'The Boy Downstairs': Zosia Mamet, Director on Flashback-Heavy Rom-Com, Complex Characters

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
'The Boy Downstairs'

The 'Girls' actress stars in the Tribeca Film Festival movie written and helmed by Sophie Brooks, making her feature debut.

A week after Girls' series finale, Zosia Mamet is on the big screen playing a very different single woman in the New York-set rom-com The Boy Downstairs, which has its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday night (April 23).

The movie, written and directed by Sophie Brooks in her feature debut, follows Mamet's Diana, a young writer, returning to New York after spending a couple of years in London. She lands a great apartment, only to discover that her downstairs neighbor is Ben (Matthew Shear), her ex-boyfriend whom she broke up with when she left the city.

Through a series of flashbacks, viewers find out what happened over the course of the couple's relationship and why it came to an end as, in the present day, Diana and Ben get reacquainted.

Brooks, a fan of romantic comedies, worked with one of the genre's best-known writers, Delia Ephron, who read a number of Brooks' drafts and offered her advice on how to structure the film and "make it the most effective storytelling," as Brooks recalls.

The outside perspective of Ephron and others helped her figure out how much and what parts of Diana and Ben's relationship to show when.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Brooks and Mamet talked about their motivations and challenges in making The Boy Downstairs and, in Mamet's case, what she's looking for in her post-Girls career.

Sophie, you said the idea for the story came from you wondering what happened if you got hurt and the only person who could take care of you was an ex and that the story changed from that. How did the idea and film evolve from that initial premise?

Sophie Brooks: I love romantic comedies. The first movie I want to see is a romantic comedy when I'm looking for something. So I sort of had that in my mind when I was thinking of ideas I wanted to explore. And then I got into this accident. I got hit by a car, and 10 days later I had to have my appendix out. It was this really traumatic, intense moment and at the time I was kind of not with my ex-boyfriend but it was still kind of unclear what we were becoming and I just thought it would be an interesting set-up and the story kind of unfolded from that. It adapted quite a lot. Originally I had the flashbacks go over a couple of years and we kind of saw up to how [Zosia's character] got to where she was at the beginning of the movie. The more I simplified it and made it a little less scattered, it just became what it is.

Zosia, how did you get involved with the movie and what made you want to play the role of Diana?

Zosia Mamet: My agent sent me the script, and I was in New Mexico with my now-husband, then-boyfriend, who was shooting a movie at the time. I remember they sent me the script, and he had a very early call and I didn't want to go to bed yet so I said, "I'm just going to read some scripts. We'll see what it's like." And he kept getting angry at me because I was laughing so loudly while reading the script. And I couldn't remember a time that a script made me react so viscerally. It felt so incredibly human and so funny but also tragic and sad, and after the first time I read it I fell in love with it, and then I met Sophie and I fell in love with her. I just so badly wanted to do the film.

Why did you want to reveal the relationship between Diana and Ben through flashbacks and in reverse, in a way?

Brooks: I think just the premise of the movie with it being about a former relationship and being about an ex, there's so much retrospection when you see an ex boyfriend or you see an ex. It constantly takes you back to these moments that you had together. And I just thought it would be an interesting way to tell the story to have the audience find out about their relationship as she's reflecting on it and maybe coming to terms with how she really feels about him.

Was it challenging to film a movie where the timeline shifted from present-day to flashback scenes?

Mamet: I really enjoyed it. I think so often as an actor, stories are rooted to our past selves or pivotal instances that have occurred to us in the past and have shaped who we are in the story or in the present day as the audience sees it, but it's rare that you see the experiences that shaped the person that you are today. I found it, not without its challenges, but really enjoyable and a fun challenge. And I think Sophie's storytelling was so specific and intricate so that really helped me.

Sophie, this is your first feature film. What was the biggest surprise when you were making this or making the transition to features?

Brooks: It's so different. Both of my shorts that I made previously I made super-duper low budget with just friends. It was such an incredible learning experience in so many ways that I probably haven't even realized all the way yet, which will materialize in my next movie, I imagine. I think I was surprised by how much we would change things on the day. I think in my mind I had this concept that the script was the script and we'll improv a little but I know what's happening, but we ended up doing a lot of rewriting on the day. Zosia and Matt [Shear] and I would just be like rewriting the scenes as we rehearsed it and seeing what worked best. That surprised me and was a really lovely, pleasant surprise because it felt really collaborative and exciting and alive.

This is a female-written and -directed film. Do you feel any additional pressure to have it be successful given your gender?

Brooks: I felt pressure in general and pressure on myself to do a good job. I think I felt a certain, I don't know if I would say pressure, but awareness that I wanted to make sure that I was writing female characters that felt really honest to me. I didn't want any of the characters to be like props, so it was really important to me that the male and female characters, especially the female characters that you don't see very much, like even the supporting cast, really felt like people. In terms of directing, I don't think I felt an extra pressure being a woman. I tried not to think about it. In the hiring process I made sure that I hired people who were excited about the movie. On the set, I feel like we came together and everyone was really down to make this thing.

Mamet: We had some of these things that happen, in my experience, very rarely, where everybody just kind of melts together into this perfect, magical soup, and every day was like more exciting than the day before. We just couldn't wait to get to work and make this movie together.

Zosia, as you move on from Girls, what are you looking for in terms of roles going forward?

Mamet: I really look for the same thing, which is something that scares me a little bit because I haven't done it before, so it's going to force me to rise to the challenge. I definitely felt that when I read this movie. It was one of the reasons I wanted to do it so badly, because I felt like I hadn't had the opportunity to play somebody so wonderfully flawed and so incredibly vulnerable. There's nothing specific about what I'm looking for going forward except something that makes me use a muscle I haven't used before.

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