March 6, 2020

How a Director Turned His Passion Project into His First Feature Film

Hooking Up debuts in theaters and on-demand on March 20th. We sat down with the director to learn how he broke into Hollywood. 

Nico Raineau was just a kid from Mystic, Connecticut, with a dream of working in film and television when he moved to California. All he had was a few script ideas, a couple of connections, and a lot of gumption. 

Little did he know that his journey west would have him working all over the industry, starting as an intern, becoming a lower-level executive, and leaving it all behind to write and direct his feature films. 

We sat down with Nico in anticipation of his first feature, Hooking Up, which hits theaters and digital on March 20th. 

Hooking Up is a romantic comedy where Darla (Brittany Snow) is a recovering sex addict in therapy. While in a group session, she meets Bailey (Veep star Sam Richardson), who was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Darla convinces Bailey to embark on a cross-country road trip to relive her sexual experiences with the idea that Bailey can have "one last hurrah" before losing his manhood. 

I've seen it, and it's a blast. 

Let's see what lessons we gleaned from our conversation. 

NFS: Can you talk a little bit about what drew you to Hollywood initially? Just the highlights, and then how you've gone about creating a career for yourself.

NicoI thought I wanted to be an actor when I was younger. And so I did a lot of school theater, community theater, and then decided to go to film school. I went to film school at Emerson in Boston, and right out of film school, I got an opportunity to be a director's assistant on a Warner Brothers movie that was filming in Boston. So, I learned studio production from start to finish, was there on day one of pre-production, and worked to us delivering the movie. And then, from there, started working development for a few different companies, until I finally realized that I didn't want to climb the executive ladder, and just left to start pursuing writing and directing full time. The first feature that I wrote after that was Hooking Up, and ended up being the first movie I was able to get made.

"Ultimately, we wrote this movie the exact way I say never to write a movie..."

NFS: Can you tell us a little bit about the idea for Hooking Up, and how it came to you?

Nico: So, I've had the idea for this movie, I think, since film school, and it started with the idea of having to retrace your sexual history with one other person, whether or not it's someone that you know or someone who's a stranger to you. I thought would be about a couple, and one of the people in the couple feels a little insecure about the other person's experience exceeding theirs. It needing to be about leveling the playing field by revisiting your history with someone that you're already intimate with. And when we started writing that version of the movie, I very quickly realized that the stakes inherently become about just them breaking up.

We realized that it didn't feel as romantic as doing a traditional romantic comedy, where it's really about falling in love and also having the comedy of errors of two people who don't know each other very well, and them getting to learn a little about each other. So anyway, it started with that idea of having to retrace your history, which I always liked because, on one side of the coin, it's ripe for comedic high jinks, right? Think about the places you'd have to break into. Sneaking back into an ex's house. There's a lot of humor that comes from, "Oh God, where would I have to go revisit?" But on the other side of that coin, is having to relive and even just share why you were at a certain place, or why you were in a certain relationship, and this bad decisions you made when you were younger, makes you vulnerable, to have to open up to someone and share those pieces of yourself.

I always liked the juxtaposition of those two things, of the humor of having to do it, with the intimacy of having to share it. And I just thought that that was right for a good character story. Then it grew from there. Ultimately, we wrote this movie the exact way I say never to write a movie, which is we started with that plot and then had to reverse engineer character out of that plot, which is you always want to write from character. So after we sort of went down some false starts, we realized, okay, we have to go back to character and figure out who were the people that necessitate going on a journey like this. And that's how we came up with this version of Bailey and Darla, and two people who find themselves needing to do this to heal, essentially, and recognize the issues that they have, and taking those issues seriously for the first time.

NFS: Do you outline before you write a feature?

Nico: 100%. So, I should say, by the way, I wrote this movie with my wife, Lauren Schacher. When we started dating, we started making short films together and made those short films without murdering each other. I started telling her this idea for this feature, and it was right up her alley. So, we ended up writing it together. And yes, we outline extensively.

NFS: What's the writing process like between you and your wife? 

Nico: Lauren is great at dialogue, and she's good at just putting something on the page. She's not precious, which is, I think, one of her superpowers as a writer, whereas I am very precious. I am a litigious outliner, and I'm a structuralist. So, between her being like, "I just want to throw stuff on the page," and me being like, "Hold on, let's make sure we know what's going on the page before we put it on the page," we balance each other out well. So, we would outline everything together, and make sure that we were both knew these characters well enough to share a voice as co-writers. And then, we played to our strengths, which is, she was good at doing the first pass, that vomit draft of, "Okay, here's the outline, I'm just going to put this on the page." And then I would read the first scene or whatever she had written, "Okay, I see what we're trying to do here. And I like a lot of these ideas, but let me sort of finesse this."

And then we would go back and forth, and we'd start rewriting each other, and then we'd get into a groove, and I do the first pass at some of that stuff, and then she would revise me. We just found our groove that way.

But our style sort of works well. Sometimes, when I'm writing by myself, I'm like, "Oh, I wish Lauren was writing this with me."

"The great thing about writing with a partner is every draft you put out is essentially two drafts because it's got to go through both of us."

NFS: It's amazing that kind of partnership and balance together.

Nico: It either works, or it doesn't, especially if you are creative partners with your romantic partner. That is, don't force that. If it doesn't work, don't try to make it work because it's hard enough as it is to balance either one of those relationships, let alone having that same relationship with fulfilling both aspects of your life.

NFS: Did you have to set boundaries like, "Hey, at dinner, we're not going to talk about this movie."

Nico: 100%. It's very important to know that whatever you argue about when you're writing, stops as soon as you close the laptop. Then, when you start talking about what you're making for dinner, those do not spill over into your personal life.

I think those boundaries are really important, and I think we've been good at that. You know, we will argue about having a difference of opinion. For us, it's usually about a joke. We would argue a lot about what jokes are pushing it too far, and what makes sense for the characters, or just story stuff. Creative people are stubborn, and sometimes our opinions would clash, but as soon as we were done writing, it would be like, "Okay, that's not us." That was us as writing partners, and now we're husband and wife, and that doesn't reflect "chicken or salmon for dinner?"

"For any filmmakers out there who are looking at making their first film, my advice to you is, do not make a road trip movie. It's just too hard."

NFS: How many drafts do you think you did of the script before you knew it was finished?

Nico: First of all, the script is never finished.The script is a blueprint, and you're going to be changing that script up until the moment you shoot it. You're going to keep changing it once you edit it. So, when did I know the script was finished?  For me, the question is more like, when did I know that the script was ready to be sent out?

NFS: Yeah, it's a great point.

Nico: We do a couple of drafts on our own. The great thing about writing with a partner is every draft you put out is essentially two drafts because it's got to go through both of us. And once we felt confident enough to start getting feedback because we share it with our reps, or managers, or our agents, and then you see their feedback, and then you make it a little better. And based on that feedback, you just get to a point where you're like, "Okay, this probably isn't the version, the perfect page verbatim version that we're going to end up shooting, but it's good enough to get people interested." And then you go out because the truth of the matter is if you take a script out, you're going to look for producers first. You're going to get notes from those producers.

When you go to the cast, a lot of times, you will get some notes from [actors]. And so the script is never really done, it's just a matter of, send it. Get it to a point where you're confident enough to send it to some people that you trust. Get feedback from those people. Make adjustments to where everyone feels happy with it and confident in it, and then go out with that draft. But know that it's always going to continue to evolve and reshape, especially if you're a writer-director. You know that you're going to have to make compromises when you go to execute that script and make it a reality. Because, especially on an independent budget, what you wrote is never going to fit the reality of the resources that you have. It gets tricky. It's a moving target.

NFS: Let's talk a little bit about that reality. So, you went out with the script, originally titled Bailey and Darla, now Hooking Up, and just a little bit about the process of finding producers, finding a budget, and then what it's like to be on set for the first day.

Nico: Once we had the script in a place where we felt good about it, my agent started submitting it to producers, and it's tough. It's my first movie. I've got several short films under my belt that have won some awards. I've directed a few episodes of streaming platform stuff. Based on that alone and the script is how you have to get producers interested in you, and your first one's always going to be tricky.

We found a producing partner and then needed to make a package. So we started going out to casts. We hired Mary Vernieu, who's the best in the business. We're so lucky to have worked with her, and we did that because Lauren's friend used to be a casting associate with her. So we got our foot in the door that way, which was a personal connection. We had some starts and stops, financiers, people who were interested, people who dragged their feet on really saying yes.

At one point, we thought we had found some people and did some preliminary scouting, and then when it came time to be like, "All right, are you guys really in? If you are, we need to go shoot this movie," it just fell through. And so I told Brittany [Snow] what happened, and she knew the guys at Yale Productions and asked if she could give the script to them. I said yes, and they were immediately interested, loved the script, obviously loved Brittany, and it just happened quickly. Then, through that whole process of being with Brittany a year, and becoming creative partners with her, she became a producer on the project. Between the time of us landing with Yale and shooting the movie was maybe three months. It happened very fast.

They said, "We love this; we've got a time slot available; let's go make this right now." And of course, after a year trying to get the movie made, everything falls into place. And then we just went down the road with them. We weren't sure where we were going to shoot the movie. The movie was written to be a road trip from LA to New York. There was a moment when we thought we're going to shoot it in New York. So, Lauren and I rewrote the script to take place in New York and be a road trip to LA.

NFS: Amazing.

Nico: Based on the budget that we had and the connections that one of our producers had, the decision was made to shoot the movie in Dallas, Texas. We had to rewrite the movie to make it work for Dallas. And Dallas does not look like New York. It does not look like LA. So, we rewrote the movie to take place in Atlanta, cheating Dallas for Atlanta, and then to be a windy road trip that brought them through Dallas, so that we could at least shoot Dallas for what it was, for part of the movie.

And that was just about being flexible, knowing what the story has to be, and knowing where you can make changes to still maintain the integrity and soul of the movie,=Does it matter what cities they're in? Does that change the characters, change the story? Not really. You make everything else work. But that was an interesting process, having lived so long with the script to make that big of a change. Finding a way to not change the movie was tricky. I think we managed it.

"I think that first day is [about] establishing trust with the people around you, with your cast and crew, making sure they know that they can rely on you and that you're not just so focused on treating this like a student film."

NFS: So, while you're rewriting the script you have to set a schedule for what you shoot on each day and the different hurdles. Did you schedule easy days first to lull yourself into it, or was it more of a, "What can we do? What's available on each day?"

Nico: So, we had to cut the script down before we started shooting. I think we got it down to like 103 pages, something like that, from a script that was in a hundred and teens. It's a road trip movie, which means that it's constantly moving. There are very few locations that we go back to. So, for a movie with over 25 locations, we had 17 days to shoot the movie. So, to answer your question, there were no easy days. There's nowhere to start that was going to be easy. We started with one location that we could spend the whole day in, which was also a big sort of comedy day, a big first-act day.

The first day of production was with Brittany and Jordana Brewster in her magazine office, where she works. It was great because there was a lot of sitting talking scenes, so it was a good way to ease in. It was her inciting incident for the movie. It's going to be in the trailer. It's monumental to the movie. It's funny as I've spoken to other friends who shot their first features, and their advice was, "Don't shoot anything on the first day that you know you need in the movie," because it's like... You just don't know what's going to happen on the first day. And we were still figuring out who everybody is and the rhythm of it.

NFS: 17 days, obviously very stressful, there's a lot to do and a lot to think about. You also have to handle personalities, and just make sure money's spent well. Do you have any ways you handled stress that helped the best, or advice for filmmakers who have to work on such a compressed schedule?

Nico: My advice for first-time filmmakersthis was what I did on my first day: I made it a point [to say], "No matter what happens, I'm going to wrap today on time, if not early," because I want everyone on this crew to know that I'm reliable, that I care about them, and I'm not going to take advantage of people's time. Although this is a passion project for me, I'm not going to treat it like a passion project. This is a job. We're all here. So, I'm going to get everybody out here on time or earlier. And that's what I did. I probably checked my watch every 10 minutes on that first day to make sure that we were staying on schedule, to the point where my producers even remarked that they saw when I was checking my watch so frequently, that they knew they were going to be in good hands.

I think that first day is [about] establishing trust with the people around you, with your cast and crew, making sure they know that they can rely on you and that you're not just so focused on treating this like a student film where you're going to take as long as you need. And one of my producers remarked that he knew we were going to be okay because I didn't try to win an Oscar with the first setup, that maybe it wasn't perfect, but I moved on because I knew we needed to.

So keep that in mind. I think on day one of anything you do.

Hooking Up

NFS: Looking back, now you have a movie in the can. You have a debut date set. Is there one piece of advice you wish you knew before starting this, that you come back to now?

Nico: For any filmmakers out there who are looking at making their first film, my advice to you is, do not make a road trip movie. It's just too hard. I think there's so much ground to cover, and you have so many scenes, and you spend your whole movie on making company moves. It becomes [more] about scheduling than just really executing and living in the scenes. It's so hard. It's like you're in the middle of directing a scene, and you're just looking at the clock, thinking, "Do I have enough time to get to the next scene?" And that's not what you want. So, that's tough. It's sort of a joke answer, but in many ways it's true. It makes sense that a lot first films take place in one room, with a few people talking to each other because you can focus on execution. And for me, I have to just shoot the pages in the script. That's what it came down to.

Other than that, surround yourself with people who support you creatively, support your artistic vision, and inspire you to collaborate. I feel indebted to the people that I worked with, like our amazing cast who just came to play and made the script so much better. And then our department heads who just saved my ass every day and have become some of my best friends. It's just really important to surround yourself with people who are more talented than you are.     

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Just wondering if this was a union production.

March 7, 2020 at 2:03AM

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Jerry Roe
Indie filmmaker
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