In Susanna Fogel’s The Spy Who Dumped Me, men are drowned in fondu and household items are repurposed as weapons. The movie follows heartbroken Audrey (Mila Kunis) and her best friend, Morgan (Kate McKinnon), who go globetrotting after Audrey’s recent breakup — and it turns out that her ex, Drew (Justin Theroux), is a CIA spy on the run whose activities put Audrey in danger, forcing her to take on his final mission with Morgan at her side. But unlike many modern studio-funded action-comedies, Fogel’s isn’t just joking around: The film is surprisingly violent, with its action scenes including a significant amount of bloodshed from its villains and heroes alike. Vulture recently sat down with Fogel to talk about the movie’s shocking violent side, what sets its portrayal of female friendship apart from other contemporary female-led comedies — and why movies still rely on those old, lazy gender tropes.
What made you go for that heightened level of graphic violence, when so many action-comedies are pretty antiseptic?
I love action movies, and I love comedy, and I love writing comedy — but the genre of action-comedy, or at least as it currently usually is, is just not something that I feel that compelled by generally, because I find the action to be silly, or it’s too slapstick, or the stakes feel low because people are joking in the middle of it. It takes away what I find so thrilling about action, which is that you’re really immersed in this. You have the adrenaline rush, the cortisol spike of actually being imperiled. And also I do believe that action movies can still be really fun, and have moments of cleverness in them. Even in something like John Wick, which is by no means a comedy, the timing of the editing reminds me of comic timing. It’s the width of exactly when something happens. So it felt like more of a cousin of a deadpan comedy than it’s been given credit for. But yeah, I feel like trying to mitigate the violence by making it funny makes it neither here nor there.
I don’t like the word “authentic,” but you wanted to make it authentic?
Yeah. It’s funny, we would constantly talk on the set about what would really happen, and then someone would inevitably say, “Well, none of this would really happen. They would actually just die within five seconds.” But within the buy-in of what the movie is, yeah, what would happen, are there things that we can build into the action sequences that feel clever, or designed enough, that people can still be smiling through them? Which I think creates a bit of distance for the viewer between themselves and the violence.
When you’re watching a Bond movie, if there’s a violent death, there’s something about cleverly chosen twists, or what props are used, or some way that he’s doing something that feels like an ironic twist, that feels like it gives the audience permission to enjoy watching it, and to enjoy watching something that’s otherwise just brutality. It’s having an academic conversation with your stunt coordinator about what details make things fun and entertaining, and what details tip it over into a genre that you can’t come back from, and you can’t transition into comedy from. You don’t want your audience to have whiplash between the two genres, but I do feel like the action-comedy, as it’s recently been, there’s so much fear of that you just end up mitigating and dulling all the edges of those.
It’s not that it was to make a progressive statement about the fact that women can be in these movies, too, but I think women can handle a lot, and we’re always not being given credit. We have a lot of softened narratives that I just don’t connect with. So I just felt like, “Let’s just go for it.” I just had faith that people will be able to hang with it.
So for you, it’s about finding an organic reaction from Kunis and McKinnon that’s funny? You mentioned James Bond; he’ll push a guy into a newspaper’s printing press and go, “They’ll run anything in the news these days!” — just drop some pithy one-liner.
My editor, he’s very proud of himself for coming up with this distinction and naming it, but he talks about micro humor versus macro humor. Micro humor is a joke that’s contained in the writing; it’s a punch line, it’s a turn of phrase, it’s something that you can see on the page, and no matter who’s saying it, it is in and of itself a funny line. Macro humor is just a person being themselves in a situation, saying whatever they’re going to say, and it’s funny because of the situation and who they are, or they say something and it’s just so them. Like a movie like Clueless. There are some witticisms, but the most memorable lines are just when Cher is saying something very Cher-like, and it’s not necessarily a joke that could exist without that context.
So John [Schwartz] would always say, “The micro humor’s fine, that’s what gets your movie green-lit, but the macro humor’s the real gold.” Watching Kate in that car scene, the expression on her face — you can’t write it! And things she would say, or weird noises she would make, or ways she would walk, that’s the stuff that feels surprising, and it feels like it’s singular to that movie. So discovering that was actually the most rewarding humor in the movie, not the things that we might have thought, and no amount of round-tabling jokes was going to make it funnier the way embracing those moments would. It was partly that. I think if we had kept all of the jokes in the movie that were in the script, I don’t know that the tones would have sewn together as well. It was hard for the actors to even get there on the day with those types of quips.
You were mentioning Kate. You bring Kate McKinnon into a movie to be Kate McKinnon. There’s some really great Kate McKinnon in this movie, too. Did you often improvise, if that was the case? If the actors are having a hard time getting there, how do they ultimately get there?
As the co-writer, and having the co-writer [David Iserson] on set with me, it’s us having the humility to know that maybe it’s the script. Maybe there isn’t a version of Mila Kunis walking out of a dramatic situation and saying any joke. Maybe there’s no way to get her there, and it’s not because she’s not a good actress. It’s because it just doesn’t feel right. So it’s about being flexible and, if everybody feels like the moment doesn’t feel true, being able to quickly pivot to something else. In that way I think that having written it really helped, because on a normal movie set, often the writer isn’t even there. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t been someone who can come up with something else in the moment.
But yeah, there was a lot of improv within certain parameters. I feel like a nursery-school teacher saying this, but kids want limits! With someone like Kate, oftentimes people know she’s a great writer, and they know she’s so funny, that I think there’s all this extra pressure on her to elevate and punch up everything just because she’s Kate, to show up to a comedy set and just rewrite everything and make it even better and do her Kate McKinnon thing. I think that’s a lot of pressure for her, and it’s not necessarily going to lead to her being able to stay in character when there’s more of a character to play, or when the character’s grounded. If she’s constantly reaching because it falls on her shoulders to punch up the joke, you’re not necessarily going to get the most real version of her. So I feel like in this movie, I felt like it was important for me to communicate to her that that’s not her responsibility. If she wants to come and bring ideas in, great, but if she wants to just be Morgan, that’s fine too. The movie’s success is not just about how many jokes there are. It’s not like that’s the one goal we have.
She’s got a lot of depth, and a lot of nuance, and yet I think when you have a really specific assignment for her — like, there’s got to be a really funny way Morgan walks out of this scene and I don’t know what it is, but let’s try a bunch of different things — then you get her at her best, which is like, she has a very specific task, she’s very disciplined, and like the straight-A student she is, she’s like, “I’m going to give you ten hilarious moments.” And a lot of them did end up in the movie.
Between the heightened level of violence and the humor is a lot of truth. Particularly the scenes between Mila and Kate.
Definitely. One of the most important things to me and David was to not have the girls doubt each other, and to not do that thing that so many female movies do, where the conflict comes from a rivalry, or best friends doing some sort of catty thing to each other. Almost every movie with two women can’t just let them be supportive of each other. As you get into your 20s and 30s and you have these close friends that are basically like your family, I don’t just want to watch women snarkily bantering. I don’t want to watch bickering. I want to watch them being each other’s partner. It was really important to us to avoid having that moment where they fight, because in reality — again, to the extent that there’s any reality in this two-hour journey through Europe where they become superspies! — I just feel like if you’re in reality if you’re in a crazy, death-defying situation with your friend, you’re not going to have a stupid fight about something that happened when you’re 16 and storm away. It’s not going to happen.
Why do you think that is such a common trope? There are at least five answers I can come up with in my head …
In a sort of Bechdel test way, I think people have trouble knowing what to do with women in movies when they’re not in a love story. So fighting with their friends is just another button they can press. The trope of the friend movie is that the women fight, and then they come back, and the trope of the action movie is that the women are either the sexy Bond-girl type — or I guess the first wave of feminist action movie is to show this bionic, confident, robotic action-star woman that may as well have been a man, but probably the movie couldn’t get made, so they were like, “Women! Women are a thing now. Let’s put a woman in this one!” I’m glad that they make movies where women are at the center, but at the same time I don’t know any woman like that in my life.
You don’t know a Charlize Theron?
I just feel like, okay, let’s make so many stories that no [single] movie has to bear the burden of being everything to all women and to all feminism. It’s just problematic … I get asked about Wonder Woman, and I think all these movies have their place in the canon, but the canon needs to have more than two movies in it.
Otherwise it’s not a canon! It’s just a pair of movies. [Laughs.] I don’t think the way to be feminist is just to assume that women are exactly like men. I think that the way we approach things is sometimes different, not for everyone, but certain things about our wiring are specific. That doesn’t mean they have to be soft, passive-aggressive, bitchy, bickery, and obsessed with babies. That’s fine for some women, and some women are not like that — and if it feels gender-specific to have them acknowledge the destruction they’ve caused, if that feels like a woman thing to have them be like, “Oh that was crazy! Ahhh, we broke a thing!”, that’s fine. It doesn’t mean you have to go way down the road of pandering to the lowest common denominator of what a woman is, or hysterical woman stuff.
This interview has been edited and condensed.