What is "love"? Many a romantic comedy explores the concept with something that falls worlds apart from any real-life conceptions: leading to the "Hollywood ending" and some structures of a story that really strain credulity and suspension of disbelief to… well… believe, at all.

I am certainly in that camp of people who usually avoids the romantic comedy as a genre precisely because they do have a tendency to strain what is believable for me. Call me a jaded cynic or brutal pessimist, but that's just how I am. Yet that's not how all romantic comedies are.

I caught up with writer and director Susan Walter who dared to examine a more realistic kind of love in her latest film, a romantic comedy called All I Wish, in theaters and On-Demand / Digital HD today.

Susan took a creative risk that really paid off for her movie. She chose to tell it using a narrative-device of focusing on 7 birthdays in her lead character Senna's (brought to life by Oscar-nominee Sharon Stone) life as she reckons with the challenges of life as a fashion designer trying to start her own business and be happy.

Susan and I get into the nuts and bolts of this narrative device – including much more on screen-writing, film-making, influences, what makes a brave film, and the changing landscape of Hollywood – and how this focus in the narrative gave the movie a more bite sized digestibility by looking at  7 birthdays which come out as 7 vignettes in Senna's life – with 7 different things to focus on that highlight her development as a person with all the attendant happiness and suffering, much of both coming from her mother (Ellen Burstyn) and the relationship with the man (Tony Goldwyn) she loves – a much more realistic relationship then in your typical romantic comedy.

In the end, All I Wish is something more than just your typical rom-com with a novel narrative structure. It's a morality tale where you quite genuinely are invested in the main character's happiness and quite enjoy growing with her.

Hello Susan and welcome to The 405! I'd like to start if I may by inquiring a bit about your history. How (and why) did you get into film?

I kind of stumbled into it by accident. When I was in college, I went to Harvard, and I wanted to be a newscaster. So, I got an internship at the local TV station WBZ, which I could walk to.

So, I was an intern, and I wanted to be on-air and they gave me every chance in the world, Wess – they put me on camera, they tried to coach me, but I was basically uncoachable. It was terrible – they said I was twitchy and just wasn't natural.

So, I kind of knew then and there that if I wanted to be in some kind of entertainment or news that I had to be behind-the-scenes. I was looking for another opportunity, and a fellow intern was applying to this thing called the Director’s Guild of America assistant director training program

Yeah.

…and it was a training program – on-the-job training with classes that went along with it. I enrolled in that, I took the tests, passed, and got in.

From there I learned the movie business from behind-the-scenes from the ground up.

So, it was a little bit of fate told me first what I shouldn't be doing… [Laughs]

[Laughs]

That I belonged behind the camera. So, I stumbled around behind the camera for many years until I finally came to directing.

That's fantastic that you found it – in quite the roundabout way too. Favorite directors and films? Which would you consider most pivotal on you as an artist?

To be honest with you, I love really traditional stories – like my favorite film of all time is Rocky. I love the come-from-behind, the underdog, I love that Sylvester Stallone was an unknown actor who stuck to his guns – the story behind the story – that he was rags-to-riches both in the movie and in real life.

I love Jaws. Just a really well-crafted, suspenseful, would you call that an action movie? Or a thriller? It just knows what it is.

I love Pretty Woman because it's just so satisfying, and surprising. By the way, we think of it as this sort of by-the-numbers romantic comedy but she was a hooker!

[Laughs] This is true.

I think of if they tried to sell that movie today: "yeah, it's a story about a woman and she's a hooker". And they'd be like: "Next!"

[Laughs]

 God bless Garry Marshall: but then I'm gonna make a heart-warming film about a hooker.

[Laughs] Absolutely.

Sharon Stone as Senna Berges in the comedy film ALL I WISH a Paladin / Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. Photo courtesy of Paladin / Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

These movies took chances. They knew what they were. And they went big. People say, "oh, they're very commercial."

I don't think having a commercial movie is a bad thing. And I love them.

I love Raiders of the Lost Ark too – for the same reason.

There ya go. A lot of those are great for a reason…

Right?

Yeah.

Really brave film-makers who know what they're doing and craft suspenseful moments and great characters and use all the tricks.

Absolutely. What makes a great film?

Whew… you're asking all the tricky ones… [Laughs]

[Laughs] I try.

For me, the barometer of whether a film is great or not is if I've had an emotional experience. Was I rooting for the character? Did I care about what happened to the character? Did the situation fill me with joy? Or make me laugh? Or make me cry?

I like all different kinds of film across all different genres. To me, a film is successful if I, as an audience member, have had an emotional experience. Which means I have to believe the character, I have to be in an honest and vulnerable place, and I have to be emotionally invested in their journey.

Certainly. That's as great a way I've heard the answer to that question put. As you can imagine, that question elicits a great variety of responses. Getting into All I Wish, I'm curious, what was the inspiration for it?

That's a good question. The movie that inspired me to write All I Wish was of course When Harry Met Sally… one of the best movies of all time across any genre.

I loved that it showed two characters that were flawed and unpredictable and had some self-sabotaging behaviors. You get to see them confront their demons and find each other over a long period of time. In some romantic movies, they meet on a Monday and by Friday they're engaged – and that's just not reflective of real life.

Agreed.

So when I embarked, I said if I'm going to write a romantic comedy, it's gotta have some elements of a realistic timetable to it.

So modeling it after When Harry Met Sally… I decided instead of it being a few weeks or a few months that it was going to be many years.  So, I took the device of it being her birthday – once a year on her birthday – to be honest, that it was a hook and a way to sort of frame the movie as having a hook and make it something that I could promote and sell…

Absolutely.

…I also picked birthdays specifically because birthdays are times when we self-reflect and we look at where we are compared to last year and make goals for the year ahead. It's a good time to say like, "oh I'm not measuring up" or "I'm really proud of myself, I came a long way."

There's definitely some fun emotional stuff to be mined in that frame of mind.

I really liked the form it took of what basically amounted to a series of interconnected vignettes in Senna's life centered around the hook of her birthday every year for 7 years. I'm not sure if its because it makes a story and the lessons attached from each vignette more … digestible or bite size and keeps it vibrant and moving, and helps to illuminate certain feelings or lessons more boldly than a straight up way of treating time in the narrative arc, but there's just something about that form that really appeals to me. Were there interesting challenges that cropped up because of that interesting narrative structure?

What a great question! You know, it's funny, because early on when I was trying to sell the movie, I often told it was "episodic." I was like, "well, isn't life episodic? I don't know why that has to be a dirty word."

That's a pity some tried to give it a bad connotation. I think the film did it in a very effective and entertaining way.

One thing I was careful to do was to superimpose – even though I broke it up over 7 years, to sort of be seen as a 7 act structure – a conventional 3 act structure, in that there's a clear Act 2 crisis that starts roughly three-quarters of the way into the film, which it needs to sort of line-up with that classical conception of the 3 act structure – [SPOILER:] where the characters are broken up and he's with someone else. They're as far apart as they possibly could be.

There's also definitely an end of Act 1 which is after 25 pages of not connecting, they do connect in a meaningful way.

The Act 2 is sort of the central conflict playing out of her being like love is a lightning bolt, right?  Love is something that happens to you, you can't control it. It shouldn't be work.

Where, he's coming at it as love is a compatibility equation and you have to choose it and you have to be logical about it.

So the Act 2 conflict that plays out is her sort of fatalistic approach, where I can behave as badly and as crazy as I want, and there will be no consequences if we're meant to be and him saying, this isn't working for me. Love is about working toward each other and making compromises.

They have to resolve that in Act 3. To say, you know what? It's both. You have to be chosen, you have to have chemistry, love has to choose you. But you also have to make choices to make that love work.

So in super-imposing that Second Act conflict, they definitely had to be consistent in their points of view to make that work.

Tony Goldwyn as Adam in the comedy film ALL I WISH a Paladin / Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. Photo courtesy of Paladin / Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

Absolutely. It was kind of that perennial battle between the planners and the people who take life a little more c'est la vie attitude.

Right?

…certainly added an interesting dynamic.

That's how my marriage was: if it's meant to be, shouldn't have to work at it – which I'm very magical about the whole thing. If I didn't have my husband saying, we need to work on this, we're gonna talk this out, it wouldn't work. And it's been almost 15 years, so…

Most definitely. That harmony of opposites is a great and I think rare thing. That's awesome you guys have made it work too.

One question I like to get the take of female interviewees on: do you feel we are seeing real change in Hollywood now post-Harvey Weinstein and with #MeToo and #TimesUp?

I don't know yet. It's great that women are being emboldened to talk about honestly what their experience in Hollywood is.

I'm still not seeing a lot of women getting big chances directing. I'm still not seeing women getting paid the same, although it's very very early now: the deals are just being done.

It'll be interesting to see if the wage gap does get addressed now in a meaningful way. Definitely we're at the stage where people are getting outed and I think that that's great. But are the actual deals that are coming through the pipeline now more equitable? I don't know. Are more women getting big action movies other than Wonder Woman? I don't know.

I hope so. But I think we're still a ways off.

I'm sorry to hear that part. But I hope so too. Which leads into another question, my second to last question for you Susan, what can the film industry and the wider culture do to get more women behind the camera? In those big directing roles and producing and the like…

That's a really complicated question because I know when I was crewing-up my movie, I really wanted the most qualified people in those key positions like DP and first AD. The most qualified people were largely men because they had gotten the experience.

So, as producers and directors, we have to dig a little deeper. We have to be willing to give less experienced people a chance. And that's scary, I'll tell you. I worked really hard: it took me 13 years to step on the set as director because I didn't have any experience. And it's a risk for anybody: I mean a dollar is a dollar whether you give it to a man or a woman. If it's my dollar, I wanna give it to somebody who's experienced.

Absolutely. That's a feeling I think most everyone can empathize with.

…and the list of women who are experienced is really short. So am I going to take a risk on a woman if it is gender-blind and I am just going by experience? Most of the people on that "experienced" list are men still.

So, we have to take bigger risks if we are going to let more women into the club of these very high-responsibility positions.

Being a DP is like being a COO, you have to hire departments, you have to run a whole wing of the production. I needed a really experienced person, and a quality female candidate did not emerge in the time frame that we had, so I hired a man, and he did a great job.

Yet for my next one, I really hope that some women emerge with enough experience where I can feel like, "yes, let's take this risk together."

Ellen Burstyn as Celia in the comedy film ALL I WISH a Paladin / Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release. Photo courtesy of Paladin / Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

That balance you articulated there is fascinating. Hopefully we are moving closer to it. My last question, what is next for you?

Oh! Well, I wrote a movie called "Baby Moon" with a friend of mine who's an actress and probably the funniest person I've ever met.

It is an R-Rated female ensemble comedy. It's about 4 sisters who take their pregnant sister on an all-girl "baby moon" which is supposed to be like a honey moon but you're pregnant so it's your last real vacation before you're a mom.

We're taking that movie out in the next few weeks. I'm really hoping this is one because it's pretty much an all-female cast. We're going to Mexico, there will be a lot of ethnic influences, it'll be a very colorful film. I'm really hoping this is the one where I can finally have women lead the cast and also lead the key crew hires.

Making a female empowerment story where the making of the film also really empowers females. I's my Rocky, right? [Laughs]

Yep. [Laughs]

We're gonna do with the film, what I wanna do within the industry.

Cool. I can't wait to see that. That's the first time I've ever heard that term too.

Thank you. Yeah, normally a "baby moon" is where a husband normally takes his wife on a last romantic vacation before they have a kid. But this one, because she's a single mom, they're like "we're all sisters: we'll take you." But the sisters actually don't get along, so there's tension there…