“Surprise Me!” is a new romantic comedy from writer/director Nancy Goodman. The film, based on her novel of the same name, is about Genie, a party planner who deals with her emotions and past traumas with an eating disorder. While definitely a comedy, “Surprise Me” still deals with how closely our emotions are linked with food. MUSE TV & Culturally Obsessed’s Jennifer Ortega recently spoke with Nancy Goodman.
“Surprise Me!” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. The film stars Fiona Gubelmann, Jonathan Bennett, and Sean Farris. For more info: http://www.surprisemethemovie.com
From Novel to Screen
Jennifer Ortega: Hi Nancy!
Nancy Goodman: Hi Jennifer, how are you?
JO: I’m great! I really enjoyed the movie. There are so many aspects to it I liked. And I didn’t know that it was a book first and you wrote the book. So firstly, I wanted to ask where did the story come from, and how did you go from the novel to the screen?
NG: The book “Surprise Me” really came as a result of my first book, “Food vs. Me and I Won” That’s more of a memoir and it’s about what I go through and kind of related to you as the reader. I thought it was going to be a big seller and it turned out not to be. And there was still a stigma to bingeing and they sensationalized the pitch a little bit.
So when that book didn’t sell well and I knew there still were so many women that dealt with this, I thought how do I get through to them without the stigma. That’s when I thought oh romantic comedy and then I’ll bury it as a subplot. That’s where the novel came from and I had done some surprise party stuff. I thought that would be a fun theme and the relationship stuff had a few little pieces of me. Then the screenplay I just wrote it. I just didn’t think I would direct the movie. That was nowhere on my radar, but it just sort of progressed. And here I am talking to you.
De-stigmatizing Eating Disorders
JO: You used the genre as a vehicle to talk about a serious issue for a lot of women. I’m always a fan of films that do that because you watch it and are entertained and then later really think about the pressing issues that come to the surface. You don’t think about it at first, and then it brings a conversation about food and bingeing and different people’s relationship to food later on after you see the film. So I thought that was very successful. There’s something about putting issues within a genre film that makes it easier to talk about.
NG: I had a lot of people who recommended that I do it, like movie producers, who wanted me to do it darker because that’s what gets into Sundance. I said no, it can’t be dark. It’s got to be pretty and fun. We feel dark enough about ourselves and how abnormal we are for doing these things. So I want, if anything I want to normalize it and make it look like something we all do and we can laugh about it, talk about it. I mean we’re not committing a crime. When the police pull you over if you eat too much you could still walk a straight line. I just wanted to put the humor in it because that’s what we have to do as women.
JO: It becomes easier I think to talk about it. And the film does look really pretty. I love that. I mean there are really deep dark topics even within Genie’s own family and all the things that she’s dealt with. But there’s a sense, because of the acting and the story and the wardrobe and everything, there’s a sense of levity that kind of balances everything out. I just think that makes it easier to talk about these like heavier topics.
NG: Yes and they feel so heavy to us. I remember feeling like I’d look at other people and say why do I have this food curse. How come other people don’t have it? And what I didn’t know was that a lot of people did have it. At the time none of us had any education of this. We didn’t know. We knew that you eat when we’re bored or when we’re stressed out. I didn’t know to follow the food to find the feeling. I found that so compelling and I thought it was just such a missing message to all of us.
Then there are all the amazing things that come out of that knowledge. I mean some of it’s really horrible and painful and very hard to sit with, but we’re capable of the pain that we’re given in life. We’re just not capable of handling the ancillary pain coming from going to places that are unhealthy and that sabotage our self-esteem and sabotage our health and well being. Then we’re dealing with a problem plus all that other sickness. I think we are a race who runs from pain. When you look at what our country does with food, it’s like putting flavor on crack. I was hoping this movie would start a conversation.
JO: Well, that’s what I like about it. It is definitely a fun movie and one you want to see with your girlfriends. But it does really start a dialogue about our relationship with food. So it makes people de-stigmatize eating disorders. I always think if you see somebody relatable then it’s not so hard to admit things to yourself or talk about them.
NG: The other thing that’s interesting is that people look at someone who looks very overweight and they think they have food problems. When they look at somebody who’s more of average weight or thinner even, they don’t think they have any problems with food. And so I thought ok well I don’t necessarily look the part.
People don’t believe me when I tell them about my problem with food. But I could out-eat any of them. I wasn’t bulimic. I wasn’t anorexic. So I didn’t think I had an eating disorder. I just thought that I just loved food too much. I did go into that therapy session and said oh I have this great life and great everything, but I just have this little eating problem. If you can turn this around for me I’m willing to pay the extra money They must have looked at me like we’ve got a live one here.
JO: People do look at other people and we assume things that really aren’t necessarily true. Someone’s unhealthy relationship with whatever doesn’t matter what size they are or what they look like.
NG: I think from talking to different people, I feel like on the inside we’re so identical. We really are. We have the same responses. Our situations and our lives and everything is so different, but I think it’s amazing how innate our emotional responses are the same. That is where we can connect and relate and I think that’s just such a cool thing and it’s such a bonding thing.
JO: I always think that everybody is a little broken. So this is something that connects us no matter what your circumstances are. So everyone has their own issues that they’re going through.
NG: Everybody’s heard that they suck. Everyone’s been hurt, but we think our pain is the worst because we’re the ones feeling it.
Working with the Actors
JO: It’s true. I think the lead actress Fiona Gubelmann who plays Genie is so great. How did you land on her?
NG: Isn’t she great? I landed on her really through my casting director, Lea Daniels. Lea’s in L.A. and she works with me which was very nice of her because she deals with big productions. She cast “Empire.” She does a lot of bigger things
JO: I also love that Jonathan Bennett played Danny because you think of “Mean Girls” immediately.
NG: Everybody loves Jonathan.
JO: I think that was a great idea. And he was so cute, and he was so he was great in the movie. There are so many parts with him that I enjoyed. I mean the pink elephant costume. He was the elephant in the room.
NG: It’s funny because little ideas like that, the pink elephant, come from my life. That came from my daughter’s boyfriend. So it was so fun to share this with family and with friends. Jonathan was the one who dumped the whole candy bowl in the little girl’s Halloween bag. It wasn’t in the script and the entire dialogue between them. And part of the fun of this for me as a first time director was learning to trust the actors and their trust in me too.
Especially Fiona because she was hesitant about taking the part because she couldn’t see anything that I’d ever done. This was my first time directing, so I didn’t have past work to show her. So we got on the phone, and we had a long talk, and I told her my whole mission with the film. I told her what I was going to be asking of her, you know, the emotions she would have to show and genuineness of it. I told her Genie has to be really real and flawed and lovable and bitchy and all those things. The audience has to be won over in spite of being irritated by her, and she got it.
From the minute I met Fiona, we just fell in love with each other and Jonathan too. He’s fun. He’s full of life, and he’s adjustable and talented and has the biggest heart. And Sean Farris was terrific. For Sean’s part as Jeff, he said I don’t want to play him as a total asshole because he has a heart. I said he sure does, and he loves Genie, so if you make him an asshole, then you’re making her an asshole. We have to see what part of him she attaches to that makes her want to continue working in their relationship. It was amazing working with them.
JO: I mean the whole film has a lot of heart. That’s what I really love about it. And it’s nice to see something that deals with serious issues but at the same time something that you feel good seeing. I enjoyed it and absolutely want to go with my mom to see this. It’s like a fun movie to see with your friends. I loved the wardrobe.
NG: Genie looks really mismatched purposely because the wardrobe people had a real sense of how what she wore reflected where she was emotionally. So she had more confidence at the beginning. She’s not the biggest fashionista. Like me, she puts effort into her comforts at home. That’s where she puts her money in and not so much into her clothes. And so sometimes I look at the clothing and I cringe a little bit. But I kind of like it too because it shows that that’s just not where her focus is.
JO: I think it’s charming when something is a little mismatched because it shows the uniqueness of the person.
NG: Do you remember that scene where she’s got food in her hair?
NG: My husband literally came home one night and pointed to my head and said how did you get food up there. And the part with the drive-thru was real. So I would say most of the things in that movie that you would think couldn’t possibly have happened did they actually did.
Final Take Away from the Film
JO: You know life is always I think so much more interesting than anything we can make up. What do you hope that audiences take away from the film?
NG: I hope that it becomes this amazing vehicle for people to understand the feelings behind their eating and to learn to feel that and to understand that it’s ok to feel them. It’s actually healthy to feel them, much healthier than to avoid them. I mean I hope people love the characters, love the movie, and that they get girlfriend bonding time out of it. And I really hope that teenagers kind of look at it and start to understand and that we can catch them before they turn into adults who don’t know how to process feelings. So I hope it’s kind of a road map to understanding why we obsess about food, that it’s normal to obsess about something, we are obsessive.
But when we are obsessing there’s something to look at behind it. And it’s always a surprise. There’s pain, but pain can bring beautiful surprises. If you avoid the pain you’ll bring chaos to your life. So I think my belief and my experience now that I’m 60 years old is that when you follow the truth of who you are and what you feel that you can follow choices that are best and healthiest for you. But when you avoid that truth, everything starts to spin out of your control. That causes a lot of trouble in relationships and your decisions and your opinions about yourself. It chips away at your strength. So when you live by that truth and you take the pain you become so incredibly strong and you start to like yourself. You know you respect yourself because you’re standing up to life.
JO: I love that. I think that’s so powerful to be authentic with yourself before anything else. I think that’s such a powerful realization.
NG: And it’s hard. Every day I’m fighting with those voices and feelings of you know whether it’s inferiority or somebody doesn’t like me or my kid is mad at me or whatever it is. I always have to ask myself what’s true. Sometimes I don’t want to know, but I need to know.
JO: There are things in life that really uncomfortable to confront.
NG: When they’re uncomfortable we can run to the food. Our impulse is to run to the food or drinks or drugs or whatever it is. The hardest thing is to sit on that pain and that discomfort and not go to something to make it feel better. It’s still hard, but it’s doable.
JO: I think “Surprise Me” definitely is a hundred percent a girlfriend movie. I think it’s definitely a movie you want to see with your friends. We talked about very serious things, but there’s a levity and a charm to the film that makes you feel really good too.
NG: You know it’s funny because I had one producer who I said to that I want a really warm fuzzy movie. And he said oh well that’s not going to happen. And I walked away from him for that. There were other things too, but that was the final strike for me and I decided to produce it myself along with someone else.
JO: Thank you so much, Nancy! I’ve really enjoyed talking with you.
NG: Me too! Thank you!