Aline Brosh McKenna Interview: On the Fine Art of the Unconventional Rom-Com

Movies Features Aline Brosh McKenna
Aline Brosh McKenna Interview: On the Fine Art of the Unconventional Rom-Com

February gets defined as the month of love because of Valentine’s Day, but we all know that’s just marketing. Romance is a very big thing all 12 months, especially in the realm of storytelling. According to Publishers Weekly, romance novel sales rose by 52.4% in 2022; the highest sales increase of all genres. Korea has made their unapologetically romantic K-Dramas a global rage. And in domestic film and television since the start of the New Year, there have been weekly drops of new streaming and theatrical rom-coms, from Prime Video’s Shotgun Wedding to Netflix’s You People and Your Place or Mine.

Aside from their core love stories, what also distinguishes those three rom-com releases is that they all come at the genre from atypical entry points. Romantic tropes fuel all great love stories, in any medium, but screenwriters have been taking some swings in changing up those rom-com norms. With Shotgun Wedding, it was threading an action film into its spine. You People uses love as its conduit into a race-relations comedy of manners. And with Your Place or Mine, writer/director Aline Brosh McKenna keeps the two leads, Debbie (Reese Witherspoon) and Peter (Ashton Kutcher), physically separated on different coasts for the majority of the film, which is the perfect metaphor for their emotional constipation.

In her 25 years of writing rom-coms for film and television, McKenna has observed, ridden and sometimes bucked every industry trend for the genre. Her screenplay adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada subverted genre norms by making the love story about Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) ultimately finding value in her own needs, not in someone else. With the Emmy-award winning CW series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, grown-up lawyer Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) upends her life to chase her summer camp crush across the country and spends four seasons participating in some very unhealthy romantic relationships until she finally unpacks herself. And now, with Your Place or Mine, she’s exploring delayed love exacerbated by personal flaws and technological crutches.

Seeking some insight into how she so confidently bends tropes to her will, Paste Magazine connected with McKenna to get her assessment of the current rom-com landscape and some insight into how she drills down into what our hearts want.

Paste Magazine: The rom-com landscape is flush with new offerings across streamers and in movie theaters. What’s your assessment of the genre right now? Is it in a good place creatively?

Aline Brosh McKenna: I think people love them, have always loved them and have been craving them. And have been craving something that feels like it deals with the more intimate, personal questions that a love story or a romantic comedy can deal with. It’s a romantic comedy, so you want it to be both romantic and funny. But I’ve done a lot of pieces that either deconstruct or satirize it with humor. I’ve done a lot of pieces where the women don’t end up with anybody, like Prada and Morning Glory, which are largely about work and much less about the relationships. I’ve been happily married for 25 years and I know a lot of other people who are as well, so I wanted to write something about mature people who find each other, but the obstacles are themselves.

That’s a common theme you’ve used in your rom-com writing of late: Lovers with a lot of personal baggage. In Your Place or Mine, Debbie and Peter have been friends for 25 years, but can’t overcome their fears to seriously see one another as the soulmates that they are.

McKenna: Yeah, they’re friends. They need to convince themselves, not each other really, just themselves, that they’re worthy of pursuing someone who is so kind to them. It’s a very un-snarky movie. Everyone is quite nice and loving. A lot of what was really fun was finding the funny stuff within that. The funny, human stuff because it’s so much less broad in the set up, in that there are not a lot of external obstacles. I feel like in the current climate that we’re in, doing something earnest and loving is a little bit hanging your ass out the window. I knew that, but I wanted to do it anyway.

The story structure of them swapping places and living in one another’s homes for a week feels like the equivalent to someone snooping in your underwear drawer. It’s the definition of uncomfortably intimate.

McKenna: I was inspired by staying at my friend’s house and it was kind of weird to sleep in someone’s bed, even though it’s laundered, obviously. But you are in a very intimate space, which is why I made a very big deal out of that moment where [Debbie and Peter] are getting into bed together, although they don’t know it. When they both are picking up a book to read and it lines up to them being in bed together, it’s almost like we, and they, can imagine what that will be like when they finally get to be in it together.

This has a quasi-Sleepless in Seattle structure to it, in that the lovers aren’t together for the bulk of the film. But in your story, they are best friends who haven’t been really emotionally honest with one another in all that time.

McKenna: It is sort of an epistolary romance because they’re always communicating but it’s texts, emails, FaceTime. All these things are fixtures of our lives, but 10 years ago, we weren’t doing it all. And that was one of the big motivations for the movie, this idea that now we can be constantly in contact. Think of how many times you say, “Oh, I spoke to so and so this morning…” but actually, you just texted them. I think that these technological things make us feel like we’re very connected and intimate, but not sure if that’s always the case.

It is like they’re writing love letters to each other in a funny way. They are constantly connected and that’s why we did so many split-screens, and all those split-screen things were planned out very carefully, and shot very specifically, so that you were seeing them do things at the same time and uncovering those similarities and differences. Everything between them, we wanted it to be either very, very similar or completely different.

Is there an example of something in the genre made by someone else that’s grabbed you because it was doing something different?

McKenna: I thought The Dropout was a great love story. Obviously, it’s a very dysfunctional relationship, but I really love how they turned the whole show around that really fascinating relationship between those two lost souls. I thought it was brilliant.

Having written so many theatrical rom-coms and a four season rom-com musical series, what inspires you to still write in the genre?

McKenna: I like people and how they live their lives. And that can take a lot of forms. I am always looking for things that interest me in books, and things that have happened to me that often inspire me. I often have ideas and think about them for a long time before I pitched them. Crazy Ex Girlfriend, 27 Dresses, Morning Glory and Your Place or Mine were all original ideas that I mulled for a long time, and then I found the right collaborators for them. I’m always trying to think of things that interest me in corners of the world we maybe haven’t looked at yet. And in this case, it was a romance between two people in their 40s, who lived their lives a bit and have that maturity. That was very intriguing to me. And then the idea that, in a way, it’s like a body-switching movie, but they don’t actually switch bodies. Those were the aspects that grabbed me about this idea. But every idea is a little different.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios and The Art of Avatar: The Way of Water. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen

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