Cooper Raiff Talks 'Cha Cha Real Smooth' & How Dakota Johnson Was Like A Co-Director [Sundance Interview]

At first glance, actor-writer-director Cooper Raiff’sCha Cha Real Smooth” might look like your typical cutesy and whimsical Sundance dramedy, about a twenty-something college graduate learning a valuable life lesson and experiencing a bit of a delayed coming of age. While that’s not an inaccurate description of Raiff’s disarmingly lovely film (programmed in this year’s US Dramatic Competition), what feels miraculous about “Cha Cha” is: it doesn’t come with even an ounce of that cringe-inducing Sundance fancifulness, a brand that many love to hate. On the contrary, Raiff’s sophomore feature is as grown-up and worldly as movies come, navigating weighty topics like romance, mental illness, identity, family, and soulmates with unusual grace and maturity.

READ MORE: ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’ Review: Cooper Raiff Gets The Party Started In His Super-Charming, Bittersweet Sophomore Drama [Sundance]

That’s no surprise for anyone who’s seen Raiff’s SXSW-winning debut, “Shithouse,” which famously came to fruition with the support of indie maven Jay Duplass. His openhanded sensibilities are similarly at work here in a story that follows Andrew (Raiff), a young party starter with a puppy dog-like appeal who needs to seriously get going with kicking off his own future. Amid the busy, fun, and awkward party circles of NJ bar and bat mitzvahs, he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and Lola (Vanessa Burkhardt), a young mother and her precocious autistic daughter, respectively. It doesn’t take long for Domino and Andrew to grow deep, palpable affection towards one another, especially once Andrew starts caring for Lola as a sitter.

Raiff’s reflective script veers into rich avenues from there, exploring different shades of love and adulthood with a hopeful but realistic spirit. Below is our interview with Raiff on the making and themes of “Cha Cha Real Smooth.”

“Shithouse” and “Cha Cha Real Smooth” seem to have a chronological bond. One is set in college, the other explores what’s next. Were you thinking of them in unison?

I definitely was. I really wanted the movie to be about the start of your twenties. When you have to start your party, it’s really up to you to get things going and you don’t have the structure of college or of a job that you like yet. It makes sense that [the projects followed each other].

Alex of “Shithouse” and Andrew of “Cha Cha Real Smooth” have a kinship. There’s something so pure, even oddly unadulteratedly expressive about both. And they’re both so desperately pro-romance. You are interested in this kind of young male. Are you that person at all?

I think I definitely am. My experience as a human being is so limited but I always want to say something. “Shithouse” was about leaving home. And the best way to tell that story is by a kid who has not even left home. His heart is [there]. And then with “Cha Cha,” it’s about this kid who’s so good at starting other people’s parties and is very used to being the energy for other people, but bad at figuring out who he is for himself separate from other people. And I think that’s where Alex and Andrew are very similar. They to figure out who they are separate from other people.

What is your connection to that world of party-starting, and bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs?

I’m not Jewish, but I went to this school in Dallas, Texas. A very big percentage of my school was Jewish. I was there for 14 years. I was actually talking to my mom the other day about when I was in second grade. I was [then] under the impression that most of the population in the world was Jewish, because [that’s what my school was like]. But the reason why [the party starting] is so visceral is, I was in seventh grade and I went to my first bar mitzvah and first service. There’s no services in this movie, but the whole experience is, you see your close friend and the fruits of his or her labor. And so you’re seeing this whole new life of people that you’ve known for so long. And then the parties are so awkward. There’s a party starter there who every kid was in love with. And so, there’s a lot of very visceral memories from that time.

The other thing is, my school was very wealthy, and so some of these parties were huge for these 13-year-olds. I had my first kiss at a bar mitzvah. And so they were such huge, huge events in my mind. Looking back, it is so genuinely funny to think about how intense a slow dance was when I was 13.

You allow all of your characters moments of grace to augment and alter our perception of them. An example of this is how you approach Domino’s fiancé Joseph (Raúl Castillo) and how you soften his hardened exterior.

I am fully obsessed and in love with every single character I write. If I’m not, then I want to change the character. Maybe that will change as I get older and hate the world more. That character [Joseph] was always Ro [Donnelly, producer] and I’s favorite. I think Andrew didn’t really have the maturity to understand why Domino was with this person. You don’t really know what he’s thinking or feeling, because that’s kind of how a lot of lawyers are. And then, he’s with this lovely woman who Andrew’s so in love with. And I can really relate to Andrew in that way. And when you see her with this guy, you’re like, “Oh my God. Why in the world are you with this person?” When Joseph comes over and says, “Thanks for looking after my family” to Andrew, he realizes, “I’m such a kid, and you are such an adult. And there’s so much that I don’t know about what it means to be an adult.” I think Joseph has so much grace. He knows Domino’s self-destructive tendencies very well.

And you have an amazing cast, but I want to particularly talk about the newcomer Vanessa Burkhardt.

Vanessa, Vanessa, Vanessa! Angela Demo was the casting director, we did this wide search and all of the auditions we saw were from autistic actresses only. And they were all different ages because I wanted to see [a range]. I knew I was going to fall in love with someone and I knew it was going to be really tricky to make it work, and that’s exactly what happened. Vanessa came on the screen. It was just a tape, but I just sobbed and sobbed. She was so clearly Lola. I think as a writer, I’m never really picturing someone, just writing someone’s soul or essence. And then, when you see who actually is going to play that person, the role just changes, and it’s articulated so much better. I rewrote quite a bit of the role to fit her better. My mom watched her audition and she said, “Oh, she reminds you of Andrea,” who’s my sister. I don’t see how but there was something about Vanessa’s audition that just unlocked everything. She takes direction better than literally anyone I’ve ever directed before. We are really aligned in the way that we talk about things. But she was the one who wanted to always hop on Zoom. We rehearsed a ton and she was super excited to rehearse. She’s going to be a big-time actress.

You mentioned that you don’t think about specific people when you write. But watching both Dakota Johnson as Domino and Leslie Mann as your mother, I thought maybe you did have them in mind. Johnson’s subtle mystique and Mann’s wide-eyed sweet hopefulness work so well and feel specific.

I did have them in mind. Dakota helped develop the script, so I always had her in mind. For the mom, we didn’t think that we would get Leslie Mann, but she’s literally my favorite actress ever. And my mom and I always talk about her, and that she is the perfect movie version of [my mom].

Leslie’s eyes are just so hopeful, excited, and just joyful, she can bring so much. There’s so much deep emotion that she can access with the drop of a hat. And so funny, but so just deeply emotional and loving. And so when she said yes, it was game on. With Domino, I always wanted her to be [this character] who grew up really fast and dealt with a lot when she was really young. [Domino and Dakota] have the mystique, always subtly flirting. Dakota’s got a very open heart—[it’s exciting to] watch her connect with someone. And her presence on screen is out of this world.

You wrote, directed, and acted in both of your features. Do you want to continue doing this in the future, have full auteurship?

The reason why I like doing all of those things is, it makes me feel so much closer to the story and makes me feel like I’m even more a part of it. But it’s very challenging. I learned a lot when I made “Shithouse.” It was easier this time. I really tried to own it. With “Shithouse,” there were some moments where I was like, “Oh God, this is so hard.” It was because I wasn’t good at it. And I think with “Cha Cha,” I learned how to navigate it better and to really not think of them as two totally separate things, because they’re really not.

[Wearing multiple hats] just makes it more personal. All the actors were really awesome about it—they were excited to act in a scene with the director and it kind of made them feel like they were directors too almost.  Everyone who was in a scene really felt like they were offering a lot as a creative person, not just being great at the character. It just felt we were always trying to figure out what the best version of this scene was. Dakota was a big-time director on this movie. And she’s not credited as a director, but the scenes that we were in, we both felt like we were directing them in major ways.

I adore the way you think of soulmates. Usually, romances hammer home this fantasy that there is only one person out there for you. But here, you tease that there are a lot of people right for each one of us. And sometimes you meet them at the right time, and sometimes the timing is way off.

It’s something that I think about all the time. It is all about timing. I really think a lot about connection. I read something one time that kind of made me surrender to the fact that there are [a lot of] people that I really, really connect with on the planet and a lot of people who I don’t. But there are certain people who I connect with romantically and connect with as on a human level. I feel like I share so many sensibilities and feel so spiritually aligned with certain people. But that doesn’t mean that they’re the person I need to spend the rest of my life with. And it’s also something that makes me feel better about people splitting up, or people who have been in a marriage for 20 years [getting] a divorce. There are things that I think we call unnatural, but they can be thought of as natural. It can be natural to be with someone for 20 years, and that’s your soulmate. And then maybe you part ways and you find one of those other soulmates. And I think there’s a lot of people who we can be so happy with.

And that’s not to say that you can be happy with anyone. I think I want to fight against that as well. I do think that this notion of, “you can be happy with anyone as long as you work hard enough” is true. And I don’t think that everyone’s a soulmate. But I do think that there are a lot of people for everyone and it’s a balance of working hard, but also having that deep connection, kinship with someone. But yeah, I love that idea. I feel it’s very freeing to think of life as like, you have so many different soulmates. It’s also devastating to think that you’re not going to live your entire life with one of your soulmates. That’s a really sad thing to swallow. But it’s also super happy that there are a lot out there and you’ll find another one.

I was obsessed with “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” that came out a few years ago. It was all about these alternate dimensions. That’s another thing that I love, thinking about another universe I am with that person or spending time with other people who I love. And then, in this universe, it’s this person.

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