'French Girl' Directors Put Fresh Spin on Retro Rom-Com: "Our Dream Was Always to Write John Hughes-Esque Films"

Montreal filmmakers James A. Woods and Nicolas Wright say, "We just want to laugh and smile and cuddle"

Photo courtesy of Elevation Pictures

BY Rachel HoPublished Mar 15, 2024

Upon meeting Montreal-born actors, writers and directors James A. Woods and Nicolas Wright, I unnecessarily admit to them that I hadn't seen their first Hollywood studio screenplay endeavour, Independence Day: Resurgence. Being the good-natured Canadians they are, this revelation was welcomed with a hearty laugh and homegrown self-deprecation.

"We were thrust into the Hollywood machine with big, big, big, big movies," Woods explains after poking fun at Resurgence's less-than-stellar reception. "[It] felt really good to literally come back home, but also write something that by design, is the stuff we grew up on. Our dream was always to write these fun John Hughes-esque films."

Wright adds, "They don't make these anymore. They're a lot harder to get made now."

Speaking with the filmmakers ahead of the Telefilm Canada Montreal premiere of their movie, French Girl, the full-circle nature of the evening and the film itself becomes apparent when the guys share their own meet-cute: "When Nic and I met in 2001 on a TV shows as actors, we immediately shared one very common thread: our English fathers met French Canadian women and moved to Quebec," Woods recalls.

Through this connection, the two became writing partners, recognizing that the fish-out-of-water story of an Anglophone in Quebec was not only an obvious story, but one "our fathers and mothers lived and breathed," says Woods.

The two set about writing a script following a head-over-heels English-speaking Canadian from British Columbia cross-country "to the weird province of Quebec," as Wright lovingly describes it. From there, hijinx ensue, as language and culture create comedic tension and misunderstandings; however, over the course of 10-plus years from when Wright and Woods first sat down to write the film's treatment, a lot changed in the script and in the world.

At the suggestion of one of the film's producers, Anders Bard, Canada's most westerly province was substituted for Brooklyn, NY, which Woods and Wright both agreed would broaden the scope of the film and open up the possibility of a co-production with an American company. This change would also lead to Zach Braff joining the film to play Gordon, the American in love with Evelyne Brochu's Sophie, who heads to Quebec City as Sophie competes for the executive chef position at the famed Chateau Frontenac.

The biggest change, though, wasn't in the plot or characters, but in the two filmmakers themselves. "[The time] allowed us to write better scripts and to be very disciplined in our approach to being directors," explains Woods. "We knew what was doable, what wasn't doable fiscally, and to be responsible in that sense. The good news is that, having worked on those big movies, we had such great tutors in that of Roland Emmerich, the Russo brothers, Seth Gordon..."

"Jamie Vanderbilt," Wright adds.

Woods continues, "But also time is one of the greatest assets a writer can have. If you have the patience for it — to write something and put it away for as much time as you can muster. The perspective you get when you come back, it's insane. You're like, 'Why did we think that was good? This is fucking terrible.' And then you come at it with fresh eyes, and you see things you never saw. And again, for most writers, us included, it's hard to muster the patience for that. But if you can do it, it's like aging wine."

A return to the rom-coms of the '80s, '90s and 2000s, there's almost a degree of kismet in French Girl being released today, as opposed to when Woods and Wright began developing the film. The two cite the success of Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell's Anyone but You as an example of audiences' growing appetite for light-hearted love stories that used to dominate cinemas.

"The world is in shambles," Woods remarks. "We just want to laugh and smile and cuddle. If you look at Amazon, Netflix and Apple, their most-cycled movies and shows are the feel-good, meat-and-potato comedies, whether it's TV or film. They're still tracking in their Top 10 constantly, and they don't have any more!"

As the generation who grew up with the classic Brat Pack teenage romances on TV and She's All That and 10 Things I Hate About You in cinemas, there's a collective agreement that, while those films have an incredible amount of rewatchability and can be comfortably considered a peak time for the genre, there are stereotypes and tropes that are better left behind as we grow and develop as a society.

As they approached a more modern take to the rom-com, Woods and Wright maintained a thoughtful consideration about what their role should be in doing so. In the film, the third party to Gordon and Sophie's bliss is Ruby, played by Vanessa Hudgens, the ex-girlfriend of Sophie. Going against what may be expected of a rural French Canadian family, Sophie's family emphatically champions Ruby as the better mate for Sophie, with Woods and Wright intentionally focusing solely on compatibility and familial preferences.

"There's a lot of LGBTQ threads in the story, but we don't talk about it. It's a picture of a world that we want to live in, where everyone's just accepting and we don't have to talk about it. It just is," Wright explains. "To not make a meal out of [Sophie and Ruby's relationship] was important for us. Enough people have talked about these things, and they will continue to talk about it [because] it's important. But maybe our job isn't that."

After the fall of the Nicholas Sparks era, the rom-com as we knew it seemed to be destined for nostalgic rewatches on streaming services. A film like French Girl helps fill a void in the industry by bringing the genre back to basics without ignoring that the values and expectations surrounding dating and marriage — and the dynamics that come with it — have changed greatly. And through the film, Woods and Wright demonstrate that when done well, the rom-com not only prevails, but is sorely needed.

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