The new film “What If” marks “Harry Potter” star Daniel Radcliffe’s first foray into romantic comedy. It’s the brainchild of Canadian-Jewish writer Elan Mastai, and it explores whether members of the opposite sex can be friends if one develops deeper feelings for the other and that other person is involved with someone else. Radcliffe’s character, Wallace, faces this dilemma when he falls for Chantry, played by Zoe Kazan.
“So many romantic comedies we see are glib and shallow and feel detached from human experience. You feel like you’re watching two people who’ve never lived on planet Earth, throwing one-liners at each other,” Mastai said. “I was interested in making a movie that took all the things that are great about romantic comedies: making the jokes funny, taking the characters seriously, giving them a chance to let their chemistry blossom, and when things do get serious, investing the situations with real emotional weight. It’s traditional in that we took the time to build real characters. I don’t think that’s at all revolutionary. It’s just writing a good version of the genre.”
A one-act, two-character play called “Toothpaste and Cigars,” which Mastai saw 10 years ago, was his inspiration. “It resonated with me because I related it to a lot of stuff I was going through in my own life: meeting somebody, having that connection with them, finding out they’re involved with somebody else. You think, ‘We can be friends,’ only to discover that even if you go into it with the right intentions, things often go awry. Where does the line get drawn? It can get messy, but as a writer, I like the messiness, those gray zones. Some pretty hilarious situations arise because of the confusion in these relationships, and I wanted to explore that,” he said.
“The movie is very much my personality, my point of view, my outlook on the world,” Mastai said, adding that it has a distinct Jewish influence, even though the characters are not Jewish.
“I wanted to write a movie where the characters are trying to do the right thing, and the ethics of the situation is something they debate, in an almost talmudic way. That’s a very Jewish theme, and something that always resonated with me,” he said. Mastai’s own family would gather around the Shabbat dinner table and argue about politics, culture and social issues, he said. “I grew up hearing all perspectives.”
He also credits many Jewish influences, including Billy Wilder, Ben Hecht, Woody Allen, Nora Ephron, James Brooks, Aaron Sorkin and Paddy Chayefsky. “What makes the point of view of the movie Jewish,” he added, “is an emphasis on intelligence and wit, taking psychological anxiety seriously and trying, even if it seems futile, to be ethical.”
Mastai said his parents met in Jerusalem, where his Morocco-born father, a lawyer, had immigrated, and where his mother taught English. Mastai’s maternal grandmother had escaped Vienna as a chaperone on the Kindertransport: “I had the Holocaust, immigrant, birth of Israel — a lot of strains of the modern Jewish experience in my family,” Mastai said.
His parents eventually relocated to Vancouver, where Mastai was born and grew up, developing a love of writing early on. “Hollywood seemed very far away and an absurd ambition to have. I didn’t know anybody in the movie business,” he said. “Fortunately, there’s a vibrant history of Jews working in the movie business, but I was starting from nowhere.”
He studied film at Ontario’s Queen’s University, and while working on his thesis, got the chance to meet with a producer who gave him his first job: writing a children’s movie called “MVP: Most Vertical Primate.” “It was a foot in the door. I paid off my student loans, and I learned a lot,” he said.
Mastai began writing “What If,” which was then called “The F Word” (later changed to avoid an R rating) in 2007, fleshing out and adding characters. Much to his surprise, the screenplay landed on the 2008 Black List, a list of the year’s best unproduced scripts, and that “opened a lot of doors.” Once director Michael Dowse and Radcliffe signed on two years ago, the film went into production. It had its premiere last year at the Toronto Film Festival, where Mastai had once worked as an assistant. It opened in theaters on Aug. 8.
These days, Mastai lives in Toronto but travels to Los Angeles often. He is currently working on a comedy pilot he sold to FX while adapting an episode of the radio series “This American Life” into a movie. An executive producer on “What If,” he hopes to wear that hat again. “As a writer, that will always allow me a seat at the table,” he said.
In his own romantic story, Mastai found his happy ending. He is married, and although his wife is not Jewish, they’re raising their two daughters, ages 6 and 2, with Jewish traditions. “I go to synagogue less often than I probably should,” he said. “But the cultural side of [being Jewish] is incredibly important to me, honoring that heritage. And it’s something my kids identify with and embrace.”