I've been a fan of filmmaker Cooper Raiff since SXSW 2020, when we spoke to him about his breakout hit Shithouse. It was an earnest, grounded drama about life away from home and finding your way in college.

Raiff's second film is just as earnest and just as grounded, and perhaps perfectly made for a Sundance crowd. Cha Cha Real Smooth follows young Andrew (Raiff, who also wrote and directed), an aimless young man just out of college. He falls into the job of bar mitzvah hype-man and also falls in love with Domino (Dakota Johnson, also a producer) while befriending her daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt).

This is the kind of film indie fans love, with those small human moments that writers and filmmakers seek to distill for audiences. Andrew is charming and confused just like so many of us are. The characters are well-crafted, and the drama of young love often hits its mark painfully—at least it did for me.

After the film's premiere this weekend, moderator Charlie Sextro welcomed Raiff, Burghardt, and Johnson for the audience Q&A. Read on for the key takeaways from this talented team!

What does it take to cast major talent?

This is Raiff's second film, but there are some big names involved, like Johnson, Leslie Mann, and Brad Garrett. How can you pitch an idea that will hook those actors?

Johnson said she heard about the movie's idea from her producing partner while filming The Lost Daughter. She watched Shithouse and knew that Raiff's voice and vision could lead to another indie hit.

"It was a seedling of an idea," she said. "And then we said, 'Go, go do it, let's make it, we'd love to.' He's so special. He's a very unique person. There's nobody like him. I said this already, but I think his voice and the way he sees the world should be seen by a lot of people."

What is your unique perspective? What can you bring to a project that no one else can? How can you hone your voice and tell a story in a way that hasn't been done before?

Keep writing, keep telling the stories that matter to you, and don't try to be anyone else. You might be the voice someone is looking for.

Cha-cha-real-smooth-qa_51838346052_o'Cha Cha Real Smooth' Q&ACredit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Why you should let your characters be vulnerable

In both Cha Cha and Shithouse, characters have very raw conversations about themselves and what they are feeling, often exposing deep emotional vulnerabilities. A viewer asked how Raiff approached writing those scenes.

"I think I have a lot of friends and family members who really enjoy one-on-one conversations," he said. "I don't know. I like to say certain things with certain scenes. And I think it's not about trying to be vulnerable, it's just trying to get at what the movie's trying to say, through a conversation. I always have a very specific goal in mind, but then also try to keep it as naturalistic as possible."

Everything in your script should serve your theme. What's the central thematic question of your work? How can you address that question through dialogue and action? But how can you do it without being too on-the-nose? Think of this in every draft of your work.

Cha-cha-real-smooth-qa_51840028335_o'Cha Cha Real Smooth' Q&ACredit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

How can you shoot during COVID?

We're talking to a lot of filmmakers this festival about the realities of shooting during a pandemic, which has become the new production norm for a couple of years now. How do you make it work, even on a small film?

“We didn’t have nearly as many extras as we wanted, but we had a ton of fun," Raiff said. "There was a lot of dancing."

With precautions in place and perhaps a few sacrifices, you can definitely make it work.

Johnson said you have to "reimagine every single thing" on a pandemic production. They shot portions of the movie (especially the bar mitzvah scenes) in different parts of an abandoned mall and repurposed extras and sets as needed.

“We managed to not shut down once,” Johnson said. 

Why does it pay to be flexible?

Cha-cha-real-smooth-director-cooper-raiff_51689585071_oCredit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

A key scene in the film and in the relationship between Andrew and Domino occurs as they share popsicles one night. Johnson revealed that she and Raiff were working on that scene up until the shoot day.

"We wanted to keep it pretty succinct," she said. "That's why we went through earlier in the day and changed some things. Which is amazing, because it's not always possible to work with a scene partner where you can change things last minute and both be on the same page and be able to deliver the way you would've if you'd had loads of time to prepare. But Cooper's brain works that way, and my brain works that way. We'd be like, 'Oh, let's change this entire section and all of these lines,' and then be able to do it immediately. And that was so, so amazing, and a brilliant way to collaborate."

Obviously, you have to get to a point where your script is "finished," and you can't lose time to excessive improv, but if you and your actors are on the same page about potential changes or things to try, go for it. Some flexibility might yield some new, pivotal moments.


Check out even more great coverage of Sundance 2022 from No Film School.