Interview: Spouses and Creative Collaborators Dave Franco and Alison Brie on Somebody I Used to Know, Coming-of-Age Films and the Freedom in Streaking

I have a long history with Dave Franco that goes back to a time when I was invited to visit the New Orleans set of 21 Jump Street. The invite came courtesy of star Jonah Hill, who was a fan of the site I wrote for at the time, and with whom I had previously moderated post-film Q&As. But during the first meal break of the day, Hill went off to his trailer to eat, so I was ushered into the dining area where the crew, extras, and supporting actors gathered. Sitting alone, I noticed Hill’s scene partner for the day, Dave Franco, come in, gather his lunch and come sit with me because he had seen Hill talking to me between takes and was curious who I was. We talked for about an hour, not so much about the movie but about our lives that led us to being here in that moment. It was a genuinely phenomenal conversation, and every time I’ve interviewed Franco since (probably half-a-dozen times including this one), he recalls it and seems to remember it as fondly as I do.

The last time I talked with Franco, the younger brother of James Franco, was five years ago at the Sundance Film Festival for the Jeff Baena-helmed comedy The Little Hours, in which Franco plays opposite his real-life wife Alison Brie, who was also part of the group interview. Since then, the two have worked together on two films that Franco directed but doesn’t star in: The Rental, a truly unnerving horror work, co-written by Franco and Chicago’s own Joe Swanberg, and their latest, Somebody I Used To Know, co-written with Brie. She stars in the film as Ally, a successful reality TV show-runner who has a gift for coaxing great interviews out of people who are prone to be tight lipped. Her world is turned upside-down when the show is cancelled, and Ally is left jobless for the first time in her adult life.

She decides to take a break at her mother's home in Leavenworth, Washington, visiting after being absent many years. At a bar, she runs into an ex-boyfriend Sean (Jay Ellis) and the two hit it off just like old times, spending the night revisiting old memories around town. It isn’t until the next day that Ally discovers Sean is days away from marrying musician Cassidy (Kiersey Clemons), but instead of bowing out gracefully, Ally decides she going to use her powers of persuasion to break the couple up and get Sean for herself. Hilarity, mischief, and streaking ensue.

Since gaining fame in the series “Community” (whose co-star on that show, Danny Pudi, has a great supporting role in this film), Brie has made a name for herself playing women in various forms of crisis, while still keeping it funny and charming. While Franco does very much still act, he seems perfectly suited to his newfound passion for directing. Somebody I Used to Know is now streaming on Prime Video, and I had a chance recently to sit down with Franco and Brie during a Chicago visit to discuss their creative process and the real messages behind this movie that moves between comedy and something more personal and grounded. Enjoy our talk…

It’s so good to see both of you again.

Dave Franco: Always good to see you, man.

First of all, I want to say that The Rental was truly awesome

DF: Yes!

You did such a great job right out of the gate, so when I saw you two had done something else together, I was excited. First off, what did you learn from making that film—and I realize that tonally, they are very different movies—that you were able to bring into this new film and improve upon your directing process in some way?

DF: The positive things that I brought over from that experience were that I spent a long time vetting the cast and crew for each project. Obviously, I wanted really talented people across the board, but it was just as important to me that everyone was really nice and that they were going to work really hard. So it took a little bit long to put the team together, but at the end of the day, I was surrounded by these incredible people who made my job so much easier where I didn’t have to micromanage anyone. I was surrounded by people I was a fan of, and I could encourage them to do what they’re great at and create a nice environment and energy on set. Everyone was just having a good time.

Alison Brie: I also feel like, on The Rental, we also realized, because we’d been on sets together a couple times as actors, but when you were directing, it felt so seamless. Even though I was not a writer or producer on The Rental, I was like your right-hand man, and that collaboration was different than when we were just acting. We were cohorts in the next room figuring out scenes together, and I feel like that was the biggest clue, in terms of leading us to the idea that we should just write something together, now that we’re both writing. Why don’t we do it together from the start, because we really work exactly the same way.

DF: Yes. Also, in learning little things about editing in the post-production and how valuable she is, in that, I was there all day, every day in the edit, and sometimes you lose site of what the movie is because you’re too far in it. So she would stay back for a few weeks and then come out the cut on this one once a month or so, and have fresh eyes. In those instances, I would almost lean on her more than me because I was lost in it, and it was a nice secret weapon to have her there throughout the process.

AB: You could send me a quick little “This or that?” I’d get a text with a single line and two quick videos, and I’d say “The second one.” Sometimes when you’re so in it, it’s hard to see the forrest through the trees.

You mentioned the writing, was that something you genuinely did together, side by side, did you take turns on scenes?

AB: Side by side. We actually wrote this in 2020, so it was in the heart of lockdown. We wrote a first draft in the first two weeks of quarantine, because we were still in production on “Glow” before it got cancelled. If you remember at the time, we didn’t know if it would go longer than two weeks, so we treated those first two weeks like a writers’ retreat and knocked out a draft, and then we had a year continue with it.

DF: There were definitely times when I was at the computer and Alison was up, walking back and forth, acting out a certain scene.

AB: Most of the time! Dave likes to be at the computer, and I like to be bouncing off the walls, making dinner and doing something else. I feel like that was the dynamic.

So where did the germ of this idea come from? Are there really things that inspired this?

DF: The bigger concept is not based on our relationship right now. We did not have to crash a wedding to be together.

AB: Neither one of us has been holding out hope for an ex, that I know of.

DF: But there are many scenes that are based on stuff that happened to us or to a friend.

AB: A lot of the specifics in the movie, even like jokes between people or me with the cat on the plane, things like that did come from real life.

DF: Or the first time we meet Julie Haggery’s character in a compromising position, that’s based on something that happened to a friend a while ago.

AB: And even like Kiersey’s band is a nod to… I used to have a band with my friends Jules and Serena, who are the basis those roles with Kiersey’s character. But the overarching ideas, I think we started more from genre. We had just done The Rental, and that was horror. Dave really wanted to go in another direction. I love rom-coms so much, and during the pandemic, we were watching a lot of rom-coms; we didn’t want any darkness. We wanted something hopeful and fun and joyous, and that’s where we started out.

DF: Yeah, and we were in my hometown of Palo Alto in northern California, and we were walking around, talking through ideas, and this general concept of going home and reconnecting with your roots and seeing your old friends and family and what that brings up in you, it makes you evaluate who you were then and who you are now and how you feel about that, and that all got infused into the story.

It’s funny you call it a rom-com because I did not read it that way, although it is very funny at times. To me, it broke down to being this character study of someone who has lost their identity when she loses her job, and she’s flailing trying to find her identity again.

DF: I'm really happy you said that because we also look at the movie as an adult coming-of-age story, which is a little more rare because most coming-of-age stories are about teenagers or younger people. But yeah, it really is about this woman who’s flailing and trying to figure herself out and get back to her best self.

AB: Definitely. I do think that was something that slowly emerged during the writing process. We did set out to make a rom-com, and that merged into a rom-dram, and then a relationship-drama coming-of-age story. A lot of the movie is about reconnecting to yourself and the things you like about yourself, and Ally is assessing losing this job that had become her whole life, but actually maybe she didn’t like it that much. It’s also what happens when you find yourself leaning into whatever seems like the easiest path forward, just to get ahead.

DF: You forget why you got into that whole thing in the first place. One message from the movie is that it’s never too late to go after the things that make you happy.

AB: And reconnect to what you’re passionate about.

DF: Yeah, I think about my own dad, who went to college for painting and went away from that for 40 years, and in his final few years of his life, he took it up again as a hobby, and I’d never seen him so happy. I think he just had this creative itch inside of him that made him think “I need to get back to that.”

Alison, as much as you came to popularity playing characters who were charming and funny, you have been playing these women in crisis mode in a lot lately, and I love the way you do it. There’s always a sense of pride that you don’t want to be that person, and you don’t always realize you’re there but the audience does. Is it freeing to play someone who doesn’t have to be on all the time, and you can be a mess?

AB: Oh, sure. I think a lot of my characters tap into my own denial about being a Type A person, who is also constantly rejecting her Type A-ness. It’s like my own reconciliation with how I see myself versus how other people see me. I don’t think of myself as being a mess, but I feel like I’m more of the free spirit side of Ally, but often misinterpreted as the Type A side of Ally. So maybe this role is a little bit of that rebellion.

DF: We get to see you break out of it and back to her real self that people don’t know as much.

Was it important to have Danny Pudi in this movie with you? It was certainly important to me.

AB: Yes! We wrote the role for Danny, and then we were very delicate in the way that we approached him because we didn’t want to be like “Well obviously, you’re going to do the movie.” We were more like “It’s up to you; it’s your choice, but please please please do this movie.” That character is interesting because he’s Jay Ellis’s character’s best friend, but he also represents a person I was very close with. It was the feeling of the people who have known you forever and know the real you and call you on your bullshit.

That relationship is another movie that I am so ready to watch.

AB: I mean, yeah. Spinoff! We’ll all get to do the Community movie together this summer. But it made it really easy. Obviously, we’re actors; you can play like you have a history with someone. But how much better is it when you have a genuine history with someone, and you can just play off of that chemistry.

DF: I remember the first scene that they did together, and we were setting up the lights, and they’re just singing songs and bouncing off the walls together, and eventually we’re like “Just start rolling the cameras, and let’s use some of this and see what happens.” And we kept a lot of it in the edit.

AB: “This is my note…,” which is just a Jim Rash joke from behind-the-scenes of “Community.”

DF: Their natural chemistry is undeniable, and you immediately recognize that they’re best friends, Danny’s character obviously loves her but can give her shit and call her out when she’s doing questionable things.

I never feel comfortable asking someone about a nude scene, but it’s on the poster, and your streaking scene here is going to be one of the most talked about things in this movie.

AB: Definitely.

Okay, so tell me what that scene is important, and what kind of headspace do you have to be in to do a scene like that? I should add, I laughed harder at that scene that just about anything else in this movie.

AB: That’s great! That element of nudity comes from because I used to streak a lot in college. I really had a penchant for streaking in days at CalArts, and I reference it often fondly. And I had my own journey with nudity, where I used to be a super-free spirit with that kind of stuff in college, and then in my early days, especially shooting “Community,” that period of time, I first encountered fame and the internet, I think I got really shy about all that stuff and got really protective of my body. Then working on "Glow" reminded me that “Oh right, I love being naked. I love this form of self-expression.” Something about streaking and nudity felt like the perfect metaphor for this character who is taking herself too seriously and needs to reconnect to the purest for of herself. So I didn’t need to do a lot of revving up, to be honest .

Do you have a sense yet if you two will keep doing this, continuing the journey through different genre?

DF: We would love to.

AB: We’re brainstorming some ideas for the next thing.

Thank you both so much. Great talking again.

DF: Yeah, I really appreciate it. Always good to see you.

AB: Thank you so much. So good to see you.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 

Picture of the author
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.