Every year, creative new filmmakers show up on the independent film circuit and get us talking about what sort of promise and potential they bring to the world of film.
That’s most certainly the case with director Charlie McDowell (left) and Justin Lader, who had been working together for years before things finally came together due to a chance encounter with film festival darling Mark Duplass, which led to them writing The One I Love.
The mostly-improvised movie stars Duplass and actress Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men”) as a married couple going through a difficult period, so their marriage counselor (Ted Danson–who happens to be Charlie’s stepfather) sends them on a couple’s retreat to a lovely out-of-the-way location where the mysterious guest house starts exposing their real feelings for each other.
There aren’t a lot of direct comparisons for this genre-bending relationship dramedy except that if you’re a fan of some of Mark Duplass’ work with his brother Jay, such as Cyrus and The Puffy Chair, then you should be pleasantly surprised by McDowell and Lader’s twist on that style of filmmaking.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with the two filmmakers last week to talk about a few aspects of making the movie, although we couldn’t get too deep into the plot since everyone involved has been trying to keep one of the film’s big plot devices a secret. (And they’ve gotten pretty good at it, too!)
ComingSoon.net: Mark mentioned that he met you and threw out an idea that you ran with. How did the two of you meet? Were you working on other things before you met Mark?
Charlie McDowell: Yeah, we both went to AFI – I went in the directing program and he was in screenwriting and I had graduated two years before you, I think.
Justin Lader: Yeah, when I was there, he had already graduated.
McDowell: So I had a little jump-start as far as going out and experiencing “What the hell are you going to do in this industry?” kind of thing, so I went into this world of trying to sell big family studio pitches. I did that and then I realized I didn’t really want to do that, so that was about the time when he was graduating and a friend of mine that was at school with him, sent me his script, and I just thought it was such an interesting and unique voice that I really connected to, so I just kind of Emailed him and was “Hey, let’s do something together.”
Lader: He spared me the learning curve of not wanting to go pitch the next big family films that were never going to get made.
McDowell: So I was like, “Let’s actually do something to make.”
Lader: That’s probably where I was headed after AFI if he hadn’t come in and saved the day.
CS: So your idea for the next “Night at the Museum” is still something we have to look forward to?
McDowell: No, we’ll let those guys do that unless we come up with a very dark version. So that’s how we met and then we spent quite a few years trying to make this other film that needed a budget that was much more than what we made this film for. We kind of went through the ups and downs of indie filmmaking where you lose money, you get a cast, you lose a cast, you get money back and all of that and that’s when we met Mark and he was like, “So let’s go and make a movie.” We were like, “Yup, let’s do that.”
CS: Can you tell me what that idea for the movie was or is that a complete spoiler?
McDowell: It’s a spoiler, but when you say “idea” it was such a kernel of what the movie could possibly even be. There was nothing about character, there was nothing about plot or anything like that. It was mostly about the world in which we could explore. Justin and I sort of took it from there and we were like, “How do we construct this story?” We knew a place where we could shoot at where it could take place and from there it was like, “Let’s develop these characters, let’s figure out what the plot is and go from there.”
CS: Did you want to develop the characters with Mark and Lizzie from very early on?
McDowell: We developed it with Mark so it was something we were writing for him and then he brought up Lizzie pretty early on and it was right when I had gotten a screener of “Top of the Lake” and I was like “Oh My God, she’s incredible” and obviously she’s great at everything she does, so it was something that felt really right in terms of these characters because they felt like a real couple to me. They didn’t feel like actors moving to Hollywood to become actors or celebrities. They felt like a real couple that everyone could connect to, so that was exciting, too.
Lader: I think we realized early on that with a premise like that, with the hook of it, and working off basically a scriptment, there could be potential, because it’s a big idea for it to be played very big. When you cast somebody like Lizzie, and Charlie has a really good reading of what should be emotionally true, it grounded it and I think that’s important. If the characters match the premise in terms of how big it is, I don’t think it would have turned into the movie it turned out to be.
CS: As far as the scriptment you mentioned, as a screenwriter trained to write full screenplays with dialogue, how is it writing something more stripped down and working with actors having less of a formal screenplay.
McDowell: Well, one, just to really define a “scriptment” which we really just throw out. Not a lot of people know what it is. It’s a scripted treatment I guess, but ultimately, what Justin wrote, it is a script but it’s just sort of if you removed dialogue but it is very carefully plotted and constructed and we never veered away from that. It was never like “Let’s try out this kind of storyline.” We hit everything specifically, but it was loose in terms of the dialogue and where we went from there. Also, while we were shooting, Justin started to script pages, because we felt it helped us really figure out pacing and structure and then a lot of the dialogue we ended up using.
Lader: When Charlie and I were putting this whole thing together, when we were writing it, it was important not just within the scriptment to have the plot and the structure and what actually happened be solid – and I think this is why Charlie and I work so well together. He’s so dialed into these characters and how they would react so all that was also in the scriptment. When we were writing it, those pieces were firmly there and I’ve said this before. Even though it’s a completely different genre, it’s similar to what Larry David does on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” if you do your prep with the storywork and the character work, it makes it much safer for improv because there’s clear parameters that you’re in and by the time we were doing it, Mark and Lizzie knew the characters so well, knew the story so well that before we shot each scene, we’d be talking about the scene, deconstructing it and pitching alternate ideas, so by the time Charlie said “action,” they were the characters. It was very natural and collaborative and it was a lot of fun.
CS: When I watch the movie, a lot of things stand out including the performances and the premise but also the screenplay is great so I assumed it was completely written beforehand.
Lader: I think that’s also a testament to Charlie and our editor, Jennifer Lilly, because putting the movie together it’s funny because when you see movies that are heavily-improvised and even–not to keep mentioning “Curb Your Enthusiasm”–but there’s a looseness to it where you can tell they’re riffing
McDowell: Well, they play up on the improvisation and they play into it, and for this, it was like, “We like the improvisation in terms of it feeling natural and them connecting as characters and can say what they want when they want to say it, but I never wanted to structure it in the final movie of it feeling like an improv movie, so how do we take all of the meandering jokes and then hone it in and then structure it. Again, it’s a combination of all of us really from the script and the actors being on the same page with all of us and then in the editing room, kind of shaping it.
CS: Do you you’ll ever show an extended take of the two of them riffing. Joe Swanberg’s new movie “Happy Christmas” has a scene of a couple of the actors just running a full scene.
McDowell: I don’t know if this is that kind of movie. I think that works well for Joe Swanberg (although I haven’t seen his new one) but because it really plays up on that looseness, but it would be a fun extra for people to see where they can go, because there are scenes before we totally shape the direction, they would go on for minutes and minutes.
Lader: I wasn’t there obviously for a huge bulk of the editing process but I was on set all the time. So I saw it and I can’t emphasize again what he and our editor did, because if it was about two comedians going away for the weekend, it would be fun to see them riff, but a couple on the last legs of their marriage, they’re not riffing.
McDowell: Yeah, it’s not like “A Trip to Italy,” it’s not one of those.
Lader: Oh, exactly. I wasn’t even thinking of that.
McDowell: Although we missed a chance for Lizzie to do her Sean Connery impression.
CS: Well, you certainly have set your movie up for a sequel because you can just have two other people go to the couples retreat and seeing how they deal with it.
McDowell: People have asked about that.
CS: The first I heard about the movie was before Sundance when there was the picture of Marc and Lizzie and at first, I thought that was an interesting pair but I wasn’t sure how that would work, but they do work so well together.
McDowell: I think 1.) it’s just chemistry and them as actors and 2.) we made this movie in a very intimate and contained way and we all trusted each other from Day 1 and everyone had a voice and everyone felt safe. They opened themselves up as much as they possibly could do it, so I think they went places that I couldn’t even dream of them going and was really excited if they did.
Lader: You saw this yesterday when we were talking to someone, but you get the sense when it’s improv that it was a bunch of us like chickens with our heads cut off, but the reason it works so strongly is that everybody on board starting at the top with Charlie to people who were slating our movie, everybody was on the same page in terms of what we wanted the end result to feel like. When you have a clear path to the finish line, it doesn’t really matter how you run to it because everyone knows where it is. I think that was a big reason why it turned out the way it turned out, because everybody knew what we wanted it to be, starting with Charlie and then it goes down from there.
CS: What was the general timeframe of when you first heard the idea to when you started shooting?
McDowell: Honestly, it was very quick. I think it was six months where we met Mark. We had this idea, we started working on it, started writing in October (2012) and we shot in April (2013). I came here and did post and then we found out we got into Sundance in November and over Christmas we did sound and color and all that stuff and got the DCP (digital cinema package, basically the final digital print of a film ready to be projected) and drove it to Sundance. It all happened really quickly.
Lader: I think because we were in a situation–like Charlie said before–where we were waiting a long time to get a movie made and once we realized we had a window with a start date because Lizzie was finishing up “Mad Men” and going to a movie and Marc, with all the million things he’s doing, we realized we had a very small window. I think Charlie and I – we never really had a conversation but it was unspoken to us that if this got pushed or delayed it wasn’t going to be because we didn’t deliver on our end, so we wanted to make sure we could do anything we can to hit that April start date.
CS: I don’t want to go too far into spoiler territory, but what about keeping a major plot point secret? As filmmakers, how do you feel about that?
McDowell: I think we discovered it at Sundance, which was we thought at Sundance that the roof was going to be blown off and everyone was going to know and that was going to be it. But the World Premiere there was going to be the moment where people were going to see it knowing nothing and then the reviews come out, the tweets come out, and no one is ruining it for anyone, and so we’re like, “Okay that’s really interesting” so then we got another screening. Same thing. So then we took that idea and it was like “Okay, can we actually use that as a marketing device?” And RADiUS, who acquired the film, they were like, “We really liked going in and not knowing anything. Let’s try to use that to our advantage.” I don’t know if you’ve seen the trailer and the poster but all that we’ve used as a “Here’s the tone of the world and here our some comparisons to what that world is,” but we’re not going to tell you what it’s about and that’s going to hopefully get you to go see it. And we’ll see if that works.
CS: It’s such an interesting way to go because like I said, the first time I heard of the movie was just that picture and a little plot summary before Sundance then I finally saw it at Tribeca and right before I went in, the publicist said “Try not to spoil the twist in your review” and I didn’t even know there was a twist. I thought it was just about a couple trying to save their marriage but then that’s the whole thing.
McDowell: That’s really funny.
Lader: It was kind of an interesting series of events because we premiered kind of late for Sundance and people that ended up seeing it, it was under the radar, so people kind of discovered it and I think they enjoyed it so I think they wanted other people to feel like they discovered it also. I remember Mark pulling us aside before the premiere at Sundance and he said, “Enjoy this because whatever happens with the movie, this is going to be the only time you’ll be seeing it with an audience that has no idea what’s happening.” And we ended up being able to hold onto that. We went to one last night where no one knew. It’s crazy that even now, it’s still intact.
McDowell: And I feel like people don’t want to know because–and we’ve talked about this–but it’s kind of out there. There are some people who have written about it who are nice enough to say, “Don’t read ahead but I’m going to talk about the movie” and then there are some that just flat-out say it. So it’s out there and I’ve spoken to people–even people I don’t know very well–and they’re like, “No, I don’t want to know anything about it.”
Lader: They don’t seek it out.
McDowell: Which has been awesome.
CS: And it’s also strange because this is coming out in a year where there have been other movies that use the same general idea
McDowell: I know what movies you’re talking about, but luckily, I think ours is tonally so different and we brought up those movies for other people and they’re like, “Oh, I didn’t even make that connection.” I think ultimately, it doesn’t rely so much on that. It’s ultimately about the characters and I think that’s what people emotionally connect to.
CS: Since the movie has been so well received at festivals, has it been easier to go back and do that movie you were working on?
McDowell: It’s funny because it’s a really great script and we really wanted to make it, but you have different stages in your life and maybe we were really burned by it too many times, so it’s like we can’t go back there.
Lader: I’m 31 now. The first draft of it I was 24 when I wrote it. You change and it got old. It’s a script I wrote out of AFI when you don’t have any industry connections at all. It’s a script that at the time, Charlie obviously saw something in it, but it was meant to be read more than it was meant to be made. Once Charlie got involved, it kept getting better and better with his notes and we grounded it. Ever since the last draft of it, when we moved onto this, it was like, “Okay, we’re in a different place in our lives.” It was very much about where we were at the time, so if it was ever something we wanted to revisit, we would probably want to do a substantial rewrite on it to reflect where we are.
McDowell: We had an idea right when we finished shooting and we’ve been working on that. It feels like the right next step for us in terms of what we just made and where we’re going, so that’s probably going to be the next thing.
CS: Do you think the “Mark Duplass Factor” will kick in where everyone he works with ends up doing much bigger things – Lynn Shelton, Colin Trevorrow
Lader: (To Charlie) Are you going to direct “Star Wars”?
McDowell: No, because I don’t have any interest to do that, so for me, I want to make really smart and interesting things but as of right now, I don’t have any interest. I know that Colin, he wanted to make a big movie. He always wanted to do that. I don’t want to do that. I want to make like in the Spike Jonze world, Charlie Kaufman, I like playing there. Those are bigger movies and they got bigger with each one, but it still feels like original stories we haven’t seen before.