Tess Morris is reminding Simon Pegg about the day she met him.
“Do you remember, I was really sweaty? I’d bought a new jumper – it was my Simon Pegg Meeting Jumper – but it was a very warm day, and then I walked really fast, and I was late and I was incredibly nervous. And I thought that as you hugged me, all you could probably feel was the warmth of my sweaty jumper.”
Across the coffee table, Pegg laughs. “I thought it was a lovely jumper,” he assures her, then turns to me: “I wouldn’t have known she was sweating so much if she hadn’t spoken about it such a lot.”
That Pegg and Morris’s first meeting should have begun so awkwardly seems fitting. Morris is, after all, the screenwriter of Man Up, a romantic comedy about a thirtysomething woman named Nancy (Lake Bell) who ends up on an impromptu blind date with Jack (Pegg) after an awkward case of mistaken identity under the clock at Waterloo station. It’s a delightful film – one that’s as much in love with London as it is with its two stars. Pegg brings to Jack a slightly dishevelled vulnerability, while, in Nancy, Bell offers a refreshing female voice: irreverent, flawed, half given up on love and life.
Nancy’s character is also a fair depiction of where Morris, then a TV writer, found herself at that point in her life. “I was in a hole,” she says. “A professional hole. And a personal one. I had taken two years off writing because I thought it was to blame for my life going wrong – because people kept dumping me, and I was unhappy, and so I thought the writing life was not for me any more, because I was spending too much time on my own and therefore I was going crazy.”
Instead, she began working in film development, reading scripts for the British Film Institute and Film 4. “And I read so many scripts and started to think, ‘Some of these aren’t very good,” she explains. “I thought: ‘I could maybe write at least a slightly better one …’ So I did it as very much a last-chance saloon thing.”
Having been through the breakup of a long-term relationship, she had also moved back home to live with her parents. “I said to them, give me three months to write this script, and then, if it doesn’t work out, if I can’t sell it, I’ll get a proper job.” She laughs. “I didn’t know what I meant by that, I’m not qualified to do anything else. So, luckily, the production company I wrote it for, Big Talk (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead), liked it. Which was the most weird and amazing thing to happen.”
That the film’s central meet-cute had happened to her in real life seemed a sign of some sort. “I had the idea because it actually happened to me,” she says. “I was under the clock at Waterloo and a guy came over to me and said, ‘Are you Clare?’ and I said, ‘No’, and then he walked away. And I was single, and I thought: ‘He was quite nice … I should have said yes!’”
Pegg looks amazed. “I didn’t know that,” he says.
“How could you not fucking know that?” Morris replies with affectionate outrage. “Do you listen to anything I say? Do you read my texts? That’s how I got the idea. I thought: ‘Oh, that’s a good idea for a romcom set-up!’”
The art of romantic comedy is something of a passion for Morris and Pegg. “I did an essay at university that was a structuralist comparison of Annie Hall and When Harry Met Sally,” Pegg recalls. “I got a first for it. I read it the other day and I didn’t understand it – it’s completely indecipherable to me. It’s like stereo instructions. But, basically, I tried to say that When Harry Met Sally is like a piece of prose, and Annie Hall is a poem because it uses cinematic devices figuratively, like poems, and it rhymes scenes, whereas When Harry Met Sally is a continuous narrative. It wasn’t saying either one is better. Though Annie Hall is better.”
Morris gives a long, slow exhale of disapproval, and Pegg shakes his head. “When Harry Met Sally is a brilliant, brilliant film,” he tells her, “but Annie Hall is a better piece of cinema. Annie Hall undermines the traditional structure of a romcom, which is: two people over a period of time are attracted to one another, something prevents them from being together, they overcome some huge obstacle and then they are together. And at the end of Annie Hall they aren’t together, and that’s the thing.”
But, insists Morris: “I would argue that in terms of the romcom structure Annie Hall hits every single beat, it’s just the end that’s different.”
“But that’s such a key beat,” replies Pegg. “A romantic comedy’s such an aspirational thing in that it tells you that love is possible. But at the end of Annie Hall what it says is ‘That big love, it didn’t work out, and maybe it’s my fault …’”
Morris folds her arms and looks stern. “But I’m not even sure that Harry and Sally stay together, personally,” she says.
In writing Man Up, Morris, too, became a student of romantic comedy, watching and rewatching her favourite examples of the genre – When Harry Met Sally, Moonstruck, As Good As It Gets and others – and seeking out expert advice. “I had the story, but I was really struggling with the cinematic structure of it, because I’d never actually written a full screenplay,” she says. “Then my friend said you should read this book Writing the Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit, and it just unlocked the whole of the romcom structure for me. I had a moment of sudden understanding that I needed the seven beats within a romantic comedy that Billy has come up with. It’s actually a book all screenwriters should read, I think.”
Pegg looks up from where he is wrestling with the Nespresso machine. “Will it help me with the Star Trek movie?” he asks, referring to his current writing project.
“Yup,” Morris assures him.
The curious thing about the romantic comedy is that it has become more maligned than arguably any other genre of cinema. “The number of times I get into conversations with people where they’re dismissive of romantic comedy, which makes me so furious because you don’t dismiss all thrillers, you don’t dismiss all horrors,” says Morris with visible exasperation.
“It’s like the idea of the romcom has become slightly tarnished by some films,” adds Pegg. “There’s been a slew of films that haven’t done that particular term or genre proud. And people are starting to expect that.”
We can, he suspects, trace the root of this back to 1989. “Maybe When Harry Met Sally is the very genesis of the contemporary definition of the romcom,” he says. “A lot of people have tried to recreate it, so you get a lot of these bland, slightly forgettable films.”
Morris nods. “The problem with those films is they don’t have their central axiom, which is why they fail.”
Pegg smiles. “Thank you Yoda,” he says.
“Well, When Harry Met Sally has as its central axiom: ‘Can men and women be friends?’” Morris continues. “And you’ve got to have a central question posed in a good romantic comedy, and then either discussed or debated throughout the film. My axiom for Man Up was: ‘At what point do you take a chance on someone? And is it worth the risk?’”
They reel off some of their recent romcom favourites, including Crazy Stupid Love, The Proposal and Silver Linings Playbook, and discuss films they believe fall under the genre’s umbrella perhaps more unexpectedly, such as Muriel’s Wedding and Sideways. “Shaun of the Dead is a romcom!” declares Morris.
Pegg tilts his head. “Is it?” he asks. “People always say that Shaun of the Dead is a zombie parody, and I always get frustrated by that,” he says. “It’s a zombie film and, if it’s a parody of anything, it’s a parody of romantic films, because when we pitched it to Working Title we said it was Richard Curtis shot in the head by George Romero. And it was taking that London-set romantic comedy and just sticking a different obstacle in the way of romance. And also there’s a degree of romance between myself and Nick [Frost, his co-star in the film].”
Can we expect to find elements of romantic comedy in Pegg’s Star Trek, too? “Yes, absolutely,” he says. “Because it’s all about relationships. Myself and Doug Jung, who are writing it together, we’re writing about characters that already exist, so there are pre-existing relationships there, it’s a familial setting. It’s not a romantic comedy exactly, but there are human relationships in it, and that’s what’s at the heart of a romantic comedy, too.”
It was, Morris explains, Pegg’s contributions that helped to fill out her original script for Man Up. “As I left our first meeting, he said: ‘Are you all right if I give you a few notes?’ And his notes were great – they brought much more to Jack as a character, because the draft that he read was much more Nancy-based. Simon made it much more of a two-hander, because as much as anything he is also a 40-plus-year-old man who knows all of those things that Jack is going through.”
“I find it very hard to write for women,” adds Pegg. “It’s mine and Edgar [Wright, with whom he wrote Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz]’s self-confessed weakness – whenever we’ve written scripts together, the women in our films are the weakest characters. It’s hard – you can understand the opposite sex, and yet still there’s a degree of authenticity that’s hard to achieve. Particularly when you’re writing specifically about issues relating to your own gender, because when you’re trying to see how the opposite gender interprets those issues you tend to project what you hope they think, and it isn’t always right. So I thought Jack was a really interesting character.”
But he says he was immediately drawn to Morris’s script, reading it in one sitting and impressed by the openness and believability of her female characters – particularly in their frank discussion of sex. “When I first read the script, and the section where Nancy does her whole ‘blow-job paradox’ speech, I thought, ‘Whoa, this is quite …’” he widens his eyes. “I’m not a prude in any way – I love a good swear, but I thought: ‘OK, right, this is interesting.’” Across from him, Morris laughs exuberantly. “My writing once got described as ‘slutty but sophisticated’,” she says, “and I think that’s accurate.”
But it is also, at heart, very romantic. “I’m this weird combo of a realist and a romantic,” she says. “I have this huge secret romantic part of me that I don’t actually put into my life – if someone tries to take me on a romantic date, I freak out and don’t like it. I only put that romantic part of me into films. That’s why I knew that in Man Up I wanted to have a scene with a big run and a kiss, and a big speech in front of all her family. I didn’t want it to be post-modern or a guilty pleasure, because the thing is with me, I unashamedly love romcoms. And so that’s what I wrote, an unashamed romantic comedy.”
• Man Up is released in the UK on 29 May
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