With The Boy Downstairs, Director Sophie Brooks Is Taking Back The Rom-Com

Photo: Jon Pack.
Sophie Brooks came up with the idea for her feature directorial debut, The Boy Downstairs, in a rather unconventional way. "I was hit by a car as a pedestrian and I was bedridden, and my brother basically moved into my apartment to take care of me while I was recovering," she said in a phone interview. "I thought, 'What if the only person who could take of you in a time of need wasn't a family member but was an ex? And what would be the reason for that?'"
The reason, it turns out, is because that ex happens to live in the apartment below. The Boy Downstairs follows Diana (Zosia Mamet) an aspiring writer who moves back to New York after a post-college year in London, only to realize that her ex-boyfriend Ben (Matthew Shear) lives in the basement unit of her Fort Green brownstone. (Brooks' brother ended up producing the film, bringing the story full circle.)
The film, which hits theaters February 16, is a modern twist on a romantic comedy (boy and girl meet, fall in love, but then break up, and are suddenly reunited, ending up in that awkward stage where they have to debate whether to wave hello while taking out the trash), but it's also a particularly female spin on the coming of age story, the likes of which we're only beginning to see onscreen as more women carve out a place for themselves in writer's rooms and director's chairs. As she figures out how to handle the Ben situation, Diana is also juggling the responsibilities and failures that come with early adulthood.
That push and pull between childhood dreams and harsh realities is what you'll see in the exclusive clip below, in which Diana explains to her landlady-turned-mentor why she hasn't been writing recently.
Refinery29 asked Brooks about what that particular period of post-college angst was like for her, what advice she has for her younger self, and why she's reclaiming the romantic comedy as a genre.
Refinery29: Romantic comedies are kind of a weird genre, in that so many people really love them, but recently they've gotten a bad reputation. Why do you think that is?
Sophie Brooks: "It's unfair because I think that every genre has really good movies and really bad movies, and romantic comedies are no different. There are great romantic comedies, and there are terrible romantic comedies. Maybe because they got so big in the mid-2000s, and lost a little bit of the heart that they were originated on. It kind of became like a dirty word to say 'romantic comedy,' but I think it's really important to own that word if that's what your movie is, and reclaim it as something that's not tacky."
Do you think part of that is because it's viewed as a female genre?
"Maybe that's why it's a little harsher, and people forget that the genre has a mix. I also think that sometimes there's an unfair frivolity put on a love story. People think of [them] as guilty pleasures, and I think that is unfair. Love is a really basic part of the human condition that we all experience in one way or another, and maybe because it's vulnerable and something we can all relate to, we like to be cynical about it.
What are some of your favorite romantic comedies?
"I love When Harry Met Sally, of course. I love You've Got Mail, I love Annie Hall, I love Something's Gotta Give. And then more recent ones... I really like the movie Prime that came out I guess that was maybe like ten years ago or more, but I thought that was a great romantic comedy with Uma Thurman, and I thought Obvious Child was a great new wave."
There's been a lot conversations lately about whether or not we can still appreciate movies by problematic filmmakers. Since Annie Hall is one of your favorites, how do you experience the debate about Woody Allen?
"Oh boy. What a casual question! It's a real struggle. I mean, Annie Hall is one of my favorite movies, and I cannot deny that. But it doesn't mean I approve of a [what has been alleged], and it also doesn't mean I'll necessarily have the same opinion of future work. So, I don't know that I can answer that because I'm still figuring out how I feel about everything."
This movie is definitely a romantic comedy, but it also feels like a female coming of age film, and we're only now starting those stories on screen. Why do you think it has taken so long?
"There's just a lack of female voices being given opportunities. That's just a reality when you look at like the numbers. It's interesting —  I feel like even when I was younger, I didn't necessarily think of women as being the leads of movies because you didn't see it that much. So, there were certain movies I conceived of when I was in college and they would have a male lead, and I was like 'Wait, why did I do that?' Obviously now, I only really think about female-centered films, and that's my experience and what I can do the best job at telling. But I do think when you don't see it, it's hard to conceive of it.
When I spoke to Beanie Feldstein about Lady Bird, she said that women are used to identifying with male stories because that's what's out there, whereas men aren't used to relating to women.
"Absolutely! And I think Lady Bird is a perfect example. I know so many guys who related so much to that movie and loved it, and that's amazing. That's awesome that it kind of broke some of those notions that movies about women are only for women."
As a female director doing this first time feature, was this difficult for you to get made?
"You know, I went about it a slightly different way in that my brother is one of the producers with his partner, Sam Clifton. So, I had the advantage of having support from the beginning. It was never a question of having to fight for the right to direct it. I wrote this movie, and I wrote it to direct it, [and] I'm really grateful that my brother and Sam agreed to produce it.
[Then in actually] making the movie I was definitely wary of making sure I hired heads of departments and just general crew that weren't going to be weird about me being a women and also quite young — I was 26 when. And there was definitely a few people I interviewed where I thought, 'Okay this guy is not cool with it, so I'm not gonna hire him.' I felt I was preemptively protecting myself from having to deal with some of that stuff by sussing it out and being really particular with who we brought onto the movie."
Most of the film is set in that complicated time right after college. Diana knows what she wants to do, she's trying to find a way to get there, but it's not quite working out. What was that time like for you?
"Yeah it was the worst. I still had a roof over my head and was absolutely fine, but internally I just was a mess. I had so much doubt and questions, and didn't know up from down. I'm still very anxious, but I was particularly anxious in those three years following college, and just didn't know what I was doing. I also worked in a bridal store à la the movie. And I was trying to write but it wasn't really happening. It's just confusing when you graduate college, and you had something to do every year, you know what your life is, you know what your schedule is, and all of a sudden you are like 'Oh, I have to figure out how to be an adult.' I mean, I'm in my late 20s now, and I am still like confused all the time, but I just try to forge ahead with purpose and self-determination."
If you were to give advice to your younger self, what would it be?
"Probably it would be not to catastrophize everything. I definitely still do it, but I had a tendency when I was younger — especially in those like first few years out of college — to just really get myself into a hole of like worst case scenario, and it's really not productive. It's good to have a healthy amount of doubt but also having the confidence, and believing in yourself. That's kind of to me what the movie's about: trying. You can't be so scared of failure that you don't try something because at the end of the day even if you fail, to me that's better than not knowing."
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