Cha Cha Real Smooth: Cooper Raiff’s feelgood indie-movie two-step

The 25-year-old writer/director/actor wowed Sundance and SXSW. Now, as his good-natured romance co-starring Dakota Johnson comes to Apple TV+, we ask “Generation TikTok’s auteur”: where did it all go right?

In 2018, aged 21, Cooper Raiff didn’t spend Spring Break inhaling shots and playing beer pong in Cancún. Instead, he made a 50-minute film in his college accommodation in Los Angeles. The student from Dallas posted a link, tagged director Jay Duplass and tweeted: Bet you won’t click on this link.”

You can guess what happened next.

Well, you probably can’t, actually. Not all of it. Cause it’s bonkers.

Yes, Duplass clicked. But he also got in touch and encouraged the novice filmmaker. Raiff quit college, raised $15,000 and turned that short, Madeline & Cooper, into a feature called Shithouse, shot guerrilla-style round LA.

Shithouse then got into the 2020 edition of SXSW, where it won the Best Narrative Feature and landed a cinema distribution deal.

That success had Hollywood beating a path to the college dropout’s door. By summer 2021, Raiff was shooting his second feature in Pittsburgh, funded by a production company co-founded by actor Dakota Johnson (50 Shades of Grey) and an ex-Netflix exec.

Come January 2022, that film – written, directed, starring, produced and co-edited by Raiff – won the Audience Award at Sundance, with distribution rights bought by Apple TV+ for a reported $15 million.

Pretty nuts and wholly impressive, right?

Cha Cha Real Smooth stars Raiff as Andrew, a 22-year-old whose post-college drift finds (some) meaning in two things: a job as a party-starter at suburban bar and bat mitzvahs, and a friendship with Domino (Johnson), the thirty-something mother of autistic teen Lola. Andrew’s ability to get even the most dancefloor-phobic kid hoofing to Cha Cha Slide wins over everyone.

It’s a sweet, sugary, light, feelgood film, unashamedly – but gently – putting the rom” in com”. You won’t find any snark here, not even on the Brit Awards host-friendly level of Jack Whitehall, to whom Raiff bears a remarkable resemblance.

And at a time when the world is going to hell in a handcart, who doesn’t want a slice of that? So we called Raiff as he was driven through Studio City in LA by the producer of his next film, en route to Starbucks, to congratulate him.

Sweet work, Cooper: Cha Cha Real Smooth is a film full of heart and soul – something that’s rare these days, especially in indie cinema.

Thank you. It’s so funny because in indie cinema they do love their unlikable characters.

For sure. This is a feelgood film that wears its heart on its sleeve. Those are often seen as lesser narrative values. Why do you think that is, and why is it so important for you to foreground such feelings?

I kind of agree – sometimes when a movie is described as feelgood, I do feel a bit allergic to that. People have described Cha Cha… as feelgood. I love my characters a lot, so I really hope that people leave the movie loving the characters. But I think you only love characters and feel really good after a movie if it’s earned. And the way you earn it is by showing complete people. People who make mistakes and are unlikable at times.

But I think everyone is likeable when you get to know their full story. So, yeah, I think it’s kind of been a bummer that everyone’s like, this is a feelgood Sundance movie!” People do naturally roll their eyes at that [because] it feels like the movie is trying to manipulate.

But ultimately, I just have an organic desire to show people why I love these characters and themes.

Sorry for getting cod-psychological but: as you have a profoundly disabled sister and a selfless mother who cares for her, do you think you’re looking for sweetness in the world because you know how difficult it is for some people?

Definitely. [At home] I had the role of the reliever – my purpose as a child was the release. That’s what I’m exploring with Andrew. Andrew’s really good at honing in on who needs some cheering.

But I also want it to be honest. The movie is intensely devastating in a lot of ways. What’s said is ultimately maybe optimistic or hopeful or, I hope, ecstatic. Seeing Domino in [fiancé] Joseph’s arms is a foreign feeling.

But what she says about getting there, and what she says to Andrew about how amazing and how scary it is that you get you and only you, and her saying that she didn’t get that – that her life will forever be defined by Lola’s stages – I think it’s profoundly a lot to take. And Andrew does provide some levity and some happiness.

How close is Andrew to you?

He’s close in a lot of ways. With Shithouse, I wrote and played this character, Alex. He was my feelings embodied on the outside. With Andrew, I’m really not extroverted, whereas Andrew can’t even be alone. I would never, ever be a party starter. I would not be able to be that on” all the time.

But it comes naturally to Andrew because he feeds off of people. So I don’t feel at all similar to him in that way. But I do with his psychology of being laser-focused, or having a sharp focus on the people at the party who are not gonna go get on a dancefloor.

I relate to that and I relate to Andrews’s mommy issues. But other than that, I don’t feel crazy similar to Andrew.

What was the germ of inspiration for this movie?

When I was in college, my sophomore year, I started writing this character, a mom of a disabled kid. And honestly, it was because I was talking about my sister with my mom and she was like, word for word: My life will always be defined by Andrea’s stages.”

I didn’t know what to do with that information other than write it down. So that was the germ of the idea.

Then, after I made Shithouse, I was meeting with people and asking what to make next and I pitched that character. But people would say: That’s a character, not a movie.” And over time, I had the idea to place a 22-year-old in the middle of it. Because a 22-year-old dumbass is the lens that I knew best.

So it became more of a pitch. Then I came up with the way for them to keep coming into contact with each other [at parties], and it was a fun idea. So that ended up being the pitch.

Acting and directing – was that madness?

It’s not madness. It’s truly exhausting. In this next movie that I’m doing, I’m not going to do that, because it is so exhausting – and it does take away from things. But I think people have this notion that I was constantly changing hats, and it’s really just your hat because you’re doing so much.

But as a director on this next movie, I want to be as emotionally available as I was acting the scenes. If I was crying in a scene in Cha Cha…, if I’d only directed it, I would want to be crying behind them. I really want the actors to feel like I’m on the floor with them, and not like they’re bleeding out on camera and I’m like: It looks great, you’re doing great!” I want to get covered in blood with them.

I think that that’s the way to get the best performances and get them to trust you. To feel like we’re all in it together. That we all really care and feel emotional about what we’re doing and what we’re saying.

Is it true that it’s in part Dakota’s fault that you ended up acting because she encouraged you to take this role?

It is, yeah. I had this actor who I was like: This is the perfect Andrew.” Then in our first meeting, when I walked her through the whole movie, she was like: When you say all that, I just picture you and me.” And then I started blushing.

But I think really what it was, with Shithouse, I did all the things. So when I was selling [Cha Cha… to a production company], I think the reason why they were interested in working with me was because it was unique. I had my DNA all over everything.

So I was like: OK, that’s all good.” But now I’m at a point where I think: Should they trust me as a director?” As opposed to just asking: Oh, we do want you to do this unique thing, well.”

Your learning on the job has been vertiginous. Is that just second nature to you? You’re going to throw yourself in there, not be afraid to say I don’t know” and just learn as you go.

It’s the best thing in the world. There’s parts that I hate about being a young director. But I love that I can blame everything on: Oh, I don’t know, you have to help me, I’m an idiot…”

That’s the best way to learn. But also, if I had waited to direct my first movie when I was like 45, I would think: Oh my God, the amount of pressure!” It’s nice to go into something and be like: Hey, I’m just trying my best here.”

Aside from the obvious thing of making Hollywood notice you, how did the SXSW success of Shithouse impact you personally?

It opened a lot of doors. And when a door opens, I always like going through it. I had to take a step back and realise that I shouldn’t say yes to everything. But it did open a lot of doors and I got to meet a lot of people. And then I realised there’s certain people I don’t have to meet with.

And then you had award, critical and commercial success this year at Sundance with Cha Cha… How was that?

It was amazing. I was bummed that the [in-person festival] got cancelled because I was really excited for Cha Cha… to play in the theatre, because it felt like it would be a great festival, theatrical experience. But [prior to that] when we got into Sundance, it was the best feeling in the world. It was exactly what we wanted for the movie.

Your next film is The Trashers, a father-and-son, sports-meets-the-Mob movie that’s based on a true story. So, very different. Is it again something to take a big leap at, because why the hell not?

No. The leaps that I take are: I am not a director and I’m gonna figure out how to be a director”. But the thing that I know very, very well and have a really good hold on is exactly what I’m trying to say, and exactly how I’m trying to say it.

I literally can’t tell you what camera we shot Cha Cha… on, from [the top of] my head. If I really think about it, I could probably tell you. But that’s the stuff that I don’t have a handle on.

With The Trashers my way in was, I’m a big sports guy. And I got obsessed with the real-life story and the real-life father-son dynamic, and I thought of exactly what I wanted to say with the movie. So I pitched the producers – they had a script already – and I was like: Hey, I think this script could actually say something new.” So I pitched what I would want to do with it. And we’ve been after it since.

You have David Harbour (Stranger Things) playing the father. And you’re definitely not playing the son?

No, done with that, ha ha!

What’s the status of Exciting Times, your TV series adaptation of Irish novelist Naoise Dolan’s 2020 debut?

The status of Exciting Times is: TV takes its time. It’s exciting when you pitch it and they say yes. But then the rest is… long-time. It’s weird.

But we’re writing. I’m working with Naoise, the author, and she’s the smartest person I’ve ever met. She is really the leader on that project, and we’re working with Amazon. Amazon is great to work with, but TV takes a long time so I don’t know when that will start.

As you get more successful, there’ll be more partners and voices and layers and producers’ notes – and more long-time. But how do you retain that nimbleness and the quick-wittedness, the qualities that have made both your movies special?

It’s the question I ask myself every day. I’m constantly grappling with: how small do I want to keep something, do I want to go bigger?

With Cha Cha…, I didn’t make it with a big studio but I got studio notes. And you’re gonna collaborate when you’re working with a budget that is over $15,000. But I truly ask myself every day, how small do I want to keep something? How can I protect this in the best way? Does this want to be bigger?

With The Trashers, the movie works better if it’s [bigger], so that’s what I want for it. But the thing that I make after The Trashers, that’s not Exciting Times, is this show that I always wanted to make. I got it set up at a [television] network, and I quickly realised: Oh, this is gonna take forever. And it’s gonna go through so many filters.” I started realising that they had a different vision. As soon as that happened, I literally took it back.

So I have this thing that’s now not set up at that network. We have to legally figure out [what happens if] they get the first whatever, yadda yadda. But I took it back because I want to make it in a similar way [to my previous films].

To finish, two quotes for you. First, The Hollywood Reporter: If Gen Z already has an answer to Richard Linklater and the Duplass Brothers, it could very well be Cooper Raiff.” How do you feel about that?

I don’t know if we needed an answer! But I love those filmmakers so it feels so great to be in a sentence with them. But, yeah, Jay Duplass is like my Jedi. So whenever someone talks about him and I together, I always feel [great].

Second, the Financial Times: they described you as an auteur for generation Tiktok”. Down with that?

I love TikTok. I don’t know the exact definition of an auteur, but I do think that I like to have a singular vision. And I really care about having my hand print over the whole thing. And I do watch TikTok, and I love it. So I think it’s accurate.

Cha Cha Real Smooth is on Apple TV+ from 17th June

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