Back up on the big screen: Jennifer Lopez returns In Alan Poul's pregnancy comedy
After a literally pregnant pause in her career—having not released a movie or studio album since 2007 in order to have twins Max and Emme with her singer husband Marc Anthony—Jennifer Lopez returns to the screen April 23 in CBS Films’ The Back-up Plan, playing a pregnant-by-choice single woman who's given pause when, just after a fateful visit to a fertility clinic, she meets Mr. Right.
Surely by coincidence, Lopez's next announced film is Columbia Pictures' The Governess, in which she plays a professional thief posing as the nanny for a wealthy widower's three kids. So what's next? The Soccer Mom, followed by Empty Nesters and Mother of the Bride?
"Yes, I will be working on The Governess," Lopez says, “and I have some other film projects in the works… I will also be doing different TV appearances, including 'Glee,' 'Saturday Night Live' and 'How I Met Your Mother' for the promotion of the movie."
Lopez confesses some nervousness about getting back in the cinematic saddle. "As with anything, if you don't do it for a long time you have that fear that you're going to mess up the first time out," she admits. “[But] everything clicked at the table read. I was excited, nervous, scared, happy, and just being there with the other actors was an exhilarating rush in itself."
For his part, first-time feature director Alan Poul—a TV veteran who served as an executive producer of the 2008 CBS drama "Swingtown" and of HBO's "Six Feet Under" from season two on—says Lopez's furlough didn't affect her performance. "I think she said she was nervous on the first day of principal photography, but she didn't show it. She's such an assured performer; she studied the script very, very hard, and showed up every day excited, willing and completely prepared. Nobody thought, 'Oooh, this has to work,' in terms of comeback pressure, or even first-timer pressure on me."
The romantic comedy stars Lopez as Zoe, a New York City professional who's been unlucky at love but still wants a child. When her employee and best male friend Clive (Eric Christian Olsen) turns down her request to be her sperm donor, she takes decisive action at a fertility clinic. And wouldn't you know it, but at the very instant she leaves the facility she meets Stan (Australian actor Alex O'Loughlin, late of CBS' "Moonlight" and films like Whiteout and August Rush) and—after the de rigueur tension—the two fall in love. One baby bump later, Zoe's got this funny story to tell him. Yet although she's knocked up, this isn't Knocked Up—it's not his kid. But Stan sticks around, even though the pregnancy has wacky complications.
Lopez was attached to the project by December 2008, before either O'Loughlin or Poul. In fact, she was attached before The Back-up Plan was even The Back-up Plan: Sitcom scribe Kate Angelo's spec script—one of the first put into production by the recently formed CBS Films—was originally titled Plan B.
"It's very funny, because in terms of the public discourse, we were always informally tracking the usage of [the terms] 'plan B' versus 'back-up plan,' because they've both become popular phrases," notes Poul. "But the real reason for the change was that the title Plan B was not available. As you probably know, titles are not copyrightable, but you can register a title with the MPAA, which all the studios are signatory to. And that title had already been registered by another studio." Once realizing it was unavailable, the producers moved on to what Poul calls "the catchier version."
Poul—who directed four episodes each of "Six Feet Under" and "Swingtown," including the latter's pilot, as well as two episodes each of HBO's "Rome" and "Big Love”—is unfazed about his big-screen debut being a studio star vehicle. "I had kind of pictured that my first feature as a director would be some little indie film that I would produce myself and scrape together $2 million to do with friends," he confides. "But I got offered this opportunity, and when you're directing there's a certain amount of work that must be accomplished every day, a certain number of pages, a certain number of shots, and you have to get it done or you're going to get in trouble. It's almost like it doesn't even take that much effort to be focused because you have no choice: Unless you are 100% focused on the work at hand, you're not going to make it."
Lopez was down with it. "I've worked with first-time [feature] directors as well as veteran directors, and I have enjoyed the process with both. I don't think one or the other insures success. I think the most important thing with a director, much like with an actor, is that when you sit down, you share a chemistry."
Which leads us to O'Loughlin. The Canberra-born, Sydney-raised graduate of Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) signed on after Poul. "The script was floating around, various drafts of it, for a while," O'Loughlin remembers. "I read it while they were still doing rewrites of it, but it read well. I was shooting a pilot in Pittsburgh for [the 2009 CBS medical drama] 'Three Rivers,' and I got a call saying [Poul] wanted to sit and talk with me. He was in New York, and so he flew in and we met at the Pittsburgh airport at one of the hotels."
"I flew to Pittsburgh to meet Alex because he was shooting the pilot for 'Three Rivers' and I went kicking and screaming," laughs Poul, "because I was like, 'Make him come to me!' And they were like, 'No, he's shooting 15-hour days in Pittsburgh, you've got to go there.' I met him at the Pittsburgh [International] Airport Hilton, and we spent a couple of hours together, and I fell in love immediately. I felt like, 'This is the guy.'"
Prudence demanded he continue looking, but when O'Loughlin was done paddling up "Three Rivers," which ran eight episodes, Poul took him to visit Lopez to get her approval.
"Alan and I drove out and met Jennifer and Marc and the family at their house in Long Island," recalls O'Loughlin, "and we all got along well. I guess she'd met with a bunch of different people for this role but she decided that I would be appropriate for it and we would play well together. We sat and we all just chatted. A lot of people think chemistry is strictly sexual and it's not the case," he says. "I have chemistry with my mates, you know? It's about two people who have a common interest in one another, who get each other, who understand each other's rhythms, who can riff each other, who can make each other laugh—all that sort of stuff. And so we had that right away; we were laughing and the talk was easy."
"You hope that the chemistry is going to be right on film," Lopez says of the leading-man search process. "Fortunately for us, it was. Alex is very talented and he has an incredible future ahead of him as an actor." As for others who'd been up for the part, "I don't think there was any crucial ingredient missing with the other actors per se," she reflects. "I just think that Alex had the right combination of things that the director and I were looking for."
Most of the film was shot at CBS Studio Center, in Los Angeles' Studio City district. Originally the Mack Sennett Studios, its soundstages have been home to everyone from Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops to "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Seinfeld." The production also "shot two weeks in New York [City] at the end," Poul says, "and you can see New York peppered throughout the movie. We did a lot of stage work here in L.A. and also a fair amount of work on various back lots, including New York street back lots," but real-life locales, he says, include Greenwich Avenue in Tribeca; the Gray's Papaya hot-dog stand on Sixth Avenue at Eighth Street in Greenwich Village; the sidewalks fringing Central Park; and, for the rain-drenched taxi scene in which our lovers meet, Park Avenue.
Poul acknowledges the surface similarities to Knocked Up—"I could run away from that but I can't hide from it"—but says that that predecessor film "has very much a male voice; it's very much from the guy's point of view. And what Kate [Angelo] did was cover a lot of the same territory without making it girly and sweet, and retain some of the same embracing sense of honesty and occasional vulgarity but from the woman's point of view."
And having any point of view is a rarity in romantic comedies today, he laments, when, as critics point out, so many of them devise highly contrived and convoluted pseudo-obstacles to romance, and force adults to act like 13-year-olds.
"I don't want to sound pretentious, but when you go back to [filmmakers like] Blake Edwards or Billy Wilder for inspiration, you see that the romantic comedy was a really elevated genre. In classic Hollywood, it represents a lot of the best films and a lot of Hollywood at its finest. And I feel that in recent years, there's been a tendency to kind of downgrade the genre by using words like 'rom-com' or 'chick flick,' both of which I hate, because it should be a film that can be enjoyed by men and women both and where plot and character are not just an afterthought to get things started. In this film, yes, we do have obstacles to the relationship, but it's not that somebody has to rob a bank by midnight. They're emotional obstacles. We all know how a romantic comedy is going to end—the point is you need to believe the journey moment to moment as it goes along."