Robert Kojder chats with Cha Cha Real Smooth writer, director and star Cooper Raiff…
Every year, the CFCA board members organize and host the Chicago Critics Film Festival. This year, it was an honor to have Cooper Raiff’s charming and bracingly authentic romantic comedy Cha Cha Real Smooth open the festival on a crowd-pleasing note. It’s an incredible movie that I loved coming out of Sundance, so I was personally thrilled that it was a part of our program this year. Cooper Raiff also came to Chicago to do a Q&A after that screening, but beforehand, he graciously sat down with me for an in-person interview. It was a pleasure speaking with him, and I hope you enjoy the interview below…
I’m already a huge admirer of your work in front of and behind the camera for both your films. Both also have attention-grabbing titles(Shithouse and Cha Cha Real Smooth). So I’m curious, what’s in a title for you and what your naming process is like for movies?
It was different with both. Both of them have shared sensibilities, but Shithouse was about a college being a shitty home for someone who wasn’t ready to leave college, and with Cha Cha, I wanted an epic title that could feel like, “oh, that movie’s called Cha Cha Real Smooth!” But I think at some point, I thought about that part of that song, Cha Cha Slide, and the part where you do your own dance and Andrew figuring out whatever the fuck his dance is.
I do love the placement of that song.
Yes. When we had the idea to set that song to the fight, it was a eureka moment.
This is the second time playing the lead in your movies, so I’m curious, is that a decision you make because they are personal and you feel like only you can play these characters?
Yes and no. For this movie, I did not want to act in it. But I think one reason why Dakota Johnson and Raul Castillo wanted to work with me was that there is something particularly unique about me doing all of the roles. There was already so much of my DNA in the role, so they suggested going the full length again. And I think Andrew is such a specifically weird person, so they thought no one is gonna under even understand what these jokes are if it’s not you. My next movie is based on a true story, and I would never even dream of acting in that one.
Typically, when there’s an age gap in a movie, it’s a younger woman and an older man. One of the first things a character describes Domino as a crazy old lady. So is this story your way of pushing back against that stigma of single moms being less desirable or something along those lines?
No, because it’s Dakota Johnson [laughter from both of us]. I never thought about that. For whatever reason, I’m more just attracted to older women. Those May-December relationships are great.
There’s plenty of empathy here, and no character is vilified. That’s one of my favorite things about the movie.
That also seems like a difficult screenwriting challenge but makes for more authentic storytelling. So I’m curious, what’s the hardest part about that and avoiding the cliche of making Domino’s fiance a villainous obstacle.
My favorite part of the movie was that scene by the car. It’s all about telling the whole story from Andrew’s perspective. So from Andrew’s perspective, he doesn’t really think of Joseph as a person until that moment. I wanted the audience to learn who Joseph was at the same time that Andrew was learning about him and realizing that Joseph is the real adult in the situation. It’s also where Andrew realizes he’s this little kid.
That fits into the theme of growing up and finding out where you are in life and what you should want.
Vanessa Burghardt is one of the most crucial aspects of this film working, especially getting the depiction of autism accurate so that the story doesn’t come across as cheap or manipulative. Doing it right makes that connection between Andrew and Lola sweet but helps us buy into that he and Domino might get together. So I’m curious about filming her scenes and what the collaboration process was like?
She’s so good in the movie; we were always trying to keep up with her. Her audition made me cry my eyes out, not because it was what I wrote. It was the exact opposite. It was just, that’s Lola, and I’m gonna have to write it for her. I also realized she did an interview in the tape that made it clear tell she’s very opinionated, so I could tell she would have a lot to say about the script. Sure enough, when I would ask her, “Hey, do you think this is funny?” she’d say, “no, I don’t think it’s funny.” It was great, and I tried not to put the onus on her, but I really relied on that collaboration a lot.
What were some things specifically that she was opinionated about?
She thought things were too immature. The character was originally younger. I made the character older because she was older. She was always helping me age things up a little bit. Sometimes with the production design, she would say “I would not have that in her room.” Honestly, she helped me with my own lines. There were sometimes when Lola would laugh at something that Andrew says, and I would say, “are you fake laughing?” and she’d admit she was fake laughing. So I said, I don’t want you to fake laugh. Please don’t fake laugh.
What about things like the Rubik’s cube or the back-scratching? Were those her ideas or already in the script?
Those were always in the script.
Have you ever had experience interacting with or working alongside someone with autism before this movie?
My sister is disabled and has a lot of autistic buddies and goes to school with a lot of autistic kids, but, no, never working with them. We worked with this group called RespectAbility, and I talked a lot with her mom about what the best work environment is for her. She thrives in a very specific setting the same way that Dakota thrives in a very specific setting. So it was nice to learn about those things from her mom.
Did you have any nerves or trepidations about working with bigger stars like Dakota Johnson, Leslie Mann, Raul Castillo, and Brad Garrett?. What are some things you learned from working with them?
I learned so much from them. I was really excited to work with Dakota, especially, and all of them. But I learned how good they are. It’s impressive that people like Dakota and Leslie can just turn it on. They can be entirely outside of the world and then, in one moment, be right in the world of Cha Cha and who their characters are. It took a lot of catching up. So it was like, “can you gimme a second? You’re so good”.
You’re drawn toward modern-day messy romance. So I’m curious if there are any classic romantic comedies or anything you drew from for inspiration?
Normal People: I love the book and the show both so much. There was also a bit of inspiration from Lost in Translation.
That’s one of my favorite movies.
It’s my favorite movie. That script is what made me fall in love with movies.
Regarding the bar mitzvah party aspect, were you worried some people might compare it to The Wedding Singer?
I wasn’t worried about it. But I saw someone say, “oh, great. The serious Wedding Singer,” which made me laugh. I didn’t set out to do something similar or think about things like that
What was it like finding that chemistry between you and Andrew’s younger brother David (Evan Assante)? Another thing I love about this movie is that’s really two romance stories in one but is more underneath.
That was always gonna be one of my favorite parts. I was excited to get close to the little brother since I don’t have one myself. I have two little sisters, so I was excited to get to know the kid. Evan was so talented and cares so much. He always wanted to meet and always wanted to rehearse. The relationship is very similar on-screen as it was off-screen.
I’m also curious about the dynamic between Andrew and stepfather Greg. He’s the only character where some jokes can feel a bit mean. It feels like Andrew is maybe afraid that he will become unfulfilled or boring like him one day. So I’m just curious if you can elaborate on that dynamic?
That’s very perceptive. I don’t think I knew that even, but I think so too. He thinks of himself as the father figure. Then he went to college for four years, and Greg came in, and I think he’s not very okay with that. Being in his home is weird and uncomfortable. But yeah, Andrew is so mean to stepfather Greg, and sure, it’s funny, but it’s borderline… he’s mean. He doesn’t want to be understanding. In the end, it gets somewhere, but I think I wanted to just show how shark-like Andrew focuses on people like his mom and Domino and how he doesn’t make his mom’s life easier in a lot of ways. I think he spent a lot of time in his childhood making sure that she was okay, but now that he’s 22 and back living with her new husband, he’s not making that easy.
Your movies contain some of the most honest and raw depictions of love for a filmmaker in your generation. So what entices you about exploring modern, uncertain, and messy love?
My life [laughter]. I have a lot of messy romance going on. I go back and forth because I want to tell a love story that’s… I think it’s important for things to be authentic and grounded, and real because that makes it easier to get behind and have that big, specific, good feeling. But I do love movies for what they are, which is fantasy. With Shithouse, there’s an epilogue that I think is pretty fantastical, and I love that about it. Even with Cha Cha, they don’t end up together, but it’s pretty romantic that you feel this sense of relief, and it does end to me like a movie-movie.
Did you pull from your youth while staging some of the party scenes involving the younger kids, or did you reach out to them for input as much as possible? And I think I also read that you’ve been to bar mitzvahs in your childhood.
I went to school with many Jewish people, and I spent almost every Saturday in seventh grade at a bar mitzvah service in the morning. It was funny; I always said even before we made the movie, it’s gonna be really easy to act as the party starter. The director is already a party starter. There was montage stuff that we would use that was just me directing, but it looks like I’m like party starting because I’m telling kids to have more energy.
What was it like curating the soundtrack? Did you reach out to an actual DJ to help with song selections, or did you always have an idea of what songs you wanted?
I always had an idea, and the music supervisor Rob Lowry had been to bar mitzvahs and knew the kind of music that I was looking for. We didn’t have a big music budget. So it was tricky at times because I was really keen on having expensive songs that everyone would recognize as bar mitzvah songs. So if we establish that, then, later on, we can have low-budget songs.
Of course, it’s always funny when he plays vulgar songs.
Yeah, he has zero boundaries as a professional party starter.
You mentioned you have a disabled sister, so did that factor into your writing process while writing the movie?
It sure did. The most poignant moment was when I saw Lola’s tape. Something about her really reminded me of my sister, and I couldn’t explain why. I called my producer and said it’s this girl, and there’s no other way. I don’t wanna watch any more tapes. It would be her, and it was not what I had written. There were gonna be some script changes, and I just made sure to tell her I’m not having an argument. I’m not gonna talk to the producers about how different it is. Just telling them that this is the way it’s gonna be, and I’ll figure it out.
And were some of those changes drastic?
They were. Many people were concerned that Dakota is playing her mom, and they look like siblings, and I said, great, I’ll write it in that they look like siblings, and we did because it just had to be Vanessa. That’s why there’s that whole bit about how she looks like her stunning French au pair. We wrote it in to make Vanessa more believable.
Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to mention before we part?
Yeah. I’m making a hockey movie called The Trashers that’s based on a true story about this guy named Jimmy Galante who is a mobster who bought his 18-year-old son a hockey team in Danbury, Connecticut. Just like Cha Cha Real Smooth! But yeah, that’s the next movie that I’m working on.
It’s gonna be awesome to see something different from you.
Yes. It’s very different.
Thank you very much for your time
Thank you so much!
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com