If you’d never been to New York City and had learned about it exclusively through the dozens of romantic comedies set there, you’d probably have a very specific idea of what it’s like: Absolutely everyone is model-grade hot, even people who work in, like, the emergency room. It’s totally feasible to make a fabulous living by owning a used bookstore. Also, it smells like flowers.
This, however, is not what New York is like even a little bit, but it’s the New York that a regular, cynical, rom-com–hating woman wakes up to after she hits her head in the subway in Isn’t It Romantic, which premiered February 13.
One of the most fun things about the film, which is full of very fun things, is the stark contrast between Natalie’s (Rebel Wilson) environment before the inciting incident versus afterward. Before, she sleeps on a bunkbed in a perfectly fine, slightly shabby apartment with an equally shabby dog who refuses to listen to any command. She works as an architect, but not the cool kind (she designs parking garages) at a bland, anonymous office. The New York she occupies is that of the real New York, where there are annoying fellow commuters and trash bags everywhere, and it smells like it.
But after she hits her head, she’s fully in Rom-Com Land, where every store sells at least one of the following three items: cupcakes, wedding dresses, or books. Isn’t It Romantic has a larger-than-usual percentage of visual gags that exist in the background; they’re Easter eggs for rom-com fans to delight in.
That’s what makes the job of set designer so important to the film’s most joyous moments. Sharon Seymour, a veteran production designer who’s worked on films in many different genres, from Reality Bites to Argo, talked to Vox about the classic rom-coms that inspired the film sets (“all of them”), the challenges of turning New York into a place where everybody seems to be in love, and finally, why rom-coms always have to look so perfect.
What kind of direction were you given to prepare for the film?
I had done some romantic comedies in my career [40 Days and 40 Nights, Because I Said So], so I had the historic knowledge of what the high points are. But Todd [Strauss-Schulson, the director], made a pretty extensive photo reference of elements that get repeated in romantic comedies. And then we just riffed on it, the whole idea of her real life having a very drab, very neutral, beige, gray color palette, and then of course, she leaps into a rom-com and everything is jewel tones and luscious and beautiful. No trash, lots of flowers, arched windows, soft drapery, soft fabric. It was really quite fun to do that tongue-in-cheek.
What were the rom-coms included in the visual references he gave you?
Oh, just any rom-com you can pick. I mean, Pretty Woman, 27 Dresses ... oh, my god, all of them. Our entire hallway [in the production department] was blanketed with these fills referencing iconic rom-coms. In my office I had photographs and color swatches, a lot of references of beautiful floral arrangements and weddings for the wedding sequence. It was really a lovely environment to be in.
What’s different about designing sets for a rom-com versus other genres?
We were making this film to be quintessentially the “rom-com genre.” [There was] the idea that everything would end up looking like a magazine spread. The joke in art departments is when you do romantic comedies, people always have these apartments that are fabulous and unbelievable, [as if they] would ever have one of those, particularly in New York.
You mentioned jewel tones and arched windows, but what are some other ingredients of a rom-com apartment?
Well, they’re always big, way bigger than you imagine they’ll be. There’s a lot of weird little tchotchkes that no real human being has that just look beautiful. You want them to look like they’re living a fabulous life.
What about a rom-com workplace?
It’s completely cool; everything’s color-coordinated. It doesn’t really look like people work there.
New York is such a gross city most of the time, and you did such a great job of skewering that trope. How did you go about making it look so beautiful?
One of the things that was appealing about hiring me, for Todd, was that he knew I would get the realistic world down. We spent a lot of time looking for that neighborhood in Queens that she lives in: Where would someone live who has a midlevel job and is barely making it? The same thing with her office: We almost immediately felt that we needed to set her office building exterior somewhere in the 30s, in one of those anonymous buildings that you don’t even know what goes on in those offices.
Todd is from New York, so he had some specific ideas for the romantic comedy portions of it. He wanted to use the Village a lot, because it’s very charming. It lends itself to being amped up, and it makes New York feel like a wonderful small town. We looked for classic architecture and the ability to light it really nicely. In the real-life scenes, we didn’t look for any of that.
The ice cream shop in Queens, Eddie’s Sweet Shop, is where Todd had a birthday when he was a kid. It’s been in Woody Allen movies; it’s almost iconic as a location. It’s a wonderful period-looking place.
One of the funniest things to me was as soon as she stepped outside in the rom-com world, absolutely everything is just covered in flowers.
We all just immediately knew that flowers were going to be a big part of it. And there’s also the idea that she’s allergic to flowers — she can’t bear it.
There’s a scene where Natalie and Blake have their first kiss and they’re walking down a tree-lined street that looks like no street I’ve ever seen in New York — how did you find that spot?
That was hugely visual effects. We shot down by Madison Square Park, where there are beautiful insurance buildings which have great architecture, but then visual effects put a tremendous amount into that to make it the most spectacular street ever.
People do a lot of greens work — we shot a lot outside, but we enhanced almost all of the nature with out own flowers and tree branches, anything we could do to make it lush. And you know streets are always wet down in romantic comedies because they’re shiny and beautiful.
Rom-coms have sort of fallen out of favor, but especially now, you can do so much digitally. You’re always looking to have the most beautiful view out the window. I know people who do sky replacements. You’re just trying to up the beauty quotient.
Rom-coms seem to exist in these cities where every store is a little used bookstore called “We’ve Got Books!” or something. Why do we demand our rom-coms to look so perfect?
I mean, think of Notting Hill: Everything is beautiful, charming, there are small stores, even though in reality that’s becoming less and less likely in the real world. There’s been so many bookstores and cupcake stores in romantic comedies. Cupcakes are sweet and charming. [There are] wedding dress stores, beautiful fruits and vegetables — it’s just the perfect curated experience in life.
A rom-com implicitly has an idealized world, and part of that is that things are really, really beautiful and don’t have the natural flaws that happen in real life. We would do everything we could to make the location look as fantastic as it possibly could.
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