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University of Victoria grads’ play inspires Hollywood film

T.J. Dawe isn’t the kind of guy who routinely drops the F-word, but don’t be surprised if you catch the prolific director, playwright and performer doing that during the Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival.
Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan star in The F-Word, based on Toothpaste and Cigars by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi.

VKA-Reid02840.jpgT.J. Dawe isn’t the kind of guy who routinely drops the F-word, but don’t be surprised if you catch the prolific director, playwright and performer doing that during the Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival.

No wonder: A play he co-wrote inspired the whimsical Hollywood romantic-comedy of the same name. Better yet, it’s opening on Dawe’s 40th birthday.

“It’s such a great birthday present,” said the Vancouver-born University of Victoria theatre graduate and Fringe Festival veteran. He’s back this year to deliver his dramatic monologue Medicine.

The F Word, released in the U.S. as What If, ostensibly to satisfy American censors, opens countrywide today. It’s an aggressively quirky and witty, albeit unabashedly contrived, crowd-pleaser about unrequited love among 20-somethings.

The “F” stands for friend, as in “the friend zone” hapless Toronto med school dropout Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) finds himself dispatched to after meeting and falling for Chantry (Zoe Kazan). She’s an adorable animator who unfortunately already has a boyfriend, Ben (Rafe Spall), who is a dashing diplomat-to-be.

While films like When Harry Met Sally spring to mind as romantic complications ensue, The F Word has a wacky personality of its own. It’s partly because the plot unspools in an idealized Toronto, presented here as being akin to New York in a Woody Allen film, where smitten Wallace endears himself to Chantry. Although “unavailable,” she’s attracted to him for different reasons.

As directed by Michael Dowse (Fubar) from an adapted screenplay by Elan Mastai, The F Word substantially expands upon Toothpaste and Cigars, the two-hander Dawe co-wrote with fellow UVic grad Michael Rinaldi. It began life in 2001 as a 15-minute playlet. Then Dawe brought a longer version to Victoria Fringe Festival in 2003. Still, he couldn’t be happier with Dowse’s playfully self-aware and intermittently rude Hollywood adaptation.

“I just had sex and I’m about to eat nachos!” declares Wallace’s best friend (Adam Driver) in one scene, summing up post-coital bliss as he stuffs his face.

While Dawe didn’t write that line, he was thrilled the filmmakers mined the comic potential of other original elements notably the significance of Fool’s Gold, the hollowed-out loaf of baked French bread stuffed with peanut butter, jelly and bacon that figured prominently.

“I loved the movie,” said Dawe. “For it to be made at all, and as a Canadian film, is a miracle.”

“I thought they were really true to the spirit of the original,” said Dawe, who wrote early drafts with Rinaldi. Mastai provided story editing notes and penned more drafts before writing the final screenplay.

Three years before the Canadian-Irish co-production was picked up by CBS Films, Casey Affleck was in negotiations to star in a Fox Searchlight version set in Boston, with Rose Byrne and Mary Elizabeth Winstead reportedly in the running to play Chantry before it was shelved.

Dawe said he was flattered he and Rinaldi were invited to visit the set two summers ago. They were warmly welcomed by the filmmakers and leads and appeared as background in a bar scene.

Since their play featured just two performers on a bare stage, toggling between conversations in a café and their apartments, it was essential the leads “have palpable chemistry,” Dawe said.

“We watched [Radcliffe and Kazan] do multiple takes and they ad-libbed on every one,” he recalled. “I was impressed.”

The avid film buff confessed his goal while studying theatre at UVic was actually to get into movies. He said he and Rinaldi had “cinema conventions” in mind when they wrote their play.

“I thought it could only be something like [Richard Linklater’s] Before Sunrise but the expectation was their world would open up,” he said. “There was a lot of adaptation, but the dynamics and dilemma is the same.”

Dawe, a Marx Brothers fan who counts The Party and The Gods Must Be Crazy among his favourite films, is also a huge fan of Linklater and loved his new film Boyhood.

“I love that he goes out on a limb but at the same time he’s willing to make The Bad News Bears [remake], and it doesn’t have to have his fingerprints all over it,” he said.

Screenwriter Alan Ball (American Beauty) also once wrote for the sitcom Cybill, he points out, and Paul Haggis (Crash) got his start writing for shows such as Diff’rent Strokes.

“If that were my career, doing [what Linklater does] would absolutely be what I’d want to do,” said the playwright who admits he’d be just as happy writing for a TV show.

“I’d take it as a learning experience. It’s a new frontier,” said Dawe, also big on Brent Butt and his “unapologetically Canadian” hit Corner Gas.

Meanwhile, he’s workshopping PostSecret, his collaborative multimedia show inspired by, the online home for blogger Frank Warren’s phenomenally successful community mail art project where people anonymously mail their secrets on a postcard. Dawe hopes to take the show he describes as “like The Vagina Monologues, because it’s all found text” to New York next year.

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