“If I Ever Need to Rob a Bank…”: Melissa Miller Costanzo on Directing the Romantic Comedy The List
I got a call from my agents, and they told me they had a script they wanted me to read. It was called The List, a broad romantic comedy about a woman who finds out her fiancé had slept with someone on his celebrity free pass list, so she decides to go to Los Angeles and try to get with someone from hers.
My initial thoughts were, great concept, and why me?
When I finished the script my thoughts were, needs some work, and why me?
My first film was something I had written and directed called All These Small Moments. It had an amazing cast — Molly Ringwald, Jemima Kirke, Brian D’arcy James to name a few. It had premiered at The Tribeca Film Festival and had done pretty well on the festival circuit.
It was a very personal story to me, and I’d say it safely landed in the dramedy genre. Dramedy is definitely my wheelhouse. I feel comfortable addressing serious topics but adding some one liners or some sort of comedy to bring levity to the subject matter.
I was interested to speak to the producers and writers to see why they thought The List was a good fit for me.
I was up for the challenge of directing other writers work as I, at this point in my career, was not someone who was banging out a script a year. I liked the thought of it but alas it was not who I was. All These Small Moments seemed to spill out of me like lava, but other attempts to make something I was just as passionate about felt more like Nicholas Cage in Adaptation. you know the scene: he types one sentence and then eats a muffin.
Let’s just say I was eating a lot of muffins.
I thought working with these writers would be an interesting collaboration. We set up a call with producers Tobias Weymar and Annie Mahoney and writers Rob Lederer and Steve Vitolo, and they listened to my take on the story and mostly about things I’d cut or change.
After going back and forth a few times I got the call that I got the job. And I couldn’t have been more thrilled. The more phone calls we had, the more we felt comfortable with each other and realized we were coming from the same place and had similar senses of humor.
Rob and Steve could stretch out a joke like nobody’s business, and I like that type of style. Just when you think a joke is over it gets run into the ground. The fun of it is catching it before it falls flat, and I think we all agreed on where that was.
The development process was relatively painless. The only thing that stood out as maybe odd or out of the ordinary is that I never actually was in possession of the Final Draft version when I was working on my polish.
I’d write handwritten notes in Scriptation (side note: Steve Vitolo is the creator of Scriptation and won an Emmy for it, and for its impact on the industry) and then we’d have a conversatioon and we’d go through the notes.
Steve had worked as a script coordinator in a writers room and definitely knew the ins and outs of Final Draft more than I did, so it wasn’t that odd — I suppose I missed pressing buttons and making the actual changes myself because i was a writer and was used to it, but the process was actually nice, and it insured that the three of us talked through all my notes.
I also would take it upon myself to rewrite scenes and send them to them because sometimes it was just easier that way than trying to explain what I meant. They would then take a scene and sort of translate it into their voice and, voilà, we’d have a new scene. They were always really good about respecting the genesis of the change and understanding what was motivating it.
Cut to first day of principle. I knew this shoot was going to be different when the writers had two camping chairs Instacarted straight to set. The message was loud and clear that they would be camping out at set every day.
I sort of bucked up and thought of it as practice for directing TV. It definitely had its advantages, though. There was one scene that takes place in a Soul Cycle-type place, and we only had the location for one day. I knew immediatley there was no way we’d make our day, so i asked the guys to try to consolidate it. They went into a little corner of set and came back ten minutes later with a shorter, doable scene! They saved the day! It was like having my own think tank on set with me!
They were also there to help punch up jokes or help re-arrange things if we felt like a scene wasn’t working. We defintely adhered to the Judd Apatow school of filmmaking and would shout out one-liners for the actors to try. We liked having that type of malleable work space on set, and the actors seemed to as well.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t without its issues, and I say this lovingly. There was one time we were shooting, all standing at video village, and we were watching a take and one of the writers was standing between me and the monitor reacting in real time. He was shaking his head — you could tell he didn’t like the take. And that’s when we got two video villages!
I would say the whole thing was a delicate dance. I loved having them there, their energy, their ideas, their way of reminding me that what we are doing is fun! I just also needed my space to be the director — to be the one to shake my head at a take. As mentioned I love the collaboration, but I need it to be on my terms. If i wanted to ask someone’s opinion on a take I was lucky to have them there. but If I didn’t I needed everyone to be okay with that as well.
At the end of the day, they felt like partners in crime. And like any good crime, everyone needs to do their part but also stay in their own lane. I think the three of us really mastered that, and if I ever wanted to rob a bank, I’d hope Rob and Steve would be by my side!