Not Your Average Rom-com with Julie Bowen
Rom-com-versations is an interview series with people from the entertainment industry discussing all things rom-com.
Hi Meet Cuties,
I had the pleasure of chatting with Julie Bowen, most famously known for her role in Modern Family, about the idea of neo rom-coms, how the genre has shifted from its traditional version in recent years, and where it’s heading especially in TV and Film.
💓 Naomi: I'll tell you a little bit about why this whole thing came about. I kept hearing from different people in the industry that rom-coms are all people want to watch, but there's also this insane stigma against rom-coms, even though I would argue that rom-coms are inherent to any human interaction. Dating is awkward and therefore funny, and a meet cute can be really silly, but also serendipitously leads you to find your life partner. But I didn't want to just say that from my perspective. So I created this interview series with people from the entertainment industry who've worked on various projects and have interacted with other actors, directors, producers, and writers. Today, I’m honored to be chatting with Julie Bowen! First, what is your favorite rom-com and why?
💛 Julie: My favorite rom-coms are all period pieces. I think Emma and Pride and Prejudice -- and all iterations of both-- are the classic rom-coms. There's nothing “meet cutier” than Mr. Darcy and how much of a snob Elizabeth thinks he is. To that, they remade Emma into Clueless, giving Jane Austen a life outside of costume drama. She keeps going and going because the central tenants of misunderstanding each other, of coming together, of sexual tension, of resolution, of the big kiss, they're all there. I love contemporary Jane Austen. I've watched Emma four times. I’ve watched Keira Knightley, Matthew MacFadyen, Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice too many times a million. But it still gets me every single time! You sort of sigh and go, “There it is. This is so delightful.”
💓 Naomi: It's such a good reminder that the same elements of rom-coms today are also there in historical rom-coms where you have Mr. Darcy who's the classic trope of “opposites attract.”
💛 Julie: I was just finishing Nine Perfect Strangers, which is not a rom-com, but there is a meet cute thing in there with Bobby Cannavale and Melissa McCarthy and they are complete opposites. Rom-coms give you hope if they are done well. But that idea that love can surprise you and it can come from nowhere, that's why the meet cute is so important. You want to be caught off guard, you want to be surprised, you want to be real, and have someone see you that way and love you that way. For me, that's why there's always that element in the ones that really work where the person is truly seen for who they are. With Jane Austen, that's always the case because the woman is always Type A, pricey and a total pain in the ass. But, then there's some guy that sees more in her. It's not cute if the woman shows up in five inch heels, and perfect hair, and nails like talons, just ready to bang it out.
💓 Naomi: Two of my favorite rom-coms are She's the Man and Bend It Like Beckham and in both of them, the main character dresses like a boy, is not looking for love, couldn't care less about the idea of romance, but then it falls in their lap through doing what they love doing which is their respective sports. I only recently realized that She's the Man is based on 12th Night by Shakespeare.
💛 Julie: Oh my god, I did not know that. Well, 10 Things I Hate About You is based on Taming of the Shrew. There's a big, long history of our classic rom-coms actually based on classics because they work. Shakespeare had it, Jane Austen had it, they got that idea that we want to be seen for who we are and accepted with all of our flaws and not just that we went on a date and got drunk.
💓 Naomi: That's such an important element, and to your point, the difference between a good rom-com and a bad rom-com is how real it is. That leads me to my next question: Many outlets, including the Washington Post, have claimed that rom-coms are dead. I don't think that they're dead, but they are dramatically shifting. In your opinion, what are notable aspects of how rom-coms are changing for new audiences? If we look at the last five years of rom-coms, have you noticed changes for new audiences?
💛 Julie: The last movie I saw in a movie theater before COVID was Emma. Then I downloaded it and watched it 80 more times. I work with my producing partner, Rachel Field, and we talk about this all the time, because we have a rom-com that we're doing with Disney Plus for teenagers called Prom Pact. The main character is a feminist, and she doesn't believe in this idea of falling in love. It goes back to Shakespeare: she's a little bit strident, very type A, and she doesn't want to believe especially in heteronormative love, because she's so liberal. But then she falls and there's that undeniable chemistry. Look, I’m way older than my target audience, but I still remember that first gut punch of a feeling when you're like, “Oh my God, are we gonna kiss?” That is the amount of chemistry where you cannot believe that this is a legal drug. But I think that how rom-coms have changed is that they are more woke. You look at Booksmart and the romance between Amy and Hope and seeing them making out in the bathroom makes you go, “Oh, I'm not gay, but, I'm in.” Before we only wanted to see white people kissing under a starry sky. Now, we want to see everyone. It's the romance, dropping of all the barriers of being vulnerable that gets us. That moment always takes my breath away.
💓 Naomi: Yeah, it's almost like it doesn't matter who those two people are or what descriptions you give them. It's that moment of chemistry. You're just waiting for that hit of chemistry that gives you an adrenaline rush even if you already know the plot or the ending.
💛 Julie: It's the dopamine that hits you when you're “falling in love,” or what should be called “falling in dopamine.” That is the addictive part that they talk about being dangerous when it comes to heroin, opioids, social media, and others. But it’s actually naturally available to us when we make ourselves vulnerable and loving to another person. I never got addicted to opioids or heroin, but there's no doubt that I can watch those scenes and feel that, like when Matthew MacFadyen finally says, “I lo… lov... love you.” I can watch it every time and still go, “I know what’s happening in my brain. I know it's all drugs and tricks, but I don't care. I love it.”
💓 Naomi: That is exactly the feeling I think a good rom-com will create for you no matter how many times you watch it.
💛 Julie: It is! There's certain things we do that stimulate that in our brains, like jumping out of an airplane gives you adrenaline, falling in love is dopamine, or running gives you a high. That's why I get addiction on a deep level. If I could take oxycontin and feel like I was watching Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen everyday, I would! But I’d much rather just watch them kiss.
💓 Naomi: It's part of the reason for the founding of Meet Cute. We are an entertainment company, because we're a storytelling company, but at the end of the day, we're really a well-being company. I think everyone working on these stories that have that hit of dopamine in them should consider themselves a well-being company. When you think about the traditional rom-coms, people see them as chick flicks, but like the movie you're working on, a lot of other people are coming up with more gender fluid characters and breaking a lot of those stereotypes. What do you think this genre is doing to broaden the audience reach outside of just that core female demo?
💛 Julie: I’ve been doing all this reading about studies, because we’re also doing a project on female friendship, which crosses over into the same territory, about how relationships can feed you in so many ways when you realize that your person is your friend. It's not a sexual romantic thing. If you watch PEN15, that's absolutely a love story. Playing House is another TV show that is absolutely a romance between women. They support each other and are each other's life forces without having that traditional “dropped to your knees moment.” The romantic urge comes from a sexual drive and that's the thing that we don't get in friendship stories. So how do you broaden that to include a heteronormative dude who plays and loves basketball like a rom-com? Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck did a great job because it's a very adult, grown up story. It is a rom-com, but it doesn't feel “cutesy.” It's not that the girl takes off her glasses and suddenly she's beautiful. That personally doesn't work for me as much because that's about changing to meet some sort of standard, whereas I like the ones when someone sees the other at their worst and messiest self and goes, “Yeah, I want that.”
💓 Naomi: Totally. I really like that. I was actually thinking about a lot of that. In Modern Family, which obviously was a big portion of your successful career, there's so many different elements of love: familial, romantic, platonic, and more. That had me thinking: Do rom-coms actually need that lovey dovey romance in them? So I'm curious, if you look at Modern Family, and a lot of our fun sitcoms that America and the world loves, do rom-coms need that romance element to it? Or can PEN15 be a rom-com in it’s own way?
💛 Julie: PEN15 to me is absolutely a romantic comedy. Theres no sex, but there is love, and that's a rarity that is so special. It's so funny that you're saying that because we're working on a story around friend love. Friend love is a real thing, when you go, “Wait a minute, I'm going to trust you and I'm going to be vulnerable with you. Especially in adulthood, I think that's more true. As you settle into your adult life, you have to make that choice to say, “I'm not going to get dressed for this. I'm gonna bring my real self. I'm going to have coffee breath and greasy hair. But can I be vulnerable with you and will you accept me?” Those relationships are absolutely life sustaining, there's no doubt about it.
💓 Naomi: I think that's an incredibly creative challenge to figure out: how do you create that dopamine hit and create the rom-com for female friendship.
💛 Julie: Buddy comedies for some reason have always been there right under our nose, like Role Models with Paul Rudd and Sean William Scott. They hate each other and then they become buddies with each other and make each other's lives better. For some reason, we are so moved when two heteronormative guys drop their pretenses with each other and help each other out or are vulnerable. I would put buddy comedies under rom-com.
💓 Naomi: That’s such a good point. The “opposites attract” rom-com trope that we started this interview with, just with two guys who are going to get closer and be friends. This has been such an awesome conversation. I really appreciate you sitting down with me today!
Hope you all loved this conversation with Julie as much as I did! Julie Bowen’s upcoming rom-com Prom Pact is dropping on Disney+ in 2022!
Stay tuned for my next rom-com-versation.