MADELEINE SAMI & JACKIE VAN BEEK The Breaker Upperers interview

New Zealand comedy The Breaker Upperers comes to Perth screens this week. A merciless take on romcoms, The Breaker Uppers sees Mel (Madeleine Sami) and Jen (Jackie van Beek) as two long time friends running a business that will handle the dirty work of ending a relationship. DAVID O’CONNELL sat down with writers, directors, and co-stars Sami and van Beek to talk about Hollywood romance, “womance”, and what it’s like for two friends to direct a film.

What inspired The Breaker Upperers?

JVB: It just popped into my head one day actually, when I was ambling around my kitchen, just about those conversations everyone has about those horrible moments when you realise you have to break up with your partner. I thought it’d be so good to be able to pay someone else, and I thought it was a fun premiss for a film. So l called Madeleine and we began writing a film script.

And you two have been friends for a fair amount of time before this?

JVB: Long time.

MS: Yeah long time.

JVB: Loooong time!

MS: Too long. 20 years plus. We both met when I was 14, and Jackie was 18 at National Improv, and we didn’t reconnect till five years later. We’ve both worked together quite a bit, we’re both in a few of Taika’s (Waititi) movies (What We Do In The Shadows, Eagle vs Shark). So we’d hang out onset. We’ve been friends a long time.

You use the term “womance” to describe the film, could you tell us what that means?

MS: A platonic romance between women. A female version of a bromance.

The Breaker Uppers takes an interesting view to romance. It really doesn’t hold the typical Hollywood storybook romance as something to be aspired to…

MS: That was the point really, we just didn’t want the predictable ending and surrendering to convention.

JVB: We wanted to challenge that idea that women in film will find their happiness by finding the right man, then finding the right church, and then getting married.

MS: I think from the beginning of time with film women have been portrayed as damsels in distress. I remember watching Snow White as a kid and thinking – “What’s she waiting for? Why doesn’t she get up?” As an adult I’m all to aware of that stuff. There’s an idea that women can’t do it for themselves and they need to be saved. In our film I wanted to upend that stereotype. Just heal yourself, deal with a few of your problems and you can be OK.

JVB: Just reach out to family and friends.

Improvisation is certainly an important part of your process. How much of the film was on the page, and how much was improv, either in a workshop, or on the day?

JVB: When we were developing the script we did a lot of writing but we also do workshops and read throughs and collaborative writing. So it was quiet a robust development process. We also had Jermaine Clement (What We Do In The Shadows) come up to be an outside eye when we were doing rewrites. Then there was a fair bit of improv, some scenes more than others. Some where more of a sketch of the scene, but we’d do as much as the schedule allowed.

You had a fairly tight shoot for this, didn’t you… around 20 odd days? What was that like?

MS: It was quiet an assault on the senses. There was no brake. Never a scene we weren’t involved with, and during lunch we were in production meetings… so there was never any timeout.

JVB: it was fun though, like a roller coaster.

And who’s bucket list item was ticked off by directing a karaoke video?

MS: We always had this idea of Jen having a flashback to expose the backstory. And we just thought it was a fun way to tell it.

JVB: We had flashbacks in there (the script), we had karaoke in there, and at some point they merged.

Madeleine, what was it like playing Mel as obviously a queer character, a bisexual character, but that not being how she is solely defined?

MS: We didn’t have a lot of it written. We knew that about her as a character, but I actually improvised a lot I those bisexual references. We even got a note that we needed to make it clearer. At the same time I was very aware that I wanted to present the relationship as platonic, because often a bisexual character would lead to a coming out story for Jen and they’d become a couple. I wanted to avoid that.

JVB: We didn’t want to make it a thing. Yeah she’s bisexual- that’s the way it is.

Now obviously you co-wrote, co-directed and co-starred in this. What happened when there was any disagreement on how to do something on the set?

JVB: Those robust discussions happened during the writing stage, so by the time it got to production, we had a very clear idea of what type of film it was. I think it helped that we co-wrote. If we stepped onto set without that it could have been tragic.

MS: There was a definite feeling we couldn’t muck around. It was too tight for that, we didn’t have time.

Is there any difference between Australian comedy and New Zealand comedy?

JVB: We were talking about all those massive influences on us the other day – Muriel’s Wedding, The Castle, The Comedy Company. I think there is a big crossover. We have our own cultural identities and our own slightly different senses of humour. New Zealand are a bit more awkward where Australians are a bit more confident… cocky?

I feel New Zealand has, in the last few years, celebrated that awkwardness on screen (Taika, Jemaine).

MS: Now we can laugh at it.