By Zach Martin
Ben Palmer never saw himself directing a romantic comedy. His previous directorial experience working on the hugely popular British teenage TV series “The Inbetweeners” and the subsequent film spin-off, appropriately titled “The Inbetweeners Movie,” certainly demonstrates his self-identified affinity for “anarchic and boys-y” humor.
In fact, when he was first sent the script for “Man Up,” he was convinced it was a mistake.
“I was that confident that I thought I wouldn’t like it that I started reading it on my phone,” he says.
But after the first page of Tess Morris’ screenplay he was hooked. “It didn’t feel cloying or sweet or sentimental, it felt really raw and honest.”
While writing the script, Morris strived for a perfect balance between the two essential elements of the genre.
“A lot of romantic comedies either have too much romance and not enough comedy, or too much comedy and not enough romance,” she says.
In “Man Up,” which had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Lake Bell plays Nancy, a single woman frustrated with unsuccessful setups by friends, whom Jack (Simon Pegg) mistakes for his blind date because of the self-help book — entitled “Six Billion People and You” — she is accidentally holding. Nancy impulsively pretends to be his date, setting up an amusing series of antics that all comes crashing down when the secret is revealed. This premise was inspired by a real event from Morris’ life, although she did not actually go on the date and the book concept came later.
“I was reading a lot of self-help books at the time and some of them were helpful and some of them were less helpful,” Morris says. She added this aspect because she wanted a humorous and original device to bring the two together. “I was thinking about titles for books and I started thinking about a bad but believable one,” she says. “And what’s funny is the world population went up during the development process and we had to change the title.”
The key strength and heart of the film comes from the naturalistic dynamic between Simon Pegg and Lake Bell.
“Your film lives and dies on that,” says Palmer. “All the great romantic comedies…you think, ‘Wow I want to hang out with those two as a couple,’” adds Morris.
Pegg was signed on from the start but the casting of Nancy was a longer process.
“We quickly exhausted the list of British comedic actresses who we thought could lock horns with him, and so we started thinking about an American actress,” says Palmer. “I had a real fear about an American doing a British accent,” he admits, but that turned out not to be an issue when they screen-tested Bell with Pegg. “They just got on very well,” says Morris, “you can’t engineer that kind of chemistry, you either have two people that genuinely have a spark between them or you don’t.”
Morris was on set for almost the whole shooting phase, which allowed her chances to rewrite lines and helped to create a comfortable, fun environment. “It’s hard to make a good comedy if you don’t have a set that will laugh,” says Palmer. Morris and Palmer obviously get along very well, and they plan to work together again in the future.
“When you’ve got a nice family like that, it means you get a better product overall because everyone’s on the same page,” says Morris.
Zach Martin is a staff writer. Email him at email@example.com.