Dave Franco On Directing His Rom-Com ‘Somebody I Used to Know’

Franco went from directing a horror film to a romantic comedy, written with and starring his wife, Alison Brie. "They're messy relationship dramas at their core."

Alison Brie (left) and Dave Franco (right) on the set of ‘Somebody I Used to Know.’ Scott Patrick Green/Prime Video

In 2020, Dave Franco caught audiences by surprise with his directorial debut, The Rental. The horror film, which Franco co-wrote with Joe Swanberg, was a far cry from his acting work in comedies like Neighbors and 21 Jump Street. But for Franco the film was an opportunity to undercut the expectations of a well-trod genre—something he and his wife Alison Brie have done again in their new film Somebody I Used to Know

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This time Franco, a professed lover of romantic comedies, wanted to subvert a different sort of story. The movie, co-written by Franco and Brie, stars Brie as a TV producer who returns to her hometown and is reunited with an old flame, who happens to be getting married. She seeks to put a stop to the wedding, but ends up rediscovering herself in the process. 

“I really want to try to give audiences something they haven’t seen before,” Franco explains, speaking to Observer via Zoom. “And that doesn’t necessarily mean reinventing the wheel every time. I just want to create characters and situations that feel fresh.”

Although Franco isn’t finished acting—his next project is Rose Glass’s Love Lies Bleeding with Kristen Stewart—he is interested in continuing to discover what he can do behind the camera. He’s been inspired by his work with Seth Rogen, as well as being directed by Barry Jenkins in If Beale Street Could Talk

“He’s so confident,” Franco remembers. “He knows exactly what he’s doing. And that’s something for me to aspire to get to at one point.”

Here Franco discusses writing and directing Somebody I Used to Know, collaborating with his wife and coming into his own as a filmmaker. 

This movie really took me by surprise. Was that the intention?

Yeah. My wife and I—we wrote this together—we both love romantic comedies. But we went into this one with the intention of like, “Alright, let’s use everything we know and love about the genre to lead the audience down a certain path where they think ‘I know where this is going’ and then try to pull the rug out from under them every step of the way.” We wanted to try to give you something that you haven’t seen before. We had that mindset for every aspect of the project [and] the characters themselves. They’re all a little messy. They all have flaws. Some of them are making questionable choices. But, at the end of the day, they’re all good people—they’re just going through a difficult time in their lives and trying to figure themselves out.

Is it important to you to write messy, complex characters?

I realized recently that’s the major connection between both of these movies I’ve directed. On the surface they’re very different—one’s a horror movie, one’s a romantic comedy—but the aspect that unifies them is they’re messy relationship dramas at their core. I like characters that feel very real and human. And whether we like it or not, we can relate to them, even when they are making these choices that aren’t necessarily morally sound.

Was it odd for you to go from a horror movie to a rom-com as a director? 

Weirdly, it didn’t feel like a huge step in in a different direction. I approached it all in a similar way of just wanting to tap into the classics of each genre that we all love, but then make it modern. Really try to put a new spin on it and keep audiences guessing every step of the way.

Alison Brie (r) and Danny Pudi in ‘Somebody I Used to Know.’ Scott Patrick Green/Prime Video

When did you start writing this?

Alison and I had the the idea for this at the very end of 2019. And we were like, “Okay, when are we going to actually have the time to sit down and write this?” And then a couple months later the world shut down. If you remember, at the time, everyone was saying, “Okay, we’re going into lockdown for two weeks.” And so I turned to her and I was like, “Alright, we got two weeks to pump out this first draft.” We were waking up early every day and we were writing all day. She was actually getting a little frustrated with me because our hours were insane. But I was like, “We only have two weeks! We gotta get this done!” And then of course, the world stayed shut down, so we had another year to refine that draft.

Do you remember what the exact genesis of the idea was?

[Alison and I] were walking around my hometown in Northern California, Palo Alto. We were actually walking from my high school to my mom’s house and just spit-balling ideas. Being in that setting, these themes of going home and reconnecting with your roots and confronting who you used to be compared to who you are now and how you feel about who you are now, all of that just seeped its way into the story.

Do you have a good relationship with your hometown?

I love going home. My mom is still in the same house that I grew up in. She has not touched my childhood bedroom since I left. I have sports posters, like, hanging from one tack on the wall. I have my sports trophies in my bookcase. For a long time I still had my twin bed. Whenever Alison and I would visit my mom we would squeeze into that little twin bed until Alison finally said, “We need a bigger bed.” But I also have my best friends in the world who still live up there. These are guys I’ve known since I was five years old. They’re all really happy for me and supportive, but ultimately they don’t give a shit who I’m working with or what project I’m doing. It’s nice to have those people who have known me that long.

But your instinct wasn’t to set this film in Palo Alto? 

No. We set it in the town of Leavenworth, Washington, which is a quirky little Bavarian town in Washington state. I discovered the town because one of my friends’ family has a house there and I went to her sister’s wedding in Leavenworth. I just remember thinking, “What the fuck is this place?” It clearly stuck with me and it ultimately felt like the perfect location for the film. You can imagine it’s the type of place where people grow up and almost take it for granted. There’s this touristy element to it all, like “I need to get out of here.” And then as they grow older they look back and realize how charming it is and how gorgeous it is. That thematically tied into Ali’s character so perfectly.

When you’re writing a film with your wife, what’s a day in the life of the writing process?

It’s usually me sitting at the computer and doing the actual typing. And it’s her pacing back and forth, and me saying, “Alright, what would you say in this scenario?” She’s feeling it out and acting it and I’m writing down her exact words. It’s a lot of literally acting out the scenes back and forth. That’s maybe one of the benefits of being actors who are also trying to do their own writing. 

Do you ever feel like you want to star in one of the films you write and direct?

Not necessarily. On the first movie I directed I made a conscious choice to not act in it because I knew that I would have so much on my plate behind the camera. There was a lot for me to learn and I just wanted to focus on that. I had such a great experience working in that way. I couldn’t imagine running back and forth from being in front of the camera and then being behind the camera. I marvel at the people who can do that. But, for me, if I never have to act in something I direct I think that would be ideal. I also think there are so many great actors out there. When we heard that Jay Ellis was interested, I was like, “Yes. He’s better for this part than me anyway.” So I definitely don’t need to be in this.

Did you make Alison audition? 

[Laughs] I think because she was there from the inception of the idea, it was always her part. 

Was there something you learned directing The Rental that you brought to the table here?

If anything it was just knowing how to approach the whole endeavor with a more stable mindset—realizing when things don’t go exactly how you planned it’s not the end of the world. You just need to pivot and go to plan B. Having been through it before I felt a little more at ease and knew how to roll with the punches a little bit better.

Were you not in a stable mindset on The Rental?

I mean, I was, but there were certain moments where it was my first foray into this and so I didn’t know how to deal with certain things. But honestly when I’m on set as a director I actually am the most comfortable and calm I’ve ever been on set. Part of that is because I’m surrounded by people who I trust and love. It’s very important to me that my sets are warm and safe and that everyone feels feels heard. I really want to do great work and I kill myself for everything that I’m that I’m working on, but I also want to have a good time.

Did you have a good time on this one? 

We had the greatest time making this movie. I hope I can continue to do this with my wife forever because, as you can imagine, it’s tough when we’re apart from each other for months at a time. We cracked this code where we’ve been given the opportunity to build some of these projects from the ground up and we can travel places with our two cats and we become this weird little traveling circus family. It’s a dream.

Did you bring your cats to set?

Oh no, not to set. But Alison did drive them up to Portland and they were with us the whole time. Our cats are basically our kids. 

 

Dave Franco On Directing His Rom-Com ‘Somebody I Used to Know’