Sony Pictures’ romantic comedy Love Again stars Priyanka Chopra Jonas as children’s book illustrator Mira Ray. After her boyfriend dies, she sends heartbroken texts to his old phone number, which, unbeknownst to her, has been reassigned to journalist Rob Burns (Sam Heughan, “Outlander”).
Rob is writing a profile on legendary singer Céline Dion (in her feature-film debut), and he convinces the pop star to help him find Mira and win her heart. Dion contributed several new songs to the soundtrack, including the title track.
Jim Strouse is helming his first major-studio film. In the 2000s and 2010s, he wrote and directed several smaller indie films starring names like Sam Rockwell, John Cusack, Marisa Tomei, Regina Hall, and Jemaine Clement of HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords.”
Ahead of Love Again’s opening, exclusively in cinemas May 5, Strouse spoke to Boxoffice Pro about why he made his two lead characters Knicks fans, even though he’s a Lakers fan himself; why he refuses to move to Los Angeles; and why the film wasn’t titled after an iconic Céline Dion song as originally planned.
In an interview you gave a few years ago, you said your pickup basketball group is your main social circle. This film’s big kiss comes on a basketball court. Did you run that scene by your basketball team?
That’s funny, I literally just left them to go talk to you. [Laughs.]
I am so excited to share this movie with my group of ballers, because there’s a very direct link between my love of basketball and this movie. Sam’s character, Rob, he loves basketball, and [he and Mira] bond over their mutual love of the Knicks. On his and Mira’s first date, he says, “You can learn more about a person playing 10 minutes of basketball than talking to them for an hour.” She calls him on that later: “Then show me who you are. Let’s play.”
Do you think that’s true in real life?
You know, I heard Phil Jackson [former Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers head coach] say something to that effect. I do think the way you play is the way you are. I’ve played long enough and gotten to know people outside of the court. I really do think it’s indicative, in some way, shape, or form. I believe that.
Do you worry that your basketball buddies will see the film and say it was OK, but nowhere as good as [Strouse’s 2009 basketball-themed] The Winning Season?
[Laughs.] Actually, most of my basketball friends are not in the business, or don’t even care about what I do. Which I like! Some of them don’t even know what I do.
Do they still think you’re working your first job out of college, at Magnolia Bakery?
Wow, you did your research. [Laughs.] My basketball friends and I aren’t getting deep into each other’s lives, most of the time. But I’m getting a lot of character information from them, frankly. So, I like to probe, ask them what they’re doing outside of the court, though it doesn’t always go both ways.
I do actually want to try and arrange a showing for my ballers. I think they’ll get a kick out of the basketball monologue.
Are you actually a Knicks fan, like your characters Mira and Rob?
My whole life, I’ve always been a Magic Johnson fan, so I loved the Lakers. For no good reason other than wanting to oppose my father. Who I love very much! But he was a big Larry Bird fan. I grew up in Indiana. Everyone there loves Larry Bird. So, I thought, “No, Magic’s my man.” I’ve been a Lakers fan ever since I was a kid.
Most people in the film business live in Los Angeles, where the Lakers are. But you’ve lived in New York City for years. How has that impacted your films’ sensibilities? This is your third consecutive film that takes place in New York, after 2015’s People Places Things and 2017’s The Incredible Jessica James.
Oh man, I just love New York. It’s my chosen home. I moved here straight out of college and didn’t really look back. I mean, I love Indiana. And I’m grateful for the life I had prior to moving to New York: being raised in the Midwest, understanding that part of the country. I consider myself a midwesterner foremost. But New York has been my one constant, outside of my kids. It’s always been there. I always find new things to love about it.
I never even once thought about Los Angeles. I didn’t necessarily move to New York to work in film. I just wanted an interesting life. And I found it here. I fear the movie business is so big in Los Angeles. I like the proportion of the movie business in my life right now. In this business, there’s so much buzz and meaningless stuff you can get caught up in. I feel like that probably happens more in L.A. than it does in New York.
It was very much a choice and continues to be a choice. Nothing against Los Angeles. I have lots of friends who are from there or who love it. Every place has its own thing, once you’re there, that you can find and love.
Which films did you look to as inspiration when making Love Again?
Love Again is very much a romantic comedy in the rich and wonderful tradition of Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron. Elaine May is another one of my all-time favorite directors. But Nora Ephron was my North Star. Sleepless in Seattle [written and directed by Ephron] was a huge one, because Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks don’t share a ton of screen time. I think the movie is a miracle, in that regard. Actually, in a lot of regards.
That’s obviously an iconic rom-com we all know and love. It was one that I watched a lot, thought about a lot, and studied. Just because there was a very direct parallel in the story. We’re watching two people separately, on parallel tracks. It’s about making the audience wait until they actually get together. In Love Again, they meet not at the very end, like in Sleepless in Seattle. But I tried to talk about a couple films as important reference points, for the heads of departments, and that was one I talked about again and again.
Because not only is it that Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks spend so much time apart, but I love Bill Pullman in that movie. I think that’s an interesting lesson, a romantic obstacle who’s “in the way” but is actually a likable character. I think Nora Ephron was so deft, in the way she handled those people and situations. There’s a certain weight and authenticity. There’s no one you dislike in her movies, really.
You cite that character as an inspiration, but no character in Love Again seems to be a Bill Pullman equivalent.
This is based on a German film by Karoline Herfurth. She wrote, adapted, and directed this German film, which was very successful in Germany in 2016, called Text for You [SMS für Dich]. So, I inherited that property from Sony. It’s very charming. But in thinking about what to use and what not to use, making our own thing out of it, I got rid of [the Bill Pullman character]. The male lead in the German version had a fiancé. Either let’s make that fiancé more like Bill Pullman, or just get rid of her. We ended up getting rid of her.
Speaking of Ephron, her You’ve Got Mail shares some real plot similarities with Love Again. That was a romance developed over email, and this is through text messaging, but it’s the same basic idea.
Yes, 100 percent. You’ve Got Mail was a big inspiration too. I watched that multiple times. I was able to get an incredible cinematographer, Andrew Dunn, who did Gosford Park and The Bodyguard and Addicted to Love. Andrew really did help create a look which feels like that classic rom-com, that Nora Ephron era. He made every frame look so beautiful.
Love Again was originally announced with the title It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, after Céline Dion’s 1996 hit song. Why did that change? It goes against the recent trend of naming films after one of the singer’s biggest songs: Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, Respect, I Wanna Dance with Somebody.
Well, I wouldn’t say the film is “about” Céline in that same way as those. She’s a vital part; I love her character in this, and her music is important. But it’s not The Céline Dion Story. And Love Again is the name of an original song that’s coming out for the film, so we’re hoping that it becomes one of her songs everyone knows! The lyrics speak a little more directly to the themes in the film.
Is it true that you write letters to actors and actresses as part of your casting pitch?
Yes, I have to. I’m going through it right now [for his next film]. I had the benefit of making a major studio film with Love Again, which was wonderful, because the resources are incredible. To have a studio behind you saying, “We can do that.” I heard “yes” more than I’d ever heard it before. But on the indie films, you’re not offering money. You’re offering a chance to do something that’s maybe a little bit different, something you can’t do with studio films.
But money is what runs everything, so anything you can do to stand out is helpful. It’s such a shot in the dark to send a script to an actor in the first place. So that’s my practice: learn what I can about them, then write about why I want to make this movie and why I want them to be in it. That doesn’t always lead to something, but you’ve got to do what you can.
When I interviewed writer-director Florian Zeller in December about his film The Son, he said Hugh Jackman wrote him a letter pitching him to be in the film.
That’s the dream. Someday! [Laughs.]
Since this was your first major-studio film, what was that transition like for you?
What I’ve learned so far, being in the hands of Screen Gems and Sony, is they have tremendous resources and a lot of smart people who are working really hard. With the indie films, you’re sending out email blasts to your family and friends to get the word out. But Sony has power and reach. They’re getting the word out.
They sure are. The official YouTube trailer has already notched 11 million views, before the film is even released. The trailers for all your other films combined only add up to a fraction of that, even though they’ve been out for years!
Exactly. Though that only goes so far, because then those 11 million people have to actually respond. But it’s exciting, because it does seem from the response that there is interest. Even in this day and age, where we’re told that these films don’t work at the box office.
When it comes to that box office, do you feel more pressure for this to make money than with your prior films?
I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in my career. I’ve learned a lot from them. Grace Is Gone, my first film, was a pretty wild ride. It was a competitive bidding war at Sundance. Harvey Weinstein, before #MeToo, would absolutely bulldoze his competition. Fox Searchlight and The Weinstein Company were both in the discussion. I wasn’t in the suite where the deal went down, but I heard that Weinstein was literally knocking at the door during the meeting with Fox Searchlight, yelling: “Our offer is off the table if you don’t say yes [right now].”
That began a whole ride with The Weinstein Company. I really held on to that experience, because it went from “This is going to be nominated for Oscars” to no one returning a phone call the week after it was released. It didn’t do any business at the box office. [The film only earned about $50,000 theatrically.] In that journey, from “This might go all the way to the top” to “This went nowhere,” I held on to the idea that actually making the thing is the only sure reward. And those relationships you create with the people you make the movie with: I tried to cherish, be grateful for, and hold on to those relationships, because everything else is so out of your hands. It’s scary. How are people going to respond? Are they even going to respond?
Grace Is Gone has a similar premise to Love Again, except it’s a drama instead of a comedy. But it’s also about a recent widower, played by John Cusack, and his struggles with grief. What is it about that premise that attracts you?
I love relationship stories. Most of us have experienced heartache, in one way or another. We all know loneliness. It’s universal.
One thing I really love [in this film] is it’s not about getting over someone. For Priyanka’s character, Mira, it’s not about her moving on or forgetting this great love of her life. It’s about finding a new context, finding a place for that grief within your life. Nobody’s asking her to forget or let go of her grief. It’s part of the whole story. The success of Rob and Mira as a couple is Rob learning and understanding that this is part of who she is. To me, that’s really beautiful.
Actually, plot similarities to your prior films don’t stop there. Mira is a children’s book artist, and your protagonist Will Henry in People Places Things (Jemaine Clement, “Flight of the Conchords”) is a graphic novelist.
Honestly, my first love is cartoons. I wanted to be a cartoonist. I used to teach at [New York City’s] School of Visual Arts, which has a rich tradition of illustration and cartooning. I love that world and the stories of artists. But I inherited this character from the German film. She [Karoline Herfurth’s character, Clara] was a children’s book artist, with a successful line of books for kids called Bhoomi the Stubborn Caterpillar.
For our film, we found a really incredible illustrator in London named Alexandra Bell. She did such incredible work. That was something I was excited about from the beginning, that we could create some beautiful pictures.
I don’t believe you’ve ever directed anything animated. Is that on your bucket list?
I’d love to. I was working on a children’s show for a while at Apple TV Plus, but it didn’t come to pass, unfortunately. Hopefully I’ll get to it, in one way or another.
What are some of your best or funniest stories from the Love Again production?
The whole production was really wild, because it [fall 2020] was the height of Covid in London. Every day they would announce, “We’re at Stage 4. Now we’re at Stage 5.” Wait, there are more stages? Yesterday, you said it couldn’t get worse! [Laughs.] So it was a very anxious time to make a film. But every day was really fun. I enjoyed working with the London crew. It was a real family.
I have to say, working with Céline Dion was never something I expected or imagined. It was one of the greatest professional experiences of my life. She is just one of the most charismatic, warm, generous, all-around amazing people in the world. She doesn’t have to be like that. You hope that these icons are, but they don’t have to be. It’s a pleasure when you find someone who is. You can ask my kids; I was just buzzing after working with her.
What’s your favorite album track of hers that most people don’t know?
Love Can Move Mountains. I love the music video for that one, too.
Were you able to get the rights to all her songs that you wanted?
Just getting Céline involved at all was a real process. She works with Sony, she’s a Sony Music artist, so I thought there would be some red tape we could avoid. But no, it was complicated. It took a long time for word to even get to her. Even once we had her officially on board, I thought the song catalog is ours now. But it doesn’t work that way. You have to get permission from the songwriters, and usually there are multiple songwriters for each song.
But we got some great Céline songs in the film. Her music is essential to the story.
Why is it important for audiences to see this film on the big screen?
You’re asking someone whose religion is going to the movies. There’s nothing like being in a theater with a group of people, sharing that experience. It’s changed over time and it’s becoming one thing, this Marvel sort of spectacle. Which is also wonderful! But this movie offers a lot of warmth, hope, and joy.
It’s meant to be seen in a group, it’s meant to be seen on a date, it’s something to be shared. It’s warm, funny, and life-affirming. That’s best experienced with other people. Just like how I remember watching classic romantic comedies, like You’ve Got Mail and The American President.
AT THE MOVIES
What was your hometown cinema growing up?
I’m from a small town in northern Indiana. I grew up in the absence of a theater. We didn’t get a theater in Goshen, Indiana, until I was in high school. It’s Linway Cinemas, a multiplex. It’s got like six screens.
I was so happy when it came, because [after that] I spent my life at the movies, with my parents every weekend. At first it was drive-ins all summer. Every weekend, we’d see three movies on Saturday night. My parents were always going to the movies. They didn’t make me see what they saw. They let me choose my own path.
Do you have an all-time favorite moviegoing memory or experience?
My life is full of movie memories. I remember being really blown away by Trainspotting. I was 19, I think, when I saw that in the theater with friends. Pulp Fiction, my friends and I went many times. We felt blown away by what was possible, that the movie was so incredible. All my teenage friends wanted to be filmmakers. This was something so exciting: “Wow, Quentin Tarantino made something new out of all these parts.” And its success was so exciting. Maybe other people will follow this path. Cinema can make money and move forward.
If there’s any Trainspotting or Pulp Fiction influence in Love Again, you could have fooled me.
[Laughs.] I’m a film lover. I love high, low, middle. Foreign? I love it all.
What’s your favorite snack at the movie theater concession stand?
I learned from my father. I get popcorn, cold Junior Mints if possible—like from the refrigerator—and a Diet Coke. And I mix the Junior Mints in with the popcorn.
A Diet Coke so it’s still healthy?You got me. [Laughs.]