Filmmaker Michael Dowse on “What If”

Director Discusses “Give’r,” Daniel Radcliffe, and The New Pornographers

Aug 08, 2014 Web Exclusive
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Michael Dowse is a rare director who could boast of a cult following just 15 years into his feature filmmaking career. His 2002 film Fubar is a bonafide cult classic, particularly in his native Canada; his 2011 hockey movie Goon is on its way to becoming one. For his latest feature, he’s shifted gears. What If—released as The F Word in some regions—is a Toronto-set romantic comedy about a boy and girl who fall for each other, but are forced to keep their relationship platonic because she has a long-term boyfriend.

What If opens in theaters today and stars Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, and Mackenzie Davis. Michael Dowse sat down with us in New York to talk about the film.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: I was in Germany last summer with a group of international music journalists. The Canadian representative along with us [the Toronto Star’s Ben Rayner] taught the group a phrase that I believe you’re responsible for: “Give’r.”

Michael Dowse: [laughs] It’s a great motto. I’m sure you had an even better trip because of it.

I don’t know that any of the rest of us had seen Fubar at that point, but we were all saying it. The movie has a cult following, but that phrase has a life beyond the film. What’s it like to coin a term that enters the popular lexicon?

It feels great. Twelve years ago when I was editing, I remember calling Paul [Spence], the actor, and saying “I think if all goes well… that if this film hits and works, then I think give’r might become a catchphrase.” I remember calling that out.

It’s very satisfying. I mean, it’s a sign that people really liked the film, and that it works. FUBAR in particular is weird—as is Goon, actually—in that they’re snowballs, where they just keep growing and I’m always surprised by the people that have seen them and how much they love the films. It’s completely satisfying to have entered the lexicon.

You went from Goon directly to this movie. How do you shift creative gears to go from a dark, violent sports film to a genuinely sweet romantic comedy?

Very easily. It was a conscious decision for me to do something that was very different from Goon. I really like directors who have many different films and do different work from one film to another; people like John Boorman, or John Huston, or Sidney Lumet. Every film they did was completely different. For me, I was interested in doing something quieter and a little more mature. Something that was less about building the scene through editing, and that was more about capturing the moment right in the frame, and letting the actors act. A film that still had emotional punch, but was more of a slow boil. It was funny in different ways, and had a different voice.

The script came to you, I understand. At what point while reading it did you know you wanted to be involved?

I liked the script right off the top, but the thing that got me was the emotional slow boil of the film. By the end of the script I was really rooting for them to get together, and it packed an emotional wallop. I thought, if I can translate that to screen then this will be a really satisfying, emotional film. I’d be able to sort of push buttons in a different way as a director. We’d touched on romantic subplots with Tong and Goon, but to put it first and foremost, and to get people emotional about two characters falling in love, is quite an interesting thing for a director to accomplish. That was the goal that attracted me.

The film is about Daniel Radcliffe becoming trapped in the “friend zone.” Is that something you could relate to? It seems pretty universal.

Oh, yeah, for sure. I think everybody’s been there. It usually doesn’t work well. In fact, we did a tour across Canada and we started to see some of our old friends come back. We did promotional screenings in our respective home towns and we saw our respective friend zone victims or jail-keepers. It was interesting.

Daniel was really funny as Wallace.

Isn’t he great?

It’s been pointed out that this is probably his first role where he isn’t in a period costume, or doesn’t have super powers. Wallace is the first “normal” role for him.

He does have super powers, actually. You just don’t see them.

What did you see him in that made you think he’d be right for a romantic comedy?

I saw a guy who was doing a lot of different things, and a guy who wasn’t satisfied with his own success and was hungry to break out, and motivated to do something different. My only question mark was whether or not he was funny. We had Extras, and I think he hosted Saturday Night Live—that’s what we had to go on. That was my only question mark, and then when you meet him you realize he’s great, he’s self-deprecating, he’s grounded, he’s funny. He has his head screwed on right. I thought, this is great. He’s funny, and the script is funny. This could be a good combination.

He’s also very rootable, and very likeable. He was a good fit for Wallace. We can understand this guy being a hermit for a year, and coming out of that phase and meeting and falling for this girl.

Mackenzie Davis is someone who shot up almost out of nowhere in the last year. And you cast her in this before her big movies or Halt And Catch Fire came out. Where’d you find her?

She’s Canadian, and I’ve always got my ear to the ground for Canadian talent. She’s just so striking. She actually read for [Zoe Kazan's role] and was great, but she wasn’t right because obviously there’s a big height difference. She’s almost six feet tall, and Dan isn’t. It just wouldn’t have worked in that sense. But we thought her and Adam [Driver] would be amazing.

She has such a striking presence, but she’s also really funny. She has amazing instincts as an improve actor. I found myself adding in so many of her offscreen lines. Her throw-in lines were really funny, especially in the Cool Whip scene. I put as many as I could in there, because her choices were so funny and so smart. She has a long, long career ahead of her.

Adam is someone else who’s career is growing and growing…

We were lucky to get Adam. We had the right timing, and he was just coming off the second season of Girls. Our casting director suggested we just go for him, and I said sure. He’s another amazing presence and very funny.

A. C. Newman did the score.


You two have a history, I know. How’d you get him to write your score?

I tried to get him to do a film about six years ago, but it just never worked out. I’ve always been looking for the right opportunity to work with him. We stayed in touch. We’d actually been roommates in Vancouver for about seven months. I actually cut Fubar in his apartment. And then I did three music videos for The New Pornographers.

I just thought his sound would be perfect for this movie. We have a lot of Patrick Watson in it as well, and he’s great, but we needed a counterpart to that. Patrick Watson’s stuff is so soulful, but I thought Carl’s work had a nice energy to it. It was beautiful in a very different way. I’ve always loved Carl’s music, and would like to work with him again.

I have to ask about the project you’re working on about a cult. What can you say about that at this point?

Oh, Cult-de-sac? [laughs] That is one of my great passions in life. I still haven’t been able to make it. I’ll actually try to make it as a cable series, I think. That’s probably the next step. Nobody’s done a great television series about a cult. I’m still into the idea of a suicide cult that’s correct.


Michael Dowse’s latest film, What If, opens in theaters today. For more information about the film, check out its website. To read our review, click here


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