Loneliness of the long-distance lovers: Barrymore and Long team in Nanette Burstein's romantic comedy

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While poring over a pile of scripts in search of the project that would become her first narrative feature, documentary filmmaker Nanette Burstein—who previously helmed the award-winning docs American Teen, The Kid Stays in the Picture and On the Ropes (the latter two co-directed with Brett Morgen)—unexpectedly fell in love with a romantic comedy entitled Going the Distance that had been sent to her by New Line Cinema. Penned by Geoff LaTulippe, the screenplay follows a guy and a girl who embark on a whirlwind romance over the course of a New York City summer and then decide to continue their relationship long-distance when she moves back to San Francisco.

The couple’s story resonated with Burstein for very personal reasons. “I was once in a long-distance relationship myself and this screenplay rang true for me,” says the 40-year-old director, calling from a New York editing suite, where she’s in the process of cutting her next project, a pilot for a potential A&E reality series set in a Michigan prosecutor’s office. (“It’s like a real-life Law & Order,” she says.) “As a girl, I related to the plot of Going the Distance because you often find yourself in situations where you have to choose between love and your career. It’s a quintessential problem that men and women in their 20s and 30s face now. People move around all the time and women’s careers are just as important as men’s are, so in order to make the relationship work, somebody has to make a sacrifice. In the past, women would have made the sacrifice for the guy because he would be the breadwinner. Today, men’s and women’s roles have completely changed, so the question of ‘Whose career comes first?’ is a lot more complicated.”

“Complicated” isn’t a word that defines most studio-backed romantic comedies, which typically present a fairy-tale version of romance that Burstein confesses she has trouble relating to. And that’s another reason why she was attracted to LaTulippe’s screenplay. “I wanted to do a movie that took a similar approach as [Judd Apatow’s] Knocked Up, where there’s a lot of comedy in it, but it also dealt with people talking about real-life problems in a very honest way. This script had all of those elements.”

Also like Knocked Up, Going the Distance has an unapologetically raunchy streak that earned the movie an R rating, thanks to gags involving phone sex and dry humping. “It was pretty raunchy from day one,” Burstein says. “If anything, some of that got toned down as we rewrote the script. When you’re dealing with raunchier comedy, you have to have your guard up as to what is funny and what is just plain inappropriate. My radar was always looking for situations that were funny but wouldn’t make the audience squirm.”

Because no stars were attached to Going the Distance at the time that Burstein signed on to direct, she had free rein in picking the actors who would play her onscreen lovers. One of the first people she approached was Justin Long, whose career history consists of a number of roles where he serves as the comic relief to the leading man. This time, though, Burstein wanted him to actually be the leading man, Garrett, a record-label employee who falls hard for aspiring journalist Erin. (Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day wound up taking over the “wacky best friend” roles that Long would normally play.)

“The first week or so, he had to acclimate to the difference between being the comic relief and being a leading man,” Burstein recounts. “The latter isn’t always about telling the best joke—you’ve got to be a little more of the straight man. You’ve got to pay attention to your most dramatic moments in the movie and not get distracted by being funny. He’s a brilliant actor and was able to do that, but that was an adjustment at first.”

It was through her early conversations with Long that Burstein first became intrigued by the idea of casting Drew Barrymore—then Long’s real-life girlfriend—as his leading lady. “Originally the role was written for a 25-year-old, but we decided it would be interesting if Erin was a few years older because the conflict of her career becomes an even bigger issue. Drew is a great actress, but a lot of the films she had done previously were more like fairy tales, so it wouldn’t have crossed my mind that this movie would be of interest to her. As soon as she read the script, she said, ‘Oh my God, I love this’ and I flew out to meet with her the next day. Quite honestly, she’s very much like her character in the movie. She’s charming, but talks about guys and love and life in the same way Erin does. I don’t think much of her dialogue in the movie is a stretch from personal conversations she has with her friends.”

Of course, Hollywood doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to casting real-life couples as onscreen lovers (Gigli, anyone?) and Burstein admits to some initial trepidation about potentially making the same mistake. “I talked with both of them about it and once I spent time with them, I saw that it wasn’t going to be a problem at all. In fact, it turned out to be a real asset. Not only because they have this great chemistry onscreen, but also because some of the scenes put them in very intimate situations. And if two actors aren’t really comfortable with each other, those moments will be awkward for them; it’s harder to get loose and pay attention to the scene and be as funny and as dramatic as possible. Whereas for them, they had no issues having phone sex or being on top of each other.” (As devoted tabloid followers know, Barrymore and Long have had an on-again, off-again romance since they first started dating in 2007. According to Burstein, the couple was in an on-again phase during the shoot, but recent reports suggest that they’ve since split up for the latest—and possibly last?—time.)

As her shoot date approached, Burstein had more pressing concerns than the status of her stars’ love life. She was still in the process of working on the script and making casting, wardrobe and production design decisions—steps that aren’t typically a part of the documentary filmmaking process. “The major difference between documentary and narrative filmmaking is the amount of control you have in a fiction film,” Burstein explains. “When I’m shooting a documentary, I usually have a sense of what the story is, but real life changes and so your story changes all the time. You’re also not making decisions about every detail of what appears in the frame—things like the color of a wall and the furniture in a room. All that is dictated by real life. In a fiction film, everything is planned out. That includes your story, so you have to make sure it’s as good as it can be and then execute it well.”

Another key difference between Going the Distance and her previous films was that this one required her to work with studio executives who regularly weighed in with their own input. Burstein admits that she and the New Line team didn’t start out as instant best friends. “In the first few months, we were still getting to know each other,” she remembers. “At that point, you’re never quite sure where you stand. I think they had this fear that I was going to make a dark indie film, while I was afraid that they were going to make me make a candy-coated movie that didn’t have any authenticity. But over time we started to trust each other and ultimately we saw eye-to-eye on the film we were making. That said, I did have to defend my opinions at times—I wasn’t used to doing that, but I do it well and it worked out fine.”

One notable example of an opinion that Burstein fought hard to defend involved devoting more screen time to showing Garrett and Erin falling in love. With no more time or money left to expand the script, the director persuaded New Line to let her try an experiment. Armed with two HD cameras and a skeleton crew, she and Barrymore and Long spent a Saturday shooting a series of entirely unscripted scenes at various locations around New York, including Central Park and Coney Island. That footage was eventually incorporated into the movie as an extended montage. “We just went out to those locations and played around. It was an experiment and I was really happy with how it paid off. I hope that it feels like you’re really seeing a couple fall in love. We actually shot 90% of the movie in real locations—they give you a lot more production value and I think it helps the actors. It poses a lot more production challenges, but in the end it’s worth it.”

Despite the creative compromises that can come with working at the studio level, Burstein is pleased that she had the opportunity to make her first narrative feature for an established Hollywood outfit rather than independently. Besides the greater resources she enjoyed during production, she also knew that the finished film would receive a well-advertised wide release (from Warner Bros. on Sept. 3). The latter point was extremely important to Burstein, who watched all three of her previous films—which were financed independently and then released by smaller distributors or specialized divisions like Focus Features and the now-defunct Paramount Vantage—rack up critical raves and awards, but only modest box-office numbers.
“You don’t want to spend three years working on something and then have only a small number of people see it,” she observes. “Or at least I don’t. I want to make movies that people watch. And while I would love to do another documentary, that marketplace is changing and it’s becoming very challenging to not only finance but also get any distribution for those films, which is really sad. With Going the Distance, I knew that if I made a good movie, the studio and the marketing team were going to advertise it well and get it out there to people.”

When those people have the chance to see Going the Distance, Burstein hopes that they come out of the movie feeling that they’ve watched a relatable and honest love story. And while we’re on the subject of honesty, how did Burstein’s own long-distance relationship work out? Did it go the distance or fall short? “Mine did not succeed,” laughs Burstein, who lives with her husband, author Scott Anderson, and their two-year-old daughter in Brooklyn. “Although I have a lot of friends where it did. One of those couples just had a baby. They came to see a special friends-and-family screening of Going the Distance and said, ‘Oh my God, that was our life exactly!’ She was in New York, he was in L.A., and they broke up and then figured out that they had to be together, so she moved to L.A. So long-distance relationships can work—they can go either way. It’s more of a challenge than an everyday relationship, but I’ve seen it both not work and also have a happy ending.”