Summer Camp’s Elizabeth Sankey: why the musician-turned-director is on a mission to save the romcom

Her directorial debut, 'Romantic Comedy', puts an entire genre under the microscope

Elizabeth Sankey has always loved films as well as music, and even while touring with indie pop duo Summer Camp, she had a hankering to get behind the camera. With directioral debut Romantic Comedy, she revisits another longtime obsession – the romcom. Over 79 fascinating minutes, Sankey examines the problematic arena of the genre, unpacking the tropes and carbon copy culture that persists today.

A film essay inspired by Charlie Shackleton’s Beyond Clueless – a 2014 documentary about teen movies for which Summer Camp provided the soundtrack – Romantic Comedy begins in the 1930s, tours the ‘glory years’ of the 1990s, and questions Netflix’s ‘guilty pleasure’ marketing of the modern romcom.

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Currently in the early research stages for her next doc – and working “harder than literally I have in ages” under lockdown – Sankey speaks with NME about life on the road, working with The End Of The F***ing World star Jessica Barden, and why Bridget Jones is the ultimate romcom queen.

How long have you wanted to direct a movie for?

“I’ve always been obsessed, even with our band: we started off writing songs about John Hughes movies. Then we got the chance to work on Beyond Clueless, so I’d seen how Charlie [Shackleton] did that. I’ve also been editing videos, bad ones, for a long time, so I knew my way around. At one point I was thinking I could do a one woman Edinburgh show, which would have been appalling… In the process I fell in love with filmmaking, so it went from ‘oh this could be a fun thing to accompany an album’ to ‘this is what I want to do with my life, this can’t be shit’.”

The End of the Fucking World
Jessica Barden, a friend of Sankey’s, also contributed to the film. Credit: Jenn Five

Jessica Barden, from The End Of The F***ing World, contributed to the film – how did you wrangle that one?

“We’re friends. I had no money, so I reached out to people I knew. Jess, I thought, would be amazing. She’s so funny and smart, but I also love her voice. I think she thought it was a podcast for a long time, but she was so great. It was nice to have somebody who’s got experience of the industry, to comment on her experiences with producers and directors.”

Who’s your favourite romcom character?

“I have a soft spot for Bridget Jones. There’s a lot about her that bugs me, but Renée was nominated for an Oscar, and in terms of a character and the conversations she had, how single women are perceived and that pressure to find someone, which is still on women now… I think she’s kind of wonderful and it’s still exciting when I watch that film.”

Romantic Comedy
Elizabeth Sankey (Summer Camp) makes her directorial debut with ‘Romantic Comedy’. Credit: Mubi

Summer Camp also did the Romantic Comedy soundtrack – was it difficult juggling both directing and writing the music?

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“We had written a couple of songs before, and were writing the rest as we were making the film. Jeremy [Warmsley, my husband and bandmate] was a producer, so as I was editing I would be like ‘I want to have a montage of kissing’, then I’d write the lyrics and talk to him about it. There’s a song called ‘Nice Guy’ about how men behave in romantic comedies when they’re not being great – that was the week all the Harvey Weinstein stuff came out, so there’s a version where I’m a lot more angry, but it didn’t really work.”

How does touring a film compare to touring an album?

“It’s been eye-opening, [film] festivals care so much about being inclusive – it’s built into their MO, they’re proud of it and talk about it. The respect they give to making sure everyone’s getting their voice heard – that has been quite shocking. Comparing it to music, where people running the festivals, not all, but so many don’t care about making bands feel important, or making sure they’ve got women and people of colour, [or creating] a space where everybody feels comfortable.”

When Harry Met Sally
Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in ‘When Harry Met Sally’. Credit: Alamy

Netflix has proved itself a platform for diverse productions, including romcoms – why are they still looked down on?

“I love what Netflix are doing, but the genre is still seen as something fanciful and female and therefore is not as critically analysed as other genres. They’ve become shunted to this ‘watch it online as a guilty pleasure’. Everyone I know agrees When Harry Met Sally is a classic, but how does a film become a classic if it’s not treated with respect and given that platform?”

What have you been streaming during lockdown?

“A lot of TV – Devs, Normal People, we finished Mad Men. Film-wise, I can’t really handle anything too emotional, I want romps or thrillers.”

‘Romantic Comedy’ is streaming now on MUBI

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