read and thought about it, I realised that there were people that weren’t being represented in any way by these films. I wanted to know more about how it was to watch a film as a person of colour, or as a gay man, or as a trans person; to kind of see those things and be able to recognise elements of yourself but not see the entirety of your personhood and how that must be really jarring and strange. But it was a gradual process.

SP: How was it, as a female filmmaker, setting out making your first film and critiquing this particular genre in which (this has been mentioned before) a lot of the people making decisions on these projects are white men? Did you feel supported?

ES: I felt really, really supported, ironically by a lot of straight, white men. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by many supportive people. In terms of this film, the person who was most inspirational to me was Charlie Lyne, who made a film called Beyond Clueless, who my band, Summer Camp, had done the soundtrack for. Having seen how he did that, and just in general, how he makes films and approaches subjects, was really, really inspiring. He was the first person who I talked to when I wanted to make this film. He’s just been absolutely wonderful, and his voice is in the film as well. I’m very keen to always mention Charlie, partly because I think white men at the moment are obviously under a lot more scrutiny than they ever have been before, which is a very positive thing, but there are a lot of really wonderful allies out there as well, and I think that it’s so important to mention them and talk about them.

I think there is a tendency with women to wait for permission to do things, or there definitely was in my case, and to ask for reassurance from people who have already done those things, because if you haven’t seen someone else do it, it’s very difficult to put yourself into that world. I’m really grateful to Charlie, especially, for saying, “just do it”.

SP: In the film’s bio you mention that rom-coms aren’t critiqued very often because we tend to talk about them as our guilty pleasure. When you approached people with your plan for this film, were you surprised that there were people agreeing with you?

ES: It was really interesting actually. Every single woman without fail that I mentioned making this film to were like “Oh my God!”, and had very passionate responses; quite often “oh, I just love them, but they’re awful, aren’t they?” and I do think that women feel, especially as feminists, guilt at liking romantic comedies.

It was very interesting though, the men that I would tell would be like, “oh...ok. Alright”. They don’t have that same connection I think that, especially, straight white women have to romantic comedies. It was just really fascinating that this is a genre that so many women really, really strongly relate to, or have feelings and opinions about, and yet they feel guilty about it but yet they still want to carry on watching them - and that was really interesting. The process of interviewing was really helpful because, at first, I was just going to say, “oh my god, they’re awful” and basically do an hour of saying how awful romantic comedies are, but then during the course of the interviews with people, things started to come up where they’d say “I really, really do actually love How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days”, or “In and Out was actually a really transformative moment in my life”, and “Never Been Kissed really spoke to me as a teenager”, and you kind of started to realise that these films are very, very powerful and special to so many people.

SP: It’s interesting you say about that kind of response, initially from men, in the discussion about the male character roles in those films. We were talking about Joseph Gordon Levitts’ character [in 500 Days Of Summer] earlier whose behaviour isn’t acceptable, and it highlights why allieship is important.

ES: Yeah, I also think that it’s also not just romantic comedies. I think that the men who were in power, who have written these films, are not men who are necessarily trying to make all women behave like Mary in Something About Mary, where they love beer and sports, and are always impossibly thin, despite eating burgers everyday. I don’t think men are doing that, I think that’s something which has existed for a very long time and that they’re perhaps being slightly lazy in relying on tropes, but every filmmaker does that. But I know from the men that I’ve worked with on this that they’ve had many enlightening moments, especially about 500 Days Of Summer. I think that Oskar [Pimlott], one of my producers, did have a moment with 500 Days Of Summer where he was like “I never realised how misogynistic this film is before”. I’m sure the writers didn’t do it on purpose, but if you don’t analyse these things and be aware of them it’s so easy for them to seep into the culture in the way that we deal with consent and each other in relationships.

SP: The film as a whole is so important because you’re discussing how they can be problematic in terms of diversity and inclusion, especially with a theme as important as love. Why is it so important that we try to make rom-coms more diverse in representation?

ES: It should just happen across the board in all areas of culture. Also, just because it’s more interesting. I’ve seen so many stories about white women falling in love - I don’t feel like I need to see that any more. I would love to see films about a trans woman falling in love, or an interracial couple, or a world that I haven’t really seen on screen before.

I think it’s so important with love because romantic comedies link us directly to humanity. I know from my own experience, watching In & Out was a real important film for me as a teenager because I’d never seen two men kiss before and I was so moved by that film. It’s not a perfect film in any way, but it definitely had a massive effect on the way I understood queer stories and queer relationships. I also was in the body of Kevin Kline when he is kissed; I felt everything he was feeling, because that’s the power of romantic comedies - that you can sort of transport yourself into the bodies of the people that fall in love. I just think - I don’t want to say that they could save the world! - but if we saw more diversity and more inclusion in romantic comedies, it could really help people connect straight into the humanity of the people they don’t really get exposed to enough.

SP: You built this film, critique and analysis out of lots of different clips from different films. How long did it take you and was it a difficult process?

ES: It took me about two years to make the film, but that includes the interviews. I already had watched all of these films, a few I hadn’t seen, especially the earlier ones, but for the most part I knew pretty much shots I would want to have. I watched them all again, edited them all, and then made folders as I was editing - all the wedding bits, kissing bits, declarations of love - all those tropes that are just repeated. It’s actually quite easy when you’ve worked out what the tropes are. The tricky bit was doing the interviews and working out what I did want to say - there’s a lot more stuff I could have said. Then also transcribing all the interviews and then writing the script.

I’d never made a film before, I absolutely loved it! I was waking up early, four in the morning, because I was desperate to go and start work and I’ve never had that with any other thing that I’ve done. I really feel like I found a thing that I want to do for the rest of my life. But that was also terrifying. It really started off as a small project; I made it in my bedroom. I thought, maybe someone will be interested and my band could write an album along with it. We thought, ‘it’s more about the album and this will be an accompanying thing’, and then in the process of doing it I just completely fell in love - ironically!

SP: As someone who’s made their first film and was unsure of how to approach it, it seems quite exciting because you’ve come at it from a completely “I'm just going to do it” attitude.

ES: Going back to what I was saying about asking permission; I’m so glad that I didn’t really understand film making or the process of what it would be like or how I would feel and the emotions I would feel that I was making, because I don’t think I would have done it. Looking back on it now, I think it would have seemed like a mountain that was too ridiculous and big; the fear of failing would have been too crippling. So I'm really glad. Sometimes it’s good to go into something with complete ignorance.

SP: At one point, I listened to it through my headphones without watching the film and it was beautiful. With the voices, sounds and music, it sounded like it could have been an audio piece in its own right. You said you wrote the script as you edited?

ES: I had the shape of it, I did the interviews, and then I started writing the script.

I’d done an outline of what the film was going to do, which ended up changing just from watching it. It was really great because you can go back and tweak the script and change things if you find different films and drop them in - it can sort of evolve - but you’ve still got a script so you’ve got quite a strict shape of it.

SP: Was it a decision from the offset not to include the faces of the people you interviewed in the film?

ES: I definitely didn’t want to do any filming partly because I don’t know how to do any filming! I just felt like talking heads take up space and, also, the aesthetic qualities of romantic comedies and the world in which you enter into all look the same and so I wanted people to feel like they were in a romantic comedy when they’re watching it. Also, I did this on zero budget. One of my contributors, Cameron Cook, lives in Berlin, another one, Anne T. Donahue, lives in Canada, and Brodie Lancaster lives in Melbourne, so I wouldn’t have been able to travel to get the film.

I don’t have the names of the contributors [in the film] and I think some people they find that a bit jarring, and I definitely go back and forth on including the names. Sometimes my whole team are like, maybe we should put names in, but I actually like that it’s just a chorus of narrators, because I’m nobody that anybody should know about and my contributors are not people who are famous, other than Jessica Barden. I just thought, if I had used the names people would be like, “well, who is that? I don’t know who they are.’ But also, they’re just fans! I chose them because they’re people who have different backgrounds to me, but who have an interesting relationship to romantic comedies.

SP: I read a review of the screening here and they made a point that because we’re not seeing the people you’re interviewing, we’re having to watch this thing happen and then you’re like, “oh, I see that now” - you’re having to view this world of romantic comedies we’ve all grown to love in a different way. That’s why I was interested to know if it was a conscious decision.

ES: I remember talking to Charlie about it and he said, “I think a chorus of narrators can be done really well and it could be interesting”, and he was also the other person who said “don’t include the names because it’ll make you think about something that isn’t just the movie”. I wanted it to feel like a conversation that you’re having with these people.
It was so satisfying when someone would mention something that I had already planned on including.

SP: You said you had a plan of how to shape the film, but did the interviews help to direct the imagery you used?

ES: Yes, absolutely. I remember there were films that I was going to go hard on and drag, but people would say, “no, actually…”. I remember Cameron Cook talked really passionately about Never Been Kissed, and I was going to say ‘this film is awful, it’s about a student and her teacher thinks that she is 15-years-old and he’s starting a relationship with her and it’s presented as this really romantic thing, isn’t this awful?’, but then Cameron was like, “I was Josie Gross-ie in high school, I didn’t have any sort of romantic life, I was never kissed, and that film meant so much to me”. It made me realise the power of these films. It has shifted my perspective of them and I guess it gave me permission to say, “I really like them”, despite these problems, and I look forward to what they could be.

SP: I’d also love to talk about your band! The music in it is great! The sound of the whole film is amazing anyway, but you were talking about writing an album to go along with it. Did you have the album first?

ES: We were writing the album as we went along.

SP: Did the structure of the film then influence the structure of the album?

We wrote the album as we went along, as we were waiting for feedback on something, or if we were just bored one day! I remember writing the lyrics to a song which is in the film about men, and about the toxic masculinity which you sometimes see, and I was writing in the week that all the Harvey Weinstein stuff broke, and I was just so angry. I was just writing these lyrics, but the original score, all the music, is all done by my husband, Jeremy Walmsley. All the music that you hear that isn’t with lyrics is all him and he did such a brilliant job. We didn’t want it to sound like the music in a romantic comedy, we wanted it to be something different.

SP: Was it an interesting project to work on together?

ES: It was interesting, yeah. We’re so used to working together, but it was so nice to work on something in a different way. With the band it’s wonderful, but I was leading this more. My husband does all the music for Summer Camp and I write the lyrics, so it was nice to shift that and it was very, very collaborative.

It was interesting because he hasn’t seen most of the romantic comedies that are in the film. It was actually really nice because he had a lot more distance and could actually could just watch it as a film and be like, “wow! That’s weird, why is that in there?”, whereas I obviously had much greater context and awareness of well, “this scene comes after this and she’s saying that”, and so it was really good to have him be like “that’s odd, that doesn’t work”. We’re just really enjoying having a different type of project to work on.

SP: What was it like seeing it on the big screen here in Austin, Texas, at SXSW?

ES: Well, it actually had its world premiere at Rotterdam (IFFR), which was really great, especially because that’s quite an arty festival, and so we were a bit worried about how it might come across because it seems so mainstream in comparison to the documentaries we saw there which were these really brilliant, worthy pieces.

Then to do it at SXSW - it feels more like this is a festival where it should be. In general, it has been so wonderful because the audiences have been so engaged and asking a lot of really personal questions. There have been so many women - I made this film for women - and it has been so lovely to have them in the audience. A lot of older women have been asking “can I show this to my teenagers, boys and girls, because I’d like them to see it?

SP: Finally, what do you hope the impact of the film will be in an ideal world?

ES: This has all been really overwhelming as I really didn’t expect anyone to be interested in it, but also it’s weird as well because I get worried that the men who wrote 500 Days Of Summer will watch it and be upset [laughter]. It’s weird when you suddenly do have people watching what you have made but I hope that it comes across that I'm a real fan of this genre and that I really do love it and that it has a lot of life left in it. I don’t think it should be a guilty pleasure; people shouldn’t feel guilty about watching them, even the ones which are a bit dubious or have problematic things in them. I don’t think anyone should feel bad about enjoying that, but I do hope that it becomes a genre which is used to show new stories and to have new kinds of characters because I think that would be really fun and interesting.

It’s such a fun, uplifting genre and I don’t think that there’s anything else like it that just deals directly with human relationships in the way that romantic comedies do. I also want to see less of the premise twisting in romantic comedies. I saw Isn’t It Romantic, which is great - I love Rebel Wilson, and it’s brilliant to see her as the lead - but I still felt like I was seeing a straight white woman fall in love with a man, that it is really important that they kiss at the end and that she’d never had sex with him, and that she was still a bit like a klutz. It’s like, “c’mon, we can do better than this”, but I am very hopeful for it. Also, Isn’t It Romantic isn’t perfect, but it’s still really fun and everyone should watch it because it’s fun to watch people fall in love. We kind of need that right now in the world… Brexit [laughter].

This interview has been edited for length and clarity from an audio recording.

Romantic Comedy is currently screening at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen. Watch the trailer here.

Sophie Porter is a musician and artist living in Norwich; she writes, interviews and publishes for Gorilla.


Romantic comedies link us directly to humanity

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