The mundane meets the subtly unsettling in Nancy, Please, first-time writer/director Andrew Semans’ unique blend of highbrow laughs, everyday paranoia, and overqualified slacker anxieties that had its world premiere at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festivallast Saturday (and has two more screenings on the NYC fest’s schedule, one tonight at 10 p.m. EST and the other this Saturday at the same time).

Just how “mundane” are we talking here? Check the simple premise: An overachiever named Paul (Will Rogers) relocates a new house with his girlfriend (Rebecca Lawrence), realizes that a classic novel (Charles DickensLittle Dorrit) he needs for his Yale graduate dissertation wasn’t packed for the move, and proceeds to demand that his old roommate, the grungy and cold Nancy (Eléonore Hendricks), give it back. For 80 minutes straight.

But what’s most impressive about Nancy, Please is how Semans cleverly stretches Paul’s seemingly rudimentary predicament into a full-length, completely engaging character study. In fact, it’s one of the best movies we’ve seen via this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, an engrossing balance of intelligent humor and probing drama that repeatedly flirts with turning into an all-out psychological horror show. And fortunately, Semans avoids any genre-specific temptations in favor of unconventional tonal shifts and blurred classification.

Complex caught up with Semans, in the midst of his hectic first-ever film festival experience, to discuss the film’s origins, the challenge of making a suspense movie that’s not technically a “suspense movie,” and the joys of making grown women scream in bloody horror.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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To find out more: Nancy, Please

When I first read the synopsis for Nancy, Please, my immediate reaction was to say, “How in the hell are they going to make an interesting 90-minute movie about a guy who wants to retrieve a lost book?” And thankfully, you’ve found a way.
[Laughs.] Yeah, it’s one of those movies. We were struggling with the synopsis, actually, because it’s one where if you just describe it to somebody as, “It’s about a guy who really wants a book back from somebody else,” they’re probably going to think, Wow, that sounds really boring. But I like to think it’s a little more interesting than the one-sentence premise would suggest.

When did that idea first hit you?
The project, as a whole, took a while to finish, but it actually happened pretty quickly once we finished the script. It took us a while to write the script because my co-writer [Will Heinrich] and I would write it in little bits; I was working on other things and he was working on other things, so it was something that we’d get back into for a little while, then abandon for a little while, and then go back to it again. So that took about a year and a half.

Once I had the script, it didn’t take very long. Once I got it to my producers, they got it together pretty quickly. We were editing for a while, post-production took a while, though we shot back in November 2010. But, all told, the whole thing, from conception to completion, took about three years, which, for a movie, is actually pretty short.

Did you base the character of Paul and everything that happens to him on real-life experiences?
The way it worked was, when we came up with the basic idea for the story, it had nothing to do with any personal issues that we were dealing with, or anything that was autobiographical. My co-writer and I sat down and I knew that I wanted to write a script that’d be my first feature; I knew that it’d be very low budget, because I wanted to work on a low budget—I wanted to break in that way. So we tried to come up an idea that we could execute with modest means.

What I always like to do when I’m coming up with ideas, or if I’m stumped for an idea, is to come up with the simplest thing you can think of, just the most basic shred of a plot or the most basic conflict, and build from there. I feel like if you’ve got something really simple, as long as you interrogate hard enough or focus on it long enough then a lot of other themes, ideas, and/or personal themes will come up, so that’s what we tried to do. And we came up with this: A person has something that another person wants, this person won’t give it back. That felt like a nice, basic concept, and we went from there.

We started thinking, OK, so what is the “thing,” and who are the people? But gradually, from this skeletal idea, themes and experiences my personal life and my co-writer’s personal life started to pour in, so eventually it did become a very personal movie, although it’s not based on any personal experience I’ve had. I always say that the story is not autobiographical, but it’s thematically autobiographical. I can relate, I’m sad to say, very well to the main character.

The film is set in a very nicely realized academic world, with Paul’s experiences at Yale and his longing for a Charles Dickens novel needed for a dissertation about governmental themes in the author’s work. Is that a world you come from personally?
No, no, not at all. [Laughs.] I went to film school; I’m not an academic or an intellectual. There are a lot of people in my life who have had that experience, so I had some familiarity with it. But I’d never even been to New Haven, Connecticut, or Yale, where the movie is set, until we were finished with the script. That stuff all came from other places.

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