Old School, New School: Writer-director Carly Stone on The New Romantic

Canadian writer-director Carly Stone hasn’t lived the life of a “sugar baby,” but she looks at the comfortable and somewhat controversial lifestyle choice as part of a larger cinematic discussion about ambition in her debut feature, The New Romantic (opening in select Canadian cinemas on Friday, October 19).

The New Romantic follows Blake, played by British actress Jessica Barden, a journalist for her university’s campus newspaper who’s on the verge of getting sacked from her weekly love and sex column because her life is too dull to print. A chance encounter and ID mix up with a young woman who enters into relationships of convenience with usually older, always wealthy paramours in exchange for gifts, but not money gets Blake thinking about the possibilities. Blake dips her toe into the “sugar baby” lifestyle through a flirtation and hook up with Ian (Timm Sharp), an older, divorced university professor with money to burn and no desire to build up unnecessary attachments or feelings. While Blake gets to enjoy the fruits of her atypical relationship, she starts developing romantic feelings that Ian might not be able to reciprocate. And while the relationship, where names are changed to protect the innocent, reignites her budding career as a gonzo journalist, it puts her at odds with a sweet natured co-worker (Brett Dier) who might be a better romantic fit for the young woman than the older and more cautious professor.

Toronto based filmmaker Stone, who graduated from the AFI, used The New Romantic not only as a chance to pay homage to some of her favourite filmmakers (Nora Ephron, Sofia Coppola, and Jill Soloway, to name a few) and rom-com cliches, but to also have a frank and non-judgmental dialogue about what it means to be a modern young woman in a male driven society.

We met up with Stone earlier this week at a downtown Toronto office to talk about the inspirations for her first feature, taking an unbiased approach to a type of relationship arrangement many people have strong feelings about, and staying true to the delicate emotional tone she had envisioned.

I once took a course on genre film, and the instructor had this theory that many romantic comedies could tap into economic fears and desires. That’s something that you tap into here, and not just through references to things like Pretty Woman or the films of Nora Ephron. What was it like looking at a specific sort of relationship that’s based primarily in material gains?

Carly Stone: It was something I definitely wanted to look at because one of the primary focal points of being a sugar baby or a sugar daddy is based in that. What can you get out of a relationship if you put something like that up front and you don’t bury it? What if you do that and you don’t refer to it as love? That’s what was so fascinating about the topic to me; that honesty. And through this you can kind of also look at how being forward in similar ways can impact non-transactional relationships, too. In this particular relationship, everything is almost set out in a contract-like form, but really I wanted to examine how honesty plays into that.

You also look at these types of relationships through the eyes of a lot of different characters who have differing opinions on the matter. What was it like coming up with people to represent various viewpoints to represent how complex these relationships can be?

Carly Stone: It was important to have that balance. You have someone like Nikki, Blake’s roommate, who’s liberal, sexually liberated, and completely non-judgmental when it comes to women, and it’s really fun to create a character like that and find where they would eventually draw their own lines and boundaries. Blake is more traditional, at first, and she approaches the topic with judgment, but then she’s totally surprised by what she finds. And her real love interest, Jacob, can’t really help but be anything other than judgmental about it, even though he’s a pretty liberal minded guy. It’s fun to explore such a topic from all these different perspectives because I think that’s what viewers do while watching the movie. They’ll go in thinking that they’re going to be either “the Blake,” “the Nikki,” or “the Jacob” of it, but they might surprise themselves by the end of it to see where they land on the subject.

This is the kind of relationship that hasn’t really been seen much on screen since Pretty Woman, probably because it has traditionally been a somewhat taboo subject, and attitudes around such relationships of convenience are always shifting. It’s something you have to approach delicately, and make sure that the relationship never feels creepy, one sided, or like someone is getting more out of the relationship than the other person is. What was it like trying to strike that balance?

Carly Stone: I think that was the trickiest part. I always knew that I was dealing with delicate subject matter, and I was always conscious of making sure that I was never taking a side on it as the writer-director. I just thought that there could be abuse in all sorts of relationships, and I decided to ask whether or not this specific type of relationship lends itself more to that. If so, then why? But also I think that people who haven’t been a sugar baby or a sugar daddy or people that haven’t known anyone in those kinds of relationships can watch this film and relate to it because they’ve felt similar things in their own relationships and away from those strict terms. It really had to serve both purposes.

I didn’t set out to write a romantic comedy, which is probably why it feels more like a film that’s about romantic and social comfort rather than romantic love. I think the age difference between the characters really speaks to why one of them is seeing this as romantic comfort and one is viewing it as romance beyond the terms of their relationship.

Was there ever a concern once you’ve written a film like this that someone might want to make it, but they’d want to turn it into something broader and much more in the same style as something like Pretty Woman?

Carly Stone: I had a lot of great producers, but I worked probably the closest with Kyle Mann, who was there from the beginning. We were always on the same page when it came to discussions about the type of movie we wanted to make. This story remained true to what we set out to make from the start, and I think we both feel very lucky about that. People who attached themselves to this project did so from a place of passion that equalled what we felt about this story. We assembled a great group of people who wanted to make the same movie we did. Then, we had the support of Telefilm who supported the film as it was. Kyle and I took the script through so many different drafts to get it where we wanted it to go, but we didn’t compromise or try to put it into a box that we felt we needed to put it in.

The relationship between Blake and Jacob is fascinating because they have a professional sort of rivalry going on between them, and they’re often at odds with each other when it comes to their academic goals. At the same time, you can tell there’s something between them. On top of that, the person Blake ultimately enters into this convenient sort of relationship with is a university professor. What was it like playing out a story like this between these characters that all have similar, but differing backgrounds?

Carly Stone: I set it in university because I was drawing in some ways from my own personal university experiences. I thought about who in a university could theoretically engage in this kind of relationship, and ultimately I found out that you don’t have too many options if you’re in a university that’s not in a big city. Sugar daddies and sugar babies and their relationships often take place in places like New York or Toronto where there’s money and businessmen. And I immediately thought of the idea of a tenured professor who had maybe written a few books and was sought after in his field; someone who would’ve had money and probably invested it wisely, but was otherwise somewhat alone or in search of some greater form of comfort or companionship. That character was really more of a product of the environment that the story came from rather than me thinking that she needed to be with a professor. It was more about thinking about who would be into this sort of thing in this kind of location.

In terms of finding people who could make something like this work, Jessica was great. She was the first person attached to this film. She immediately found a way to straddle the tone of her character perfectly, and she has this type of face that suggests someone younger than she is. Her talent is amazing, but looking younger than you are is great for this specific kind of role. When you’re in university, you think you’re old, but you’re not, and quite often it’s that contradiction that’s likely to get you into trouble. You think that you’re living on your own and that you’re not a teenager anymore, but really you’re still so young and inexperienced. Jessica kind of embodied everything the role needed to be.

With Blake and Jacob, it was fun to play around with that trope where two people who want the same thing will probably end up hooking up. That was one trope that I always wanted to lean into, and I think that Jessica and Brett just had that kind of natural chemistry that made me want to lean into it more. They brought that out further from that page to the screen than I had previously thought about.

The New Romantic opens in theatres across Canada on Friday, October 19, 2018.

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.