Spinster director Andrea Dorfman’s heartwarming comedy maintains that heroine Gaby (Chelsea Peretti) doesn’t need romantic love to be happy. Discover more great Canadian cinema.
In the press notes for Spinster, director Andrea Dorfman describes it as a film that “tells a story of someone who isn’t always seen — in this case, the single woman.” Single women in films are usually partnered up by the end of the story. Spinster has been marketed as an “anti rom-com,” because even though it’s a heartwarming comedy about a woman’s relationships, the script steadfastly maintains that heroine Gaby (Chelsea Peretti) doesn’t need romantic love to be happy.
The film begins on Gaby’s 39th birthday and ends on her 40th; in between, we watch her realise that romantic love isn’t the be all and end all of her existence, as romantic comedies so often paint it to be. At first, Gaby is actively seeking a man, even after a series of thoroughly disappointing dates. But throughout the film, she learns that by working on strengthening the non-romantic relationships in her life, she can find joy outside of romantic love.
Gaby is at first bitter and standoffish with the people in her life as she maintains that everything will be OK if she gets herself a boyfriend. But slowly, she softens: she bonds with her dad and her brother, befriends her older neighbour who is also a single woman, gets close to her niece, and finds comfort in her best friend. At the same time, we watch her indulge in her interests, like cooking — which is also her job — knitting, and hiking.
By using the structure and aesthetics of a romantic comedy, Dorfman and screenwriter Jennifer Deyell allow us to revel in what we love about the genre while challenging our expectations of whether our protagonist’s happy ending needs to involve romantic love. The film has a gorgeous, inviting score and candy-coloured cinematography and set design; it successfully gave me all the warm and fuzzy feelings that I love rom-coms for. But even as I laughed along with Gaby and enjoyed her journey toward self-actualisation, part of me still expected her to find someone in the end, especially as she unexpectedly meets a lovely, single guy in the final act. But if Gaby found someone at the end of Spinster, it would be antithetical to the point that Dorfman and Deyell are making. Instead of finding a man, she finds herself.
I spoke to Dorfman about the challenges that come with pushing back against outdated rom-com tropes, working with the brilliant comedian Chelsea Peretti, and shooting group scenes.
Seventh Row (7R): I’ve seen Spinster advertised as an “anti rom-com.” Was it part of the original conception of the film to tell a story that pushes against romantic comedy tropes?
Andrea Dorfman: Yeah, it was, right from the get go. We wanted to, for lack of a better way of putting it, lure the audience in by starting to use the rom-com tropes. Then, at some point, we deviate from that. The rom-com does seem to overly rely on the [archetype of the] single woman, usually in her twenties or thirties, who’s unhappy and wants to find a forever person. Their life hasn’t really begun because of that.
7R: I think we’re trained to expect that a rom-com heroine will have a few disappointing romantic encounters until the film climaxes with a successful one, and you’re really playing with that expectation in Spinster. Gaby has her disappointing dates, and she even has a lovely “date” near the end of the film, but she still doesn’t end up in a relationship.
Andrea Dorfman: One of the challenges that we — I’m a co-creator of the story with Jennifer Deyell, the writer — set ourselves was how do we create a film where the happy ending doesn’t include finding a mate? It’s finding yourself.
It turns out [telling that story is] actually really hard because we’re constantly told that [finding a mate] is what will make you happy. There’s a reason for that, right? I think there’s a lot that relies on it: a lot of money, selling, and advertising. So if you keep people engaged with it, they’ll keep moving towards it by upgrading ourselves in some way, to put it bluntly. I think [we wanted] to set up a story where all of those same rom-com plotlines exist, but to turn it, instead, into a blossoming of a character.
One of the things that is really satisfying is that people like the ending. When we had the script, people didn’t like the ending. Different people at different times really pressured us to continue with the rom-com idea, which was amazing to me because the whole point of this [film] was to not do that.
7R: Why do you think there was a difference between how people reacted to the script versus the finished film?
Andrea Dorfman: Because I think people don’t have the imagination. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, actually. I think in order for us to change anything about us personally or about society, we have to have wild imaginations. Everything is moving towards what we already see in the world. It feels safe so we want to just replicate it, even when it’s bad for us.
Film is an art form that’s not complete until it’s done. The script is a map, but you really need the characters, the sets, the music, and the emotions for it to feel satisfying. It’s really difficult when you just have the bones of the story. But when people saw what the story could be, and the brilliant performance by Chelsea Peretti who really shepherded the story through with her character arc, it made it incredibly satisfying to see where she [Gaby] ended up.
7R: Even though Spinster subverts the genre, I love how you’re still really revelling in the aesthetics and the sounds of rom-coms. The film gave me that same warm, fuzzy, cozy feeling that I love about the genre.
Andrea Dorfman: Daniel Ledwell [composed the music]; he is an incredible musician, producer, and composer. He watched a lot of films, and I gave him ideas of films I really liked. For sure, we wanted the rom-com warmth, especially to counter Gaby’s beginning where she’s angry and barbed and defensive. To have [those personality traits] in the beginning and to counter that with the warm, fuzzy music, it brings the audience in rather than repelling them and keeping them out.
I’ve worked with Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron, the cinematographer, on other films, and she’s a creative genius. She has such an incredible eye. We decided we wouldn’t create a wide screen. It was really important for us to be close to the character and feel that kinship, so that’s why the aspect ratio [is 1.85:1]. We decided to not have that distance. I think that closeness makes us feel very quickly that we’re on Gaby’s side.
7R: I really love how the film is so full of Gaby’s different interests and relationships. It’s so rare to see a character study that portrays a character as so multi-faceted. She really feels like a full person.
Andrea Dorfman: You’re absolutely right. We wanted to create a story where every relationship she had was fraught. In order to do that, we had to have her interface with all the different relationships and people in her life: her best friend, her father, her brother, her niece, the men she dates, the woman at the beginning who wants to hire her for a wedding…
But one of the things we also wanted to show was that she wasn’t able to get the support she needed from all of those people in her life in order to go through this transformation. She really needed to hit a rock bottom. For that [to happen], we needed a lot of subplots to cave in at the same time, in order for her to hit the bottom where she finally could push up. She had to figure out herself that she wasn’t going to be saved.
7R: I love the editing in the film by Simone Smith, who also did brilliant work on Jasmin Mozaffari’s Firecrackers. In Spinster, you’re often cutting between a more romanticised version of a scene to the realistic version.
Andrea Dorfman: Yeah, that’s exactly it.
This is unusual, but this is my fourth feature, and I think it’s the only time where the writer, director, cinematographer, and editor were all women. Simone Smith has edited a number of other female stories. She just got it. She got the script. She got the story. I’m so happy that we got to collaborate. There’s a real synergy there, including with Chelsea, who really wanted to work on a film about love that was a female-driven project.
7R: How did you build that team of collaborators?
Andrea Dorfman: I had worked with Stéphanie previously, and I love working with her. Simone was somebody I met late in pre-production. Jennifer — my creative and writing partner — and I have known each other for 20 years and have collaborated on several projects, so we have a deep, strong working relationship.
As far as Chelsea goes, I hadn’t watched Brooklyn 99, but I had seen her comedy special on Netflix. I watch a lot of standup comedy specials — I love them — and I really loved hers. I loved what she had to say, her intellect, her authenticity, and her politics. I just thought she came off as someone who was very real. That drew me to Brooklyn 99, which I thought was hilarious, her character especially. Through working with a casting agent in LA, we got a script to her representation who got the script to her directly.
It was totally serendipitous: she had the time between Brooklyn 99 seasons; she had taken time off to have a baby and was itching to do something new and different. She came from LA to Halifax, Nova Scotia, which is four time zones away. It’s very far. She bravely accepted to take on a role where she was in every scene, as the main character.
7R: The film feels so perfect for her. Since she has her own comedic persona, did the script change much when she was brought on board?
Andrea Dorfman: Yeah. The story did not change at all, and that was really important, because you can’t have somebody come in and make small changes that could have a ripple effect and change the course of the plot.
But of course, we wanted Chelsea to contribute and, as a comedian, be able to deliver her jokes in the funniest ways possible that made sense to her and her timing and her style. We spent some time before shooting with her going through the script. She had lots of little changes. They were all amazing. Of course, she knew how to improve upon a joke for her.
Another thing that I did a lot of on set was I would just keep the camera rolling at the end of a scene to see where she would take it. Inevitably, I’d say more than half the time, she did something funny that we ended up using in the film.
That being said, what we didn’t do was improv. It was a low-budget film, and we didn’t have a lot of time, so there wasn’t going to be time to try things a bunch of different ways on set when we were just trying to get our days. I think we only had a 17-day shoot or something. But we definitely wanted her to be able to contribute, which only improved the film and her character.
7R: She’s such a great and subtle physical comedian. How did you think about framing and setting up shots so you captured the full extent of her physical performance?
Andrea Dorfman: Sometimes, she was definitely still and composed, but other times, she’s a great physical comedian. That’s just a testament to the cinematographer, who’s also the camera operator, as she could follow the action.
As a director, you have to make decisions when you do the blocking, sometimes, to change it up. If the actor’s going to do something physical and big, and you had planned to shoot at a medium shot, it might make more sense to go to a wide or something handheld where you can catch the action. For the big physical scenes, we chose to shoot handheld.
7R: There are lots of these long and absorbing scenes of two people or a group of people just sitting around a table talking. How do you think about how you want to shoot those scenes to make sure they’re interesting and that you capture all the beats you need for editing?
Andrea Dorfman: One of the things I do, which not all directors do anymore, is storyboard. I find it really helps me. I’m also an animator, so I like drawing, so it’s easy for me to get into that headspace. As I’m thinking of the scene and what needs to happen in that scene, I always get more ideas of how to shoot it. [Storyboarding] is getting the movie that’s playing in your head as you’re reading [the script] down on the page in a way that makes sense to you. There are all sorts of storyboarding programmes people can use, but I just hand draw it.
The other thing is asking what is the space that you’re working in? What is the amount of time you have to shoot the scene? You need to give yourself enough time.
In the scene [in the second half of the film] where there are four different couples around the table plus Chelsea, so nine people, a scene like that requires reactions. It’s an uncomfortable scene where there’s conflict, and conflict is only conflict if people react to it. How do people feel? Does it make them mad? Does it make them uncomfortable? Does it make them want to hide? That’s all going to be indicated on their faces. You have to give yourself enough time to shoot a scene like that, which we did many, many times, so you can shoot it at different sizes, etc. Even then, it was a really tricky scene to cut together. Simone did a fantastic job.
7R: For that scene, how many different setups did you do?
Andrea Dorfman: I think we probably spent at least half a day shooting that. It’s hard to say, maybe fifteen times? But not all of those would have been full takes of the scene. You do a wide, and then we do three and three and three [people in the frame at the same time], then two and two and two, and then we do singles, and then closeups on people. And then a little bit of movement, a zoom — I think we had a dolly.
This is why it’s so important to go into a scene like that really understanding how it’s playing through your head, so that when you get there, you know exactly how to shoot it. What you don’t want to do is be unsure about if something’s going to work because you just don’t have the time.
7R: I loved the costumes in Spinster. How did you work with your costume designer, Sarah Roy, to work out what kind of clothes Gaby would wear as she changes throughout the film?
Andrea Dorfman: The costume designer, Sarah, who I’ve worked with before, just has a deep knowledge of design and style. She and I sat down [before shooting], and she had amazing ideas and really got that there is a progression with Chelsea’s character. She brought that to the costumes. There’s an evolution and a change.
What people wear is part of the design. It’s in conversation with whatever the backdrop is that they’re standing in front of. Sarah really got that. Similarly, you do this with the cinematographer and the art director, and any of the key creatives. You sit down and go, OK, how do we want this to look? This person’s on screen a lot. Are there certain colours that she wears that are indicative of her state of mind?
7R: What kind of colours and clothes did you settle on for Gaby?
Andrea Dorfman: Colour-wise, she definitely goes from somebody who wants to blend in to somebody who is into standing out. She owns herself and really takes up the space that she wants, as she’s gaining meaning in her own life.
The other thing is, of course, I think all of us, but especially women, have really particular ideas of what we want to wear and what we feel good about wearing, physically. So Chelsea was part of the conversation, as well. She had clothes that she felt comfortable in. She and Sarah would talk about what, within the wardrobe and designs that Chelsea was comfortable wearing, would work with the script.
7R: Finally, how did you want to portray your home city of Halifax, Nova Scotia on screen?
Andrea Dorfman: I’m not from Halifax, originally. I’m from Toronto. I came here to go to art school, and I stayed because I love it. I love how the city is small enough that you can bike and walk everywhere, and I do walk and bike everywhere, so I see a lot. As a visual artist and filmmaker, I see a lot of interesting backdrops and I often think, Oh I’d love to shoot in front of that. I think it’s a cinematic city.
I love the arts community here. It’s the biggest city on the East Coast of Canada, so a lot of amazing musicians and performers and filmmakers and artists gravitate towards Halifax. There’s a really rich pool of talented people to draw upon. And also, as a community, it’s a small city, so people are often helping out on each other’s projects. I love the community vibe of Halifax. It was always really important for me to shoot the film in Halifax and to show Halifax for the beautiful city and backdrop that it is — to allow it to just be Halifax. It’s not a stand-in for another city or a pretend city. It is the city.