Don’t call June Diane Raphael likable. Or at least, don’t aim the L-word at the characters she plays, or the ones she creates herself.
Like many women writing and acting in comedy films, Raphael has long strained against Hollywood’s insulting insistence that female leads all be contenders for Miss Congeniality. (Possibly excluding Sandra Bullock in the film, Miss Congeniality.) While the polar opposite role, that of the perma-nagging wifemonster, is its own separate nightmare, this comedian much prefers allowing female characters to be as occasionally dickish as their male counterparts and, you know, women in real life.
It’s a battle she’s lately been winning.
Raphael got her writing start with perhaps the wrong circa 2010-ish Bride movie–Wars, not -smaids)–but it was a job that put her on the right radars. For years afterward, she and creative partner, Casey Wilson, would get hired to write feature scripts while tinkering on their own labor of love, Ass Backwards. During this time, June Diane’s acting profile rose as she racked up appearances on just about every hip sitcom and sketch show on TV, and a ton of movies (not to mention the insanely popular podcast How Did This Get Made? she co-hosts with her husband, writer/actor Paul Scheer, and writer/actor Jason Mantzoukas). She and Wilson also began developing pilots for shows of their own. If you’ve seen Raphael in anything lately, though, like this summer’s Grace and Frankie or Lady Dynamite, you may have noticed her characters tend to lean out of traditional likability.
Things are looking up, not just for Raphael, but for women in funny movies altogether as we enter Year Six of a post-Bridesmaids world. She and Wilson are working on a feature for Adam McKay’s Gloria Sanchez productions, and other studios are betting big on female-driven comedies like this month’s Ghostbusters and Bad Moms. When Co.Create spoke with Raphael recently about what she’s learned along the way, she was candid about the challenges she experienced in the past, but hopeful for the future.
“Casey Wilson and I always wanted to act and we really only wrote a sketch show because when you’re starting out as an actor and not really professionally working yet, you need an audience. If a tree falls . . . I can’t act in my apartment alone,” Raphael says. “So we really were just setting out to create a showcase for ourselves as actresses and knew that we would have to write it ourselves. But then as we got into it, we also just enjoyed it so much. And enjoyed improvising together and coming up with what we thought was funny based on our own experiences. And we never really wrote anything down either. I remember we would just hand the lighting guy like a couple of cues and that was it. And so then [in 2005] when we went to this comedy festival in Aspen for like developments executives to come see new comedic talent, all these agencies were coming up to us to sign us from their literary departments. We were 24 or 25 at the time and I was like, ‘Oh no, Casey, this is really bad: They think we’re not attractive enough to be actresses.'”
“We learned to write very much on the job,” Raphael says. “When we were in Aspen, one of the executives from New Regency, who was developing a script called Bride Wars, asked us if we wanted to pitch on it and if we had a different take on the script that was already written. So we had to come up with a pitch for the movie. Casey’s father makes political commercials in DC, and we knew that he worked with a voiceover artist who had this great movie trailer voice. So we wrote out the trailer and had him record it, then we played it before our pitch. It sounds crazy, but I’ve heard other writers talk about how they’ve even cut together their own trailers for pitches.
So we got Bride Wars, and we’d never written anything more than a sketch. We had to really learn what we we were doing while we were doing it. We were about to go pitch Kate Hudson at her house and one of the executives had said, ‘I think you need more set pieces in the movie,’ which of course now I understand to mean, like, trailer moments– bigger comedic, physical moments. At the time, though, we had no idea what that meant. We just didn’t know. And I was like, “Well, Casey, they need us to describe the furniture and the settings because they’re not getting it.’ So we were just so blindly entering into this process, which ultimately may have been for the best.”
“We always felt there was a lot of pressure to make our female characters likable, which is why I think Ass Backwards was sort of a response to that, with our willingness to make them unlikeable in many ways,” Raphael says. “We’d kind of always been working on this idea of doing something about our lives in New York in our twenties and we sort of loved the idea of these two delusional female characters who were totally co-dependent on each other. It was such a passion project, we knew we wanted to star in it and that no one was going to finance it. So it took nearly 10 years to get that movie made and we had to finance it ourselves. If you’re pitching a movie starring a woman to a big studio–let’s just say a comedy–it’s sort of considered a niche market, which of course, it isn’t. That’s insane. There’s that age-old idea that women will follow a male narrative but men won’t do the opposite. I don’t think that’s true. And it does seem to be changing! But for a long time that was the idea.”
“When you work on the studio level long enough, you kind of start to anticipate what the notes are going to be and that probably informs your writing,” Raphael says. “Casey and I have worked with some really great executives who have given us great notes. I think there’s something to be said for taking the notes, and sometimes not taking the notes–or maybe just taking the spirit of it. We’re very open to feedback and that doesn’t mean we always actually implement it but I don’t know, we’re not very precious about the work in that way. I mean I’ll take a note from a homeless man on the street if it’s good.
This is a very common note, especially for women, but once on an NBC pilot, I played a character who was really sunny and optimistic and very dim, and there was a note of ‘even though she’s kind of stupid, can she still be good at something?’ And that’s a very common note, so it was kind of exhausting. What we ended up doing, though, was making her really good at her job only because the job was so menial that it ended up, when we shot it and cut it together, being a really funny sequence that was based on us totally rolling our eyes at this note. But it ended up being funny and it was something we would never have thought of without the note.”
“I have an improv background through Upward Citizens Brigade and having that skill set, which is really writing on your feet, helps you enhance something that maybe needs a little bit more,” Raphael says. “I can always tell when I read a script, ‘Oh, I’m playing this part that is only good for exposition and moving the plot forward.’ And by the way, I can sense that mainly because I’ve created some characters that were underwritten before. But I think, especially on the network level and especially for some of the parts that I used to go out for, which is like the long-suffering wife and girlfriend, you have to give it more. Some directors get offended by that or feel like, ‘Oh, she doesn’t think this is good enough as is.’ But I’ve also cast my own pilots now, and if someone comes in and wants to play with the world and is adding something funny, that to me is a bonus. I’ve never had any ego about that. I’m always, with comedies, surprised when people do.”
“We were writing two pilots [between 2013 – 2014]–one for NBC, and one for ABC–and the one that went ahead, I ended up filming it eight months pregnant and they just digitally removed my stomach,” Raphael says. “In many ways, there was no thought to it and there was no scheduling, which in my opinion, is the way it should be. It didn’t really affect it at all. I told them when I was far along in the pregnancy that I felt it was comfortable that I was pregnant, and NBC had a great response, which was fantastic. To be quite honest, it was not even really a discussion. It was not like, ‘Oh wait, you can’t do this’ or ‘We should find someone else.’ I was impressed with the way it was dealt with—just business as usual.”