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‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’ Writer-Director Cooper Raiff on Directing Himself: “The Closest I Can Be Is in the Scene”

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Cooper Raiff began the pandemic by taking the top prize at the COVID-cancelled 2020 SXSW film festival with his feature debut, Shithouse. Less than two years later, his sophomore effort — Apple’s Cha Cha Real Smooth, which follows a recent college graduate who strikes up a friendship with young mother Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) — premiered at Sundance. Raiff talked to THR About writing and directing his second feature, casting authentically and finding out what size movie works best for him.

What makes a good coming-of-age movie to you?

Someone who wants to grow, someone who wants to do better. There are a lot of coming-of-age movies that don’t center on a person who wants better for their life, and I’m not interested in those movies. I’m so interested in the movies that follow someone who is trying to do their best. We see what’s blocking them, but we see how much they’re trying.

You made Shithouse while you were still college-aged and did Cha Cha Real Smooth when you were in your early 20s. Are you attracted to telling stories about people who are in similar periods of transition?

I really like making movies about a person that I haven’t really shed yet. I can still hold on to those feelings, and I still feel so grateful for the relationship or it just feels visceral. When I try to write stuff about things that are maybe once removed, I’ll write it and then I’ll put it away. But when it feels like I’m writing about something that I’m not sure of, it feels scary and makes me feel more excited about spending all of the time with it. Because making a movie is just such a long process. I really like writing about something about a person that feels so close to me but who I don’t know much about.

Was there ever a moment where you considered casting a non-autistic actress for Lola?

No, there wasn’t. We asked to only see autistic actors.

What would you say to filmmakers who are daunted or put off by casting authentically to an onscreen disability?

“Why’d you write it?” I truly do not understand why you would write [the] character. It takes the fun out of why you’re doing what you’re doing, to me. You’re trying to make something great as opposed to making something meaningful, and that is never what I want. It also just doesn’t make sense — if I was like, “Who’s the best person for Lola? Probably someone who’s nothing like Lola, right?” No, it’s not. I understand it being daunting. There are realities to representation. But, to me, it’s not black or white. It’s like: “What’s your heart’s intention here?” There are times when I understand why this person did what they’re doing, and the backlash [to their casting choices] feels not as thoughtful as it should. But, for the most part, it feels a little icky to cast, like, an Oscar winner. Why are you making the movie? To have the best performance of all time? Or are you making something because you care about showing who this person is and what they’re going through? Because the way to do that is not just to get this brilliant actor, it’s to really dig deep — and it feels lazy not to.

Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson in Apple's Cha Cha Real Smooth, written and directed by Raiff.

Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson in Apple’s Cha Cha Real Smooth, written and directed by Raiff.

Courtesy of Apple TV+

You’re not starring in your next movie. Did your directing style change because of that?

I notice more similarities [between just directing and acting and directing]. I like to direct as close as I can to the actors, so I’m right behind the camera. When I’m looking at a monitor, I’m not just trusting the fact that the camera’s going to capture what happened in the room. There’s just an energy in a room with actors feeling things that you can feel and pick up on and, you know, “Oh, that was it.” That’s what I loved about acting and directing, because the closest I can be is in the scene. I’ve learned a lot about how relaxing it is and how much more enjoyable it is to let talented people be so talented and not have any pressure on myself to be on their level.

In an interview, you talked about wanting to find a “sweet spot” in terms of the size of films you want to make. What is that for you?

I think there’s this sweet spot of an intimate set. I was probably talking about how I don’t understand why people aren’t making movies at a certain price. But I think each movie wants a different thing and [even] wants a different crew size. The most important part, in thinking as a producer, is just making sure you’re not putting on a blanket. Maybe one movie should be shot in 30 days. Maybe one movie should be shot in eight days, because that’s the best version of it, and it needs to be in that pressure cooker.

Do you have a desire to do a bigger-budgeted or studio movie?

I’ll get an opportunity [for] bigger projects that I’ll try to work on and then realize as I’m getting more and more into it that I’m getting further and further away from it. I love Ryan Coogler, who made Fruitvale Station and then made Creed. What a massive step up, but it felt so organic. Same with Greta Gerwig, going from Lady Bird to Little Women. I was like, “Oh, this is what she was waiting for.” If I find a way into a very well-known book, I’ll absolutely try to make it. But, right now, I am sticking with smaller stuff.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The News84Media magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.



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