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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Mark Duplass and Charlie McDowell Discuss "The One I Love" Without Giving It Away or Minding If You Pick It Apart

Posted By on Thu, Aug 21, 2014 at 3:54 PM

click to enlarge theoneilove_still6_bts_markduplass_charlie_mcdowell_.jpg
In The One I Love, the new cozy indie romantic drama starring Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss, a weekend marriage-repair retreat goes quite awry. (Here's a short review.) 

We’re not supposed to talk about how it goes awry, but we can talk about other things, so we did — with Duplass, who produced the film, and first-time director Charlie McDowell, until now best known for being the son of Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen, and for writing the virally sensational “Dear Girls Above Me” Twitter feed and subsequent book.

Here’s what the two of them recently had to say about The One I Love.

SF Weekly: How did you two first become aware of each other’s work?

McDowell: I didn’t have much work for Mark to become aware of! But I definitely was aware of his work, and I had just signed with the same agent he had, and she said, “Would you ever want to meet Mark Duplass? I think you guys would really get along.” And I said, “Yeah! I would definitely like to meet Mark Duplass.” And we just kinda had a general meeting, and we really liked each other and just clicked as people, and I think on Mark’s end it was just an instinctual thing where he felt like —

Duplass: — Hey, don’t speak for me! You know what, let me jump in here. I was like, “This fucking guy needs help! So bad.”

McDowell: “So bad! He speaks for me all the time, and…”

Duplass: “I don’t know what he’s going to do!” (Laughs.) No, I was at this point where it was starting to become known a little bit that my brother and I were producing movies for younger filmmakers, and a lot of people were starting to come at us. Like, “Dude, you worked with Lynn Shelton [on Humpday, and Your Sister’s Sister], and then she’s got a career. And you did that with Colin Trevarro [of Safety Not Guaranteed]. So there was a little bit of a sense of people coming to me for the EZ-Pass or something like that, so I was almost wondering, do I really want to get into this? I’ve got enough to do making my own movies. But I just really liked Charlie. And it crystallized for me what I want in partners, which is someone who sees the world the way I do, someone who has a good sense of humor and can laugh at the darker stuff that we experience in relationships. And someone who’s extremely self-aware. I find that if you have a work partner who’s self-aware, it’s zero conflict. And then I kinda started figuring out what he was interested in and good at. And I was like, OK, he’s really interested in people and relationships, but also, visually, Charlie has much more of an interest and acumen than I do in terms of what can be done with cinema. And also with genre, he was interested in trying some new things. So in my brain I was like: I can bring him a relationship-oriented story, I’ll be in it, and try and get the performances to be organic, and try and get a movie star because of my connections, and he can bring a sense of what he loves about relationship stories, and on top of that some great visual storytelling, and we might be able to make something unique. I was very confident.

McDowell: I wasn’t. (Laughs.)

Duplass: But in all fairness, you usually know right away. I gave him this tiny kernel of an idea, like two sentences long, which essentially is the twist of the movie, and the plot machination that we employ to examine the relationship. But no characters, no story. I didn’t have it. And so it was basically make or break for Charlie. He and his writing partner Justin Lader got together and within like a week or two came back to me with a fully fleshed out 10-page outline with all this character stuff. And a way that we could use this location that he had in mind. He had written the movie specifically for the location, which is exactly what you want to do. And I knew we could make it; it fit right into my low-budget filmmaking model. Right there, I was like, “Ok, the movie’s green-lit.” And they were like, “Wait, what?” I was like, “Yeah, let’s go get an actress, let’s do the movie!” It was great that way — less than six months from when we came up with the idea to when we started shooting.

That's pretty amazing.

McDowell: I just remember being shocked when he said this was green-lit. I was like, “Wait, don’t we need to ask some, like, Wall Street business guy? You’re a creative person, how do you do that?” But the thing is, Justin and I had been trying to make this other movie for years, and kinda going through the ups and downs of independent film financing — falling through and coming back and falling through — and so we felt like this was really our shot to get something made. And we realized that now we could make something that shows who we are as storytellers. And we can collaborate with someone who’s on the same page, someone whose movies we really like. So that was really exciting. And we really just homed in on these characters and fleshed it out. It really helped having the location set because you think: OK, what do we actually have on this location? We started to build the story around that. Which is such an interesting way to make a movie, when you have restrictions. But it really helped us play in this playground.

Mark, this method is of course familiar to you from other projects…

Duplass: Reverse engineering from your available materials is an approach that I love. I feel like I work really well when I have limits. When I’m swimming in the sea of infinite possibility, I just drown. I haven’t really been there that much, because it’s not like people are throwing millions of dollars at me. But I just know, when I’m sitting down to write something, if it’s like, “Well, This is what I’ve got,” it’s a helpful wall to bang your head against.

But there’s still some freedom in that you like to improvise within the framework of the scenes, yes? In this case, how does improvisation reconcile with what’s obviously an execution-dependent concept?

Duplass: Of all the improvised movies that I’ve been a part of, excluding the ones that my brother Jay and I make where there’s an actual script with dialogue, this was the most tightly prepared and organized before we went into it. You look at a movie like Your Sister’s Sister or Humpday, those movies are like 15 or 20 scenes, it’s all about chemistry, it’s all about emotion, the plot is almost meaningless there. But this movie has like 80 scenes in it. And they’re all very intricately plotted. So the breadth and the bandwidth that we could improvise was much smaller — which was great. What it meant is that we weren’t running on for something like 9-minute takes. These scenes would be a minute, a minute and a half. And the improv only existed so we could have the dialogue feel as comfortable as possible within a very tightly constricted narrative.

So Charlie, here you are directing the guy who made your movie happen. And even before that, writing out his idea. Any pressure?

McDowell: I guess I channeled being nervous into being prepared. There wasn’t a moment where I was terrified and just shut down. It was just about how to be really ready, from day one. And then of course knowing that a million things would come up, and dealing with that in the moment. But in terms of what I wanted to do visually, it was all shot list and storyboard — and then of course in improv, there are times when you completely throw that out. Because you’re like, “Wait, this scene makes more sense if you’re outside or if you’re in this part of the house,” or whatever. So that was really fun because then you start to adapt and things become fresh. With Mark and Lizzie, we all just connected as people so well, and we all just trusted each other, so I wasn’t really intimidated.

Duplass: It is fraught with peril, what you’re talking about: the fact that I am Charlie’s boss, as the producer, and he is my boss, as the director, and where do you find that balance? I think for me, the key to being a good producer — and I’ve learned this in the last couple of years — is not having a specific vision of the film that I want to get made. It’s having a vision of something that is inspired and that works. And as long as as that is happening, it’s not my job as a producer to choose what that is. I just need to guard that it’s inspired and it’s working. And the only time I would ever step in isn’t about, “Oh, I don’t like this, I wish it was this way.” It’s that I’m looking around, I’m sensing it, we all know something’s not working, let’s talk about it.

We press folk have been instructed not to discuss the movie’s twist. Fair enough, but there’s more to it than the twist. Besides, some people will want to see it more than once. 

Duplass: Of the movies I’ve been a part of, I would say this is most deserving of a second viewing.

McDowell: People that have seen it twice all come back and say they liked it even better the second time.

Duplass: Two wonderful things happen in the second viewing. One: Your face isn’t melting off with trying to figure out the plot, so you can actually spend a little more time focusing in on the more interpersonal stuff. And I just find this is one of Lizzie Moss’s most stellar performances, in the details.

Yes. You too. Both of you.

Duplass: Well, thank you for that. But I can’t say that about myself, because that would be weird. But she is doing things that are really incredible, and you might have missed them. And the second thing is: We actually love people trying to hunt for holes in the plot the second time around. And they do that, and they think they find things, and they want to talk to us about it. It’s great! It’s a great conversation starter about the concept of whether a script is great or not great if it has a couple of holes. And I’ll be the first to admit, when we were watching it, it was like, “Oops, there’s a little one. Are they going to catch that?” So it’s a fun little game. We tested this movie in front of filmmakers and friends many times. We mentioned the metaphor of Game of Thrones earlier. Like: You want some dragons in there, but you don’t want to be like, “Oh, that’s too many dragons!” You might want a couple so it can be magic. This feeling of just enough but not so much that we go into "Dungeons & Dragons" land.

McDowell: You want people to pick it apart. Because that’s the point of making this movie. Everyone brings in their own baggage, from their life and experiences. But they’re also trying to figure out what’s going on. That’s the point of it for us.

Now Charlie, a question about your parents, and because we’re in San Francisco: The movie Time After Time. Thoughts?

McDowell: Well, it’s the reason I’m here! So I like that movie. I’ve only seen it once. It’s kind of a weird movie to see, when you see your parents falling in love. And my parents are very good friends and have a great friendship but are no longer together, so it’s a little weird. But it’s a pretty amazing film, and kind of ahead of its time. When I saw it, I can’t remember how old I was, but if you re-watch it, you’ll see the special effects are a little hokey.

Duplass: To quote Beavis and Butthead, “These special effects aren’t very special.”


But the concept, the chemistry!

McDowell: The chemistry is good!

Duplass: She calls him Herbert. That’s so sweet. Yeah, I watched that movie like 15 times on HBO growing up. I loved it. And it is a San Francisco classic.

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About The Author

Jonathan Kiefer

SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.

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