Interview: Like Crazy Director Drake Doremus

ON

Sundance Film Festival has been a great proving ground for many new directors and while Drake Doremus’s low-fi indie comedy Douchebag got attention at the 2010 festival, few would be prepared for the stark difference between that and its follow-up, Like Crazy.

It stars Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones as a young couple who meet at college, then go through five years of trials and tribulations as she’s deported back to London, and they have to reassess their feelings for each other while trying to be reunited. “Like Crazy” uses a similar unscripted format that’s become increasingly popular among indie filmmakers, but it has much stronger production values than other similar indie dramas, partially helped by the number of different locations around the separated lovebirds. It ended up winning the Grand Jury prize at this year’s Sundance as well as recognition for Jones’s acting, while being picked up by the once-dormant Paramount Vantage imprint. It’s certainly a great entry point into the world of indie films for those more accustomed to studio-produced romantic dramas from recent years–most of them based on Nicholas Sparks novels–and also a nice change for those who think they always know where these movies are going.

ComingSoon.net interviewed Doremus at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and while it went well, we wondered whether maybe he had been doing a lot of TV interviews earlier that day, since his answers were fairly short and to the point, but that allowed us to cover a lot of ground, including talking a little about his new movie.

ComingSoon.net: I saw your movie at Sundance and I just saw it against last night, and it’s quite a departure from “Douchebag.” Other than “Paranormal Activity,” it’s probably the lowest budget movie Paramount has released, but compared to “Douchbag,” it’s kind of a…
Drake Doremus:
A big movie, yeah. (laughs)

CS: Exactly. So was this something you’d been working on for a long period of time and you finally decided to tackle it after “Douchebag”?
Doremus:
Yeah, I’d been in a long distance relationship and it was sort of nagging at me for a few years, and there were a lot of emotions and a lot of feelings that I wanted to convey. I fictionalized a lot of things on purpose to make it it’s own story, but in a way, it’s a very personal story to me. In trying to decide what I was going to do next, I knew I wanted to do something mature. I wanted to grow up essentially and start making more serious films. Then my new film is like… someone was joking the other day. I just wrapped yesterday actually in New York, I just got here.. but something between a Sydney Pollack and an Anthony Minghella serious movie, like an adult movie. So I’m just growing up a little bit.

CS: Will that be done by Sundance? I don’t think anyone’s ever done three years in a row.
Doremus:
Unfortunately, we will not, which breaks my heart because it’s our home and yeah, I don’t like talking about it because it’s going to break my heart.

CS: Was this very scripted or laid out? How do you generally work?
Doremus:
We worked from a 50-page outline that has real specific beat points, backstory, subtext, objectives, things like that, that sort of inform the scenes and what the scenes are going to be about and then through the rehearsal process and on set, we find it by virtue of just throwing it up and seeing what happens, and then refining it and fine tuning it.

CS: It’s interesting that you come from “mumblecore” roots in a bit where things aren’t that scripted, but your last movie didn’t have known actors, so were you trying to move from what you did in that to something with better known actors?
Doremus:
Yeah, it’s just about the process evolving really and working with really talented actors just elevates the process because you can lean on them more. Yeah, I mean, working with Felicity and Anton was a huge treat. They just poured themselves into the process and gave themselves over and let it happen to them. They were completely uninhibited for the month that we shot.

CS: Not every actor can do that kind of thing.
Doremus:
Very true.

CS: And most of the stuff Anton’s done up until that now has been very scripted as far as I can tell…
Doremus:
Yeah, absolutely.

CS: So how do you know that they can do something like this? How do you know that they can have the chemistry that will work over the course of an entire movie?
Doremus:
Yeah, I mean, I didn’t know. I didn’t see them together before we started rehearsing, so it was just a gut feeling. I mean, it was a scary proposition, not having seen them together in a chemistry read, but part of trying to make a great film is taking bold risks and going with your gut and going with your intuition. I don’t trust myself all the time, but sometimes I do, and in that situation I really did.

CS: Anton has obviously done a lot of movies, so you’ve probably seen some of his work. What about Felicity?
Doremus:
I had never seen anything of hers. She just sent me a tape from her flat in London. She taped herself improvising, and she also sent me the last scene of the movie, the shower scene. She got in her shower in her flat and filmed herself and did a non-dialogue emotional sort of scene. I saw that and it was just like – she was amazing. She blew me away and I had to have her in the movie.

CS: You mentioned you were in a long-distance relationship. Was that actually going on across countries?
Doremus:
Mm-hm.

CS: After watching the movie a second time, I felt that it might come off as an indictment of the immigration process, so did you have some of these same problems in your relationship?
Doremus:
No, I have nothing against the U.S. government whatsoever, and I didn’t want to make a Visa movie or a movie about the government. I didn’t want to blame anybody. I didn’t want to blame any of the characters. I just wanted to have a really honest, truthful examination of what it’s like to have a long-distance relationship really at the end of the day. But I didn’t want to play the blame game at all.

CS: Once you had the two actors and the 50-page treatment, did you just spend a month rehearsing and working things out with them?
Doremus:
It was the week before. We only had a week of rehearsals.

CS: How did you go about doing that, especially since there are so many different locations in the movie?
Doremus:
We just had a space in L.A., a room, and we rehearsed late at night when no one was around and it felt like we were doing something mischievous. We would just stay up late and just do a lot of exercises. We wouldn’t even run the scenes in the movie. We would just have Jacob and Anna go to dinner. We’d have Jacob and Anna tell each other secrets. We’d just go through the process of them becoming Jacob and Anna, and then eventually we’d get into the beats of the story.

CS: At what point did you contact Paul Simon’s people about using his music? That played a pretty big part in their relationship.
Doremus:
We took a chance and put it in the movie and then we wanted to wait until we had a movie, so that we could show them something so that they would get excited and finish the movie. We got it to his people and he watched it and he was on board. They gave us the rights for relatively nothing because they believed in the project. That was amazing.

CS: Did you have them improvise different just in case you couldn’t get the song?
Doremus:
No, just Paul Simon. It had to be Paul. It had to be.

CS: It would be funny if you had DVD extras of them talking about a different musician they both liked…
Doremus:
Yeah, like, Peter Gabriel. (Laughs)

CS: We’ve seen a lot of love stories in movies, but one thing that I thought was really original in this movie was how it shows the passage of time. Five years passes from when we meet them to the end, and just watching so much time pass in such a short period of time is fascinating. So did you take off time in between different sections to let them gain/lose weight, grow beards, etc, or did you just have a really good make-up department and that was acting?
Doremus:
Costume, makeup, hair. We got real specific about time passages and just tried to implement them as subtly throughout the course of the film. We were shooting it out of order, so we’d just jump around and had a great makeup, costume and props and set design team that really understood the progression of their lives.

CS: That’s brilliant since I actually thought you might have shot this movie over the course of a year.
Doremus:
Yeah, I wish. (Laughs) What a luxury that would’ve been.

CS: Just do a couple days here, a couple days there. Let Anton grow his beard. That was really all done with make-up? Wow, that’s crazy.
Doremus:
Yeah.

CS: Were you at least able to shoot all the California stuff first and then the London stuff separately?
Doremus:
You got it. We spent three weeks in L.A. shooting, and then we went to London for a week.

CS: Were you at least able to shoot specific locations like the London apartment scene in order?
Doremus:
A little bit. We tried to take each location in order. So, for instance, the London apartment was three days of shooting. We tried to go in order of those scenes. Absolutely. We pretty much did. We took each location in its chronological order pretty much, yeah. You have to in a way to help because location is a character in the movie, and you can kind of morph through time with it a little bit if you go in order. So, I try to go in order as much as possible.

CS: Were you able to do a lot of make-up tests to see what they’d look like in different phases of the five years?
Doremus:
A lot of cut-outs of magazines and pictures, aesthetic stuff. We tried to do a sort of look book, I guess you could call it, with locations, but mostly, it’s just color palettes and looks and costumes and stuff like that.

CS: So I imagine there was a lot of pre-production involved with getting all this ready to do.
Doremus:
Yeah, we had a really good amount, which was very integral. To be so loose and free on set, you gotta be really planned coming in.

CS: How is making a movie like this but not working in order?
Doremus:
It was hard, it was hard! But they were so in it that they could just jump around. They could just get to another place in the love story just because they were so 360 degrees inside of it, they could just jump to wherever they needed to be, and it’s a tribute to how nimble and how in it they were and how much they gave themselves to Jacob and Anna.

CS: How much footage did you have to shoot to get things like the honeymoon montage? It’s a four or five minute scene, if that, but it covers eight or ten hours.
Doremus:
Yeah, we shot a ton. We shot hours of stuff that night.

CS: Did you just like run it and run it and run it?
Doremus:
Yeah, we’d just run it. It’s a honeymoon, let’s run it and let’s find it, yeah, totally.

CS: How long did it take to actually edit the movie?
Doremus:
We finished shooting in July, August, September, so like, six months before we completed it for Sundance.

CS: You must’ve sent them an early version in order to get into Sundance.
Doremus:
Yeah, we sent them an early cut around in October.

CS: For this movie, you must have shot a ton more footage than you used.
Doremus:
We could cut a whole new movie.

CS: Will any of that other footage ever see the light of day?
Doremus:
Yeah, on the DVD we’re going to put about 20 minutes of extra stuff. It’s like killing babies trying to pair it down to decide what ended up in the movie.

CS: Did it change at all since Sundance?
Doremus:
No, we took a couple of F words out, but other than that, it’s the exact same movie. We went down from R to PG-13, but the difference in the film is negligible. It’s the exact same thing. Some people on the internet are freaking out and they’re like, “Why’d it change?” I try to put that out there that the film has not changed, so anyone who loved the film…

CS: I really liked the music also. It’s really fantastic, because it’s subtle, but you have some interesting choices. How did you approach the music? Did you have someone you worked with before?
Doremus:
Dustin O’Halloran, I had heard his music in Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” and I’d been a big fan of him for years, then just took a chance and contacted him and we’ve become good friends over the course of working together. He brings such a haunting score; his solo piano work is such a fabric of the film. I can’t imagine the film without him, so we got really fortunate with his involvement.

CS: Did you wait until the very end until you had some kind of edit? Or did you try to work with him as you were going along?
Doremus:
He came on halfway through the edit, so he started to see scenes and then he started to write some stuff to picture and then other stuff he just wrote that we custom-tailored.

CS: You mentioned you have another movie you’ve been making.
Doremus:
Yeah, just finished this summer. It’s a much bigger film, the budget’s much bigger, but the same sort of format and style. I wrote it for Felicity. I got back from Sundance and got hungry to work again, so I started writing and then we put it together really fast.

CS: I talk to so many filmmakers who write stuff then it takes years to get it done.
Doremus:
I’m trying to make one a year, that’s the goal.

CS: That’s a pretty good goal. Who’s in the movie besides Felicity?
Doremus:
Guy Pearce, Amy Ryan and Kyle MacLachlan and Felicity Jones.

CS: Is it working in a similar method?
Doremus:
Pretty similar, pretty similar. This time we had a 70-page outline. It’s a little more structured, and we went a little more in depth.

CS: You’ve have to get it to the point where you have a 200-page outline, in which case, you might as well write as script.
Doremus:
Yeah, yeah. (Laughs) That would be amazing, yeah.

CS: So you don’t think this movie is going to be done in time to be ready for Sundance?
Doremus:
No, sadly, which is, yeah, it’s too bad, but we’ve got – we started too late in the year.

CS: Do you do a lot of post-production CG?
Doremus:
No tricks, straight up humans.

CS: So you’re going to continue that onto this new movie too?
Doremus:
Yeah, straight up humans, but the scope of it’s much bigger. We have a scene with 500 extras in it at one point. It’s a much bigger film, but it’s the same process.

CS: What’s the name of this movie? How come I’ve never heard about this?
Doremus:
It’s untitled.

CS: “Untitled.” I was surprised I didn’t see any signs on the streets of New York.
Doremus:
No, we shot Long Island, Sea Cliff, Staten Island. We shot more up in there, a little bit in Manhattan, but not much.

CS: You guys did a great job keeping it a secret.
Doremus:
Yeah, I know, we were very intimate, but big. We were like a delicate elephant.

CS: Is there a studio behind it?
Doremus:
Indian Paintbrush, the same people (who did “Like Crazy”), yeah. They’re great, hugely awesome partners. They’re fantastic.

CS: It’s great you can find someone who can get behind you for both movies like that.
Doremus:
Definitely, to convince people to give you money without a script? It’s pretty special.

Like Crazy opens in select cities on Friday, October 28.