Theresa Bennett’s ‘Social Animals’ hides love letter to James L. Brooks

The rom-com stands up as one of the most beloved film genres we have, yet we’ve been experiencing a severe drought in recent years. More importantly, the need for rom-coms with a modern touch can be hard to find. Enter writer-director Theresa Bennett with her new film Social Animals. The Austin-set comedy focuses on about-to-be 30-something Zoe (Noel Wells) who’s about to lose her waxing business, be evicted from the land she parks her tiny home on and finds herself attracted to married man Paul (Josh Radnor). Paul is struggling with his own uncertainties, losing his business and struggling to connect with his wife Jane (Aya Cash), who suggests he look elsewhere for physical affection. Rounding out the cast as Zoe’s friends in various states of relationship uncertainty are Carly Chalkin, Fortune Feimster and Samira Wiley. Theresa wrote the screenplay seven years ago, just before producing and co-writing her first feature Petunia. Refreshingly candid about life and relationships for today’s thirty-somethings, Bennett proves herself as a first-time director.

Lesley Coffin: I spoke with Noel when her film Mr. Roosevelt came out which is also set in Austin. Were you from there or were you living there at the time?

Theresa Bennett: I’ve spent a lot of time in Austin and fell in love with the area. But I’m originally from New York and I originally wrote the screenplay seven years ago. And it’s a film about love and gentrification, but within seven years it felt like New York had already gentrified. So I decided I needed to change the location and find a city that was an artistic mecca going through a big transition. And Austin felt natural and the film felt relevant to that city.

Lesley Coffin: What part of New York did you originally set the film in?

Theresa Bennett: I’m from the upper west side of Manhattan, near Columbia. It’s the area that borders uptown and Harlem so it’s a really interesting place that has really changed since I was kid. But by the time I was ready to make the film it felt like we needed to set it in a different location. And Noel’s of course from Texas and has a connection to Austin that was similar to how I felt about my neighborhood in New York. It was like coming home for her, so it was really cool to be there and have an Austin crew.

Lesley Coffin: It took seven years to make the film?

Theresa Bennett: It took about six years to get the film produced and we spent about a year working on post production.

Lesley Coffin: The movie is about a very specific time in someone’s life. The character’s just turning 30, doesn’t have a lot of direction yet. And within a few years a lot can change. Between the time you conceived it and made the film, did the tone or direction of the movie change?

Theresa Bennett: It’s funny because I conceived of the movie when I was in my 20s, when dating can just be a horror story. And love felt very cynical to me. And within that time period, it’s amazing how much I’ve grown since coming into my own in my 30s. I’m in a real partnership and have an entirely different perspective on love and the work you need to put into a relationship. So I went through a lot of the trials and tribulations the film reflects and I think having that less cynical view helped the movie. I based the film on a lot of my own and my friends’ experiences. And I was a reality TV producer for a long time and interviewed all these people about their thoughts on love and relationships. Hearing all these different perspectives really helped me have perspective and helped me create a more interesting character study.

Lesley Coffin: Did you make any big changes to the story or characters between writing the screenplay and preparing to film the movie?

Theresa Bennett: The movie definitely started to morph as I continually revisited the film. I wrote the first draft in one night. The story just came to me in like six hours after having a really bad date. And so that first draft was really rough, but even six years later, the story and characters are pretty similar. It was always a movie about someone who was hopeless about love and realizing that love does exist but you need to start with yourself.

Lesley Coffin: How did the cast come together?

Theresa Bennett: I spent months looking for actors, because it’s a hard film to cast because it’s an ensemble movie so they all had to work and fit together. And I’ll be honest, it was really hard and for a long time I struggled to find the right combination of people. And one day I was sitting with my producer Ash Christian and our casting director and someone said “what about Noel Wells?” And I’d fallen in love with her in Master of None, but then I saw her Youtube channels and saw her amazing impressions and realized that she was this crazy genius. And then I read that she had a connection to Austin so I crossed by fingers and hoped that she would love the screenplay. And then we had this great meeting and were talking very openly about break-ups and dating, and we really connected. So she was attached first. And then she suggested Josh Radnor, but what was so funny was I’d been thinking of him for a while because I loved the films he’d directed and his performance in Afternoon Delight. So it was so funny to hear someone else suggest the first person I’d had in my head for Paul. And the stars aligned and he became available. I’d met Fortune and Aya when I was just meeting actors over that long period of time. I thought Fortune was one of the funniest people I’d ever met and really wanted to work with her. And Aya told me she wasn’t interest in playing Zoe because she’d played characters like that before, but she was interested in the part of Jane. And she was the first person to really connect to that character, and Jane is probably my favorite character because I think she’s the most complex. But Jane was going to be a really difficult character to cast because I didn’t want to her to feel shrew or unlikable, or just this obstacle between Paul and Zoe. I wanted her to be relatable and honest and Aya totally brought that to the part right away so I was immediately excited about casting her. Carly and Samira were actors that were suggested to us during that marathon casting process and within a week of hearing their names they came on board and things started to fall into place.

Lesley Coffin: It’s interesting that Jane was your favorite character because I did find that character to be a refreshing alternative to the typical “other woman” trope we usually see in romantic comedies. You really want good things for her and become emotionally invested in this struggle she’s going through.

Theresa Bennett: On paper, this is a movie is a romantic comedy about a woman who falls in love with a married man. But I knew that the right approach to take was to have the audience rooting for Jane to be okay with the idea of being on her own. Jane’s happy ending is for Jane to find her independence. And that’s not common in romantic comedies, and it’s certainly uncommon in movies centered around women. But for this movie I wanted to say that there is a happy ending with being confident on your own. And that was always where I wanted Jane to end up. But throughout the film, I needed moments that really softened her character, showing her dealing with her anxiety. James L. Brooks said this really awesome thing once asking, “what makes someone more than just a son-of-a-bitch?” regarding why we don’t hate Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets. And the answer is, it’s because he has an affliction. And Jane’s affliction, and everyone else’s in the film actually, is being self-aware but having the wrong perception of yourself. I think they all suffer from that, but Jane’s in a lot of pain when we first meet her because of it. And I wanted everyone to feel like they could empathize with her because we’ve all struggled when we felt stuck and didn’t know how to get out of a situation.

Lesley Coffin: Just a quick detour regarding James L. Brooks because Broadcast News is one of my all-time favorites. I thought while watching it that Jane reminded me a lot of Holly Hunter’s character in Broadcast News…

Theresa Bennett: That was intentional. 100 percent did that on purpose!

Lesley Coffin: …Well it was a good idea because Jane in Broadcast News is my all-time favorite film character.

Theresa Bennett: I love that movie too. I’m a huge James Brooks fan and I wanted to pay homage that character, but do it overtly. I love that character, I wanted a character inspired by her in this movie, so I decided to name her Jane too. She isn’t completely the same personality of course but enough that I didn’t want to try to hide that inspiration. I’m in general a huge film geek, that’s the reason Paul works at a video store. But yeah, I love Broadcast News too.

Lesley Coffin: You introduce each of the characters with these pieces of animation inspired by the Joy of Sex. Where did that idea come from?

Theresa Bennett: I titled the film Social Animals because we know that human beings are exactly that. We need interaction to survive. So I wanted to focus on that, explore the dynamics of human contact. And sex can be a form of connection but we can also use to disconnect. And it’s an aspect of our lives we rarely get to observe. And I wanted to explore that, but not in a pornographic sense but as a way to show them at their most vulnerable and intimate. Regarding the 70s sex animation, I thought it would be a fun visual and our animator really ran with it.

Lesley Coffin: You produced and co-wrote the screenplay for Ash’s directorial effort Petunia before taking on this film a director. Were you looking for an opportunity to direct or was this a film that inspired you to take on that role?

Theresa Bennet: I’d always wanted to be a director. But what was cool about writing Ash’s previous film was, I had an opportunity to shadow him on set and see what a director does on set and how they work with actors. And you of course find your own style, but it was a cool experience to watch him work. And that experience made me feel a lot more comfortable about running my own set and not feeling shell shocked by the experience.

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