Revitalizing the rom-com: Natalie Portman, Ivan Reitman and Liz Meriwether discuss 'No Strings Attached'

Rom-coms are a dice throw. You can take a beloved comic actress like Sandra Bullock, and for every Miss Congeniality or The Proposal, there's a misfire like Miss Congeniality 2 or Along Came Steve. Now director Ivan Reitman—whose goofball guy-comedies like Meatballs (1979) and Ghostbusters (1984) became huge hits and cultural touchstones, and whose Dave (1993) proved he could do acclaimed grown-up comedy—is trying his hand at the genre with Paramount’s No Strings Attached, starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher as two L.A. twenty-somethings attempting to have a commitment-free, purely physical, friends-with-benefits relationship.

The handsomely mounted movie seems to have caught something in the zeitgeist, what with the recent Love and Other Drugs, the 2009 indie Friends (With Benefits) and the upcoming Justin Timberlake-Mila Kunis Friends with Benefits all staking the same ground. There may or may not be a real-life trend of emotionally skittish young people finding that physical intimacy is easier than taking the risk of a deeper connection. But romantic comedies, at their best, do try to find what's different about love and the courtship dance today, right now, this minute, and sometimes that can give you something as sublime and timely as His Girl Friday or Annie Hall.

In a series of separate, one-on-one telephone interviews, we spoke with Reitman, Portman and comic playwright-turned-screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether (“It's Liz—when you say ‘Elizabeth,’ I immediately think it's my mom mad at me”), we traced the film's long path to getting made—it was on the industry's 2008 "Black List" of best unproduced screenplays—why serious actress Natalie Portman might be right for comedy, and, just for the heck of it, what's happening with Ghostbusters III.

Film Journal International: The movie had a long gestation, with trade stories about it as far back as March 2007. Did it begin as a spec script, as reported?

Ivan Reitman: It was never a spec script. It was an idea actually that my [producing] partner and I pitched to Liz Meriwether. We always liked this idea of people in their 20s at a time of Facebook and texting, who have romantic relationships where they don't even see each other for half their conversations. It seemed like an opportunity to do a good comedy. And we pitched it to Liz Meriwether, who is this wonderful writer of some plays in New York, and she liked the idea and just put out her first rough-draft treatment of it pretty early. We've been working on it for a couple of years with her.

Liz Meriwether: It's funny that he used the word "pitch"—it makes it seem really formal. When I went in to meet with Ivan and talk about the movie, it just felt like a conversation. They pitched me the title—Fuckbuddies—and I said that was just the movie I wanted to write. It was so in me. It felt just like what I wanted to write about, putting a different sort of female character in a romantic comedy, a girl who didn't want a relationship.

IR: I just loved meeting with her. I thought she was really smart and just sort of pitched this idea to her and she went off and a few months later had this extraordinarily funny first draft. She was inexperienced as a screenwriter, so it was a little bit all over the place, but boy, was it funny. And we just started working and structuring it and sort of making it into a film.

I turned in this kind of crazy draft. I had notes on the camera direction like, 'I don't know, maybe this happens?' With a question mark [laughs].

FJI: Natalie, you’re an Oscar front-runner for
Black Swan and suddenly getting much attention for that and for upcoming supporting roles in Your Highness and Thor. But you really haven’t done romantic comedy before—Garden State was more like a quirky serio-comedy.

Natalie Portman: People were not sure about me doing a romantic comedy. I have been offered romantic comedies [by directors], but I think studios were worried because I hadn't done one, and studios like to sort of rely on you to appeal to a certain kind of audience. So they were used to me doing serious films, and for romantic comedy they want to have romantic comedy people that have already done it. It's sort of like repeating what's worked already. They're the business side of it and it's a safer bet.

IR: She was my first choice. In fact, I went to her about two-and-a-half, three years ago and had her read a very early draft of the script and asked her to join in and help me with this. I made her an executive producer on the film early on, to have her commit to it to ensure that she would be part of the process. I just think she has this extraordinarily funny side that the world has not had much of an opportunity see in her work. Up to now she's chosen things of a much more dramatic nature, I guess, with the exception of Garden State, which is not really so much a comedy, but you get a certain insight into that comedic energy that she has. And I thought she had the intelligence that this character needed. There are very few people that skilled and that smart and that beautiful and frankly that funny that you can find, and so when she was interested in the script, I really wanted to make sure I had her. She was a very early choice.

NP: My producing partner, Annette Savitch, was friends with someone from Ivan's company and she sent [me an early draft of] Liz's script, which at the time was on the shelf [i.e., not in active development] and nothing's going on with it, they don't know how to make it, and I mean, the character was just so funny that it was one of those experiences where you start reading the lines out loud while you're reading he script, you're so excited to get to say them. It's such a good character that I wanted to get involved. And so part of [being an executive producer] was trying to help put it together and get it made, because it's just always surprising what kind of things are difficult to get made, and this is one of them. I think people were reluctant to see a female character like this, people were not sure about me doing a romantic comedy—there were a lot of hurdles along the way.

LM: Natalie came on really early after that first draft. She was with it the whole way and was a champion for her character, and made sure we never lost the idea of her character being not like other girls you see in romantic comedies.

[Liz] was on set every day. So it was wonderful that she was really able to give us spur-of-the-moment extra lines and funny lines.

LM: I was there every day, which was such a gift. I felt I learned so much in the two months we shot it. Ivan just wanted to get the right things, what [twenty-something] people actually are saying right now. I mean, he's been off the market for a while! [laughs] I was just sort of throwing ideas out there and he was listening, which was great. I felt like I was getting a lot of school in two months.

FJI: Unlike the old screwball comedies, where family expectations and social class and other considerations really were real obstacles to two people getting together, a lot of romantic comedies today have what feel like these utterly forced, contrived obstacles. But in this movie, the obstacle comes from within a person, who's doing it to herself for her own emotional or psychological reasons.

IR: That's the best obstacle, isn't it? I think romantic comedy is a very tough form because you know how it's gonna end—you know your two characters are going to end up together [after going through] a problem in the relationship. I've never done a romantic comedy. Dave and Six Days Seven Nights have romantic-comedy elements to them, but they're really not the pure form. It's almost like an unhappy genre right now. People, particularly men, have a lot of cynicism toward [romantic comedies] because they've become a bit automatic in their structure, in the way these things play out. I was hoping to make something that would be fresh and different and unpredictable, given that they're going end up together.

Ashton [has been] in a lot of broad comedies, his persona was informed by a television show, and he had never had the opportunity to do more serious work in a comedic form. I knew he was charming and handsome and funny, but I needed him to be funny and charming in a different way that he'd ever been. They're both appropriate and there's a great charm and electricity between them. And that's what you always hope for in a film like this—that there's this unspoken electricity that's palpable.

FJI: There's a line in the movie where Adam tells Emma she's too small to hit him, that she's a like a female Rick Moranis. And of course, what helps make that line funny is how closely associated Ivan is with Rick Moranis as part of the troupe of Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II. Was that an in-joke for Ghostbusters fans?

IR: That’s Liz Merriwether. It's a piece of humor that [Rick] would very much appreciate. It's one of my favorite lines in the film. I have not spoken to Rick in years. I would like to—there's actually a role for him in the new draft [of the proposed Ghostbusters III].

I was just trying to think what would be the most Bizarro Worldest thing you could accuse Natalie Portman of being. And then later I realized [Ivan's] worked so much with Rick Moranis that there must have been some connection [in my mind]. I love Rick Moranis.

FJI: Well, it's surely an in-joke with the shot of Ivan playing the director of the "Glee"-like TV show in the movie.

IR: Yeah! [laughs] That's where I'm going! I love doing musicals—maybe I could get a job on "Glee"!

FJI: Liz, you were on the set every day. Did you get to do a cameo also?

There's this really unflattering flash of my face for like five seconds. I'm in the scene where Kevin Kline is playing "Happy Birthday,'" and I'm wheeling the cake out. I have a really weird sweater on that's my own sweater. It's probably my last time in a major motion picture. [Note: She is credited as playing "Graduate Student" in 2005's The Squid and the Whale.] I even think I messed it up once—I think I wheeled it to the wrong mark.

FJI: Getting back to
Ghostbusters III for a moment: Ivan, what's the latest? Harold Ramis last year told me that his co-writers on Year One, Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, who write NBC's "The Office," were doing a script for which he'd worked with them on the plot. He said there were parts for Ernie Hudson and [reading quote] "Annie Potts and whoever wants to come back. I know all the guys want to come back except for [Rick] Moranis, who's disappeared. Not disappeared physically. But he's not too interested in entertainment at this time. Don't know why."

IR: I think that's pretty accurate, except we now have a pretty good [completed] script. I think there's a lot of desire to do it. Bill [Murray] has to read the script still. He has not done that. There have been a lot of comments [online] that he has read it. He's never read it—any drafts of it. It's basically been sitting, waiting for him to read it. He has it now, so we'll see.

FJI: Natalie, there's a statement attributed to any number of comedians and comic playwrights, who supposedly said on their deathbed when someone asked how they were feeling: "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." What's your take on that?

NP: [laughs] That's very funny! I don't find it harder [than drama]. It's a different challenge. You just have to come with a lot of openness and a sense of play. It's hard to tell what's funny [on a movie set] because no one can laugh while you're shooting. Everyone has to keep quiet, so it's not like you have an audiences. All you can do is try to make it true and trust in the script.