The Director of 'Set It Up' Reveals Secrets of Shooting That Pizza Scene (Exclusive)
By John Boone
Photo by K C Bailey / Courtesy of Netflix
Females are strong as hell. They're at the forefront of director Claire Scanlon's new Netflix rom-com, Set It Up: Harper (Zoey Deutch), the overworked, underpaid assistant who, conspiring with fellow assistant Charlie (Glen Powell), hatches an elaborate caper to set up her boss, all the while learning she must face her own fears and do the tough work of growing up. There's also Harper's boss, Kirsten (Lucy Liu), a self-made woman in a male-dominated industry who isn't afraid to tell men about themselves, especially her new beau, Charlie's boss, Rick (Taye Diggs).
Then there's the strong as hell females behind the camera, including writer Katie Silberman and Scanlon, an Emmy winner for The Office who has directed all of your favorite sitcoms from Brooklyn Nine-Nine to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Scanlon makes her feature debut with Set It Up, which she began shooting while seven and a half months pregnant and wrapped mere weeks before she gave birth to her son.
"Even I realize that is kind of crazy," the director admits with a laugh, though she claims the experience was not nearly as difficult as one might imagine. "It was super not. In fact, I think it's really boring being pregnant. If you're not having any problems -- which thankfully I was not -- it's totally dull." With Set It Up now streaming on Netflix and still making viewers swoon on repeat viewings, Scanlon phoned ET to discuss filming the instantly beloved pizza scene, the best jokes that didn't make the final cut and what she wants to see in a sequel.
ET: Congratulations on the movie premiering -- and to all this love!
Claire Scanlon: I know! It's crazy!
What have you seen, personally, in terms of the reception to this?
I don't know if you've seen that Buzzfeed thing, like 17 Tweets [You'll Only Relate To If You're Newly Obsessed With "Set It Up"]. Someone wrote -- this was possibly the best one -- like, "I so appreciated the pizza in Set It Up one thousand-times more than I liked the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park." [Laughs] The pizza scene was resonating with a lot of people, man! It's so funny, because I feel like, "Really? Pizza? That's what people are bonding over?!" I think it's the fact that it's the people you want to see together and their moment of connection where they kind of get a clue. So people are projecting onto the pizza and putting more power into the actual pizza than there really is. But I appreciate that people are connecting to it! I think there's been a real desire for rom-coms and I don't know why people aren't making them.
And I feel like every time a rom-com is successful, critics and fans say it's "reviving the rom-com," no matter how many great rom-coms have revived the genre before it. I saw that for Set It Up, too. Is that something that was daunting for you, that you were making a film in a genre that isn't being made and that constantly needs reviving?
No, I didn't think about that too much. I thought this script, especially, was so clever and witty on both the comedy side and just caring about the characters. I never once doubted that people would like it. I was like, If we don't execute the script correctly, then people might not. If we don't cast the script correctly, people might not like it. So, it was like, Well, just don't mess it up. Don't mess up the good thing you have. In my mind, it wasn't daunting at all to think about, Hey, this is a genre that people keep saying is dying and needs reviving. I think what you asked would be too much pressure. [Laughs] It's already enough pressure to be like, Hey, I'm pregnant and directing my first feature! Don't mess it up!
In terms of the rom-coms you referenced while making this, what tropes of the genre did you want to play with?
My very first job in this town was [as an assistant editor on the documentary] Frank Capra's American Dream, so I saw all of his movies, every single one. I would definitely say It Happened One Night was a really special film. I really like the earnestness -- you know, "the Capra touch" and all of that. I like the way his characters are always striving to make the world a better place. And I would say I definitely wanted to lean in on that. It was nice to have three-dimensional characters, especially like, not just have these bosses be jackasses. One of my favorite scenes is the second to last scene, where Kirsten says, "OK, whatcha got? Let me read your article." She's no dummy. She knows Harper wants to write, but Harper gives up really quickly, so why should Kirsten help someone who doesn't want to help herself? And then I like how at the end they do. I like women helping women.
I like characters from the '30s and '40s. Like, Rosalind Russell was a badass in His Girl Friday. I don't know if you know this story, but she was the third choice for that film. I think Carole Lombard was first. So, [Russell] knew she was on thin ice. She knew she was no one's favorite, and she felt the female role was mostly underwritten -- it was a Cary Grant film -- so she had a friend of hers who was a writer punch up her lines every night. She would come to set not only knowing what she was supposed to say, but adding to it. She basically got a script doctor for her role, and Cary Grant was like, "What the what?!" And then he got a writer to punch up his. So, they were coming to work, like, uber-prepared to one-up each other and I feel like you sense that. They had such a great repartee. So, I gave Glen and Zoey that one as like, This is my favorite. His Girl Friday is my favorite, even though the penultimate film I think is probably -- and I even am embarrassed to say this, because no one will make a film as good as this -- but The Philadelphia Story is perfect and so wonderful and I was not trying to repeat any of these movies. They're what I'm drawn to and I would just say if I could even get in their orbit, in the stratosphere near them, that would be even awesome.
I know the first voice we hear in the movie belongs to Tina Fey and that we hear Ellie Kemper in that montage, too. Are there any other Easter eggs scattered throughout the movie?
Yeah, they're all in the Thank Yous, if you catch it. So, the first voice that you hear is Tina -- she says, "Jessica! The phones!" -- that's because Jessica was her assistant, and when I was working on Kimmy Schmidt, I knew Jessica. It meant something to me to have Tina. I haven't told this to anyone, really, but before -- like right before -- we were shooting, it was April and I was in New York prepping the film, and I asked Tina if I could just come by her office. And I was like, "Can I do this? And she was like, "Oh god, we're not talking about that. Of course you can do it." Tina is great. She's just as cool as you think she would be. When people ask me what it's like working with her, I'm like, "Everything you would hope it would be and more." She's just great, and that was really meaningful that that's the first voice you hear.
Jeff Garlin has been insanely supportive, and he says, "Jonathan, cancel my 10 o'clock!" I don't think anybody knows this about him, but he's just super supportive and helpful to women. He's just a very nice guy who's like, "Are you being treated OK?" And this was all before the #MeToo movement and the Time's Up stuff. I directed him a bunch on The Goldbergs, and we clicked right away. Michaela Watkins is another one at the top. She is a wonderfully supportive human being, and I worked for her [when] she was a showrunner on a show called Benched, which lived for, like, a minute on USA when they thought they wanted to have a comedy.
I remember that show! I loved that show!
It was actually a cute show! John Michael Higgins, I worked with on Great News. He's the guy who's always in Pitch Perfect with Liz Banks. He's such a good guy and I love his work, so he's in there. Ellie is in there. And then finally, Craig Robinson's in there. He's like, "Women are sexting and waxing..." It's the conversation that Taye has with Craig that leads Charlie to be like, "Kirsten needs to get waxed." That really awkward [scene].
Is working on Kimmy Schmidt how you linked you up with Tituss [Burgess, who cameos as the office's maintenance man, Creepy Tim]?
No! I love working with Tituss. I think that happened through Tituss. Like, somehow he got ahold of the script before, so it's such a funny story because I always thought that he was attached, like he was just always someone people were talking about for Creepy Tim when I came onboard. And because of me doing Kimmy, the producers and the writer always thought that I thought Creepy Tim was supposed to be Titus. It was just like, I think Tituss thought that he should be Creepy Tim. It was just so perfect that we were all onboard without even questioning it. He was great, because he was also nothing like Titus Andromedon on this. It was a very different role.
Was his scene as scripted, or did he take what was written and run with it?
I would say he took what was scripted and then added to it. Katie got very comfortable with him. This isn't typical in features but in television, you always have your writer there. I was like, "Katie, please be here every day." Why wouldn't I want my writer to be on the set every single day, taking moments and running with them? There was this one line that was not scripted where Harper and Kirsten say "Don't pee!" And I think Katie might have said to Tituss, "Say pee!" It was so good. It's so hard with improv-- I can't remember what Katie shouted out and Tituss did improv, so it might have been Titus who was like, "Peeeee."
So much of the movie relies on Glen and Zoey's chemistry. Do you remember the moment it clicked and you realized, "Oh, this is going to work"?
My issue with their chemistry was never that it wouldn't work, it was that it would be too obvious from the get-go. It was almost like, this is a problem because it's too good. Even though, to talk about tropes of the genre, you always know that they're going to get together at the end. There's never any doubt, really, in the genre, but you also don't want it telegraphed to you in the very first meet-cute scene. So, for that scene where they meet in the lobby, I was like, "Do not make eye contact with each other. Do not notice that that is a man and a woman. It is all about the food, never take your eyes off of the food. It's all about getting back to the office." And if you look, it's all about the stuff. They're looking at the food, they're looking at the delivery guy, and even when they're walking when she comes to pay back the pickle thief, it's a walk and talk until he asks, "Hey, you want a drink?" They're walking side by side. So, then once they're drunk and they're opposite each other at the desk, they're still not talking to each other, they're talking at each other. Those kinds of things, I think, helped mitigate the clear chemistry. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that there was chemistry there. I'd much rather have my situation than the opposite! [Laughs]
You mentioned the drunken pizza scene, which everyone has fallen in love with. What do you remember about shooting that?
That's a night scene, so we call it "lunch" when we take our meal break but, like, lunch is at midnight. And Zoey puked because she's so flipping method that she ate way too many pieces of pizza. I said, "Don't eat the pizza! There's a spit bucket! Spit it out!" I was like, "Your character doesn't even eat a whole slice in the scene. You don't have to eat the pizza!" She was like, "I gotta eat the pizza!" [Laughs] I hate to destroy the idea that it was romantic, but she puked. Glen was sick. I mean, they were both so sick of pizza. I don't know if you can catch it, but there's grease on Glen's face, and I love that it was messy and greasy. They were like, "Oh, should we clean that up?" I was like, No! That's the way that you eat pizza! It gets messy. And they're drunk! They don't notice there's grease on their faces. So, it was fun, but I felt for them, too.
Lucy has also been getting so much love for this, rightfully so. Do you have a standout memory of filming a particular scene with her?
First of all, I should preface this to say the character of Kirsten is the one I personally relate to the most. Lucy knows this. I just feel like I can totally relate to putting my personal life on hold to try to further my career, maybe at the cost of even having the opportunity to have children. And I don't know that Lucy's that dissimilar to myself either. Look, I was 45 years old and pregnant while shooting the movie! [Laughs] Like, barely made it by the skin of my teeth to have this second kid. I had a lot of sympathy for that character and I wanted her to succeed. Which, I do, by the way, think the character of Kirsten, even though it doesn't work out with her and Rick, she's not bitter, jaded or nasty. And I'd like to think, somewhere in the future that being with Rick kind of opened the door and made her realize that she does have space for somebody in her life. Just not a jackass. But I'm digressing.
The scene I really loved is one we shot earlier on, which was the scene where Harper has to tell Kirsten that she has a spa appointment to get a bikini wax, out of nowhere. And the editor had started cutting the scenes together and she's like, "Hey, can I send you some scenes?" She sent me that one and as soon as I saw that scene I said, "OK, we have a movie." I took a deep breath and said, "We got this." That scene, to me, is perfect. [Laughs] I've seen the movie way too many times, obviously—but I never get bored of that scene.
One bummer of Netflix is that we don't get a DVD with deleted scenes or special features.
I know! I have one of those FireWire drives with some deleted scenes. Because the movie came in at two and a half hours. It was bonkers. It was waaaaaay too long. I'm also a firm believer in a 90-minute comedy, and this is an hour forty. So, I'm shy 10 minutes of my desire, but I'll take it.
Can you tell me about your favorite scene or joke that didn't make the final cut?
Well, there was a joke in the script-- Let me pull it up since you're interested, because I don't want to do it a disservice, because I haven't heard this joke out loud in a while. But while I'm answering that question, there was a great scene after Harper says, "You fix it," after they have the Korean BBQ issue and Charlie was the one who dropped the ball. He goes and follows Kirsten on a lunch to see her mother and it's very physically funny. He's like, trying to stalk her and not be seen by her, but she doesn't know what he looks like! Then he goes to the Bryant Park Grill and eavesdrops on her conversation with her mom, who is nice but is unintentionally dismissive of [Kirsten's] sports website. You just see that the character of Kirsten is like, Ugh, I hate this lunch. And it was great! Glenn was terrific. I miss that that scene isn't there, but I also know that we didn't need it. But the quote, I remember reading the script and when I read this line, I was like," Oh, I have to do this movie." Because this line is so good! It's Duncan, the Peter Davidson character, and Harper and Charlie talking—
[Reading through the screenplay.] It's kind of weird to go back into the script. I have not opened this up in a long time. It's this line at the pool party, when she sits down and she's like, "Golf guy isn't calling me." It's when she says, "Men need shelter. I'm guaranteeing shelter." Duncan tries to make her feel better and Harper looks at Duncan and takes his hand very emotionally and says, "I wish it was the '50s and you had to pretend to be straight and we had a passionless and confusing marriage." And he says, "Simpler times." I thought that was really funny, that one couplet. Of course, it was the opposite of simpler times and no one would want to go back in time to that time. But it showed how she clicked with Duncan and I really liked that relationship, we just didn't have time. I think you need to stay with where the emotions are.
I know the movie only just started streaming, but Netflix moves fast. Have you heard any talk about a sequel yet?
Oh, god! You know, the only people that ask me about sequels are reporters! Typically, [Netflix] waits two weeks -- they don't even put pressure on you for your opening weekend -- so, we're having a phone call with them, and that's when they start telling us what they think. I did hear that it's doing well! But they won't tell us, you know, what doing well is doing. This is very inside baseball but all the assistants at my agency have been emailing me. All the assistants are like, "We looove this movie! We related to it!" They're somehow, by hook or by crook, finding out my information and I take it as the highest praise that assistants relate to these characters.
If Netflix asks you if you're interested in revisiting these, would you be?
Of course! Absolutely! And Katie Silberman, on set, was joking, like, Harper and Charlie go to a wedding and they want to set up their friends! So, she's already thinking about it. I don't know if that idea didn't come about because of the very fact that Katie was, at that time, planning her wedding. I also would love to see what goes on with Kirsten. I want her to have somebody, I do. I think she deserves it. I think she's a good person, so of course I want to see that resolved. So, who knows!