Jackie van Beek got the idea for “The Breaker Upperers” as she was standing in her kitchen making a cup of coffee.
The New Zealand comedian was reflecting on conversations she’d had with friends about the difficulties of ending a relationship that’s not working anymore.
“I mean we’ve all been in relationships that we know need to end,” she says, “but it’s often hard to muster the energy or courage to call it quits. Breaking up with people isn’t fun.”
The thought occurred to her that there should be a service where people could pay someone else to break up their relationships, and the concept intrigued her so much that she took it to friend and fellow comedian, Madeleine Sami; the pair was soon working on creating a script for a film comedy about two women who offer just such a service.
On Friday, February 15 – the day after Valentine’s Day, appropriately (or is it ironically?) enough – the resulting movie dropped on Netflix.
In it, Van Beek and Sami portray Jen and Mel, respectively, two women who became fast friends after being two-timed by the same man. Now, fifteen years later, they are in their thirties and have developed a dysfunctional, codependent relationship together while operating a booming business breaking up other couples for cash. They keep their cynicism alive by not getting emotionally involved with anybody else — but when an old victim comes back into their lives, Mel finds herself developing a conscience, and their friendship is put to the test.
Although they wanted their movie to be funny, the two creators weren’t just going for laughs. In the film’s press release, they explain, “In many ways, we feel this film gives us a voice in the ongoing conversation about ‘what is love?’ and ‘what do women want?’.”
“Although we are both die-hard fans of the rom-com genre,” the statement continues, “we have grown tired of being constantly told that a reproductive heterosexual relationship is the answer to happiness. We look around our community and see so much love flying about in so many different forms that we want to celebrate love that defies this old-fashioned concept.”
To this end, they’ve made a film acknowledging that love can be found in the strangest places. “The Breaker Upperers” paints a realistic world where people are hunting out special connections and navigating their way through relationships as best they can. The friendship between Mel and Jen is platonic – though Mel is bisexual – but even so, it’s really the biggest love story in the film.
“I just loved the idea that two women whose strongest relationship is their friendship with each other,” says Sami. “Society puts on the expectation that we must all take a certain path, but I hope that people come to the film and see that there are other paths to happiness, and that doesn’t have to be with a man and kids.”
Despite their desire to promote non-traditional relationships, Van Beek and Sami say they made “The Breaker Upperers” to be pure escapism and silliness.
Both women have the qualifications for that. Sami created, co-wrote, and starred in two seasons of the critically acclaimed New Zealand TV comedy “Super City,” and directed the second season of the hit sketch comedy series, “Funny Girls.” Van Beek is an award-winning short filmmaker and also an actress best known for her role in the Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s breakout hit, “What We Do in the Shadows” – a “mockumentary” about modern-day vampire roommates in which Sami also appeared.
Waititi, of course, has gone on to bigger success with Marvel Studios as the director of “Thor: Ragnorak,” largely due to the quirky comedic sensibilities he displayed in earlier films like “Shadows” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” He’s a friend to the two ladies behind “The Breaker Upperers” (he’s one of the film’s Executive Producers, along with Kiwi arts patron Sir James Wallace), but he’s also an inspiration.
“We were halfway through the writing process,” says Sami, “and we were stuck with the question, who do we get to direct this? We’d seen Jermaine and Taika direct and star in ‘Shadows’ and thought ‘we can do that too.’”
The script was developed through a series of workshops with Waititi and Carthew Neal’s company Piki Films; their film shares a similar tone to Waititi’s signature works – wacky, astute, oddball, and as hilarious as it is full of heart.
Besides the two stars, “The Breaker Upperers” features actor James Rolleston (who gained fame as the star of “Boy,” another Waititi film), Australian actress Celia Pacquola, and actress Ana Scotney – a recent graduate of the prestigious Toi Whakaari Drama School who Van Beek and Sami call “a real find.”
The film had its world premiere at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, followed by a domestic release in New Zealand in May 2018. Now, Netflix is offering it to wider audiences in the U.S., in hopes it will be embraced by American viewers who can relate to its two offbeat heroines.
Van Beek thinks the chances are good that they will. As she puts it, “There is a bit of Jen and Mel in all of us.”