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How the team behind “Long Shot” made a unicorn: a woke political rom-com for 2019

Co-writer Liz Hannah and director Jonathan Levine had way more on their minds than boy-meets-girl-out-of-his-league when they set out to make “Long Shot.”

How the team behind “Long Shot” made a unicorn: a woke political rom-com for 2019
Seth Rogen as Fred Flarsky (left) and Charlize Theron as Charlotte Fields (right) in Long Shot. [Photo: Phillipe Bossé/Lionsgate]

The Judd Apatow oeuvre of the aughts is stuffed with films whose conflicts hinge on whether stoned scrubs can date out of their league. (And that’s not including She’s Out of My League, which starred Apatow regular Jay Baruchel, but was otherwise unaffiliated with the filmmaker.)

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Seth Rogen has long since moved beyond this genre, and it seemed as though all of America had too. So it might have been kind of a surprise for some, in the year 2019, to see a poster for a film called Long Shot, featuring the image of Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron dancing together, and the tagline “Unlikely but not impossible.”

What? Are we in a time loop?

No, it turns out. We’re not. The “long shot” of the title doesn’t refer to whether a Seth Rogen-type will be able to score with a Charlize Theron-type, but whether a long-shot presidential candidate will be able to explore her unlikely new romantic relationship, even though it doesn’t seem politically viable. (Think: the Hugh Grant/Martine McCutcheon subplot of Love, Actually, but gender-reversed and actually funny.)

Long Shot, which is in theaters May 3, began its journey to the big screen as a Seth Rogen project called Flarsky from writer Dan Sterling. Written toward the end of the last decade, when the She’s Out of My League era was coming to a close, the movie gradually picked up new collaborators. First, Theron signed on to play the female lead, then frequent Rogen collaborator Jonathan Levine came aboard to direct, and finally screenwriter Liz Hannah joined the team in 2017, fresh off of her first film, The Post, to pen a new draft.

The world had changed a lot since the time in which the film was originally conceived. Gender politics were different, politics-politics were different, and moviegoers were different. The title could now refer to whether it was even possible to make a political rom-com work for woke viewers in a post-Trump, post-#MeToo environment. Fast Company spoke with director Jonathan Levine and co-writer Liz Hannah (separately) about their approach to ensuring that their long shot would pay off.

Fast Company: This script has been kicking around for a long time. What made you want to do it?

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Liz Hannah: Well, I always want to work with Charlize. [Hannah previously worked in development at Theron’s production company, Denver & Delilah.] And I think Seth has such a smart approach to filmmaking. But also when I met with [Jonathan] Levine, he had a really great goal and this is what sold me on it. He was wondering: How do we make a romantic comedy in 2019? How do we look at this world of politics and what’s happening right now, and how do we look at relationships and love in 2019?

FC: What most needed updating from Dan Sterling’s original screenplay?

Jonathan Levine: It was written in pre-Trump era politics, in almost an Aaron Sorkin kind of mode. All these politicians were really trying to do their best and represent the people. And it feels less than ever like that’s the case. It was very important to us that this felt like a portrait of a modern America, even though it exists in a parallel universe. So much of what happens these days renders specific satire moot. It’s such a very specific time, and so part of our approach to the movie is we wanted to zoom out a bit and operate from a premise of “the world will not always be like this.” We wanted to play up the absurdity of American politics during the time in which we live, and really tell a modern story. But we also tried to write from a place of being more bemused than outraged, because it’s really hard to blend outrage with romance. They’re just strange bedfellows.

LH: One thing I did on my first or second day, we were looking at the script saying where we wanted it to go, what the opportunities were, and one of the things we talked a lot about was humanizing Charlize’s character. So one of the very first things that made it in was the scene [depicted in the trailer] of them going all out one night and doing molly and then [MINOR SPOILER ALERT…] she has to do a negotiation in Paris [SPOILER ALERT OVER] and I think that was actually something we ended up building around a lot. It’s a set piece in the film but none of us wanted to be like, “Let’s just put this in here to make it funnier.” It was more like, “Let’s find a reason that she’s going to get to a point to where she wants to do a bunch of drugs, where she wants to go out and have fun, and then how do we then look at where she changes?” And we used that as an opportunity to dive into her character and make her feel really human. We sprinkled moments throughout the film to make her look like this woman who’s trying really hard to do the right thing when so much of being a politician is compromising yourself.

Seth Rogen as Fred Flarsky (left) and Charlize Theron as Charlotte Fields (right) in Long Shot. [Photo: Phillipe Bossé/Lionsgate]
FC: The politics of this movie are very timely. It seems like every day we’re talking about Elizabeth Warren’s likability or Kamala Harris’s electability. Did you work toward the idea that there would be a lot of women running for president in 2020?

LH: That was definitely not a conversation we had of what the race would look like or what politics were gonna look like in this era. For me, the conversation about women in power is always timely. I made a film before this [The Post] which was set in 1971 and which was about a [business] woman coming into power, so for me it’s actually always a conversation that’s timely. You can look at any female politician or really any female in the public eye and compare them to a man who has the exact same position and see a much easier path for that man than there is for that woman. It’s a story as old as time. In the last four years, our eyes have been opening up a bit more, and so people are now just being more vocal and articulate about this struggle.

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One of my favorite scenes in the film is toward the end, and I’m paraphrasing but she says, “It’s harder for me,” and he says “Why–because you’re a woman?” and she says “Yeah!” And he’s like, “You’re right.” I don’t think we often say that as explicitly as we do in the film, so I think it’s great to be able to have that conversation and, with things that are going on right now in politics, it is something we should be talking about–why it’s harder for a woman to be given as much of a platform as a man is.

FC: I did especially enjoy the scene where a political consultant [Lisa Kudrow] examines the electability of Charlize’s character on a point-by-point basis.

JL: Seth wrote that. That whole scene came very late in the process. One night Seth just wrote this very funny scene. I think the packaging of a candidate, whether it’s a man or a woman, just thinking of yourself as a commodity, is very funny and very relevant for this day and age.

FC: I’m going to be candid. The trailer for this film made it look like it’s about a schlubby guy, played by Seth Rogen, trying to date a woman who is way out of his league, played by Charlize Theron, and I just thought, “I’ve already seen that movie.” But after watching, it’s clear that this movie is very much aware of those other movies. Were you actively preparing against these kinds of expectations?

LH: I think when you have Charlize and you have anyone standing next to her, they’re gonna look a little schlubby. You know, she’s Charlize, but we were very aware of that being a dynamic, and I definitely have had people say that to me, as the movie has started to come out, people realizing that was not the message of the film, because it’s not. Seth’s character is extremely intelligent, very brash, and kind of the opposite of Charlize’s character in many ways and that’s why they fall for each other—because they give each other something the other doesn’t have, they push each other in those ways, and it was not really about the physicality of it. It was about the emotion of it and how these two people connect on a very deep level, and I think Seth’s ability to connect, to be self-deprecating and call it out in the film, we felt there was no reason to avoid this.

JL: I think that we enjoyed the tension between playing within those tropes and subverting them. On paper it did feel like something you’d seen before but we also liked to think of it as a tried-and true-thing to use and also play against. This is not a movie about a schlubby guy getting a really pretty girl. It may look that way from the marketing materials because you have to distill it to something, but it’s not. What’s different this time is you have this powerful female character, and that’s not something historically that has always been a part of romantic comedies, and I think just injecting that into it and injecting this sort of POV of a powerful woman who sees all these obstacles in fulfilling her destiny is this incredibly relatable thing and sort of forces you to be honest in your depiction of it. That really helped in fighting against the inherent clichés of the genre.

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(Left to right) Ravi Patel as Tom, June Diane Raphael as Maggie, Seth Rogen as Fred Flarsky, and Charlize Theron as Charlotte Fields in Long Shot. [Photo: Phillipe Bossé/Lionsgate]

FC: What kind of conversations did you have about the gender dynamics of the film?

LH: Look, being a woman in this industry, I find myself more often working with men than with women. It’s unfortunate sometimes, but that’s how it does happen and hopefully it’s changing. And so in those kinds of conversations, it’s extremely comforting to feel like it’s a safe space where everybody acknowledges “We’re making a movie about gender politics, we’re a bunch of dudes, and we shouldn’t be the only ones having that conversation.” I think in this day and age you cannot have a conversation about gender politics where just one gender is having the conversation, so working with Dan [Sterling] and Seth and Levine and having these men being conscious of, like, “What should we do? We shouldn’t be the ones to decide what it’s like to be a woman running for president”—I think that made for a safe space to have all these conversations.

JL: We loved Liz’s writing. She wasn’t there just to convey the female point of view. She just came in to be another valued collaborator. It was an organic writing process. I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff she brought to it because she’s much closer to the point of view of Charlize’s character than we are, but we did not ever make that seem like her mandate. We all just kind of rolled up our sleeves and collaborated as storytellers.

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