“We Shot Seven Parties in 20 Days in an Abandoned Mall”: Cooper Raiff on Cha Cha Real Smooth
Titled after the hit party song no child of the early 2000s could escape, Cooper Raiff’s second feature, Cha Cha Real Smooth, originated as a love letter to parents of disabled children. Inspired by the perserverance of his own family (Raiff’s younger sister does not possess the ability to walk nor speak), Raiff’s screenplay eventually grew to become the story of Andrew (Raiff), a 22-year-old Tulane University graduate who moves back in with his brother (Evan Assante), mom (Leslie Mann), and her lover (Brad Garrett) in Livingston, New Jersey. Working a dead-end job and with his girlfriend in Barcelona on a Fulbright scholarship, Andrew accepts a summer gig as a Party Starter at local bar and bat mitzvahs, hyping the crowd, getting everyone on the dance floor, and quieting the room when it’s time for the rabbi to say a prayer. Throughout the night, Andrew also gets increasingly intoxicated and flirtatious with the mothers of the children at these parties.
Dakota Johnson plays one such mother, Domino, and it’s her autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt, an actress living with autism and making her screen debut here), who Andrew tries to impress and win the acceptance of as he grows increasingly smitten with her mom. Though Domino is engaged to a lawyer (Raúl Castillo) currently in Chicago on business, that doesn’t completely derail Andrew’s advances. After all, better to chase the soulmate you think you’ve found rather than regret losing the opportunity. “It’s the part in the dance where you do your own dance,” Raiff has acknowledged as the reason for titling his film Cha Cha Real Smooth, and the film is similarly about forging your own path when you find the moment.
From getting the attention of Jay Duplass via a Tweet to having his first feature, Shithouse, premiere at SXSW in 2020, and his second feature, Cha Cha Real Smooth, premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (where it sold to AppleTV+ for $15 million), Raiff’s rapid rise has been impressive, especially for someone currently 25 years old. A few days before Cha Cha Real Smooth debuted in select theaters and on AppleTV+, I spoke with the writer/director/star about his upbringing in Dallas, the speed with which his second feature came together, shooting Pittsburgh for New Jersey, making each party scene distinct and more.
Filmmaker: Knowing that you grew up in Dallas and tend to incorporate personal stories into your screenplays, did you have your bar mitzvah in Dallas? What was the scene like in seventh grade when you found yourself attending numerous bar and bat mitzvahs?
Raiff: So, I’m not Jewish myself, but I did find myself going to a service and a party every Saturday back then, as the school that I went to, Greenhill School in Addison, Texas, was a really small school that was heavily Jewish. I attended Greenhill from pre-K through 12th grade, and it didn’t mean anything that my classmates were Jewish—until we reached the seventh grade. It was already the most visceral year of my life because of puberty and whatnot, and I actually had my first kiss at a bar mitzvah [laughs]. I think a lot of my childhood, at least beginning that year, was defined by an outsider’s view of the Jewish community. I dated a girl who was Jewish in high school for three years, and I attended a lot of Shabbat dinners where I didn’t know the specific prayer and her parents would look at me [disapprovingly]… Even in the third year of our relationship, her parents would look at me like, “Well, you’re not marrying my daughter!” [laughs] I felt like an outsider to some degree. Peering in, I could see a very tight-knit community that was extremely loving and had so much tradition and connected togetherness and found myself beginning to envy Judaism quite a bit.
When I decided on having the bar mitzvah circuit be a significant aspect of Cha Cha, it deepened the story to be about two kinds of broken families. The bar mitzvah montage where Andrew’s mom and stepdad are sitting at one table and Domino and Joseph and Lola are at another, watching a young boy’s candle-lighting ceremony, I felt that those parents and those siblings [at the party] are going to stay that way forever. The parents are never going to get divorced. They will [stay that way]. That’s an element of the movie I really related to.
Filmmaker: The film opens at one such party, with a very young Andrew (Javien Mercado) observing a female party starter who he has a crush on at the bottom of a staircase, on the phone and emotionally distraught. He professes his love for her shortly thereafter. Wasn’t that based on a personal experience you had in your own life?
Raiff: There are two things that led to that scene, and to making Andrew [a party starter in the film]. I personally remember a party starter in Texas named Vince, who was at every single party that I went to because it was almost as if he was Greenhill’s go-to party starter. He knew everyone who went to Greenhill, or the parents of everyone who went to Greenhill.
Filmmaker: The mothers probably took an “interest” in him and hired him for their children’s parties, like they do in your film…
Raiff: Well, he was probably like a 45-year-old dude at the time. But yes, probably more so, you’re right [laughs]. And he was one reason I remembered the [role of] party starters [in my life]. The party starter on the phone memory was based on a true story, although it didn’t take place at a bar mitzvah. When I was really young, there was this girl who, for some reason, I was falling in love with. She was so much older than me, but first, it was nothing more than a crush. There was an open-heartedness about her that, for whatever reason, I thought, “Not only do I have a crush on her, but I feel like she might have a crush on me too.” Then later, as I noticed her crying on the phone from afar, for some reason, all of a sudden, I thought, “Now I’m in love with her.” That’s fucked up, right? So, I wanted to make a movie about how fucked up that is and why I have a recurring tendency to possess a “make-happy” complex. I think that’s the core of what the movie is about.
Filmmaker: After your first feature, Shithouse, premiered at SXSW in 2020 and was released through IFC Films that October, did pre-production on Cha Cha begin right away? What was the timeline like of working with Dakota Johnson’s production company, TeaTime Pictures and attaching co-financiers Picturestart and Endeavor Content to the project? Did you have to get a star attached first?
Raiff: It all went very fast. I first met [TeaTime Pictures co-founder] Ro Donnelly in late October or early November [of 2020]. It was more of a general meeting, where Ro told me about the production company she had recently formed with Dakota. Since they had just started, you could tell that they were hungry to make something soon and trying to find what they would make in 2021. I was somewhat at the same place, feeling hungry to make something, and I had an idea that I wanted to tell Ro about. Knowing that she works with Dakota, I just went for it: “I’ve had these two or three specific characters and an idea in my mind that I think Dakota would be great [to star in].” Ro was like, “Sick, let’s meet with Dakota.” Soon after, we all met and Dakota agreed to do it. I then wrote a script in about two weeks and Ro and Dakota sent back notes right away.
Filmmaker: So at this point, you were just presenting a few characters and a basic idea for the story, but no script?
Raiff: Yeah, I had the three characters plus the general idea of the bar mitzvah circuit. Thinking back, I guess I had the mom and the brother character created as well, as I knew that Andrew would need a younger brother to get him to go to these bar mitzvah parties in the first place. Previously I had written scenes for the character of Domino, where she’s more or less talking about the core themes of the film. So, writing the screenplay weren’t a two-week session of trying to figure out what the movie was about, rather a period of putting it all onto paper and fitting the scenes that were in my head into the movie. Picturestart and Endeavour came on after that.
Filmmaker: I’m curious as to what lead to the decisions to set the film in New Jersey and conduct principal photography in Pittsburgh as a stand-in.
Raiff: I originally wanted to set the story in Dallas, but I think people might’ve [been skeptical]: “Oh, a movie about the bar mitzvah scene in Dallas? Hm.” So, I chose New Jersey because it felt like the state was in a very similar holding-zone to Dallas. There’s a shared post-grad delirium amongst the two locations, where living there accentuates feelings of claustrophobia while still giving you so much to do.
Honestly, we could’ve shot the film in New Jersey, but there were just too many movies shooting there [in the summer of 2021] and we were worried we wouldn’t secure enough available crew. Even so, I thought that if we shot in New Jersey, given its proximity to New York, we would be able to manage OK, but we ultimately shot in Pittsburgh for tax credit reasons. Pittsburgh was great, but [producers] tried to convince me to set the story in Pittsburgh, and I pushed back, like, “No, we cannot do that.” Of course, the movie is mostly shot via interiors and the local Pittsburgh greenery and suburban homes are quite similar to New Jersey’s, but I wanted to at least keep the story set in New Jersey if we decided on filming in Pittsburgh.
At times, it wasn’t super hard to cheat one location for another, but there were some locations we had to turn down by saying, “Well, that’s just not New Jersey. That would never be in New Jersey.” We had a few people from Livingston, New Jersey take a look at every photo [of each location we were deciding on] and they would inform us, “No, that would not be found in Livingston.” That was difficult and frustrating at times, but the reason I didn’t want to set the narrative in Pittsburgh was because it would’ve been too charming. Maybe that’s weird to say.
Filmmaker: Well, it’s the city of Mister Rogers, but also Andy Warhol, George A. Romero…
Raiff: Yeah, but it just would’ve been too clear what Andrew was going to do, what his plans were going to be.
Filmmaker: How so?
Raiff: If he’s going to be from Pittsburgh, then he’ll lean into being from Pittsburgh, or he’s going to be living in Pittsburgh for this window of time, then he’s going to leave. It just has a small feel to it, whereas Livingston, New Jersey felt like a setting where one can have these expensive bar mitzvahs and it all makes sense—a place where you have New York “right there,” where you can ask yourself, “Do I want to go do something really inspired in New York? Or do I want to stay in New Jersey?” Dallas is a lot like that too, where there’s a lot of things you could be doing, yet you find yourself not doing them.
Filmmaker: This is your first time working with DP Cristina Dunlap. She had just finished shooting another film [Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne’s Am I OK?] starring Dakota Johnson (for Johnson’s TeaTime Pictures) that also, funny enough, premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival alongside your film before she came aboard Cha Cha. What kinds of conversations did you two have regarding how to shoot and light the bar and bat mitzvah scenes? Depending on whose party it is, the space is often filled with warm purples, bright oranges, lush blues, or gauzy neons that take up the entire space.
Raiff: I’d been to a couple of bar mitzvahs more recently and it was really important to me, especially in the film’s opening scene at the bar mitzvah where Andrew is 12 years old, that that space feel very homey and warm and nostalgic. It had to feel good, as if the viewer would also like to visit and be within that space. I wanted to open the film that way, because that’s the initial memory [of these parties] that I had, and that [represents] the true, true love I still have for them. I love how that scene looks so much. Then, for the bat mitzvah that Andrew attends with his brother, where he meets Domino and Lola, I told Cristina, our lighting team and our production designer, Celine Diano, that I had gone to a bat mitzvah that looked just like this, where there was this very weird blue to it. I won’t say that the lighting wasn’t pretty, but it was just so…
Raiff: Aggressive, yeah. So I wanted that. For the parties later in the film, we played around with what we wanted for the feelings of each. The bar mitzvah that I really love is the sequence that features a boy’s candle-lighting ceremony, which is essentially just a montage accompanied by a song, when Andrew and Domino talk about how they envy Judaism. That montage features the only zoom in the movie, and a comp that we used for the sequence was…have you seen Up in the Air?
Filmmaker: The Jason Reitman film? Yes.
Raiff: The way they shot the wedding montage [between Melanie Lynskey and Danny McBride’s characters] in that film, I showed it to Cristina, saying “This feels so loving and great. I would feel so envious of that party.” We wanted it to feel like that. The colors had to feel nice and comfortable. And while the bar mitzvah in that sequence is art-themed, it shouldn’t feel like the boy’s parents are just throwing away money. It had to feel organic. Then there are other parties in the film that we wanted to feel—well, I don’t know the word, but I showed Cristina some examples of “Ugh, there’s so much money being spent! And such weird lighting!”
Filmmaker: Did the production design and cinematography begin to merge when designing those different party scenarios?
Raiff: At first, it was just a conversation between Celine and myself, but after that we had a whole day where me, Celine, Cristina and [art director] Brittany Ingram sat down to discuss the colors we wanted and how big we wanted each party to feel. I should note that the big thing we were working up against was that we shot every party in an abandoned mall.
Raiff: Yeah, we shot seven parties in 20 days in an abandoned mall. It was ridiculous.
Filmmaker: You were able to take over the space free-of-charge?
Raiff: Yes, for zero dollars probably. No one was using it, so we repurposed parts of the mall [for these parties]. We had to think “OK, so in this space, we can do this” or “maybe we can do this.” We had to be both logical and smart while, at the same time, still choosing a specific feeling for each party. One example would be the soccer-themed party in the film, where Domino has the miscarriage and things get kind of flirty between her and Andrew in the bathroom. They’re drunk and kind of messy and things get very visceral and bodily at that point, so we wanted the party to be very purple. The symbolism behind purple, or the meaning of it, is almost sexy.
Filmmaker: Almost flirtatious.
Raiff: Yeah, and that party is the first one where Domino and Andrew are on the dance floor together and looking at and eyeing each other. It feels like things are happening…and then all of a sudden, he’s screaming [the lyrics] “wet-ass pussy” into a microphone while she’s having a full-on miscarriage in the bathroom. It’s a wild, messy event, and purple felt like the right color to [bathe] it in. Then for the final party, the one that’s circus-themed, we decided on using red because, in addition to wanting the theme of the party to be in line with the [characters’] feelings, I wanted a color that felt wild and that anticipated the big fight that the scene builds to. I’m so grateful that Celine and Cristina cared so much about the feelings of each party, and I think each of the parties has a nice arc if you view them all together.
Filmmaker: With music being so ingrained into these parties, I wanted to ask about the non-diegetic use of music in the film and, more specifically, what kind of score were you looking for by working with composers Christopher Stracey [one-half of the Australian electronic music duo, Bag Raiders] and Este Haim [one-third of the American pop rock band, Haim]. How did you toggle between songs within the scene versus the score created for your film?
Raiff: Funny enough, we had to really pare down the score over these past few months. For example, the movie that played at Sundance is different than the movie that played at SXSW, in the sense that we removed a lot of the score as we [began screening the film]. There’s obviously a lot of music in the movie, but it’s nice to then have everything get really quiet, so we made it [quieter]. But I do love the score, and Este and Stracey did an amazing job with it, so I kept it in certain spots. Still, I wanted to be smart about remembering that we’ve been jamming with music for much of the film, so it’s OK to get quiet. I think people like that all-over-the-place tone, or at least I do.
For the diegetic music within the scenes, we had an amazing music supervisor, Rob Lowry, who helped us not only select songs that were smart and cheap, but he also knew when to go big with a Lupe Fiasco song [“The Show Goes On”], because it’s at the beginning of the movie and it sort of cheats for the rest of the movie, tricking the viewer into thinking, “Oh, this is a movie that has this level of songs,” even though we didn’t really have a song that was anywhere near that [the rest of the way through]. In the scene where “WAP” [by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion] is playing, we used the karaoke version of the song. That’s the reason my character is screaming into the microphone, trying to cover up the fact that it’s not the original version. We had to be smart about those choices while keeping it fun. Rob was the guy who told me, “I don’t think you want to have a lot of score in the movie because there’s going to be a lot of music as is,” so Rob was key. But Stracey and Este were great to work with and everything they gave us was amazing.