Interview: Mark Duplass and Charlie McDowell, 'The One I Love'

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Duplass and McDowellOne of my favorite movies so far this year has been The One I Love. I was going to preface the film's title with a summary of its genre -- for example, "the delightful romantic comedy" or "the taut suspense thriller" but as you know if you've heard anything about the movie, the less said the better. It defies genre, and is just as twisty as last year's smart horror-comedy The Cabin in the Woods. Check out Marcie's vague but heartfelt review for -- well, not details exactly, but at least a recommendation.

Director Charlie McDowell and actor/producer Mark Duplass were in Austin last month to promote the movie, which opened in Austin at Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar last Friday and will continue through next Wednesday, at least. You can also catch it on various online VOD outlets. As you probably know, Mark and his brother Jay Duplass used to live in Austin, back in their Puffy Chair days, so I couldn't resist the opportunity to sit down with these gentlemen and talk about the film ... to the extent that is possible without spoiling it. We also talked about release strategies and at the end, Austin itself.

Slackerwood: The biggest question on my mind is ... how do you talk about this movie in public, in interviews and so forth?

Mark Duplass: We've become experts. We talk a lot about the themes of the movie, and we talk about the process, and we talk a lot about what it's been like -- trying to market a movie with limited information in a marketplace where you're just trying desperately to get people into the movie theater, so you're saying more and more and more and more ... and how can you do it when all you can say is very little? All kinds of ways to talk about it.

Do you enjoy talking about it in this way? Is it frustrating?

Duplass: We're just happy, honestly, that people have been respectful of the plotting of the film -- in particular, reviewers and even audiences to a certain degree. We assumed we would premiere at Sundance, and we assumed the first review would let the cat out of the bag, and we were like, "Okay, that's fine."

But we know, and we knew in our hearts, that the movie plays better when people don't know what's going on. And the first review that came out was, "I love this movie, I'm not going to tell you what it's about, because I want you to see it the way I saw it." And we were like, "Oh shit, can we ride this?"

Charlie McDowell: "Can we use that?"

Duplass: And then Radius came on board to distribute the movie, and they were like, "What if we try to market the movie by just saying, 'It's really different, we don't want to tell you what it's about, just come see it.'" And we were like, that's stupid, because who will come? But as crazy as that sounds -- in a bloated marketplace, where everyone is trying desperately to get you to come, somehow this message of "We're not gonna tell you -- all the reviews are good, Sundance liked the movie, audiences are loving it, just come"  -- and they're starting to come.

McDowell: We'll let you know in a couple of weeks.

Duplass: Yeah, if they actually pay, yeah.

There's nothing worse than hearing an interview before a movie and finding out one of the plot twists. That happened to me watching a Scorsese interview for Hugo. Really ticked me off.

McDowell: I think it's a way to separate yourself -- it's a smart way to do it. There's so many small indie films coming out right around this time, right now, and it's like how do we approach it differently. Radius thinks like that all the time, so it's exciting for us to kind of all come together and figure out how to do it.

Duplass: One thing we've kind of done is, we've secretly and very quietly put the movie on VOD a couple of weeks before it comes out in theaters. And we're letting audiences discover it and so it's kind of building this little word-of-mouth campaign without us having to do much -- just letting it percolate there, which has been very interesting. We won't know how that will affect our theatrical until next week.

Did that decision affect your ability to get theatrical exhibition?

Duplass: It affects the kinds of theaters you can get in some of your bigger markets, for sure. and that is one of the negatives that is happening right now with day-and-date releases. Without getting too much into the minutiae of that, which is kind of boring, that's changing very quickly, and theatrical distributors are realizing that one doesn't quite cannibalize the other like they thought it might. But now, there's definitely some places that -- they don't want to play you if you've played on VOD.

The One I Love

So how did you two end up working together?

McDowell: We have the same agent ... she said, "Would you ever want to meet Mark Duplass?" and I said, "Uh, yeah, yes please," and she was like, "I think you guys are going to get along, and he's making really interesting movies, and he's working from the producing end to the writing/directing/acting end."

So we met and talked, and I think we just clicked as people. And I was really wanting to make a movie, I'd been trying to make this other movie for awhile and it fell through, and he was like, "Let's do something contained, and sort of cheap, and let's just go out and control it and make it ourselves" … and that's what we did.

It doesn't look like a cheap movie at all, although I did realize the movie is almost all shot in one location, which is economical.

McDowell: That was a conscious thing. We knew we had that kind of thing, where we were going to be in one place -- so how do we push the envelope with just production value, how do we make it look really beautiful and kind of cinematic? So that was definitely a conscious thing, to push what we had seen before and go bigger with it.

Duplass: Max it out.

I noticed [and here I had to fumble and pause not to spoil] -- there are two prime locations in this movie, and one is shot differently than the other.

McDowell: Yeah, a lot of the film takes place in the main house on a property, and then also in the guest house on the property. And I treated it as two different characters in the movie. In the guest house, we introduced the fantastical element -- or I guess, sci-fi element -- to the film, so I used anamorphic lenses there. I used different colors, different lighting, everything was much brighter and more fantastical and more romantic and more pleasant, and then everything was shot on a dolly and on sticks so everything felt fluid and nice and safe.

And then everything in the main house felt a little disconnected, and darker colors, and we used handheld so it feels like you're sort of floating around and nothing's really happening. It was really about separating the two spaces and giving one feeling, and then a different feeling when you're somewhere else.

Was that noticeable to the actors?

Duplass: I think audiences might subconsciously feel it, but aren't conscious of those differences. In terms of how it affected me, strictly from a performance standpoint, I'm very upfront with my directors early on -- I'm like, I would really like to use two cameras as much as possible, particularly whenever we're improvising. That's my only request and I try to be very hands-off about everything else.

And Charlie and our DP were very good about, like, finding those opportunities when, you know, we really needed to have a camera on me and a camera on Lizzy [co-star Elisabeth Moss] at the same time, so when we got the take right, we had it all done right there. And then there are other scenes that are less emotional, and they're more intricate and fine-tuned -- and we could do one camera at a time and really light them in an interesting and intricate way. It's a balance of those two.

The One I Love

So how much of the dialogue we hear in the film is scripted and how much is improvised?

Duplass: Well, it's not an either/or thing. The way this worked, there's about a 50-page document that was the entire movie -- the scene beats, everything, locations -- except for the actual dialogue in the film. And most of the dialogue you see in the film is improvised. Although in certain scenes, where we have effects and things like that, Justin our writer [Justin Lader] would write out a version of that scene the night before, to give us a good guide, so we could have something to stick to.

But the whole premise behind this movie was to have a very tightly plotted sci-fi magically real film that had the naturally loose performances of an improvised film.

How did you decide to approach the scripting in this way?

Duplass: It was pretty organic. I gave this basic kernel of an ideal to Charlie, and he took it to Justin, and they fleshed out something that was about 10 pages. And we talked about that, and then they went back and turned that into like 25 or 30. We sent that to Elisabeth Moss, and she was like, "I love this, I want to do it." We brought her in, talked to her about character, sussed out her strengths and things she wanted to focus on, rewrote a little bit for her, and then it just kept blossoming and blossoming and blossoming, and I think in the end -- was it 50 pages in the end?

McDowell: Yeah, I think it was 52.

Duplass: And it had some suggestions of dialogue in there. Beyond that -- at night, Justin and I would sometimes be like, whoa, we don't have a lot of time to shoot this scene tomorrow, it's kind of intricate, would you write out a draft of this scene. And he would write it, and then we would use some of that -- it was very collaborative.

Do you all know what you're doing next?

McDowell: Hopefully, yeah. Justin and I are just finishing our new script that we're hoping to shoot at the end of the year. But we'll see, who knows.

[to Mark Duplass] And I'd ask what you're doing next but I run a Google search and see you're doing like 20 things. Do you sleep?

Duplass: I do, I'm an 8-hour-a-night sleeper. I really believe in that. But the main thing I'm excited about is this HBO show that my brother [Jay] and I made called Togetherness. It's really our baby, we wrote and directed almost every episode, and I star in it with Melanie Lynskey and Amanda Peet and Steve Zissis. It'll air in January and that's kind of like been my -- instead of making a movie this year, that's what Jay and I did.

So I have that, and there's a movie I produced called Skeleton Twins that comes out in September [no Austin release date set yet, though] that I'm really proud of, and there's a movie I made with my friend Patrick Bryce called Creep, it played at SXSW [Mike's review], and that will come out early next year. We're making a sequel to that, which I'm really excited about. So yeah, lots of little movies, I'm really loving that -- little movies and HBO, that's basically what's happening.

[again to Duplass] All right, I have one more question for you. What do you miss most about Austin?

Duplass: So many things. Barton Springs was like a haven for me, a place to listen to music and unwind, and I don't have anything like that in Los Angeles. I miss Polvo's -- I used to live on West Mary between South First and Congress. I miss being able to walk into Vulcan Video and have a community of people that I can talk to movies about, and just like, "What are you seeing?" and you know, that kind of vibe. I miss Torchy's Tacos.

I miss the Arbor. I like the feeling of an arthouse multiplex, which is kind of -- we don't really have that in Los Angeles so much. We have really great single-run theaters that are amazing. Incredible. But going into a place where they have -- like with the Arbor -- it's 6 to 8 arthouse movies playing here. That's very unique.