It's easy to watch the trailer for Like Father and think you know exactly how the movie is going to play out. The film tells the story of Rachel, who gets dumped at the altar and drunkenly ends up on her honeymoon cruise with her estranged father, Harry, instead of her fiancé. You might assume you'll see relationship-focussed comedy tropes that we've come to know, love, and grow tired of: a workaholic giving up her lucrative career for love, the handsome disaster who you can't help but be charmed by despite his major faults, and even the big musical number at the end that proves just how far the main characters have come. Yes, some of those do happen, but not necessarily in the ways you think they will.
That's what makes Lauren Miller Rogen's directing debut for Netflix a subtle masterclass in subverting said tropes aided by powerhouse performances from Kelsey Grammer and Kristen Bell, who play Harry and Rachel. From the melancholy core of the dramedy to the hilarious character played by Rogen's husband, Seth, I hopped on the phone with her to discuss everything that makes Like Father so special.
POPSUGAR: I have to confess that I've never been on a cruise, so this movie was very, very enlightening, and also a little scary.
Lauren Miller Rogen: [laughs] It's crazy, isn't it?
PS: What made you go with that location?
LMR: The idea was actually pitched to me by Anders Bard, the producer of the movie. The kernel of the idea, a woman who gets left at the altar and whose estranged dad shows up and they go on her honeymoon cruise. That very basic idea. I had never been on a cruise before either! I wrote the whole thing with the help of the internet, and also my in-laws are really big cruisers. They go on four or five a year. Not joking. [laughs] But really what it was is that it traps [Rachel and Harry]. If it was at a resort and they woke up there, they could just drive away. So, it's a device to force them to open up their story. What I really liked about it was the juxtaposition of this colourful cruise world with this really intimate, emotional story that was going on.
PS: It's definitely an interesting juxtaposition, especially because of how dark Harry's story gets. Surprisingly so. How did you go about casting Kelsey Grammar as Harry?
LMR: The casting process for our movie was actually happening at the same time they were shooting Neighbours 2, where Kelsey plays Chloë Moretz's dad. I happened to be on set the day he was shooting a scene, and he was so funny. I was like, "Wait, could he be Harry?!" We ended up sitting down together, and in addition to seeing him on set and knowing he was so hysterical, within the first five minutes of talking he brought up one of the more emotional scenes from the film, and started tearing up. He's really lived such an extraordinary life with so many ups and downs, that he has so much to pull from. Within the first few minutes of sitting across from him, I said "Oh, he's Harry." It wasn't even a question. He's warm and funny, but sad and searching . . . he was perfect.
PS: And for Kristen Bell, she's in a lot of bubbly, comedic roles, but this really shows off her dramatic edge. What made you realise she was Rachel?
LMR: She and I have a mutual friend and we've met a few times, but didn't really know each other. I sent my friend the script like "Can you email her and tell her that I'm a normal person and to read the script?" [laughs] I'd seen a lot of her comedic work and I'd seen a little bit of her dramatic roles, but not exactly quite like this. Within the first few minutes of meeting with her, it was the same thing [as with Kelsey]. She's a really intellectual actor. When I wrote the script I really wanted to create a character who felt three dimensional, who felt like a real woman who goes on a quite emotional journey with a lot of ups and downs, and I wanted her to react to those things in a way that feels organic and authentic. Instantly, that was the first thing Kristen talked about. We were so on the same page. I had a real partnership with her in creating a woman who felt genuine, and hopefully women who see the movie will see themselves in her.
PS: Something I find so annoying in movies in this genre is the trope at the end where the woman totally gives up her amazing job for love. Obviously it's not the exact same scenario here, but it was so refreshing to see Rachel be praised for being successful in her demanding career, but also still be able to forge a relationship with Harry.
LMR: Yeah, I did not want to create a character who had to choose between her job and her life. I have a job that I love, and you know what? I also have a life that I love, that I'm very present in. I think that a lot of times in movies, like you're saying, that choice ends up happening. Like, "I need to quit my job to live my life!" I want to scream "No!" Because you can do something you love and also have a life. That's what Rachel does. She chooses to have a balance. That was important to both me and Kristen, because she's someone who loves her job, but also fiercely loves her family. It is work to balance those two, and that's what Rachel learns along the way, that she has to put in effort towards balancing them, and we really wanted to put that out there.
PS: In terms of Harry's character, I loved the scene when we finally find out who's at the other end of all of those phone calls he keeps getting. There's that incredible blow up between him and Rachel, but it ends up being a bit of a twist when he admits what's actually going on. How did you decide to go in that direction, as opposed to having him ask her for money or something along those lines?
LMR: It literally took me so long to figure out why Harry came back. I went through so many different versions. Was he sick? Did his wife die? Was he bankrupt? At the end, I was always so disgusted by him coming for money, so I put it in as a red herring. Anders, the producer, told me that was one of his favourite things when he read the script for the first time, that there were so many times where I take you down a road where you're like, "Oh, of course this is gonna happen," and then something totally different happens. Sort of changing that stereotype and twisting it a little bit is something I was very much conscious of. I wanted to push past those initial ideas, which is how I arrived at the fact that Harry was lonely, and that's why he came to her. How sad is that?
PS: That scene broke me, honestly.
LMR: Aren't they amazing?
PS: The energy between them in those quiet scenes was just phenomenal.
LMR: Don't they really seem like father and daughter? They're good actors. Very good actors.
Lauren Miller Rogen being an absolute boss on the set of Like Father.
PS: Did you know that you wanted to have Seth [Rogen, the director's husband] in your movie from the beginning?
LMR: Well, originally we had talked about him playing Owen, the groom. I liked the idea of him having a little cameo, someone you'd think would come back later. And then having him play Jeff just kind of accidentally happened. A few months before we were shooting we were in Canada, and the role of Jeff was originally written as a Midwestern guy. This sweet, sort of goofy Midwesterner. But we were in Canada, and as we were literally brushing our teeth I said, "What if Jeff was Canadian and I made funny Canadian jokes?" And Seth's response was, "I'm not going on the cruise ship." [laughs] Over the next few days, though, we just kept bouncing around jokes and ideas, and he'd never played a Canadian and gotten to make jokes like that. It got to the point where he was just like "Man, it would be too funny. Alright I have to do it." So that's how it happened! And why wouldn't I want my favourite actor in my movie?
[Editor's note: Reader, I "aww"d.]
PS: The estranged father-daughter relationship isn't usually one that we see explored in movies that often. Typically it's mother-daughter, or father-son. How did you go about making that kind of relationship feel authentic?
LMR: My dad is amazing, and we've always been together. [laughs] So it wasn't from experience. I have a friend who has a similar story that I had some good conversations with, who gave me some emotional context to include. I think as an actor, and I can't speak for other writers, but as an actor, when I write I will sort of act the scenes out in my head a little bit. I'll improvise my way through them. When I was writing this script, I was going through what was a pretty dark time in my life. My mom, who has Alzheimer's disease, it was when she was just becoming really advanced, and I was sort of going through this pretty angry time. Writing these emotional scenes sometimes, even though the content wasn't necessarily reflecting my own personal situation, I put a lot of that emotion in it. To the best of my abilities I put myself in the emotional shoes of my characters, and try to always think about how they feel. I'd get dark when Rachel got dark, and was sad when Harry was sad. I'd just try to think about how this would really go down as I was writing it.
PS: Over the last five or so years, a space has really opened up for these so-called "unlikable" female characters in movies and TV shows, who actually just seem like realistic women. Rachel definitely comes across as one of them.
LMR: There have been amazing portraits of women in movies prior to this, and I don't want to discount that. But I think people have trouble when women emote. They want someone like Kristen Bell to be happy all the time. They don't want to see Princess Anna sad, or angry, or yelling. We've been told that women should be happy, pretty princesses. And, again, I don't want to make a blanket statement and say that's never been in a movie before, because it has so many times in so many amazing ways, but I just wanted to make sure that what I was creating was going to feel real. I didn't want to sugar coat it. I didn't want to make her likable for the sake of being likable, because women are real people who are allowed to be angry, and we're allowed to be sad, and we're allowed to make mistakes and f*ck up royally. I wanted Rachel to not have it right. I wanted to show that she was a woman who was struggling, who thought she had it all figured out and was so wrong, and had not paid attention to herself for long enough that she had let go so far off the rails. That's what's real to me. It was important to me to see that reflected in the story I was creating. I think that women in the past few years, we've seen that be OK. We've seen that become more and more acceptable. I just started the new season of Orange Is the New Black, for example, and it's great. Shows like that are so inspiring. Those women? Some of them are so far from perfect. [laughs] But they're so real. Don't you relate to every single one of them in some way?
PS: It's impossible not to.
LMR: Right? They're real people who make mistakes and they're human beings. I just wanted to create a human being.