There’s more than one love story at play in Sophie Brooks’ “The Boy Downstairs,” which follows a young New Yorker who returns to the city after two years away, only to discover that her wonderful new home just so happens to be located right above an apartment inhabited by her broken-hearted ex. Behind the camera, the first-time feature filmmaker fell head over (friendship, professional, creative) heels with her star, Zosia Mamet. For Mamet, who is now carving out the next stage of her career after the end of her name-making role in HBO’s “Girls,” the feeling was mutual.
Brooks used her own life as inspiration for the film – after being felled by a nasty bout of appendicitis, she dreamed up a story where a character is ill and can only be cared for by an ex – which she eventually expanded out into what would become “The Boy Downstairs.” A romantic comedy throwback, the film hinges on Mamet’s charming performance as Diana and her palpable chemistry with eponymous boy Ben, played by Matthew Shear (best known for his role in “Mistress America”). IndieWire sat down with the pair at the Tribeca Film Festival, where the film debuted over the weekend.
Mamet was the first name that came up during Brooks’ casting process, and though the filmmaker was nervous if the actress would have either the time or the inclination to take on the project, she sent the script to Mamet’s agent. Within just three weeks, Brooks and Mamet were meeting up at a coffee shop to chat about the project. They clicked immediately.
“We hung out for like over two hours,” Mamet said with a laugh. “We both peed like four times.”
“We both had nervous bladders, legitimately,” Brooks added.
They were also just plain nervous. Both Mamet and Brooks showed up for that initial meeting early, only to find a kindred creative spirit waiting for them.
“I was so nervous to meet Sophie because I was so in love with this script,” Mamet said. “We both also sort of have trouble with people our own age, and I was like, ‘She’s going to be so cool and she’s going to hate me.’”
“I was thinking the exact same thing,” Brooks said.
Mamet explained that she was particularly in awe of Brooks’ script and the honesty and personality she put on the page, something the actress admits she doesn’t see enough of when she’s hunting for new work.
“She’s a really exceptional writer, which is kind of, sadly, rare in our industry,” Mamet said. “I just had never read a script that was so well-written. I felt like she captured the reality of what it’s like to be this age. It is very, very rare that I have a visceral reaction like that to a script, I was really taken with it.”
Mamet was excited about the possibilities of playing Diana, a character that toes the line between so-called “likability” and near-constant mistakes, all while pushing the film’s narrative forward. To her, Diana is the kind of “wonderfully flawed” character she’s always looking to play.
If that sounds familiar to fans of Lena Dunham’s HBO series “Girls,” in which Mamet played the delightfully daffy Shoshanna Shapiro for five seasons, that’s understandable. But Mamet cautions that the material she’s working with on Brooks’ film – her first big project to hit public consumption since the finale of the hit series – is very different than what she was given on “Girls.”
“I think it’s basically the opposite side of the spectrum,” Mamet said. “I was so grateful that Sophie gave me the opportunity to play this part that is so different. I think it’s its own creature.”
Mamet doesn’t bristle at the comparisons, though, and neither does Brooks, who also believes that her good-natured feature is very much its own thing, no matter how similar its most basic elements might sound to Dunham’s series.
“I think it’s natural that people are going to draw comparisons because it’s like, ‘Zosia’s the lead in the movie and she’s in “Girls” and it’s about young women in New York City,'” Brooks said. “But I think it’s pretty different tonally in a lot of ways.”
For one thing, “The Boy Downstairs” is happily steeped in the rom-com genre, a far cry from the often-downbeat plot turns that “Girls” took over its five seasons, with stories that ranged from horrific breakups to stints in rehab and beyond. Brooks and Mamet, alongside Shear, opted to go all-in when it comes to the rom-com world, and turned to films like “You’ve Got Mail,” “Harry Met Sally,” and “Manhattan” to help capture the timeless tone of the film.
They even took that spirit to their early interactions, and the trio went on a “first friend date” to Central Park for a boat ride – an idea directly inspired by a date that Diana and Ben go in the final film – an exercise that only made Mamet love the film more.
“We did a lot of dates before the movie, we did some rehearsal and we also did some dates at the Natural History Museum, we got dinners,” Brooks said. “I think it was really important for them to have a relationship before we started shooting.”
Mamet added, “We’re all basically 90-year-old Jewish ladies at heart, so it was an instant love affair.”
It’s been over a year since production on the film ended, but that glow has not worn off for Mamet, who credits Brooks and the film for giving her an all-timer of an experience.
“I have made many movies and I can say this is one of the most special experiences of my career, hands down,” Mamet said. “On our last day, our last shot of the movie was me and Matt just walking down the street and Sophie kept being like, ‘Okay, this time, I really want you to try it again,’ just because none of us wanted to call picture wrap. We were just like, ‘Please don’t be over.’”
If Mamet has her way, “The Boy Downstairs” will mark the beginning of a long relationship with her beloved director.
“I text Sophie once a month, and I’m like, ‘But really, really, when are we making our next movie?,'” Mamet said.
“I feel so lucky to have worked with Zosia on my first movie,” Brooks said. ” To have formed a friendship and such an exciting creative relationship was just exciting for me, and I feel very blessed — hashtag blessed.”
Mamet piped up: “Hashtag blessed.”
“The Boy Downstairs” premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.