Nobody Does it Better: Director Susanna Fogel on ‘The Spy Who Who Dumped Me’

Breaking up is hard to do. It’s even harder if, say, your (former) partner is a globe-trotting secret agent who’s kept his identity secret from you. The scenario provides the springboard for Susanna Fogel’s i, in which Audrey (Mila Kunis) has a scant moment to mend a broken heart when she finds herself embroiled in a deadly international conspiracy thanks to her ex-boyfriend. Finding herself on the run with her best friend, Morgan (Kate McKinnon), Kate has to avoid assassins in an adventure that takes her halfway around the world. Together they improvise their way through the world of international espionage, as they attempt to piece together the mystery they’ve unwittingly found themselves in. BOXOFFICE spoke with the Susanna Fogel, the film’s writer-director, on the experience of bringing this comedy-action thriller to the big screen.

How did the idea for this film originate?

I wrote this script with a friend of mine. We were always talking about how we loved action movies, bigger movies that were traditionally more male. As comedy writers, we wanted to do a movie that combined our sensibilities with our love for these big movies and, hopefully, write something that would require a theatrical release–unlike most of our smaller movies which are harder to get financed and aren’t necessarily an innately cinematic experience. So we wanted to write something that would demand that sort of big spectacle, like those fun movies we always love to watch.

How did you settle on the leads for the film, Kate McKinnon and Mila Kunis?

I had a relationship with Kate, who did a small role in my first movie, Life Partners. I had that relationship with her and immediately felt like she would be the perfect person to play Morgan, the more theatrical one of the two. Once we had Kate, the process was basically like casting a romantic partner in a movie, where you have to get the specific chemistry between two people, but it’s harder to guess on a platonic level what’s going to work.

We had a few actresses that we were thinking about, and Mila was the one who really felt like the most relatable. Most men and women really love her, can empathize with her struggles and insecurities without finding her annoying or pitying her too much. She’s so vibrant. It felt like that would be a good match for Kate’s more wide-eyed theatricality.

But both of them are so smart and down-to-earth, after meeting both of them, I felt like they would get along. I guess that they would. Luckily, it worked out. But that’s always tough, trying to guess about casting. It’s not until you first hear them rehearse that you know it’s going to be fine, that you’re not going to ruin the whole thing.

Throughout the film, you’re balancing these complex action sequences with a pair of comic performances. It’s a peculiar task–you don’t want to lean too much on either the action or the comedy–how did you approach that challenge?

It was important for me not to make the action into comedy itself. I think a lot of these comedies that have action in them, the comedy is the main event. They suffer from a lack of stakes in the actual action. They try to make it funny while it’s really violent. I think it shortchanges both the action and comedy, because the action feels a little less high-stakes, while the comedy feels a little inappropriate while all these people are dying. It’s kind of a delicate balance.

I tried to keep the action grounded; as intense and raw as the action in any action movie, then let the comedy come in between the action sequences. To accomplosh that, I hired Gary Powell, who’s served as a stunt coordinator on Bond and Bourne movies. I felt he would be the person to help me get the action sequences right. Then it was up to me to figure out where the comedy could come in between.

For that, it’s a matter of figuring out what feels grounded and real enough that you’re really owning the stakes of what you’re watching. When you watch an action movie, you need to feel like there’s real danger. At the same time, you don’t want your audience to be so disturbed by the violence that they can’t laugh at the next funny line. I think it’s a matter of choreographing the action so it feels fun but it’s not funny. If it feels fun, people will have a smile on their face. Then when they move them into a comedic scene in the next moment, they’re ready to laugh. They’re not feeling like it’s a huge giant tonal shift. But it is a delicate thing; I tried my best to marry the two tones.

The movie embraces a lot of the conventions from globetrotting spy movies, but it also diverts significantly when it comes to the roles played by Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon. Women are usually depicted as either femme fatales, accessories, or trophies in these sort of movies. That’s not at all the case in this film; both the leads feel fairly grounded while being caught up in this absurdly dangerous situation–it leads to comedy without resorting to any cliches. 

As a woman myself, it’s never a conscious choice to subvert gender expectations. It’s just the way I see my own world; through my own lens of being an unconventional woman who loves action movies and more traditionally male genres myself. I think there are a few different ways that women are portrayed in the genre. One is as an accessory and another is as this robotic tough girl kind of way, which also doesn’t feel real. Although it might seem, on the surface,as a feminist take on things, it also doesn’t ring true for me or resonate with how I feel in my life.

With this movie, we really wanted to show two women who were relatable and strong, but also not bionic women with no feelings. We wanted to show that in the real world, they’d be in these situations and they’d be noting the destruction that they were causing, they’d be wondering if they were doing the right thing, they would still care about their friend’s feelings. At the same time, they could be tough and strong. We really wanted to show women who are more than one thing; in these movies, men get to be a lot of different things, but women get to be just one. We simply tried to make space for well-rounded characters in general. The fact that they happen to be women, it only feels political just because we’re starved for that. It was less of a conscious choice and more about wanting to see women in these roles, because why not?

Kate McKinnon’s delivers a great performance. Her character is wacky and outlandish, but tinged with a very grounded sense of insecurity. The character’s better developed, where, yes, she does provide the comic relief–but it comes from a place of personal discomfort. There are real feelings there. How much of that came from your screenplay and how much came from the performance?

The comedy that resonates with me the most as an audience member is comedy that feels like it comes from a place of character and humanity. For me, no broad situational joke is ever going to feel as resonant as a joke that has some sadness behind it and some real human feelings underneath. There’s something about these very performative people that’s trying to compensate for something. There’s often something that makes them feel like they have to perform all the time. I was interested in showing that layer, in addition to just letting her show the world she’s a very funny person. The process of working with Kate and getting to know her was really profound, because she’s a really serious thoughtful person. She’s the opposite of the sketch comedian that you see on Saturday Night Live. In reality, she’s an introverted intellectual who’s very sensitive and more of a listener than a talker. Getting to know her a bit really inspired me to deepen the character more. 

The script was a lot more joke-y before Kate came along. Contrary to what you might think, she actually brought it to a more real grounded place just by being herself and connecting to it. I think we ended up replacing some of the jokes that were in the script with these real Kate-in-the-moment character moments, that end up being some of the funniest moments in the movie. But they were just Kate reacting in an authentic way rather than delivering scripted lines.

Day to day, it’s a process because she’s also a writer, she’s so brilliant. Unlike the comedy that is just straight comedy, there wasn’t an unlimited amount of time because we had to shoot these more complicated sequences for her to explore things. It was a matter of creating enough parameters, but within that giving her a little bit of room to play. We ended up with some really nice funny human moments. 

You’re a self-admitted fan of the action and spy genre. Are there any personal favorite titles from that list of films?

I get a lot of flak from people in my life for not having seen some of the classic action movies from the ‘80s and ‘90s. But I will see any Bond or Bourne movie. Those are the canonical movies for me. Obviously, the Mission Impossible’s are great. I think movies that have a bit of wit to them, but also action. I wanted to make a movie that had that much fun in it, that much spectacle, that much scope, that would be an adventure for the viewer. The more international globetrotting the movie, the more likely it is to inspire me. I feel like we all have that fantasy of wanting to get out of our element or our comfort zone.

In terms of other genres, I love movies about female friendships; movies like Bridesmaids and some of the Judd Apatow movies that are about men and show these real loving supporting friendships that are at the core of our lives. 

With the comedy and the action sequences, this is the sort of movie that works best at a cinema. You mentioned earlier that you wrote the film specifically thinking about the movie theater experience. Why was it so important for you to make a film so suited for the cinema?

I’m part of a generation that grew up wanting to make movies. By the time we were in a position to do that, however, television had exploded into this world of possibility as movies were finding themselves crunched in the marketplace that was increasingly difficult and competitive. We all had to adjust our idea of what storytelling meant to us and what being a filmmaker meant. For me, I grew up really inspired by those mid-’90s independent films, wanting to make these small personal stories that would still come out in a movie theater. I started my career writing these movies and realizing that actually it was an almost insurmountable uphill battle to get those movies on the big screen. There’s so much oversaturation of content, the economics of movies has become really difficult when they’re competing with streaming. A good investment for a financier is a movie that feels like it has to be seen in the theater; those are the movies that people rush out to see, an experience that can’t be duplicated on Netflix.

Part of writing this was just trying to write something that would give me the opportunity to make a movie and have that exposure and that reach that I always dreamed about having. That was pretty impossible with these smaller independent movies I was writing before. For me, it was really wanting to reach that world. Knowing that I had to adjust my genre a little bit to do that, and embracing that was a big part of it. It definitely was a love for big movies in the theater, and also the realistic understanding that it requires a bit of analysis of what’s realistically going to end up on the big screen and what’s not–for better or for worse. 

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