Interview with Simon Helberg & Jocelyn Towne, directors of We'll Never Have Paris

Simon Helberg and Jocelyn Towne were in Edinburgh to discuss their new romantic comedy We'll Never Have Paris.

Best known for his enduring turn as Howard Wolowitz on sitcom phenomenon The Big Bang Theory, Simon Helberg has now branched into leading man territory with We’ll Never Have Paris, a romantic comedy that tells a fictionalised version of the early days of his relationship with wife and co-director Jocelyn Towne.

The couple attended the Edinburgh International Film Festival back in 2014 to promote their film – which stars Helberg, Melanie Lynskey, Alfred Molina and Maggie Grace – and I caught up with them on a busy Sunday morning ahead of the film’s closing gala screening to discuss their tumultuous courtship and how they channelled that into this film.

Along the way, their six-week-old son popped in for (presumably) his first interview and Jocelyn had to leave Simon to finish the interview.

So the film is based on your life, your relationship, is that right?

Simon Helberg: To varying degrees yeah. It’s a fictionalised view of things but in terms of our relationship, I have to admit that unfortunately there is a lot of truth in it.

Jocelyn Towne: Yes.

How much of it true? Did you have to embellish a lot of it?

JT: I think at the end of the day about fifty percent of it is true. We took dramatic license to fictionalise things just to make it a better dramatic story.

SH: But our relationship, the break up, the following to Paris, her meeting a violin playing Frenchman and staying in his apartment, the grovelling, proposing in the car, completely sabotaging that…all of that stuff is unfortunately pretty much ripped from our headlines, but kind of the flourishes and other characters are fictionalised. Believe it or not, and I don’t know if it’s a point of pride, but it’s probably the clumsiest attempt at declaring your love for someone that’s ever been lived or depicted.

It makes for a good story though. Have you been looking to make a film about that for a while?

SH: Not particularly. I mean when it happened, I definitely had moments, when I knocked on the door in Paris and Jocelyn opened it and I surprised her and saw in her eyes that I was not welcome. That was a moment where I felt this is very cinematic, this is like a Greek myth or something.

So even when it was happening?

SH: Yeah, I had moments. Not where I was taken out of the experience…

JT: I didn’t have those moments! It was just really horrible.

It was a nightmare for you, while Simon’s taking notes…

JT: Exactly, he was taking notes!

SH: I took those after! But I didn’t think it was funny while it was happening, I just couldn’t believe what I was doing and on top of that when I got to Paris, I could see that she had met somebody and I had to stay in his apartment. I had flown all the way out there and preceded to leap through every national landmark to try and get her back. I didn’t think that was funny and I wasn’t taking notes then but when I got back after all that and after I proposed and all of that stuff happened, I certainly had a moment where I thought oh my god. As I told people the story and people couldn’t really believe it but everybody connected to it, so I thought this could be a universal concept but also the most disastrous example of that quarter life crisis ever so I should try to make a comedy out of it.

JT: Yeah, we see all these films and hear stories about people who had the perfect proposal but there are a quieter bunch of people who are like my proposal didn’t go down that way. The more you start talking about it, the more you hear about all the people who have really bad proposal stories so it was fun to bring this one to life.

There are some very awkward scenes in the film. Was that ever difficult to shoot?

JT: That one scene with Kelsey, where they’re in bed together. That was made even more difficult by the fact that my parents were on set that day so they were watching us film that whole scene and watching me direct Simon, tell him how to do that scene in the dark. It was definitely made even more awkward by the presence of the inlaws!

Was it quite cathartic to get this story out?

JT: Definitely. Getting to reimagine it and take this story, and for me since it was such a painful experience, to see it turned on its head and made into something funny was a really cathartic experience.

SH: Scary. And somewhat perverse and masochistic and also to invite your parents to a scene where I’m getting together with another woman and have them watch that…But it was something that felt dangerous for us to do and tell and it’s a hard thing to come out and say I’m gonna show myself in not the best light and I’m gonna be honest about it. This is a version of our story and we just wanted to purge ourselves and it was something that just ultimately made us laugh. I think that was maybe the healthiest outcome.

JT: Yeah, we’ve now looked at that part of our lives inside out and upside down and I think a lot of the pain now is just gone because thoroughly examined and re-examined, so it’s definitely not something that we swept under the rug and forgot about.

Jocelyn, you’ve directed before, so how did this collaboration work? Did you take the lead this time around?

JT: No, it was very much an equal collaboration. The film that I directed before, I was in so in that instance Simon actually helped me by sitting behind the camera and just being my eyes to what was going on. That one I directed but this one was a true collaboration, from start to finish we really worked on it together. Only in the sense that I was behind the camera the whole time and got to really see things and have that third person perspective. Simon was entrenched in it so I got to see things more clearly than he could, that would be the only way you could say I was playing that role.

Have you got any plans to do another project together?

JT: We’re just looking at directing projects and reading things right now.

SH: Yes, no specific things at the moment but we’re getting our heads around what’s next.

JT: We just became parents so we’re in the middle of the sleepless nights.

SH: Yeah and with this movie coming out and Jocelyn’s movie came out a couple of weeks ago, this movie’s premiering here. We have like no idea what’s going on, hence the breakfast here!

Jocelyn, were you ever tempted to act in the film or was that just too weird?

JT: I think it would’ve been too weird. There was part of me that thought for a second that I wanted to but then I thought absolutely not. I don’t really want to relive that as a character, nor do I think I could’ve done it very well. I don’t think I could’ve had the perspective to hold back and do something new with the character. I wouldn’t have wanted it to be this rehashing of exactly me so when we worked with Melanie Lynskey, because we know her, I told her not to feel any obligation to being me, I want you to create this character as you see on the page. I think I wanted to have that artistic license, giving this role to another actor. I also don’t think it’s a lot of fun to see the two people who have lived it play it out on screen, it doesn’t usually work out somehow.

SH: Then it feels like a bio in some way, or a docu-drama and the movie is just a spin on our experience.

Creatively, what were your main influences? It reminded me of Woody Allen.

SH: Yeah, obviously he’s an enormous hero to me and most guys that look like me.

JT: We were definitely influenced by his work.

SH: So yeah, in terms of influences, a big one for us on this movie was Alexander Payne. Sideways was a huge inspiration. Albert Brooks and Modern Romance, David O Russell’s Flirting With Disaster…those particular movies and that tone we really loved. And obviously Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan…if you can even be mentioned in the same sentence as those movies, just in terms of stylistically, thematically, some of those movies deal with self-destructive characters, people who tend to be a little bit self-consumed or over intellectualise things, people who are their own biggest obstacles. So it’s a hard thing to show a character in a light that’s less than favourable and hopefully still have an audience go on a journey with him. That’s an obstacle that we were acutely aware of and yeah obviously, who isn’t influenced by those people?

It’s a great cast you got together for the film, how did that come to be?

SH: A lot of different ways. With someone like Alfred Molina, that was just a stab in the dark. We loved him so much that I just wrote a letter to him cold and actually he was one of the quickest responses we got. He read it in two days and wanted to do it. Maggie Grace was similar, we didn’t know her and Zachary Quinto we didn’t know, we had a connection through our producer so you know, we were very lucky and it was a wonderful vote of confidence that they all responded very strongly to the script. Then someone like Melanie Lynskey we were friends with for a very long time which is scary and challenging in its own way, giving your script to a friend and a) you don’t want them to feel obligated to do it and b) if they don’t like it, it could be awkward. You’re no longer my friend if you don’t like my work! Jason Ritter was one of my best friends forever so you know, there was a mix of friends and hey do you want to do this? I guess going over it now, we pulled way less favours and got less friends involved than we thought we would initially. Your first idea is to get your buddies in there but we ended up with a nice mix, a really cool group of people.

We’ll Never Have Paris is released on October 9th and you can read our review here.