Born and raised in New York, 32-year old Ben Younger got his film start after he interviewed at a rather suspicious Long Island brokerage, a sketchy company which soon inspired his critically acclaimed film, Boiler Room. Once a political analyst and NYC campaign manager, he now writes and directs his own film projects, including the latest romantic comedy -- Prime, starring Uma Thurman as a 37-year-old divorcee who unknowingly falls for her Jewish therapist's [Meryl Streep] 23-year-old son. While shuffling between Los Angeles and his native New York, Younger found the time to sit down with Gothamist to discuss Prime, why the romantic comedy genre has become one big cliché, and why he'll never shoot a NYC-centered film in Toronto.
Where did the idea for "Prime" originate?
I was dating this woman who was not older then me, but was going to therapy and one time we were going down the elevator of my building and I said 'oh my god, what if you were going to see my mom and didn't know it because she has a different last name than me?' Of course she wasn't going to see my mom but that's how I got the idea.
When you started writing the script for your first romantic comedy, was it important to you to avoid the sentimental clichés which permeate most films in this genre?
Definitely. I tried to stay away from so many clichés. The genre's become a cliché; it's a joke. Basically, I think every romantic comedy in the last 15 years was a joke. I think the last great romantic comedy was when Harry Met sally, with a few exceptions. But as far as clichés, I really feel the entire genre has become one big cliché. I want to get back to the Woody Allen style, minus the nebbish part --more modern Woody Allen movies which reflect who and what we are today as well as what the UWS looks like today.
The main character, David [played by Bryan Greenberg], seems a bit like an outsider –-or confused-- in regards to not only his family but his faith when it comes to dating. Though the film was fictional, was it in any way autobiographical?
No, I had it lucky. My mom doesn't really comment on my dating. She knows that I dated non-Jewish women and seems to be fine with it all, but then again, she's a shrink. But she's cool so no, I haven't had any problems with her.
Though you seem to have used a lot of material from your religious background.
In that sense, yes, it's totally autobiographical. As far as the taste, the flavors, the Friday night dinners -- yeah, I didn't pull that out of thin air.
Some of the film’s interesting scenes involve Meryl Streep’s character and her son, who’s able to be honest and upfront despite her obvious disapproval of his relationship with an older woman. I think a boy at that age is almost still a momma's boy; he needs his mom's acceptance more than he's concerned about protecting her or being nervous to tell her. He almost wants to know its ok because hey, she's a shrink and what shrink would discourage him? So I think it was him testing the waters.
We couldn't help but notice that the Jewish males portrayed in both Boiler Room and Prime differ from most Jewish stereotypes, in which males are shown as neurotic, Woody Allen-esque characters. Was it important to you to show, perhaps, different types of Jews?
Yeah, I think the nebbish, shlumpy neurotic Jewish guy is passé. I think so many American Jews look to the Israelis as almost ‘super Jews’ because they're all in the army, carry guns, are tough, and I think we sorta headed in that direction. I don't think that [neurotic, nebbish] Jew stereotype exists anymore, which is nice. They're not all accountants. They've sorta grown out of that.
Were you at all worried that a film infused with so much Jewish humor would alienate most audiences? Or that the humor might actually offend Jewish viewers?
From the Jewish side, no. Every Jew needs to wake up and realize where they are today. I'd rather alienate Jews than continue to have Jews alienate all the people around them - I wont stand for it anymore. I grew up in that sort of conclave and I don’t like it. I don’t understand why you have to give up your culture by stepping outside your community. I don’t see how it could go hand it hand. You should step outside your community, make as many new friends as you want, as many varieties and cultures and colors as you want -- you're not going to lose your culture. If it’s so good, what are we worried about?
As far as alienating viewers because it’s too Jewish -- that was a concern. But that’s just a classic Jewish feeling of ‘don’t talk so loud, don’t bring attention to yourself.' I definitely felt that. But then again, think about My Big Fat Greek wedding - so overtly Greek, in a much more sort of two-dimensional, broad kind of way. But yeah, I kept waiting for Universal to go 'too Jewish, can you Jew it down a little bit?' But nobody ever said anything.
One of the more memorable lines was "sometimes you love, you learn, and you move on." Would you say it's an optimistic film?
I would. I think that the real problem in the way we view relationships -- and its not just in America anymore, its global -- is that if a relationship doesn't culminate in marriage and children than its considered a failure. And I think its time to get away from that. I look at all the relationships I've had before I was in the one I’m in now and they all got me where I am today. I learned something profound in every one of those relationships and what Meryl [Streep's character] is saying with 'sometimes you love and learn and move on' is that it's not a waste; we're not failures if we don't end up getting married or having children [with our significant others]. Sometimes relationships can last 6 months or fifty years and I just don't like the idea that if they end, they're 'failures.' So I do think there's a happy ending... I think we need to re-evaluate our relationships. Look at the divorce rate -- obviously there's something wrong with the way we're thinking because we've reached a 50% divorce rate.
Was it obvious from its inception that this was to be a ‘new York love story,’ and shot on the UWS and LES?
It was shot all over, a lot downtown. I was always planning on shooting it here because I grew up here and I'm very vocal about people who take films out of NYC when they should be here, like shooting them in Toronto which is cheaper. I mean Boiler Room was a real fight to get filmed in NY but we pushed hard and I think it shows -- there's alot of production value to it. I'll say this: I will never shoot a New York based movie somewhere else.
You never studied film or trained professionally, opting instead for a “pragmatic approach to filmmaking”– is there any advantage you think you have over USC film graduates?
The transition was a good one for me: I was a campaign manager at 20 and that helped a lot as far as corralling forces and the managerial skills that come into play. I wrote a lot when I worked for the city controller and I researched and wrote a lot of position papers so I was comfortable writing. But as far as not having attended film school -- there were advantages and disadvantages. I made mistakes that most film students wouldn't make but they were more technical mistakes and I worked that all out in my short film, which was horrible. I made every mistake you could and I learned from all of those mistakes. I never repeated them. Emotionally, I don't think that film school would've taught me anything that I didn't already learn from relationships and my family.
You've recently relocated, spending half the year in Hollywood. How much do you dislike LA and miss New York?
I mellowed out a lot. I used to hate it but now I'm OK. I'm not going to live there for the rest of my life but I'm dating someone who lives [in LA] so I'm there a lot.
Favorite brunch spot?
Ninth Street Market.
Woody, Bergman, Michael Mann.
The soundtrack to the movie of your life would consist primarily of:
David Hasselholf, Led Zeppelin, Neil Diamond.
Is there any one film you watch over and over again?
Annie Hall. I've seen it more than any other movie.
My next film is a thriller called 17 Bullets. It takes place in late 1800s Mexico and its an all Mexican cast.
Was there a specific message you wanted to convey? What do you hope the audience took away from your film?
I can't say I started out with a message and built a script around it. I really don't think about filming like that, in regards to a message. I really am just trying to tell a story and I’ve noticed that the interesting ones always do have messages.
Ben Younger’s film, Prime, opens today in NYC. Check local listings for showtimes.