Warning: Brief spoilers for Cha Cha Real Smooth below.
Cooper Raiff thinks Dakota Johnson and Vanessa Berghardt both deserve writing credits on Cha Cha Real Smooth. The new film, streaming on AppleTV+ now, was written, directed, produced, and stars the 25-year-old Raiff. But to hear him tell it, Cha Cha would be nothing without the contributions of his two main co-stars, who he believes were both integral to helping shape their respective characters. “In my first meeting with her, I cracked open the script and rewrote so much of it,” he says of Berghardt, who plays Lola, an autistic teenager who has been struggling to fit in with her peers. “I hadn't even written the script until Dakota said she would do [the film],” he later adds of Johnson, who plays Lola’s loving but depressed mother Domino.
Raiff plays Andrew, the center of Cha Cha Real Smooth, a 22-year-old university graduate who, after realizing he has no real post-college plans, returns home to live with his bipolar mother (Leslie Mann), impressionable younger brother (Evan Assante), and annoying step-father (Brad Garrett). While accompanying his brother to a bar mitzvah, Andrew impresses several other parents with his unique ability to get people moving on the dancefloor — and before long, he’s been recruited to be the official “party-starter” at a whole host of local bar mitzvahs.
At the first of these, Andrew meets Lola and Domino, who both feel out-of-place but are both encouraged by Andrew to break out of their shells and have fun. Endearing himself to the pair, Andrew quickly develops a close relationship with Lola (as a friendly, understanding babysitter) and with Domino (as a possible love interest), but their happy-family potential is complicated by the fact that Domino is engaged (to a frequently-traveling lawyer, played by Raúl Castillo).
The second feature film to find Raiff wearing all the necessary hats (after his 2020 SXSW Grand Jury Prize-winning Shithouse), Cha Cha Real Smooth solidifies the young upstart as one of Hollywood’s most promising directorial voices with one of its most distinct and recognizable styles. As heartwarming as it is funny, Cha Cha Real Smooth has, well, all the right moves.
Days before he’d unleash Cha Cha Real Smooth onto the world, Cooper Raiff hopped on the phone with NYLON to talk about how his experience in seventh grade inspired the party-starter idea, why he admires Dakota Johnson, embedding discussions about mental health into an otherwise lighthearted story (despite producer pushback), the hilarious conversations he had with score composer Este Haim, and what two songs he’ll always play to get people on the dancefloor.
Cha Cha Real Smooth revolves around a directionless post-grad who accidentally stumbles into a job as a bar mitzvah party-starter. Where did that idea come from?
The party-starter idea… Well, I'm not Jewish, but I went to this school in Dallas, Texas that was heavily Jewish. I went there from pre-K through 12th grade, but it didn't mean anything to me that all my friends were Jewish until seventh grade, when I was going to a service and a party literally every Saturday. The original idea for the movie was really about this mother-daughter bond. Then, I put myself in there, the person I know best. Just this 22-year-old dummy. But I really needed a way for these people to keep coming into contact with each other, so that's when I had the bar mitzvah idea — and that idea just came from my visceral seventh grade year.
Your first film, Shithouse, was about a college freshman, and it ends with him in his junior year. Now, in Cha Cha, we’re following someone who is freshly graduated from college. Do you think Cha Cha’s Andrew could be a slightly older version of Shithouse’s Alex? In some ways, this feels like it could be a continuation of that same narrative.
In some ways, definitely. It really feels like a natural progression. Well, I think one [character] is really introverted and one is really extroverted, but they both are dealing with the fact that they don't really know how to be on their own. They struggle with knowing who they are separate from other people. Alex and Andrew, they’ve both got some codependent traits. And some mommy issues!
What do you think it is about this period around college that is so ripe for inspiring compelling stories? Why do you keep returning to this specific time in a person’s life?
I think I'm really just interested in transitional periods because I think that's when past things bubble up and when you're really having to decide what you want for your future. 22 is a really specific age — like, Andrew, specifically, having just graduated and now moving back home to stay at his step-dad's house, I just think that he's angry about floating around and really wants to latch onto something to help him feel grounded. But really, it's just a time when you have to be okay with floating around and be okay with confronting who you are and trying to figure out who you are. That's what your twenties can be for, for Andrew at least.
Both of your movies have been defined by what I can only describe as an innate sweetness, so to speak. Not to say that “bad” people can’t exist in the world of your films, but I think they’ve both been mostly positive and upbeat, especially since the protagonists you write for yourself all seem so good-natured and well-intentioned. They might not have it all figured out, but they always seem interested in doing the right thing, for the most part. I don’t think we see this too often on screen, especially for male main characters. Why do you gravitate towards such emotionally sensitive characters?
Yeah. I guess I do think that everyone in the movie is innately good and trying their best. But it's funny — like, with Andrew in Cha Cha, the inherent sweetness is always also kind of the inherent flaw. He just goes so hard in the direction of others that he doesn't have firm boundaries. He forgets about certain people, including himself.
But I was just thinking about the character of Joseph [ed. note: Domino’s fiancée, played by Raul Castillo]. I think that, with all of my characters, the way to make them feel fully-formed is by not only showing that they're a full person, but that they're ultimately trying for good. I hope every human [is trying for good]. I mean, I know they're not. But the human beings that I want to make movies about, that I really love and care about, I think they're all trying to do good. I really want other people to love and care about them and understand where they're coming from.
You’ve certainly demonstrated that you have a real talent for writing these very nuanced, complex characters, and I think that shows especially in Cha Cha Real Smooth with the character of Lola, who is autistic. How did you develop this three-dimensional character with such noticeable sensitivity about what it means to live on the spectrum?
I just wrote Lola the same way that I write every character. Honestly, I think I had more experience with someone like Lola than I did with someone like Domino, because my sister's disabled and has a lot of autistic friends. But also, a lot of [her friends] are boys. So the research that I did for Lola — and this is obviously not a blanket statement — was really just reading about how autistic boys can sometimes display autism in different ways [that autistic girls do].
So I did some research for that and wrote Lola in a certain way. But then, honestly, when Vanessa [Burghardt], who played Lola, auditioned for it, I just watched the tape and knew she was the heart of the movie. In my first meeting with her, I cracked open the script and rewrote so much of it because she was really open to me asking her questions. Without trying to put the onus on her, I wanted her to really shape the role. The process of writing that character was just trying to keep up with who Vanessa is and what parts of herself she wanted to bring to the character. Then, with someone like Domino, I did the same thing. Dakota informed so much of who Domino is. It seems to me like we should all have writing credits on that movie.
I was just about to ask about that. At the Tribeca premiere, you said that even in the film’s earliest stages, you had been writing Domino with Dakota Johnson in mind to play her.
And then, you also said something about the fact that the movie really came together only after she agreed to do the project with you. What was it about Dakota, specifically, that you found so inspiring? Why did you see her as this character?
Well, I hadn't even written the script until Dakota said she would do it. My pitch to her was like, “There's this character named Domino and the reason why I think you would be so great at playing her is because you have this really open heart on screen.” You don't even have to do any exposition with Dakota because she'll tell you everything without you needing to write out here’s a paragraph on who you are before we can get rolling with the movie.
She's just so magnetic. She can literally flirt with an inanimate object. It can feel electric with any scene partner. That's obviously super great and very like Domino. But the main thing…I don't know how to talk about it. She has these really good boundaries at the end of the day. Which sounds crazy, because Domino doesn't seem to really have great boundaries. But I think Dakota has these really sharp [ideas of], “This is what I'm trying to do and this is where you're crossing a line.” You really trust her to make the right decisions at the end of the day, even though she's doing some self-destructive things. Dakota is just really good at playing that nuance.
Both Domino and Andrew’s mother have mental health issues, and the film does not seem interested in dancing around that fact. Domino gets this really great scene to talk about her depression, and then we also get slivers of information about the mom’s battle with bipolar disorder. Yet despite these more serious conversations, the movie never lets go of its more…maybe ‘lighthearted’ isn’t the word, but at least its overall uplifting mood.
I guess there is a lighthearted quality. In that scene [about Domino’s depression], we're finally getting at what the core of the movie is. Which is funny, because there's a couple producers and financiers that I won't name who were like, "Well, that's pretty heavy-handed to have the mom be bipolar and Domino be depressed." And I was like, "Welcome to today! That's the movie."
That scene is the first time, I think, that you realize what you're dealing with, with Andrew. Obviously, you’re learning about Domino. But I think, in that scene, you realize why Andrew was gravitating towards these two at the party and why his mom wasn't going to that party. Like maybe, in the past, she's been the one who feels like an outsider at the party. The [reason] that scene doesn't feel like, Oh, we're just going to talk about depression now is because it's just so ‘of the movie.’ It's the time when we learn. We’re just peeling one layer back, as opposed to peeling ten layers back all of a sudden, like, We're going to talk about something deep and dark now.
I guess, also, maybe part of it is that Andrew has really always been the relief in his life. He's played the part of relieving situations. You know, his mom, in the past, maybe was feeling really dark and down, so he would crack some jokes. So I think that scene has some nice…not just sweetness, but I think Andrew really feels comfortable talking about it and so does Domino. So I think that [aspect of it] is helpful in making it feel like not just this downer of a conversation.
You mentioned it earlier, but another recurring theme throughout both of your films is the complex relationships that exist between mothers and sons. In both Shithouse and Cha Cha Real Smooth, your protagonists have these very close but also complicated relationships with their mother. Why do you think that keeps coming up in your work?
Both movies are, at their core, really just mother-son movies. My relationship with my mom is very close and it's really complicated. I really learned a lot about it when I left home for college, and Shithouse is this idea of this person who hasn't quite left home yet. It was good at highlighting the pain of leaving home and growing up. But I think the core of it was that [the protagonist Alex] was very attached to his mom and was really having this survivor's guilt about leaving home because they just experienced this traumatic death of their dad. But still, he's leaving, and she's having to let him, and he's kind of having to let himself.
Then, with Cha Cha, it’s even more so a mother-son story. I mean, Freud would have so much to say about the relationship between Andrew and Domino. [laughs] I think the Andrew-Domino relationship is representative of his relationship with his mom in a lot of ways. The movie gets to a place where Domino is the one who relieves him from that cycle. In that car scene, she says, “You only have you. How scary, but how amazing.” And there's this mirror moment, where at the beginning of the movie, Andrew’s mom says something like, “I'm happy here.” Then, flash-forward to the door scene: Andrew is confessing his love to Dakota, and she says, "I'm happy here."
I think Andrew has this make-happy complex because his relationship with his mom when he was a kid was one of ultimate protection and taking care of her. But now, he's 22 and he doesn't need to take care of his mom anymore and he doesn't need to take care of Domino anymore, so he can really just focus on taking care of himself and figuring out who he is. So, yeah, the mother-son relationship is the core of both of those movies. It's the starting point, the genesis of who Alex and Andrew are, I think.
I know Este Haim did the score for the film. How did you like collaborating with her?
Ro Donnelly, the producer of Cha Cha, knew Este's composing partner, Christopher Stracey, and asked him. They had just scored the show Maid on Netflix, and Ro said, "Are you guys free?" And Chris said yes, so we all met. Este is the funniest human being alive. I could not believe how funny she was — like, I was crying-laughing on a Zoom call with her, which I've never done before. So we kind of just said, "Let's do the thing together." And then, the process of working with them was so great. They're so collaborative and everything that they would send was so amazing. It was really nice working with them.
Final question: What are your tips for the ultimate party-starter playlist?
Oh, the playlist? I always say “24K Magic” by Bruno Mars is the song that gets everyone on the dancefloor.
It really does!
There's just something about it that really gets it going. Also, there’s another song I really wanted in Cha Cha: “She's A Bad Mama Jama” [by Carl Carlton]. That's another one that I think really gets people on the dancefloor. Plus, it's of the themes of Cha Cha.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is streaming on AppleTV+ now.