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With 'The Drop,' Director Sarah Adina Smith Has Made Her Most Personal Movie Yet — And in a Genre She Never Expected to Work In

The comedy was born out of a conversation between Smith and her DP husband Shaheen Seth about the female equivalent of the protagonist's bad action in 'Force Majeure.'

Sam Rosenberg
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Anna Konkle and Jermaine Fowler in 'The Drop'

Hulu

It's best to go into the Hulu cringe comedy The Drop — not to be confused with the 2014 gangster flick of the same name — knowing as little as possible about its plot. But just to give a little taste for the morbidly curious: The film stars Anna Konkle and Jermaine Fowler as Lex and Mani, a young, married L.A.-based couple in the midst of trying to have children. When they travel with their friend group to a destination wedding in Mexico, Lex and Mani's relationship is suddenly thrown into disarray when Lex accidentally drops their pal's (played by Aparna Nacherla) baby. 

Over the course of their paradisal-turned-disquieting getaway, trust issues between the couple begin to emerge, igniting a tension that rubs off on their friends, who are reluctantly forced to examine the cracks in their own relationships. These friends are played by a host of other talented, recognizable millennial comedic actors — Nancherla, Jillian Bell, Robin Thede, and Utkarsh Ambudkar. Other cast members include Elisha Henig, Jennifer Lafleur, and Joshua Leonard, the latter of whom co-penned the film with writer-director Sarah Adina Smith.

Primarily known for directing such thrillers as the Rami Malek-starring Buster's Mal HeartThe Drop is Smith's first comedy feature, and it is a genre the filmmaker did not expect to be working in.

"My comfort zone is thrillers and horror and slightly psychologically weirder," Smith tells Metacritic. "But then, I was just so surprised by how delightful it is to make a comedy. It turns out when you're making something funny, you get to laugh all the time rather than be brooding by myself alone in my office."

In addition to discussing the joy of making a naturalistic, improvisational comedy, here, Smith talks to Metacritic about her personal connection to the film's thematic exploration around parental anxiety, the influence of Force Majeure, and the difficult working conditions during production.

How did you conceive The Drop's titular joke? Did that idea of dropping a baby come first and then you built the story from there? Or had you wanted to do a story that focused more on relationship and parental anxiety and then the baby idea emerged?

The big idea came first, but one could call it a rip-off or maybe more generously an homage to one of my favorite movies, Force Majeure. I was thinking about wanting to do a sort of strangely toned dark comedy. In Force Majeure — without spoiling it for people who haven't seen it — the protagonist's manhood is kind of put on trial. He doesn't help his family. He grabbed his phone during an avalanche rather than helping his wife and children. 

I was talking to my husband [The Drop cinematographer Shaheen Seth] and I said to him, "Well, what would be the female equivalent? What would a woman have to do? What would be the thing that would make you question my most primordial femininity or would be a failure on my part?" He said, "Well, I don't know. I guess you could drop a baby." I was like, "Wait, whoa, what!? What if it was an accident and the baby was OK?" He very seriously was like, "I don't know. I guess I just would wonder if maybe I married a dud." 

[That] was so funny to me because he's a very evolved man. He's very secure in his masculinity. He doesn't have harsh ideas of gender roles or anything like that. It's just kind of interesting that a real primitive reaction in him was like, "Woman must keep baby safe." Like if you violate that, then the marriage is in question. 

I just thought that was so f---ing interesting. I couldn't stop thinking about that conversation. It made me want to explore it. 

I went to Mark Duplass first, who had become a friend of mine through working on his amazing HBO show Room 104. I knew he had a really dark sense of humor and I just told him the premise and he loved it. We were like, "We got to do this together." 

Then, I was trying to write it on my own. The wife character was the main character in the version I was writing and something just wasn't absolutely working for me. I couldn't quite get it where I want it to be. Then, I was hiking with my friend Joshua Leonard and told him the premise and he doubled over laughing. I remember he had made a movie called The Lie, which was about a guy who gets out of work by lying that his baby's dead. I was like, "Oh, wait a second, we should be collaborating on something together!" 

Then, total pandemic-style collaboration over Zoom. Through talking together, we realized actually the husband was truly the protagonist of the movie, if you will. He's kind of the moral center of the movie. It's about his reaction to what happens and the doubts in his own mind. Once we narratively made that switch, it all came flowing from there and we were able to write it much more easily.

I didn't make the Force Majeure connection until you just talked about it just now, but that makes total sense.

I'm just obsessed with that movie. I think it's really a masterpiece and wanted to do a sort of American indie, improv movie style version of it. I think we wanted to be true to our American style comedy and sense of humor. I think, visually and cinematically, we wanted to have little pops in moments of that more Scandinavian style patience and distance, which I think gives the movie hopefully a little bit more of an askew point of view than a typical kind of commercial comedy.

You're more known to make thrillers, so what drew you to making a comedy? How similar or different was the process?

To be honest, I never thought I would make a comedy. I think in some ways, that's why I was struggling with writing it on my own and needed Joshua as that bouncing board. It was really fun to have this banter back and forth and that kind of collaborative atmosphere I had with Joshua carried through to my relationship with the actors. 

One of the things I do think was kind of a carryover is we've made four features and three of them were made in this improvised sort of way. The Midnight Swim and Buster's Mal Heart were also made from "scriptments" or robust outlines. I was very accustomed to that slightly more loose way of working and collaborating with actors. I just really love it because it puts everybody on their toes and there's a "no safety net" type of feel. I think that actually makes people make really bold choices in a way that is really fun to witness.

There are a lot of great comics in the cast, particularly Jermaine Fowler and Anna Konkle as the main couple. I'm curious what about them drew you to casting them in these roles.

First of all, this is like a stellar cast. They are so incredibly funny and talented in their own right, but they're all also wonderful human beings to be with and to work with, which was a real delight. We wrote the character Josh, no surprise there, for Joshua and Peggy for Jennifer Lafleur and for her baby Alma, who's in the movie. We knew those roles, but other than that, the cast for the most part came together pretty last minute, fast and furious. 

What I was looking for in the lead that I found in Jermaine was somebody who is just so f---ing lovable and charming. You get that from Jermaine in just a split second of seeing him. He's all heart, but he's also incredibly funny and brilliant. Anna, I was such a huge fan of PEN15, one of the greatest shows that's ever been made. She just cracks me up completely. I don't even know if I can fully describe her brand of comedy in this movie. She truly does feel f---ing horrible about the accident, even though the baby's okay, but then, there's something so wonderfully oblivious about her to her partner's feelings that really cracks me up. 

In addition to being hilarious, both Jermaine and Anna are great dramatic actors too. I think I had a real benefit that they can play both the comedy and the tragedy.

The Drop has a very distinctive look to it that we haven't seen in a lot of comedies lately. I'm thinking in particular of that image of Jermaine Fowler disassociating in the bathroom in the foreground and Anna Konkle on the bed in the bedroom in the background. What was it like working with your husband, the film's cinematographer, in achieving the look of this movie? 

He's my closest collaborator. In some ways, this movie was for [Shaheen]. After having that conversation about if I dropped a baby, this movie was an exploration of that for [him]. At the time I was writing this and making it, we were deciding whether or not to get pregnant ourselves. I tend not to work biographically, but in a weird way, this was the most autobiographical, personal movie I've ever made, dealing with my own true anxiety about becoming a mother. I was eight months pregnant when we were shooting it. 

But to go back to what you're talking about the look of this, all credit to Shaheen and his amazing work because we only had three weeks to shoot this. It was an improv movie. It was pretty fast and furious. The one thing Shaheen and I really wanted to agree on is that we didn't ever want to leave a scene without having taken a shot that we felt was beautiful. We didn't want to sacrifice the visual language of the movie in service of making the schedule. At the same time, we really want to support performance. 

We tried to come up with a language that was really efficient so that we could get the movie done in three weeks, but also loose enough to be able to support performance. We tried to let things play in really funny and strange wides. I think that shot you're mentioning is a great example of it. Actually, when we were location scouting, it was that photo where I was like, "OK I think we can shoot the movie here" because I loved this strange way you could be in the bathroom and also see in the bedroom. During that shot, I think me and the AC are squatting in the shower right beside the toilet with tiny monitors.

What was your experience filming the majority of The Drop in Mexico? Was it more idyllic than the circumstances that occur in the movie?

It was crazy. It's definitely insane to shoot that fast. Particularly, we were on a cliffside with 100-percent humidity and in COVID masks and hiking up and down. I won't lie, it was a difficult shoot, but I have to say that was why it was such a joy to be making a comedy in the midst of those difficult circumstances because then, once the camera was rolling, the laughter really helped make the rest of the typical day go more smoothly. 

In our mind, Joshua and I thought, "Oh, let's just get a group of wonderful, funny people and we'll go down to Mexico during this pandemic and we'll all stay at a hotel. It'll be like vacation and everyone brings their families! It'll be so relaxing and also shoot this movie on the side!" Of course, it was grueling. It was really, really hard. The hours were difficult. 

I think the cast likes to joke that I tricked them into doing this movie by telling me it was gonna be a vacation and then they ended up with diarrhea and IV drips and vitamin B shots and barely getting through it. We got so sick at one point, we would have to shoot scenes where we could only shoot one side of it because the other cast member was getting their IV or whatever. We had ended up really having to piece that together in the end to try and make it work and take certain people out of certain scenes or do things differently to accommodate everyone's current state of health.


The Drop is streaming now on Hulu.


Get to Know Sarah Adina Smith:
Before making The Drop, Smith wrote and directed Buster's Mal Heart(Metascore: 63) Birds of Paradise (58), and The Midnight Swim (55). She has also directed episodes of Legion (82), Looking for Alaska (72), Room 104 (65), and Hanna (62).