Director–co-writer Daryl Wein and co-writer–actress Zoe Lister-Jones — the real-life couple who gave us the semi-autobiographical indie film Breaking Upwards — are back with Lola Versus, a post-romantic-comedy about what happens after the breakup, starring Greta Gerwig and Joel Kinnaman. It almost starred Anne Hathaway (or even Zoe Saldana) as Lola, and James Franco and Orlando Bloom were both once cast as the fiancé who breaks up with her three weeks before the wedding. Like their jilted bride-to-be, Wein and Lister-Jones stumbled through the streets of New York to find their footing, as they reevaluated their filmmaking plans and went up against construction crews, government officials, drunken friends, and racial politics. As Vulture discovered during our chat, it’s Wein and Lister-Jones versus the world.
One of the things that’s fun when a film is shot in New York is to pick out the places you know, like how many scenes are on the High Line, or how you’re on the Lower East Side now because now you’ve got a character getting picked up at Russ & Daughters.
Wein: And picking out, “Why are they walking past Union Square to go to the meatpacking district?” We were the first film in its 100 years to shoot at Russ & Daughters. The owners are in the film — [Joshua Russ Tupper] is the guy who gives Lola the fish. It was amazing because I’ve been going there to get fish and babka and we love it there, so I really wanted to shoot there. But our bond company on the film said it was going to be too difficult, and we had to start trimming locations, so we had to cut that one. And then luckily at the end, we finally managed to make it work. But there was construction going on, in the street out front, tearing up the whole street, all these tractors and things. We were like, “Oh my God, we finally made it work, and now we can’t shoot there.” Luckily, so many important people shop at Russ & Daughters …
Lister-Jones: Government officials …
Wein: The mayor, just big people, and so the Friday before we had to start shooting on a Monday, Jen [Snow] and Niki Russ called one of the New York senators, Daniel Squadron, among other officials, to make a call to the police department to get the construction removed …
Lister-Jones: And they did! And it’s all because of smoked fish. Because of the love of smoked fish, that senator saved our movie. And it’s because of New York Magazine that we even got into Russ & Daughters, because Daryl was interviewed about his favorite places in New York, and they got in touch with him to say thank you for that shout-out, and he was like, “I really want to shoot in there for our next movie.” Now we’re in lox heaven for life.
You had a period where Anne Hathaway and James Franco were going to play the leads in this film.
Lister-Jones: Pre-Oscars! [Laughs.] They hadn’t hosted the Oscars yet, and we didn’t know they were going to.
Wein: Every film has actors that are attached and fall out. It’s impossible to align so many different people’s schedules, and unfortunately, there are times when you have a certain actor onboard and you’re waiting for financing and they become interested in some other project, so loyalties and allegiances sometimes fall by the wayside. There’s so many factors that play into why actors do or don’t end up in projects.
Including drunk friends? Apparently Greta’s friend accosted you guys at the No Strings Attached premiere to advocate for her being cast as Lola?
Lister-Jones: Yeah, yeah, yeah! [Laughs.] They were so funny. They were awesome. She has a really cool group of girlfriends. But we had met with her and she had read the script before the drunk friend encounter, so it was all in the works already. I remember her friend said that she loved Breaking Upwards, and we all hung out and sort of danced and we got to see Greta in her element. And for Breaking Upwards, she couldn’t come to the premiere in L.A., but she came to the party and afterwards we all went to Canter’s, so we had been flirting as friends for a while. No Strings Attached was a more polished movie than she had been in before, and so it was cool to see her versatility in that. She was so funny and it really showcased her talents as a comedian.
Wein: She felt authentic to the world we were envisioning, as opposed to the conventional, shiny female ingenue in this kind of relationship genre. She struck us as a more unexpected and interesting choice. Her delivery is so naturalistic, and that humanizes her and makes her more relatable and more down to earth. But Greta’s drunk friend definitely didn’t make us cast her.
Lister-Jones: That would make a good sound bite if she did!
There’s a rap at the end of the movie, and Jay Pharoah has a line in it where he says, “And I’m your friend who is black.”
Wein: We love to comment on the fact that we do only have one prominent black actor in our film, but still it was important for us to have diversity in the movie. I know Lena [Dunham] has been getting a lot of flack for not having any minority or diversity in her show [Girls]. We had Peggy [played by Micah Joe Parker], Luke’s girl of the moment in Lola Versus, and Maggie [played by LaChanze], the woman I babysat for in Breaking Upwards, so it’s always been important for us to not always be a homogenized, all-white cast.
Lister-Jones: I think what the rap was doing was shedding a little fact that it’s still pretty homogenized! So we’re aware.
Wein: Not to toot our own horn, but our professor in the school scene is black, too.
Lister-Jones: This is like the conversation where you’re like, “I have a lot of black friends.”
Wein: I do have white guilt, but I’m also just thinking about our cast.
Lister-Jones: I think the thing that was probably shocking about Girls was that there was not a token. I think most people are used to, no matter how homogenized a show is, there will be some element of diversity.
Wein: I think it’s better than not having anything. But it depends on how that “token” is portrayed. Like in Breaking Upwards, Maggie is the only black character, but she’s portrayed with humanity.
Lister-Jones: And her race had very little to do with her casting. We just liked her. And I think if race doesn’t have to do with casting, it doesn’t feel like a token. But sadly, in our world, I think social circles are fairly homogenous. And I think that’s probably represented in the media that way. But it would be cool if it were less that way.
Wein: When we were casting, we were completely color blind. We saw actors of every ethnicity.
Lister-Jones: For a moment, we were pining over Zoe Saldana to play Lola, because we thought it would be very interesting to have an African-American leading woman in this role. [Editor’s note: Saldana is Latina.] It’s already very interesting to have a leading woman who is unapologetic, but that would have really changed the landscape.
Wein: We try to sprinkle people around, but we as filmmakers are also up against a problem, a stigma in Hollywood at large, of having people of color and different ethnicities in lead roles.
Lister-Jones: It’s a lot harder to sell that overseas.
Unless you’re Will Smith. You know they were originally thinking of Chris O’Donnell for that part in the Men in Black series?
Lister-Jones: No! Seriously? That’s crazy. Can you imagine Tommy Lee Jones with Chris O’Donnell? Oh my God — what a bore. No, I know. But then it’s really cool because there’s this whole other genre of films that are entirely African-American. Tyler Perry’s films are so successful.
But if you talk to him, he’ll tell you about the trouble he has marketing those films to white audiences.
Lister-Jones: That’s ultimately the challenge, isn’t it? To make a film that appeals to all races and ethnicities?
Motherfucker is the title of your next film, at least for now?
Wein: We’re writing that for Fox Searchlight, so that is on the horizon. It’s a guy-meets-girl-and-then-falls-in-love-with-her-mother. We’re probably going to have to change the title. Can we asterisk it?
They tried to do that with Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and that didn’t fly with the MPAA, so it got changed to Being Flynn.
Lister-Jones: And Being Flynn just sounds like a period romance! It’s going to require a real think tank to come up with something that compares to Motherfucker, because that is very self-explanatory.
Wein: Motherhumper? Motherlover? Your Mom?
Do you watch The Killing? Do you have a theory about who killed Rosie Larsen?
Wein: We asked Joel on set when we were shooting, and he couldn’t tell us. Or maybe he didn’t know. So let’s just say Joel is the killer.
Lister-Jones: You heard it here first!