With movie-star parents in Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen, an American Film Institute education, and acclaim as a published author, Charlie McDowell was as prepared as one could be to direct his first feature film. Still, co-writing and directing a movie that’s accepted into the Sundance Film Festival — let alone one that sells to a distributor (Radius-TWC) before the festival’s even over — is no easy task, especially when it features as intricate a story as McDowell’s debut The One I Love.
The film stars Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss and director, producer, screenwriter, and actor Mark Duplass as a couple searching desperately for a solution to their floundering marriage, which is suffering under the influences of ennui and cheating. The movie is filled with twists, turns, and an element of the supernatural that makes it very different from most domestic dramas. And though The One I Love is largely set in the small confines of a vacation home and its guesthouse (where Duplass and Moss’ characters retreat after consulting a therapist), it’s actually a movie with a high degree of cinematic difficulty, given how unconventional and unpredictable the narrative turns out to be.
It took several steps, both fortuitous and borne of hard work and preparation with creative partner Justin Lader, to make The One I Love a reality. BuzzFeed spoke with McDowell, Lader, Moss, and Duplass at Sundance to find out, step-by-step, how it all happened.
1. Take a simple idea and complicate it.
“I met with Mark in a sort of more general sense, and we just clicked right away,” McDowell said. “For me, I was always such a huge fan of his across the board as a writer-director-producer-actor. Then, he emailed me saying, ‘Hey, let’s make a movie.’ It was like, the greatest email I could have ever gotten. [It had] kind of a one-line idea to explore, and when he sent that idea, I forwarded it to Justin, my writing partner.”
There is much more to that initial kernel that Duplass sent — “A married couple wakes up in the middle of the night; they go have this kind of intense talk about which direction they’re going to take in their relationship” — but further discussion of his pitch would ruin the significant twist that comes early in the movie. The One I Love follows a sort of surreal, science fiction-tinged turn of events, and something new that Duplass, who said he was impressed with McDowell upon their initial meeting, was desperate to try.
“Who knows where you get an idea from, but I’ll say that, where I am in my life right now is a desire to continue what I feel like I’m good at, which is in-depth relationship studies and people studies. But I don’t want to repeat myself,” he said. “I don’t perceive myself as a Woody Allen, who is going to make a similar version of a movie over and over again, so I wanted to expand upon that and put it inside some sort of genre and some sort of thing that could just basically turn the relationship movie on its head.”
2. Respond to pressure, work fast, and be prepared.
Duplass had met Moss at Sundance several years ago, and ever since, the pair had wanted to work together. The opportunity to play the couple at the center of The One I Love’s twisted story was too good to pass up, but there was a catch.
“It came together incredibly fast, not because I’m prolific, but because we had a very short window to make the movie because Mark is super busy, and I think with Lizzy’s schedule, with Mad Men, if the stars didn’t align at the perfect time, we had to push it to next year or something like that,” Lader said. “That wasn’t an option… We put together this really detailed scene-by-scene ‘scriptment,’ maybe suggesting lines here and there. And, for the most part, the movie was entirely improvised, within the confines of a very structured story.”
“I was shocked how good it was,” Duplass admitted. “I was like, ‘Oh fuck.’ It was 40 pages and 80% of what the [final] movie is.”
Moss, too, was impressed with McDowell from the start. “Charlie was sort of so adept at it and calm and just not freaking out and really kind of seemed to know what he was doing and was pretty confident,” she remembered. “I actually thought this wasn’t his first movie and I had missed his first movie and didn’t know about it. I didn’t want to ask because I was like, ‘Oh my god. I’m a total shithead if I hadn’t seen his other movies.’ So I didn’t want to ask if this was not his first movie.”
3. Collaboration is key.
Duplass is well-known for melding smart story concepts and improvised dialogue, creating realistic characters and recognizable conversations while not straying into the long-winded territory where many improv-based movies land. For a film like The One I Love, it was even more important to stay on track.
“While we were filming, Justin would write scenes for the next day,” McDowell explained. “So we would have those, which was incredibly helpful. A lot of times, we took the whole thing; other times we just picked a few things, but it helped us structure the length of a scene and the dramatic beats of a scene, which I think you lose a lot of time with improv movies, because you sort of have to create that in editing.”
Plus, the actors had a major hand in shaping the trajectory of the story and their characters’ paths.
“Before every single scene that we shot, myself, Charlie, Lizzy, Mark, and our producer Mel [Eslyn] would talk about it and figure out, OK, where are we in the movie? Where are our characters? What do they want? What are they pretending they want? What do we need to hit? At what point do we need to hit it?” Lader said. “In every improvised scene, we have what we call ‘pivot points,’ as in, ‘We can play around here, but at a certain point, we need to pivot. So I’m going to say this line, I’m going to hit you with this line, then you move on to the next thing.’”
But beyond the work, the cast and crew also made sure to have fun. “The movie was definitely not an intensely small production, but it was intimate in that we kind of procured a city block and we all moved there and lived there and ate together,” Duplass said. “We created a camp-like environment where — maybe we were only 30 people — it felt like we were making a movie at a third-grade arts camp.”
4. Go to the festival with an experienced mentor.
McDowell had been to Sundance several times before, but obviously, never with a film. Luckily, Duplass — who had been to the festival 10 times prior — was there to advise him.
When asked about his most lasting memory from his first Sundance, Duplass laughed with embarrassment. “I remember being very nervous and much less sure of myself than Charlie is here. I was much younger and had a tiny short film,” he recalled. “We tested this movie on a lot of people and we kind of felt like it was going to play pretty well, versus my Sundance where I was just like, handing out my business card to people because I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. It said the name of the movie, and then it just had my name and my email address on it, and like, ‘Duplass Brothers Productions.’ I spent a lot of time designing it. I gave out like, 60 of them, and I made like, 1,000. I carried this big box home with me, like, What is this?”
Ironically, McDowell also got some business cards made, but he was a bit more restrained when it came to actually giving them out. “I feel weird handing them out,” he said with a shrug. “I have like, three in my wallet. Someone today was actually like, ‘Oh, do you have a business card?’ And I was like, ‘No, I’m totally unprepared.’”
Duplass laughed. “You have an agent and a very successful movie,” he said with the wisdom of those 11 Sundances. “You don’t need it.”
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