Starstruck’s Rose Matafeo Is Making Rom-Coms for The Lake House Fans

Photo: Mark Johnson/HBO Max

When we left Starstruck’s central couple, Jessie (creator and star Rose Matafeo) and Tom (Nikesh Patel), in the season-one finale, they were headed toward Heathrow, where a burned-out Jessie was due to board a plane back home to New Zealand. At the last minute, Jessie skips her stop, and she and Tom — looking both terrified and exhilarated, cheekily framed à la the final shot of The Graduate — start wildly making out. Refreshingly, the second season doesn’t skip ahead to any sort of snuggling-beneath-the-sheets bliss. Instead, it picks up with Rose and Tom exactly where we left them: staring at each other in utter disbelief at the back of a bus.

The entire second season is similarly grounded in both romance and reality, winking at — and then deftly sidestepping — genre clichés in favor of far funnier and more surprising moments. Instead of instantly accompanying Tom to a movie set in Ireland, Jessie ends up at a Magic Mike Live show, stewing over whether it was romantic that Tom purchased her another ticket home as a symbol of her agency. Tom throws a New Year’s Eve party at his stiflingly fancy new flat, where an overwhelmed Jessie does too many uppers and gets into a fight with his drunk brother. Jessie is the one to fall into a self-sabotaging flirtation with an ex while Tom quietly turns paranoid with jealousy. And it’s Jessie, not Tom, who gets the final grand gesture, day drunk and running fully clothed through a lake to tell Tom she loves him after all.

But the most astonishing thing about season two is Matafeo wrote all of it before season one even filmed — then scrapped the entire thing and rewrote it from scratch last year. I got on Zoom with her to talk about what season two looked like in its first iteration, the challenges of making a good rom-com for TV with little money, and whether George Clooney is a bully.

I like that we’re both doing this chat from bed.
I know. I’m in this frickin’ hotel room in Hollywood — would you believe? There’s a Shake Shack nearby. They were filming something here yesterday. I never want to be one of those guys, but I felt it for the first time then. I was like, I want to ask one of these security guards what they’re filming! I always see it happen on Starstruck, and I’m like, Good grief. I finally get it.

You have to ask.
I feel like it was Hacks. I’ll go ask reception today.

I loved the second season. At what point did you start thinking about writing it?
We were supposed to start shooting the first series in March 2020. That got waylaid — I can’t imagine why. Which meant that Alice Snedden, the other writer, and I had a lot of time on our hands. We were isolating together in a house for about a month, so we thought, Okay, why don’t we start writing a second series? Of a show where we don’t even know if the first series is going to get made! It was a very strange exercise in keeping the faith. Every day I would wake up and say, It’s not gonna happen, but let’s write it just for fun! So we wrote six episodes before we even shot the first series.

Which I wouldn’t recommend. Because then we rewrote all of them after we shot the first series. As it turns out, it’s quite an advantage to shoot a first series before you start tackling the second. But it wasn’t a completely futile exercise. It was amazing to write something we knew we didn’t want. Like, Hang on — no, it’s not this. And we have to put in the work to write it differently.

When did you realize, This isn’t going to work and we have to start over?
It became so clear when we started shooting the first series what was special about the story and about Jessie and Tom’s relationship. Once we had actual actors bringing our scripts to life, we were interested in writing toward the cast and what worked well. We had a team setting a tone that was really unique. I remember we were shooting the fifth episode, and I was doing a makeup change, and Alice came and sat next to me and said, “Yeah. I think we’re gonna have to rewrite.” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’re going to have to rewrite the whole series.” And she walked away. That’s all we had to say because I was like, I do not want to talk about this right now. I do not want to think about the amount of work we are gonna have to do again.

So what changed?
What became clear to us was that we wanted to start it right at the moment the first series ended. That’s the most intriguing and interesting part of a relationship: the very awkward first few months. Simultaneously you’re, like, the most infatuated and in love with this person chemically and romantically. But it’s also the point when you know the least about that person. You’re learning about each other but also want to have sex all the time. You’re learning about their flaws and mitigating that with how you feel about them. It’s a whole mess of really fascinating material with the most stakes. We had initially written in a whole time jump, but then we were like, We’re missing the best bit! If only we had thought of that before we wrote a whole fucking series.

Where did the time jump take them originally?
I think it was like, six months down the line. But something wasn’t there. We really enjoyed the first series being over the course of a year, but then we’d be stuck in the pattern of having to catch the audience up on what’s happened between episodes. We wanted to size the time period down to two and a half or three months. It gave us a much better opportunity to have emotional continuity between episodes. There’s not much off-screen that you don’t see, where you have to put the pieces together. Plus the nature of the show, how it’s released, people watch it in a row. Nobody’s going away to mull it over for a week.

You have consistently done a great job playing with and inverting rom-com tropes. In the first episode you turn the “airport chase” on its head by having her not even make it to the airport, and then he’s like, “Thanks for not making me do the airport chase.” How did you guys land on that as the concept?
Guess why that was? Budget. There is something to be said about budgetary constraints and creativity. Some of the best things come out of the show because people are like, “We can’t afford that! You idiot!”

Would you have done an airport chase if you could have afforded it?
Probably! Maybe that’s the problem with some of the more unsuccessful rom-coms these days. They have too much money. Give them less money! Give us more money. Because we know what we’re doing. We won’t spend it on anything silly like an airport chase. We’ll just pay people correctly and go on holiday.

But, yeah, it’s a lot to do with the fact that this is a TV comedy for the BBC and HBO Max. While we’re given so much support, I think the nature of this — it’s six episodes, it’s for TV, it’s not a feature — means we have less money. But I’d rather write out an airport scene than film one that looks so shit.

What other surprising creative moments sprung from having no money?
We wanted the ending to be on the canals, and that was just too hard. So it ended up being in a lake, which was fine. It’s a way better ending! All of these things are blessings in disguise. When you’ve got these restraints, sometimes you’re forced to use your creative brain and simplify. I remember reading something about Taika Waititi doing his first feature in New Zealand. I think his budget was like, a million or a million and a half. And they offered him more money, and he was like, “No. I don’t want more money.”

To go back to the airport chase: Maybe we wouldn’t have done it even if we had the money. It would have felt so outside the world of the show. The show knows enough about the genre it operates in to rarely fully participate in it. We respect it, and we have those things exist peripherally, but we do the most real-world version of it.

Not to shit specifically on Marry Me, but that’s an example of a studio rom-com that had money behind it — and an airport chase — but it fell flat from a quality perspective. So it’s not really just about having the money, clearly.
It’s so true. It’s a shame. The money rarely goes into the writing. The script is the most important thing, particularly with a rom-com. It’s the crux of it. For time and care not to be thrown into it — not even just financially, but the support of creatives at that stage of making something — you can throw as much marketing as you want at it, but it’s always the marketing that makes me suspicious. Oh, you have this many posters? Oh, okay. Let’s go see it then … Is that why we have no posters? Ours was a sort of word-of-mouth, phone-tree situation.

Though there are big rom-coms with great scripts like When Harry Met Sally. And then there are films that don’t necessarily have the tightest script, but they’re iconic. Do you reckon maybe we don’t, as a culture, support a blockbuster rom-com anymore?

I think there’s still an appetite for blockbuster rom-coms. But you’re right that the problem is often with the script.
And we don’t have the stars. Alice and I were on a long drive in a Winnebago recently, in the desert, and she was doing a monologue about it. She was like, “Where are the next Sandra Bullocks?” Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson were icons of that era of rom-coms, but who’s the young Sandra Bullock these days? I think the nature of celebrity has changed. Back then there was a real monoculture: “These are your celebrities. These are the movies they will be in. You will watch it.” But now, the way things are made and released — I haven’t seen it yet, but the Jenny Slate–Charlie Day rom-com I Want You Back was apparently fantastic. And that’s on streaming. It’s weird. I don’t know if we’ll ever have another Meg Ryan. And that makes me sad.

This conversation comes up every few years, where everyone is like, “The rom-com is dead!” But it’s not; it’s just changing. I often point people to things like Starstruck.
It’s happening on the backburner somewhere in East London. People do love that discourse. I think the form we’re used to, as we knew it as kids, is potentially dead. But rom-coms have always changed. It’s a reflection of the natural change of culture. Screwball comedies are rom-coms. Sixties romps are rom-coms. The Heartbreak Kid? A rom-com. They’ve now become the most self-referential genre. Maybe because we have a certain cynicism now.

I think it’s difficult to write a rom-com that takes place in a world where rom-coms don’t exist. There’s a sort of need to be at least a little self-referential, and you have so many good references this season. There’s a great joke in the first episode about The Lake House: “Sometimes people live in the same lake house but years apart.” 
That just comes from me and Alice being freaks about romance films and pop culture. We’re massive movie nerds. I love the people that the reference speaks to: “The Lake House?!”

You don’t see a lot of Lake House jokes.
The people who get it, they get it.

Jessie also goes on a hilarious rant about classic rom-coms while chatting with a couple of older women in “film club” at her movie theater job. She mentions Philadelphia Story, All That Heaven Allows, Brief Encounter, and then says, “Bringing Up Baby is shit!” Why do you think Bringing Up Baby is shit?
I do not care for Bringing Up Baby. I’ve caught a lot of shit for it. I’m sorry — it doesn’t float my boat! Now, Voyager: absolutely incredible film. Brief Encounter ruins me.

That whole section — particularly the “Men don’t know anything about film” — that’s just me writing things I want to say in a fantasy world. I don’t think you see women talk enough about film with each other or be film nerds with each other. Janie, one of the women in that scene, was best friends with David Niven, and she was telling me all of these stories. I was having the time of my life that day. It was such a treat to listen to these older women with encyclopedic knowledge about film.

Are you also of the opinion that George Clooney is a bully?
I’m pretty sure the legal department checked that we were allowed to do that. Hopefully, George reaches out. George Clooney is notoriously a great guy, I feel like. And he owned a pig that very tragically got killed when a friend backed over him in Lake Como. [Editor’s note: The pig nearly died after a friend ran over him in 2001 but eventually died of “natural causes.”] Poor George. There are certain celebrities who, the moment you say their name, it evokes something. If you replaced his name with another celebrity, it would not have been as funny. He’s like this nostalgic symbol for people my age of one of the last big movie stars.

I hope his people don’t get in touch, actually. I didn’t mean it! I didn’t write that.

Where did the whole Magic Mike Live plot line spring from?
That came in because we went to see Magic Mike Live very shortly before shooting the first series and got a bit upset. Alice wrote it in as a joke, which she didn’t tell me until well after we shot it. And they were very cooperative! It’s so funny hearing production coming back to us with updates on the Magic Mike people’s conditions. All the while Alice is laughing like, You’re really trying to do this?! Wow. I was livid when I heard that. But that was another example — we got the real Magic Mike Live venue and a dancer from Magic Mike Live. We don’t do anything half-assed. We have such an amazing team of people who are committed to making work they’re proud of. I’m so stoked to work with people like that, who are on email chains at midnight working on minor details about Tom’s flat and, like, the color of a wall. Maybe it’s because I’m a bitch.

We get more information this season about Tom’s life and career: We see him at home at Christmas, we see him on set, at these lunches with directors talking about his career. Where does he exist, in your mind, in the greater celebrity matrix, and how do you continue to convey that in a way that makes him feel real? Like, where is he in relation to George Clooney?
It’s funny. There’s a certain level of anonymity celebrities can have in London compared to the States. And as we were saying, the nature of celebrity has changed. There are far more celebrities in the world. He’s in an action movie, he’s doing a play at the National Theatre — he’s a very good actor. But he’s also an up-and-coming guy who does TV and film because you can do that now. But he’s not super-duper famous, where it’s ruined his life and morphed his mind. That was important. Then he couldn’t have been the character he is. If it was Tom Cruise, I don’t think he would like Jessie, for one.

She’s not really primed to become a Scientologist.
Shit, maybe we should make Tom a Scientologist. Oh my God, that would be amazing. That turns out to be the subplot all along: He was trying to get her into Scientology.

It’s a certain level of fame where he’s a guy who’s a very good actor who’s been in stuff that’s made him recognizable. Financially, he’s sound. He gets bothered sometimes but not other times. But it meant that, as a character, his level of fame wasn’t so massive as to make it the focus. For me, the focus is the love story. I’m really uninterested in an entire plotline where it’s like, “Oh, his PR slapped Jessie.” Nobody cares! People care about people falling in love. And I think celebrities are … bad. And that’s the headline of the story!

Tell me how you conceived of the ending. It’s a grand gesture but it feels earned and real. Was it always going to end with the two of them making out in a lak, even in the original version? And that final line — “Should we get married?” “No!” “No.” — is another great referential inversion I’m curious about.
The last line was just, How do we immediately undercut this with a joke? Not undercut, but remind you it’s a comedy. They were always poised to get back together. It was really interesting to try and get them back together after episode five, where they have a terrible argument and say horrific things to each other. But we knew we had to bring them back together physically, put them in uncomfortable situations — a small party bus where they have to sit next to each other, where they have to confront Ben and what went on with him in their breakup.

And having all of their friends witness Jessie’s moment of drunk self-realization — that survived from the first version of series two, as did the joint stag-and-hen party. We wanted the ensemble all together in the most stressful — but slightly romantic — scenario. I was always worried about doing the big cheesy speech at the end, and even writing it, I was like, Is this too on the nose? This show isn’t really necessarily about that; characters don’t say what they’re feeling up front to each other all the time. But thank God we did, because I was watching it, and I was like, Damn, this is a good episode! If there were any wishy-washiness there, it would have been unsatisfying. I think we built it up with these characters holding stuff back from each other, so the payoff of somebody actually for the first time laying it on the line and baring their soul in the middle of a lake — it feels big even if we couldn’t afford the budget to make it big. Again, that’s the writing doing the heavy lifting as opposed to the airport chase.

Is there a little Bridget Jones nod in there, too?
So many nods to Bridget Jones. And the Simpsons episode where Maggie is getting baptized. It’s a great medium to work in: the big lengthy speech in the middle of the lake.

Do you have a season three in you?
I’m not sure. Who knows? I care about the show so much that we wouldn’t do anything we weren’t excited to come back to. You’re with it for so long that it’s unsustainable to do something you’re not gonna be obsessed with. And I need to not look at my face in an edit suite for a long time or else I will die.

Starstruck’s Rose Matafeo Makes Rom-Coms for Lake House Fans