Tango for Two in Cha Cha Real Smooth: Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson on Age, Romance and Ghost Directors – Screens
Vanessa Burghardt and Dakota Johnson as Lola and her mother, Domino, in Cha Cha real smoothCooper Raiff’s new movie (Image courtesy of Apple TV+)
When Dakota Johnson signed on to be part of Cha Cha real smoothshe recalled, “There was no role, there was no script, it was just a concept and a title.”
In the finished film, out today in theaters and on Apple TV+, she plays Domino, a woman in her 30s with an autistic pre-teen daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Desperate for a babysitter, she must rely on recent college grad Andrew (writer/director Cooper Raiff), and this one-time addiction turns into something deeper and much more complicated.
The star of Suspiria and The Peanut Butter Falcon, her first real encounter with Raiff was actually on Zoom, while she was filming in Greece The lost girl. She knew her debut feature, winner of the SXSW award Shitand after his pitch for what was to become Cha Cha real smooth she was soon signed on as lead actor and producer. After that conversation, Johnson said, “He went and wrote the first draft, and we went back and forth a lot in a short time. It was a really amazing creative process from me and [producer Ro Donnelly] and Cooper.”
Raiff himself credits part of the project’s success to maintaining that momentum. “We were constantly inspired because it was never in limbo,” he said. “It was never, ‘Oh, we’ll get back to you with notes in three months.’ It was, ‘Oh, we’ll get back to you with notes tomorrow.'”
But it didn’t always take a formal process for Johnson to feel like his comments had an influence on Raiff’s writing and directing. “He has this ability to be, when we’re developing, writing, being present and having a conversation with me, and I can also see his mind working, ‘Oh, OK, I can write that’, ‘I can use this phrase”, and “what she did with her hands.
Working together from the start of the project allowed Johnson and Donnelly to become what Raiff dubbed “ghost directors”. Johnson said: “We were so prepared, we were so prepared, that we were really on board with his preparation, that he had two extra sets of eyes to be part of his process.”
“Who I trusted too,” Raiff added. “You can always have another pair of eyes, but they were there from the start, so we really trusted each other to know everything.”
Austin Chronicle: Shit felt very drawn to those freshman blues, but Cha Cha places Andrew in this post-graduation crisis – which isn’t really your experience, since you were making a movie.
Cooper Raiff: Originally, honestly, this came about because I wanted to make a film about the mother of a disabled child. That was the core of it. But I really liked writing Shit, and I felt like I was writing what I knew, so I wanted to put someone who was my age to tell this story. But the original idea was far from someone after college.
THAT: So why the change?
RS: I think it was because I didn’t fully trust myself, or didn’t trust myself enough to do this movie, so I wanted to show my point of view on that. My sister is disabled, my mother has a very special life, and I wanted to tell that through the lens of a young person. And then everything else comes from there.
THAT: Every year I have a lot of interns, and one of the first things I make sure they read is the style guide for talking about disability issues. It’s a different challenge, though, to write sensitively in a dramatic setting.
CR: It’s so objective for a journalist to talk about it, but when it’s a film, you feel things. When we saw Vanessa’s tape, we really wanted to write about her. The script, before we met Vanessa, was going to be one thing, and we always knew we were going to meet someone, and someone would play her that was going to really turn things around, and their dynamic was going to be written around that .
THAT: It was a much bigger project for you Shitjust in terms of scale and budget.
RS: It was a huge learning curve. One of the first days, we were all together, we were all having lunch or something, and Dakota said, ‘Vanessa, do you want me to tell you what a real day is going to be like?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, you should go ahead and say vanessa what a real day will look like. I really didn’t know, because with Shit there were, like, five people on set, and there were no rules. ‘Let’s shoot here.’ We didn’t have permits or anything, so those were things I didn’t know.
dakota johnson: Also knowing how Vanessa’s mind works is really useful for her. She can really thrive if she knows where she’s headed in terms of logistics and timing, and how things are going to flow logically. It’s really helpful for her.
RS: It was also really super helpful for me, because I really had no idea how a movie was made at that level.
Austin Chronicle: At the same time, there is a link between your two films, a signature bravery. Like the Shithouse opening scene, where he talks to a stuffed toy. You have to really commit or it will look fake and sabotage the movie.
RS: But that’s what was so helpful. Dakota was working on Cha Cha due to Shit. I didn’t have a script where she was like, “Oh my god, that’s fucking awesome.” And it wasn’t, ‘I saw Shit and I want to do something completely different. She saw something she liked and wanted to work with. So that trust was important too.
THAT: And there’s this complexity in there of age issues, and age difference, and how the older you get, the less it means, but when you’re young, that’s it.
CR: I like this. It wasn’t intentional, but we always talked about coming of age for three different ages – 12, 22, and 32. That’s what I’ve always loved about the Andrew-Domino relationship in particular. If they could switch, I think Andrew would like to be a 32-year-old man with a kid, settle down, and I think Domino didn’t have his 20s like Andrew has them.
Cha Cha real smooth is in theaters and on Apple TV+ now. Read our review and get screening times on our Showtimes page.