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Faces of the Festival: Jeremy Doner

One of the screenwriters behind the French romantic comedy Heartbreaker talks about couple-breakers, writing great roles for women, and getting the seal of approval by the writer of Dirty Dancing.


Jeremy Doner (Photo by Valerie Macon/Getty Images)

is a charming, smart romantic comedy that stole audience members' hearts at the Festival. Starring the gorgeous Vanessa Paradis as a woman who has it all, including an upcoming wedding to a real-life Prince Charming, and Romain Duris as the man hired to break them up, Heartbreaker made such an impression on me that I hunted down one of the screenwriters Jeremy Doner after the audience Q&A to ask him more questions about this refreshing blend of romance, physical comedy, and hilarious capers. Is there a real-life story or inspiration behind Heartbreaker?


Jeremy Doner: The idea came from Laurent Zeitoun, my co-writer and producer. Apparently, he has a cousin who was dating a total jerk.  Nobody in the family liked the guy. So Laurent conspired to fix his buddy up with her. And it worked. I suppose Laurent could have gone into business as a professional couple-breaker. Instead, he made this movie. How did you get involved with an all-French production? Is the original script in French? How did you meet the other screenwriters? (I got the impression that you are fluent in French from the Q&A and our brief chat with Julie Ferrier after the screening.)


It started when I was in Paris on hiatus from Damages. Laurent got my name from a mutual producer friend who'd hired me in the past as a writer for Alain Chabat. Laurent told me his idea, and we just jumped in. We spent a lot of time really working the characters and the story, and eating a lot of Tunisian food. He showed me scenes from the 1960’s gangster comedy Les Tontons Flingeurs. I asked if he’d ever seen It Happened One Night. We met somewhere in the middle, working in a mixture of French and English, since neither of us was completely fluent in the other. After about a month, we cobbled together a treatment. I think it was in French. Then I holed up and wrote a complete draft in English. Laurent had it translated. Then we kept going. And during all this, our co-writer Yoann Gromb was cycling in and out of the room—helping re-write and punch up the script right until shooting, I imagine. By that time I was back in NY on another season of Damages. What's the story behind getting it made—how/when the script was sold, how Pascal Chaumeil got on board as director, and how it was cast? How involved were you with this process?


The writing of the script went fast, the financing of it not so much. Quad Films was the first to come on board. Then I heard Vanessa Paradis wanted to do it and a lot of directors were interested, only they wanted to change the script. But Laurent and Quad stuck by our version of the screenplay. So it took a while, but they finally got Pascal Chaumeil. Romain was interested too by now. And to me, this was a dream cast. But not to the French studios, all of whom passed on it. Here was this half-French, half-American comedy script with a drama actor in the lead role, an actress who hadn't done a lot films playing opposite, and a first-time feature director who cut his teeth directing action for Luc Besson. The film didn't happen until Focus Features read the script and Universal International came on board to distribute. So the movie was a real French-American collaboration from start to finish. Was it tough to get the lead actors, who are primarily known for dramas, to do comedy, some of which is fairly physical? (I'm thinking of Romain Duris, especially, in regard to it being physical.)


There was definitely some reluctance from both Vanessa and Romain. Of the two, Romain took the longest to come around. I think his fear was that this was going to be another chick flick-style romantic comedy. But this was never the goal for us as writers or for Pascal as director. We all shared a vision of this as something that charted its own course, borrowing from spy movies as well as from 1930's American comedies. And I think Romain brought an amazing amount of depth, even loneliness, to his role. But the truth is, he's a fantastic physical actor. And his comic timing is spot-on. And Vanessa showed a ton of subtlety. There were changes happening in her eyes that did all the work in a scene. And that's just remarkable confidence and presence. It's what you hope for, frankly. You mentioned in the Q&A that originally Juliette was a huge horror film fan. Can you talk a bit about that, and how you guys changed it to Dirty Dancing and George Michael?


We were trying to put Romain's character through as much hell as possible as he tries to pretend he likes the exact same things that Juliette [Paradis] likes. And also have fun with the gap between what we say we like when we're trying to impress the people we date and marry. And what we really like. We literally created categories on a dry-erase board for "music," "books," "films," "food," etc. This lead to Alex scarfing down blue cheese in front of Juliette and spitting it out in the hallway. And pretending he liked Abba in the car, which later became George Michael for reasons I'm not sure of, but can't argue with. And lastly, Juliette's stated favorite film was going to be Breakfast at Tiffany's, and her fiancée was going to buy her the actual diamond necklace that Holly Golightly wore in it as a pre-wedding gift. 


Meanwhile, what Juliette really liked was slasher flicks, and Alex knows this, but he's terrified of horror movies. So the night he contrives to have her sleep in his hotel room, he has to watch Friday the 13th for the first time. Juliette falls asleep. And Alex doesn't sleep for days. Once Pascal came on board, the movie switched to Dirty Dancing. And I think for anybody who sees the film, it's obvious this was a huge improvement. The dancing has become synonymous with the movie. And after one of the Tribeca screenings, Eleanor Bergstein—the writer of Dirty Dancing—raised her hand and said she loved the movie, and approved. So it's unanimous. The lead female characters in Heartbreaker—Melanie and Juliette—are wonderful, very funny and smart and tough, which is an unfortunate rarity in US romantic comedies. I also know that you write for Damages. Are you particularly interested in writing great roles for leading ladies, or is it just something that comes naturally? And if so, perhaps why?


Thank you. I love writing roles for strong women. I also just think it makes for a better story when the man and woman are equally matched. Writing this film, I was really inspired by the old Hollywood movies of the 1930's by Capra, Sturges, Cukor, and Hawks. Where the characters' motives were more shaded, and it was a match of wits and wills where we're often shocked by the lengths the romantic leads are willing to go to, to woo and even test each other. But it's all in the name of love, so all's forgiven in the end. This film is definitely in rosier territory than I write in on Damages. But there are shaded motives, and twists and reversals in both of them. To tell you the truth, I really don't think that much about comedy versus drama. This seems ripe for an American remake—do you think that's a possibility, and if so, would you be interested in being involved?


Yes, in fact Working Title Films has bought the US remake rights. And I will be writing the English-language version. We're already working on it. What are your next projects?


Aside from the Heartbreaker remake, I have a project with Morgan Freeman called The Jazz Ambassadors, where he would play Duke Ellington. We just finished a new draft. And I'm looking forward to a new season of television, perhaps on Damages, if there's a fourth season.



TribecaFilmcom: What’s the biggest thing you learned while writing this screenplay and getting it made into a film?


Despite the conventional wisdom, comedy can cross borders. People are people, dreams are dreams, love is love.


TribecaFilmcom: What's your advice for aspiring screenwriters?


You have to fail a lot to succeed. So if you're failing, you're already a step closer. If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?


JD: Frank Capra
. What piece of art (book/film/music/what-have-you) are you currently recommending to your friends most often?


JD: Breaking Bad
, the AMC series which I am finally catching up on. What would your biopic be called?


Ask me when I'm dead. What makes your film a Tribeca must-see?


Maybe you know a woman who's going out with the wrong guy... this could help her.


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