How Cooper Raiff Brought Back the Coming-of-Age Film

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Photo credit: Apple
Photo credit: Apple

Earlier this year, news was abuzz about the big sale of a small movie at the Sundance Film Festival, where Apple TV+ emerged as the proud owner of writer, director, and actor Cooper Raiff’s sophomore film, Cha Cha Real Smooth, for a cool $15 million.

Set in rural New Jersey, Cha Cha is a coming-of-age story that finds its protagonist, Andrew (Raiff), a bit stunted and moving back in with his mom, stepdad, and younger brother after graduating from college, with the intention of saving enough money to join his girlfriend in Barcelona. He lands a job as a party starter on the local Bat and Bar Mitzvah circuit—getting 13-year-olds and their tipsy moms and dads amped up on the dance floor every Saturday night. Early on, he meets Domino (played by Dakota Johnson) and her daughter, Lola (newcomer Vanessa Burghardt), who is autistic. His adoration of them is obvious and instant; his love of them—as a family, and as individuals—earnest and complex.

The endeavor was a personal one for Raiff; his sister Andrea was born with holoprosencephaly, leaving her unable to walk or talk. “She has all of the feelings that everyone has,” he says. “And she’s got major crushes on boys.” Though the film is ambitious in scope—it covers everything from bipolar disorder and bullying to love and heartbreak—it succeeds beautifully in bringing humanity to a vastly underrepresented group of people; his discovery in Burghardt is nothing short of magic. chatted with Raiff in advance of the film’s debut—it’s streaming now on Apple TV+—about making the movie with Johnson and her producing partner, Ro Donnelly; the “greatest teammate ever” he found in costar Leslie Mann; and all the ways in which Burghardt changed the movie for the better.

I'd love to know a little bit more about how the title Cha Cha Real Smooth came to you and why you chose the Bat and Bar Mitzvah circuit as the backdrop for the story.

In college, when I was writing a lot, I had this character who didn't have a name; she was just a mom of a disabled kid. And the crux of it was someone whose life has been defined by the stages of her kid and will always be defined by those stages. Sometimes I would write little scenes. After I made this movie called Shithouse, I started meeting with people to see, like, "What's your next thing?" And I really wanted to make this TV show, so I kept pitching this TV show. But everyone was like, "We don't do TV. You made a movie, we want to do a movie with you."

And so I started to try to think of different things to pitch to people. And I would dig into old stuff and be like, "Let me try this pitch." There were many, but one of the pitches was this mom who I had written, and I remember I pitched just the character to someone. At a certain point, I did have this idea of someone who is 22, has just left college, who starts this relationship with a mom and her kid. And I needed a way for them to keep coming into contact with each other. My original idea was that she should be some sort of teacher and maybe he's going to grad school, but I wanted it to be more fun.

My seventh-grade year was the most visceral year of my life, because I went to this school that was 40 percent Jewish. I'm not Jewish, so it didn't mean anything to me that people were Jewish around me. But then, seventh grade hit, and I was going to a service and a party every single Saturday. Truly every Saturday. I had my first kiss at a Bar Mitzvah. And I just got super obsessed with this idea of this 22-year-old, who is not a man, at these parties, alongside these little men.

I thought back to my experiences at the Bar Mitzvahs and thought about the party starters. There was this guy named Vince who did every single party. I'm from Dallas, Texas, and he was the only Bar Mitzvah party starter. He's, like, 40 years old and the biggest, best sport in the world. When the theme of the whole movie started really coming together I thought, This guy's really good at starting other people's parties, but he's so bad at starting his own. And that's the crux of their relationship—the fact that Domino didn't have the chance to start her own party.

It really was a long process. I met with Dakota and really just pitched her the character, because I knew that's what she would care most about. I also said the title was Cha Cha Real Smooth. And she was like, "Let's do it."

Photo credit: Apple
Photo credit: Apple

And beyond “let’s do it,” what was her reaction to your pitch of this woman and this mother?

I really tied it into what I love about her as a performer. It wasn't always Dakota in my mind. The character was older and didn't look like Dakota Johnson. But when I met with Ro, I just got excited because TeaTime, their production company, was in early stages. And I, as a filmmaker, was at the earliest possible stage. And so, I could tell that Ro really was hungry to make something, in the same way I was.

I really gravitated towards Ro, and when I met with Dakota, I just went hard-core and pitched the character. I came up with the character's name before the meeting. I really tried to show her that I see her in her movies and that I wish the director would've given her more space to do what she's so good at. Because she's so talented and so smart, and can do so much with so little explanation. And you don't have to do the exposition with her ever, because she's so lived in. There are so many actors who feel like they could float away when the camera's on them, but she's not leaving. And it's so engaging to watch. So I just told her all those things. And I think that's what made her want to do the movie.

So throughout all the iterations of this script, it seems like you always maintained it was important that Domino be the mother of someone who’s disabled. I’d love to know why that was so integral to you, personally, why it was so meaningful to the telling of this story.

It was plagiarized. My sister's disabled. And my mom had said to me one time, "My life has been defined by her stages, and they always will be." And it was like, "I don't know what to do with that information other than write it down."

And is that something you realized on your own growing up, or was it not until she said it out loud that it became realized? That’s such a profound statement, and so vulnerable and honest for a parent to share.

She's a psychologist also, so … I think it's something that I always felt throughout my childhood, but when she put it into words, it really told me a lot not just about her, but about myself. And that's why adding the 22-year-old into the mix was so natural. Writing that character, it wasn't just about me being obsessed with my mom, although I am. It was also about trying to understand what that says about the way that I was raised and my instincts to be the relief. Because she was the person that raised me also. And I wasn't the one that was defining her stages in any way; in ways, my sister was probably defining mine.

So much of the heartache in this film, I thought, is that realization when you’re at a certain age, some people are just passing through. They have an impact, they’re a soul mate, but not the person you end up with. Was that always the way that this was going to go, or was there a version in which Domino and Andrew end up together?

I didn’t write the end until the end. I think deep down, I probably knew that's how it was going to end. But in order for scenes to feel alive, I really do have to believe that they are going to end up together, and I have to be scared that they're not going to end up together.

As a writer, really going into the feelings of this quite naive 22-year-old, and then going into the feelings of the Domino character, who is always pretty careful with him—and I love that about her. She's got issues, and she crosses lines, but I love how selfish she is in certain ways. For both of them, in moments, it's like, "Maybe this does feel really good." It does, in moments feel like, "Why not?" But if someone had put a gun to my head and said, "How's it going to end?" I'd be like, "They're not going to be together." But I wanted it to feel alive the whole way through.

Photo credit: Apple
Photo credit: Apple

It definitely did. You mentioned that you hadn’t always pictured Dakota in the role of Domino. How about Leslie Mann, who plays your mom in this? She was perfect. Was she someone that you’d always had in mind?

She's who I wrote the part for, because she's the most alive actor there is. People, I think, always say that she balances comedy and drama really well, but really, she's the most awake person. And she's so funny, but she's also so emotionally available at every second. And so, it's just a joy to talk to her, on camera or off. If I wrote every character with Leslie in mind, all those characters would be so amazing and pop off the page, because she's so inspiring.

When we set out to cast the role, we were like, "Let's just go for Leslie," because Dakota was friends with her. I wrote this crazy-long letter. I wrote an insane letter. And I'm sure she read it and was like, "I'm never going to step foot on a set with this person." But then Dakota said, "He's not crazy. You should do this with me." She came to Pittsburgh for five days and was the biggest, greatest teammate ever. She was just as good as I thought she would be.

And then, in terms of finding Vanessa, who plays Lola, that was through one of the many audition tapes you watched?

We did the search for the three kids, Rodrigo, David, and Lola; [played by] Vanessa, Evan, and Colton. We got so many auditions for the boys, but we were having trouble getting a lot of tapes for Lola. And we were searching everywhere. And then, Vanessa popped up. And Vanessa's not always on the page for Lola. I remember the casting director was like, "This is not Lola, but I think you should watch it." And I watched it, and I just got flooded with tears. I didn't know what was happening, but I was like, "That's Lola. And the rest of the process is just going to be me trying to catch up with her."

The main thing was that she was older than Lola was. So I had to add certain lines so that people wouldn’t get caught up with the fact that she is older. I really loved the aspect of Domino being an outsider because she's young and hot and Dakota Johnson. And Vanessa is this outsider because she's older and not neurotypical, but also is taller than all of the boys. And that was another thing that was true, I think, of that post-pubescent phase, is sometimes the girls would just be towering over the boys. So it made sense to me.

And beyond the age, I'm curious to know how the script changed or what it was that Vanessa brought of herself that made it change?

She's really funny. And I didn't think that Lola was going to be. Vanessa has this thing where she can't be anything but honest, but she's aware enough that she has some sort of like, "I know that I just ruined your life." She brought this comedic timing, really, that just is so, so, so entertaining. She's so great to watch.

You know what didn’t change, that I thought would change, and I’m so glad it didn’t? It’s hard to talk about. One thing that I leaned into more was, like, Vanessa is older, and therefore the back-scratching scene might be more loaded. And it was funny because I thought about my sister a lot. My sister is not autistic, but she can't walk or talk. She's got something called holoprosencephaly. But she has all of the feelings that everyone has. And she's got major crushes on boys.

Photo credit: Apple
Photo credit: Apple

There are so many big things, and big emotions, being tackled—even the different types of love. Obviously, Andrew’s attraction to Domino, it’s romantic from the get-go, but when they’re sitting in the car at the end preparing to say goodbye, Andrew says, “I just love you guys so much.” And that love doesn’t feel romantic, in the sexual sense. He loves them as a family. They’ve made an impact on him, and he’s going to miss them. And it’s amazing how you hit it all. And it does feel just so human.

Thank you so much. Love is so … I've felt this way about a few people in life, where your love for that person takes on so many different forms, but it's just always the most passionate. So whether you're wanting to kiss a person or whether you're wanting to just make sure that they're going to be okay forever, it's that same peak love.

What is your hope for the film now that the masses get to see it beyond the festival circuit?

I wanted that ultimately, when the credits roll, you are walking away or you're leaving your couch with a very specific joy that is so coded with sadness and with longing and a wistful thing. But I want people to feel good about the fact that they probably didn't end up with one of their soul mates. Or I want people to feel good about being alone and what an opportunity that is. Like Domino says, "How scary, but how amazing."

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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