The AFI Interview: Charlie McDowell and Justin Lader
THE ONE I LOVE isn’t just another movie about relationships. This exuberant film, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is a love story with a sci-fi plot twist that’s surprising but earned. The movie stars Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass (who also serves as a producer on the film) as a young married couple who desperately seek to salvage their foundering relationship. The film can be described as part romantic comedy, part THE TWILIGHT ZONE. We sat down with director Charlie McDowell (AFI Class of 2006) and screenwriter Justin Lader (AFI Class of 2008) to talk about their influences for the film, genre and the also importance of the movie’s setting.
AFI: Where did the story come from and why this specific theme?
CM: The theme came from the realization that Justin, Mark Duplass (who also produced the film) and I are all at very different moments in relationships. Mark’s been married for 12 years and has kids and I’m in a four-year relationship, and Justin was in a new relationship – we’re all in very different places. We all felt like there was a universal theme in the story which is this idea that when you first meet someone, you give them the best version of who you are. You’re suddenly more interested in museums, you like cats when you don’t really like cats and suddenly, you’re adapting to all of these things for someone else. We felt like that was a really interesting way into a story with characters, and something that we felt like everyone can relate to and connect to in some way.
JL: From the get-go, we figured out a way to strike a nice balance, of making sure that it felt real and honest to the characters. When you take a premise that’s really fantastical and out there, broad – and I don’t mean “broad” in the sense of slipping on a banana peel comedy, I mean “broad” in the sense that it’s not of this world – there’s a tendency to play it in a big way. But we knew, for this movie, we would be dead in the water if we did that and as soon as the characters don’t take it seriously, if it doesn’t feel real to them, we’re sunk for the rest of the film. If the characters feel that it’s real, we realized that we could even take the story further out there than we thought. It’s really the characters’ reactions that dictated how far we could take it.
CM: Also just the idea of something like ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, which is a love story that added this sci-fi element to it. Typically you don’t see that in love stories but it created such an interesting, unique voice and tone to the movie, and because of that, we connected to those characters and those people more so than we would have if you removed all of this sci-fi nature to it. I think we like the idea of people saying comedy and sci-fi don’t go together, but that only makes it more appealing because they can go together, and that film is an example of it working really well.
AFI: Are either of the characters based on anyone you know in real life?
CM: Not specifically. I think the point of these characters is for everyone to be able to connect to them in some ways, so it wasn’t an isolated person that we were following and that it felt like themes and ideas that everyone feels and thinks. I think it was more about me, Justin and Mark in the script-writing process, and building these people. Then Elisabeth Moss is there and [we incorporated] what would [she as the character] have done in this situation. Because it was a collaboration, we were able to tap into something that felt really honest.
JL: I think a lot of mistakes that people make that have tried to walk that thin tonal balance make is that they do the “wouldn’t it be cool if…” and they don’t really stop to think “well, should they?” And I think it’s important, if you really want to walk that tonal balance. It needs to feel real.
AFI: You talked about this film being a collaborative process. Was there one moment during the making of the movie where collaboration played a key role?
CM: Honestly, the entire movie. Because we were isolated, at one location, living in this bubble together, and we had actors improving dialogue, and then we have our writer on set, who had written this very structured story and we asked: “okay, how do you implement this very structured idea of what this movie is and where these characters are supposed to go, and then also have a fresh, improvised feel to it?” There was so much collaboration because all of us would come together before every scene and ask, “What’s going on in this scene? Plot-wise, what’s happening?” Then also, emotionally, “where are the characters? Where should they go? Where shouldn’t they go?” It wasn’t Justin writing it and saying, “This is what they have to do.” It’s not me telling them, “This is exactly how you have to feel.” It’s all of us piecing this relationship and this history together. What people respond to in this movie is that it feels very real and honest.
AFI: Do you think it would be any different if the movie was set in the city rather than this isolated house?
CM: I do. That was a conscious decision in building the story. It needed to feel like it was not your everyday sort of city, comfortable life. It’s these people leaving that and going someplace isolated and totally separate from their everyday world. That’s a very important thing because what happens there ends up being this idea that, if you were able to bring your friends into it, it wouldn’t be the same. Instead they’re faced with this dilemma of “we could explore this or we could run away.” They decide to explore it because they’re isolated. It’s only the two of them. That’s a really important part of the story.
JL: We didn’t set out to make a horror movie, but in the seclusion of where this movie takes place, there are elements which are kind of unsettling. I think you’d agree with that, and you wouldn’t have [that] if it took place in New York City.
THE ONE I LOVE is now available on DVD and is currently streaming on Netflix.