Writing a romantic comedy sounds like it should be easy, but anyone who’s ever tried to write one knows it’s one of the trickiest genres around. Why is it so tricky? Because you must introduce two captivating characters in a meet-cute, make the audience believe they should absolutely fall in love but then devise enough witty schemes to keep the two sweethearts from actually falling in love for a whole hour and a half – no easy feat.
The new rom-com The Right One, written and directed by Ken Mok, is a charming addition to the genre that uses one character’s painful past to create tension between the two main characters, Sara (Cleopatra Coleman), a novelist struggling with writer’s block, and Godfrey (Nick Thune), an oddball showman who reinvents himself day to day, sometimes hour to hour. It’s Godfrey’s fear of revealing his true self that keeps the sweethearts apart until the end of the movie.
But The Right One didn’t start out as a rom-com. Here’s the story of how one man’s unique skill set allowed him to successfully change film genres while shooting.
Writer/director Ken Mok, who’s had a long, successful career producing unscripted television shows (aka reality TV) like America’s Next Top Model, decided that he really wanted to challenge himself creatively by writing a feature film. After writing five or six specs, he wrote a dark drama about the Godfrey and Sara characters mentioned above. After trying to find his voice as a writer for about 18 years, he was finally able to find producers interested in bringing his screenplay to the big screen.
But according to Mok, something really interesting happened when he started shooting.
“The woman who plays Sara, Cleopatra Coleman, really surprised me with her ability at comedy,” he says. “There’s a scene in the movie where she runs into her ex-boyfriend in the park and he introduces her to his new wife. That was the third day I was shooting with Cleo and she was so funny in that scene. It’s one of the funniest scenes in the movie! She so shocked me with what she was able to bring to that scene, that I told her, ‘You are literally changing the tone of the movie because I didn’t know you could do this!”
Mok made a big, bold decision to rewrite the role of Sara during production to best take advantage of Coleman’s comedic ability. Luckily, the new take on the character only complemented the quirky comedy brought by leading man Nick Thune, the comic relief from Iliza Shlesinger, who plays Sara’s literary agent, and the deadpan deliveries from David Koechner, who plays Godfrey’s boss. By tweaking one character, voila! Mok now found himself the proud new director of a rom-com.
“The darker aspects of the film,” says Mok, “kind of went away and got buried. You now had this fun, sweet romantic comedy.” Though Mok was really under the gun doing a rewrite while shooting, he says, “It was a fun, exhilarating challenge because I didn’t really have to change the structure of the film, I just had to tweak Sara’s character.”
After watching the film, I can wholly agree that moving toward comedy was the right choice to make for this movie. I have to commend Mok for recognizing that going in this bold new direction would better serve the film. Not many first-time writer/directors would have the instinct (or the chutzpah) to move forward with such a big change on the fly. But that’s the kind of confidence that 20 years of producing unscripted television can give you.
“You would think there’s no overlap between the unscripted world and the scripted world, but there is a remarkable overlap,” Mok says, mostly because when you’re directing a film, you’re not just working with the camera and the actors, you’re also running the production. “When you’re shooting in the unscripted world, you never know what’s going to happen. You end up putting out a lot of fires. Your cast may drop out. You may get kicked out of your location. Crazy things can happen, you just never know because you’re shooting reality. Over the years, I was trained not to panic when I had to put out fires. So when anything unexpected happens on set, you roll with it,” he says.
Mok’s skills also came into play by trusting the actors to go off-script.
“In the unscripted world, you’re always improvising if things aren’t working out. Let’s try plan B, let’s try plan C. So that translated directly to the film when I was improvising with the actors.” Mok says he never felt threatened if the actors didn’t stick to the script, it was something that he welcomed. “You get the best work that way. Your actors feel empowered and they know you’re listening to them and that you appreciate their input. It made for a really great dynamic,” he says.
Mok’s advice for up-and-coming screenwriters is very practical: keep writing.
“If you have really good content and you bang on enough doors to get people to read it, it will be found. Everybody wants content. Everybody wants good content. And right now is the best time in the history of entertainment because everybody’s a filmmaker now. You can take your iPhone and take a screenplay that you’ve written, if it’s a very personal, intimate thing, you can go shoot it and edit it yourself for nothing and enter it in film festivals and get seen that way.”
Mok says that in some ways, he wishes he was coming up in the film business now because, “The opportunities to get your stuff made and the outlets that want content are exploding.”
The Right One opens in theaters on Feb. 5 and will be available On Demand and on digital Feb. 9