[INTERVIEW] Filmmaker Jennifer Kaytin Robinson turned personal heartbreak into profundity with ‘SOMEONE GREAT’

Gina Rodriguez and Lakeith Stanfield in SOMEONE GREAT. Courtesy of Netflix.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

In her early twenties, writer-director Jennifer Kaytin Robinson went through a devastating heartbreak. Instead of internalizing the pain, anguish and frustration over the relationship’s end, she repackaged that emotional finality into the screenplay for SOMEONE GREAT. This empowering narrative about two friends (played by DeWanda Wise and Brittany Snow) coming to the rescue of their recently brokenhearted bestie, Jenny (Gina Rodriguez), puts female friendship at the forefront, delivering an incredibly satisfying payoff.

At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, the affable filmmaker spoke about everything from how heartbreak inspired her, to filming in the same location as the heartbreak transpired, to pouring her broken heart out onto the page – or her iPhone notes, as it were.

It seems like for many people the heartbreak of romantic relationships and friendships are fully intertwined with starting a career.

No, I think it’s really real. I’ve heard from a lot of women that they feel really seen by this.

What was the genesis of this story?

I got dumped in my early 20’s in New York and I had a great time with my best friends and they were there and picked me up. We went to Coachella. There’s very much a lot that’s inspired by my 20’s and that experience. I wanted to make a romantic comedy where the promise of a romantic relationship isn’t the core of the film and isn’t what you’re driving for. I wanted to make a film where the woman could choose herself.

There are so many stories where something bad happens and a woman’s whole life is blown up. She quits her job and goes crazy. That’s not real. Something happens and you go out and drink your tequila with your best friends and you get up and live your life! I wanted to make a story where women can be messy but it didn’t mean that they have to blow everything up.

The film’s title changes meaning as what you think it’s referring to, which I thought was brilliant.

Exactly. You nailed it. You start the movie thinking someone great is him and then you think, whoa, someone great is her. And I think, at the beginning, she thinks someone great is him. It’s also an incredibly subjective journey for Jenny. You’re watching her come to a place where she’s choosing herself.

Once all the actresses signed on, did you tweak the writing to suit their own voices?

No. The characters in the script are very much what you see on screen. The way that we collaborated was way more…we’d get to set and I’d say, “This is a safe space and I want you to feel like you can put your own spin on it, but let’s get the words. At the end of the day, their chemistry was so real and rich that they were able to play off of each other that elevated the material in this really jump off the screen, lightning in a bottle kind of way.

As a director, I felt incredibly lucky to have assembled such an empowered, strong group of women who are so unique and so different, but they complement each other in the most amazing way. Not only do they lift each other up on screen, but also off screen.

DeWanda Wise, Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow in SOMEONE GREAT. Courtesy of Netflix.

Were you surprised at the depth and nuance they brought to your words?

There are definitely scenes that I wrote that are very close to my heart and close to my own life experiences. When I saw them on the monitor when I was directing them, it hit me in a way where I became emotional. The break-up scene and the sex scene that happens after they have the fight on the street – I felt like I was watching something that I have lived, even though it wasn’t exactly what I had lived. It’s always a little scary to put yourself out there like that and be vulnerable in that way. But I knew I was doing something correct. If this was hitting me in this way, I do think it will hit other people in this way – especially women.

Jenny writing on the subway is a set-piece when it comes to that. I got a lump in my throat on the line about shattered glass, when it hits the light, it glitters. Was that difficult to re-insert yourself into that mind-space to write that? Or did that flow out of you?

So that poem, or part of that poem, was something I wrote as a catharsis after a breakup. I had it in my phone. I was driving and crying and I missed him and I just wrote it in the notes of my phone. And I thought, this is just gonna be for me. As I was fine tuning the script – and I was a little bit nervous about it, because it’s such a personal thing to me – I decided to include that poem. To get a note back from people to that could say it doesn’t work, or they don’t like it… I think it immediately resonated with Paul [Feig] and Dan [Magnante]. When that happened, it was validation.

When we were shooting the movie in Williamsburg, the boyfriend that I had been with that the poem was about lived in Williamsburg and that’s where our relationship was and we were shooting three blocks away from his apartment. Gina and I were in a van and she was recording the poem and I’m sitting on the street that I used to walk around with my ex-boyfriend and here she is, reading this poem. I had this really crazy out of body experience. There were a lot of pieces of me that I have put into this movie in a real way.

How did you collaborate with your cinematographer Autumn Eakin, to create the look of Jenny’s flashbacks?

She was an incredible partner. I had said, “I don’t want this to be something where we do a filter, or make this black and white, or sepia.” I didn’t want it to feel affected. I wanted it to feel like it’s the way you romanticize these memories that you tap into right after a break-up. I think those memories feel cinematic in your brain, because you’re choosing those things – that “I love you,” that fight, whatever you’re tapping into. These are the pieces of who you are together. For me, it was about picking those dreamy colors and having the color feel really fluid and gorgeous and, in those darker moments, having that contrast of the pink and the greens, those more loud, audacious neons that inform the way Jenny feels about what she’s remembering.

The other thing is, I wanted it to be beautiful. This is a movie for and about women. I really wanted this to feel like it’s its own painting – to have its own visual stamp. For it to feel like you could frame a still from this movie and feel like it’s a piece of art, even though it’s a romantic comedy.

Was there a learning curve going from your TV show, to making movies?

Absolutely. I don’t think I would’ve wanted to direct SOMEONE GREAT if I had not made SWEET/ VICIOUS. Being a creator in television, it’s a lot of the same things. It’s making those costume decisions and production design decisions and editing. I didn’t go to film school, but making that television show was really my version of film school. Off of that I felt comfortable to step into this role with having the partners I had in Paul Feig, Anthony Bregman and Gina Rodriguez.

SOMEONE GREAT begins streaming on Netflix on April 19.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.