Nick Rutherford and Robert Schwartzman – Seeking the Elusive Unicorn
Updated: Mar 4, 2020
Nick Rutherford and Robert Schwartzman
Seeking the Elusive Unicorn
by Jay S. Jacobs
It’s funny how life goes sometimes. For example, had Robert Schwartzman and his future wife not stopped into a Manhattan bar one night and both gotten propositioned by a strange woman who referred to herself as a unicorn, the filmmaker’s second film would have never happened.
Schwartzman is related to much filmmaking royalty. His mother is actress Talia Shire. His brother is actor Jason Schwartzman. This uncle is Francis Ford Coppola. His cousins include Nicolas Cage and Sofia Coppola. Still, even though he has done much acting and has been getting more heavily into directing, Schwartzman is best known for his music. He is the lead singer and songwriter of popular pop-rock band Rooney.
With the idea of a movie loosely based on that night in New York marinating in his head over a long period of time, Schwartzman reached out to comedian and actor Nick Rutherford to co-write and star in film idea, which would be called The Unicorn. Rutherford had been a member of the sketch comedy group Good Neighbor and a writer on Saturday Night Live. As an actor he has appeared in films like Brigsby Bear and Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot.
Fast forward and The Unicorn is hitting theaters and being released On Demand. Rutherford and fellow comedian Lauren Lapkus (who is currently playing Stu’s girlfriend on the final season of The Big Bang Theory) play Caleb and Mallory, a long-time unmarried couple who have gotten into a bit of a rut. On a visit to visit his mother, who is renewing her vows with his step-father, Cal and Mal decide on a whim to spice things up by having a threesome. This leads to a long night of miscommunications and mishaps.
The film has a smart and funny supporting cast which includes Lucy Hale (Pretty Little Liars), Beck Bennett (Saturday Night Live), Beverly D’Angelo (National Lampoon’s Vacation), John Kapelos (The Breakfast Club) and Dree Hemingway (daughter of Marielle Hemingway).
Right as the film was being released, we chatted with director Schwartzman and writer/star Rutherford about the movie, relationships, comedy, music and unicorns.
Most romantic comedies look at couples as they are just starting out. Why did you think it would be more interesting to look in on a couple which has been together for years and grown a little bit settled and stale?
Robert Schwartzman: I wanted to start further down the line with their relationship, just because I think it’s interesting to be dropped in a story where there is already something happening. We’re picking up, we’re trying to figure out where we are in this. Whether it’s in a story that has a more complicated set of characters and locations, or within a relationship. I think it’s more interesting to be further down the line, because people have had more life together. They have more problems. Things are more complicated further down the line.
Nick Rutherford: I don’t know if it necessarily was a conscious effort to do an anti-rom com in a way, but that was my personal relationship experience at that moment, anyway. I was in a relationship for a very long time. It was easier to write from that personal point. I think it is also just underrepresented. I have a lot of friends who are in long relationships and not a lot of friends who are getting married. I wanted to look at that and see that represented on the screen. What that means. Is that okay? All that. Ask those questions.
Robert Schwartzman: For a film, you want to grab on to characters that are interesting. There’s more story to tell, I believe, later on. You see the problems that exist between two people further on. When things start, there’s that honeymoon period. I just don’t find it as interesting as when the honeymoon is over. That’s just a more interesting way to get dropped in on that story and find your way as an audience. I find that more interesting. It’s more intense and real.
Robert came up with the story idea and Nick co-wrote the screenplay. What was the writing process like?
Nick Rutherford: The writing process was very quick…. You don’t often have the opportunity to make a movie at all. We had such a short window. Initially it was Robert and I meeting together. He had thrown out this one story of him and his fiancé being approached by a woman who identified herself as a unicorn. Robert was like, “I don’t know, what’s a unicorn?” She was like, “Oh, I date couples. I like to be the third. I’m into your fiancée and I’m into you.”
Robert Schwartzman: I was out one night. I was with my significant other at a bar in New York. A girl came over and started chatting us up. She was asking us questions and wanting to get to know us. Then it came out that she said she was a unicorn. We didn’t know what that was. (chuckles) She explained that she seeks couples… basically, she’s a third to relationships. She specifically used the term “unicorn.” I had never heard it before.
I must admit I had never heard the term “unicorn” used that way before this movie. But I looked it up and it is a real thing.
Robert Schwartzman: I looked it up, and like you, I found out that there was more to it. I held on to that moment, that story. I just always remembered that encounter, and I thought this would make an interesting film idea.
Why did you think it would be an interesting subject for the film?
Robert Schwartzman: Because of, really, the confusion that surrounded that encounter, my wife [then girlfriend] and I were, “I wonder what would happen if we called her. I wonder what that’s like when people do that.” Just wondering about it, that world. Because, dude, you have a threesome without like [working it out] … people in relationships have either spoken about it or laughed about it, or actually done it. And maybe they’ve broken up because of it, or maybe that’s their thing moving forward.
Nick Rutherford: I don’t know how the rest of that conversation went, but he was really fascinated about that: how can we get into that? We tried to figure out lots of scenarios, and how this would be an organic experience. We knew we wanted it to have a very short timeline. We knew we wanted it to be like a “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” situation: too hot, too cold, just right….
Robert Schwartzman: There are a lot of variations of what that means to people. People’s private lives can be so unique for whoever it is. Just everyday people you meet have their own worlds that they are a part of when they leave. That’s the stuff we don’t get to see in real life. In a film, in this imaginary world, we can tell that story. For this couple, they are at a point in their relationship where they are having to ask these questions, because there is something that they are not dealing with together. It’s a way to force this type of engagement.
Nick Rutherford: It was very important to all of us that it wasn’t just a traditional “Yeah, they’re going to find another girl.” Like this bro fantasy of what a threesome is. We knew there were some trappings that come with a movie like this. It’s not that sexual…. Once we had an outline, we just basically out of necessity, the three of us [Rutherford and co-screenwriters Will Elliott and Kirk C. Johnson] split it up into thirds. Because of the three different experiences over the course of the night it was easy to assign writers to a different piece of the film. Then we would trade pages, get together, read them, rewrite – as they were doing pre-production at the same time. I remember at some point it was like, “You guys have to stop changing these pages.” We were looking for locations and it was like, “Well, we’re not through with it.” So, there was a nice little push and tug at the end there.
Nick, have you run across any unicorns since making the movie?
Nick Rutherford: Not since making the movie, but previously I had gone on a trip with my girlfriend at the time, and a bunch of comedians, to Japan. A very lovely trip. This married couple who were friends of mine brought this girl along with them. We were all like, “Who’s this girl? Is this just a good friend?” At some point, she just said, “Oh, no, I’m their unicorn.” She fully identified as their unicorn. The married couple was very open about it. I think he had a worse term, “Yeah, she’s our toy. She’s our plaything,” which is very sexually open, I guess. So, I had a little bit of experience with it. She was also an actress. She’s talented and lovely and free and fun. But I’ve never been approached by somebody calling themselves a unicorn.
But they’re out there…
Nick Rutherford: Now, what I notice a lot, and you may as well, is that people put unicorn emojis in their handles or their Instagram name or on Twitter profiles. I think in the swinger world, that is identification of “Yeah, if you’re a couple I’m interested in having sexual relations with the two of you at the same time.” But I also think other people are just like, “Oh, I really love unicorns. I think they’re cute.” So, I think there’s a lot of mixed signals being sent, unfortunately.
Nick Rutherford and Lauren Lapkus in “The Unicorn.”
Another thing that was good about the film is that it was not at all judgmental about things like threesomes, stripping, escorts, or anything like that, even though those worlds were obviously kind of foreign to Cal and Mal. How important was it to you for them to seem open-minded to just about anything just to keep the other one happy?
Nick Rutherford: I think that was like priority one. That’s why we wanted one of the unicorns to be a male. We turned to Beck Bennett [from Saturday Night Live], because obviously he’s insanely talented. A funny guy. I think it is a very sex-positive movie. I don’t think we’re saying like threesomes are awesome and everyone should have them. We’re saying it’s cool if you do, and it’s totally cool if you don’t. That’s how I feel.
Robert Schwartzman: Going into this film, I was really excited that it was really their story together. His and her story, going through this event together. A lot of times in a film you look at the arc of the character. Where are they starting and where are they going? How did they get there? For this film, what I loved so much was it’s not like you follow her journey and his journey separately. Every step of the way, we’re watching them together experience this change. As an audience member, we’re watching them go through it at the same time. For this type of event, it’s not like he’s anxious to have this threesome, or she’s anxious to have this threesome. They’re both curious about it for their own reasons. And I think they show their own vulnerabilities to it.
Nick Rutherford: It’s always a mistake to tell somebody else how they should live their life in any capacity. Unless they are hurting themselves, or hurting somebody else, obviously. But in terms of just your own likes and dislikes and what you prefer, I just say let people be. I think we were able to get that message out, without it being preachy, or heavy-handed. It’s just a non-issue to this couple. No matter how uncomfortable they are, they are not damning anybody for what they do.
Robert Schwartzman: What’s interesting too about this movie is there are clichés – I’ve heard people bring it up at Q&As – “Oh, threesomes, it’s always the guy that wants to have a threesome.” To people there’s clichés in a relationship about what a threesome means. In this movie, we flip that. It’s really her curiosity. She’s had a past, having had female companions. He also tells a story that he had his own experience. This movie is not just playing to him or her – it plays to them. That’s an important thing that I wanted to see on the screen.
Lauren was great in her role. Did you write the part with her in mind?
Robert Schwartzman: Actually, the [male lead] part was written with Nick in mind. Nick is a writer on the film as well. I approached him, “Hey, let’s go make this movie.” I pitched him the story. It was really casual. He was in a moment where I think he was really receptive, “Yeah, let’s go do this.” When you meet somebody and you start a project, there is a question of is this really happening? You want to invest your time into something that you feel is going to happen. I was coming off of Dreamland. I’d made a feature. We had a producer friend in common who ended up working on the film with us named Russell [Wayne Groves], so he was excited about the opportunity. I was serious – we’re going to make this film.
Well, were you familiar with her? How did she get involved in the film?
Nick Rutherford: Absolutely, I was a fan of hers. I had just watched her from afar and seen all of her successes. Everything she is in, she crushes. She’s obviously such a talented actress and improviser and comedian that when… I think it came to our agency, or my agency, or Robert’s agency, that Lauren Lapkus was available and interested, it was just such an obvious win for us.
Robert Schwartzman: Lauren, I personally did not know her. I knew of her work. Nick, also, from the comedy world, knew her work. What I really love about Lauren is that she came from comedy. She had a background in improv. For me, ultimately, I wanted to work with comedic actors. I wanted to be around people who had a history in the world of improv and standup comedy, had those muscles. This film, although we had a screenplay, it was going to be filled with a lot of improv as well. Having an actress who knew how to do that for me was such an amazing experience, because I the director just wanted to soak that up. Learn from them as actors.
Nick Rutherford: We wanted the movie to be fluid. We had a full script, but we also wanted to get as many comedic powerhouses as we could and to give them room to play. We just knew Lauren was going to knock it out of the park. And she did. I think it’s an amazing showcase for her. I know she’s really proud of it.
Robert Schwartzman: Lauren was very receptive to the material. She was very open minded. She wanted to try it. We had a nice coffee meeting and she really seemed enthusiastic about the project. She really got it. Some actors, you share a script and they either get it and can act, or they don’t. Then we did a chemistry reading. I had Nick and Lauren over to my house and I filmed a reading together with them. Then I ended up cutting together a sort of demo of them, and I put music to it. Just trying to create the closest thing to an honest chemistry reading. It was really exciting. You could feel that there was something special about them together. I think they carry this movie so well. It really is all about them and their chemistry, and them as a couple. I really believe that when I watch it, I feel like I fall into their world.
Lauren’s character seemed to be the most grounded character in the film – although of course she had her offbeat moments, too. Was that something that you planned on from the beginning, or was that just something that came from the actress?
Nick Rutherford: A little bit of both. Her performance is very grounded because she is a very grounded actress. One of the other trappings we really wanted to avoid is… you know there is definitely a Kevin James version of this movie, where Kevin James convinces his wife that they have got to go get a threesome. We definitely didn’t want that. That’s not how I am as a person. I’m very much more reserved. We wanted it to be Lauren was holding the reins the whole time. Her character was the one kind of pushing for this. Willing to go there. And Cal was trying to be the best partner he can by supporting it and being there with her and going along with as much as he can handle.
You also had a great supporting cast, and like you say, many of them come from the comedy world. Obviously, Lucy Hale is very hot right now, but she is more known for drama.
Robert Schwartzman: Lucy just seemed very much like this character Jesse. Just that sort of wide-eyed, let’s do it, life’s fun, everything is exciting. You’re like, wait, am I picking up a vibe? What’s going on here? She’s just such an enthusiastic, bubbly, energetic person. That’s her spiritual life as a young girl. She has that thing about her.
Nick Rutherford: Lucy Hale essentially rose to stardom from being on a teenage soap opera and is so funny. [She] never gets to flex that muscle, because she always gets cast as like the doe-eyed seductress, or the deer-in-the-headlights like “help me” type. I think she really saw that as the opportunity to flourish and take control of the scene. In the movie she really shines.
It was also great seeing people like Beverly D’Angelo, John Capelos, Beck Bennett, Dree Hemingway and Kyle Mooney come in, steal some scenes and then fade back into the story. What were you looking for in casting the film?
Robert Schwartzman: It was two things. One was working with people that I liked. Two was wanting people that were appropriate to the role.
Nick Rutherford: I had worked with Beck Bennett and Kyle Moody, who has that cameo near the end [as the receptionist at an old-age home]. I came up with them in comedy years ago. We met in college. We had a comedy group called Good Neighbor. For me it was important to carve out roles for them because I hope that we all just pop up in each other’s things. That’s how it’s been working, which is great.
I have to admit I’ve never seen Dree before, though I am a big fan of her mother.
Robert Schwartzman: Yeah, yeah, Marielle is great.
Nick Rutherford: I didn’t know Dree either, but I think she may be the most grounded performance in the whole movie. She came in just as this confident prostitute, essentially. Escort. And she brought that energy to the scene.
Robert Schwartzman: I knew her sort of as an actress. What I love about Dree is she’s not a straight-up comedy actress, but Dree’s very natural, the way she works. Energetically, she’s honest and she makes you feel really at ease. When you’re with her, everything seems okay, as far as her energy. She’s very striking, but at the same time she’s very down-to-earth.
Nick Rutherford: In a lot of ways, everything really worked for us in the story. Lauren and I are fairly reserved people and are not that sexually explicit. Lauren… I don’t want to speak for her, but like, we’re not these raunchy people. So, putting us in these situations where we gave Beck the order to make this uncomfortable. Make this as sexy and sexual as you can. Same with Lucy, like make them squirm. Well, Dree was like just make them comfortable. It gave everybody something real to play. I think it really shows on the screen. It really shows with me and Lauren, because a lot of that discomfort is true and we’re trying to go on and we’re trying to keep a smile on our face, but it’s getting intense.
Robert Schwartzman: What we wanted was we wanted her character to be like… they called this girl and they don’t know what they’re going to get, but they get this woman who is really down to earth and easy to talk to. Actually, they feel like maybe they could be friends with her.
I loved the fact that Cal and Mal were willing to look vulnerable and even foolish in order to spice up their relationship. What is the weirdest thing you’ve done – or heard of someone doing – to try to keep the spark alive in a relationship?
Robert Schwartzman: You know, that’s a good question. I’m trying to think of something bizarre and that pops… (long pause)
Nick Rutherford: (laughs) Oh man. I don’t know. That’s a really interesting question. The classic is like roleplay or changing the power dynamics in the bedroom and stuff. Actually, there’s a scene in it where I go to pick up Lauren at the bar. That’s our first idea, just like let’s roleplay and meet for the first time. That came from a real experience. You show up separately as strangers and experience that excitement of the cat and mouse game. Flirtations across the room and stuff. But I don’t know, people are not sharing those stories, the more intimate ones, with me.
Robert Schwartzman: Well, one thing is like a lot of times – and I think it’s a really healthy thing – but a lot of times people go and do couples therapy. It’s not even about spicing it up. I think they just want to talk. They want to communicate. It’s a little better. I’m a big believer in you do whatever you can in a relationship to help communication. It all starts and ends with communication. In this movie, they are almost opening up a conversation piece by exploring in this way. To get to a place to have a dialogue they have never had before. Sometimes couples will try something new just to even talk. Just to connect again. I’ve actually heard of couples engaging in this type of sexual exploration as a way to spice up their marriage or their life. I’ve heard stories like this, trying something together. I don’t know. Sometimes it works. Sometimes people actually take on a new partner in their relationship.
Nick Rutherford: I don’t think a threesome is the answer, by the way. For me, anyway, I think that if you’re having problems in a relationship, involving an outside party in a sexual way is probably going to amplify some of those instead of minimizing them.
Robert, you come from a very well-known film family, but you are probably more known for your work as a musician with Rooney than you are as a filmmaker. Is it difficult to juggle your film work with your music? Are you planning on concentrating on your film work now, or do you see a place for both?
Robert Schwartzman: Yeah. Actually, it’s the Rooney 20-year anniversary this year, which is kind of bizarre, two decades of this project. I really love making music. I love writing songs. I love going on the road and playing them. It’s hard for me to think of a world where I stop doing that. I also don’t think that I have to. In this world of arts and entertainment as a category, to me they go together.
Yes, they can be combined.
Robert Schwartzman: With this movie for example, The Unicorn, I wrote a bunch of songs for it. There is a lot of my own music in it. There is a soundtrack coming out in March featuring all this new music. They go together really well.
Robert Schwartzman: There’s ways that I can keep doing music alongside of film. Maybe there’s a movie one day that incorporates music in a heavier way thematically. Maybe it’s about music. I’m interested in whatever feels creative and exciting in the moment. I wouldn’t stop doing something just because it says on paper that I have to stop doing this to do that. We live in a world of cross-pollination and extreme connectivity. Everything goes together nicely. In today’s world more so.
The possibilities are limitless.