Odd romance: Charlie McDowell brings sci-fi spin to the rom-com with 'The One I Love'
Given Charlie McDowell’s Hollywood pedigree, introductions to the director can sound heraldic. He is the son of actress Mary Steenburgen (The Help, Melvin and Howard) and cult actor Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange). He is the stepson of Ted Danson. He is the boyfriend of Rooney Mara. He is a friend of director Steven Soderbergh, whose cameras he borrowed to shoot his first feature, The One I Love.
With Love, opening August 22nd from RADiUS-TWC, McDowell is poised to establish his name as a recognizable entity in its own right. The genre-bending film follows spouses on the brink of divorce (Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss) as they embark on a weekend getaway at the suggestion of their therapist (Danson). A sunny and secluded idyll, their couples’ retreat is charming, but there are oddities underfoot in the guesthouse. Its bizarre, perhaps otherworldly elements have the potential to bring the pair closer together, or break them up for good.
“I was definitely inspired by people like Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, these guys who have mixed genres, but did it in a love-story narrative,” says McDowell. “Comedy and sci-fi don’t sound like they go together, and that made it appealing to me. I don’t think that genres should be exclusive and just left on their own. I like the idea of tinkering in different worlds and putting the two together. I think, ultimately, if it works and if you do it right, then the story has more of an impact on the audience.”
McDowell, who had previously co-written and directed the short film Bye Bye Benjamin, collaborated on his feature’s script with his writing partner and Love’s accredited screenwriter, Justin Lader, as well as with the movie’s star, Mark Duplass. The conceit originated with Duplass, who brought it to McDowell and Lader for the three to refine jointly. “It was something we all went back and forth on, and really kind of bashed our heads together and tried to crack and figure out,” McDowell says of the trio’s collaborative process.
The team arrived at Sophie, the more visibly unhappy of Love’s married pair, and Ethan, who, as details from the couple’s past emerge, is shown to have struggled with his own discontent. “I think the basic theme and idea that we really connected to and thought was a fascinating thing to explore was how we as people, when we start our relationships, tend to give the best version of who we are, and we heighten ourselves. All of a sudden [you’re] wanting to go to museums. And you all of a sudden like cats, when you don’t really like cats. But that’s this thing we all sort of do to adapt to the people we’re with. We found that’s a really interesting, universal theme, and a cool jumping-off point.”
Similarly, the director treated the film’s screenplay as a kind of launching pad. “We worked mostly off of a 50-page ‘scriptment,’ which is basically like a script and a treatment. Every scene was very carefully written in terms of story and what characters are thinking and feeling, but we had very little dialogue written. The majority of the dialogue was actually improv.”
For Duplass, a fellow filmmaker who, along with his brother Jay, is well-respected in the indie film scene, having co-directed 2010’s Cyrus as well as acted in Your Sister’s Sister and Safety Not Guaranteed, improvising came naturally. “Mark feels really comfortable in that space, he’s done it so many times before.” Moss, on the other hand, whom McDowell calls “Lizzy,” “was a little nervous in the beginning. She hadn’t done so much of that. And then day one she was just incredible, and we were all like, ‘Oh, my God, she’s just as good as Mark with improv!’”
Taking into account her portrayal of the perennially underestimated Peggy Olson on “Mad Men,” it seems Moss has turned surpassing expectations into something of an art. It wasn’t her Emmy-nominated turn on the AMC drama that caught the eye of her director, however, but rather her work on another acclaimed series.
“I’d just gotten a couple screeners of ‘Top of the Lake,’ and was pretty blown away by her performance in that,” explains McDowell. Moss had previously worked with Duplass on 2012’s Darling Companion and had become “interested in doing some film like this, a kind of small, intimate, Duplass kind of feel.”
With McDowell’s stepfather Danson willing to lend support as the couple’s specious therapist, and a location in Ojai, California, scouted and available, the cast—setting included—quickly fell into place. “We decided to almost treat the main house as one character, and the guesthouse as another character,” says McDowell of the two spaces in which most of the film’s action occurs. “We shot with spherical lenses in the main house, and then in the guesthouse we shot anamorphic, so it gave it this slightly surreal feel,” thereby tonally underscoring the surreal nature of the events to which the property plays host.
“Both of us did a lot of pre-production work,” McDowell says of himself and DP Doug Emmett. “We storyboarded the entire film with this app on the iPhone where we took stills of every shot. We felt like that was really important to do, because, well, one, we shot the movie in 15 days, so it was really quick, and I didn’t want to spend my time on set trying to figure out a plan, visually. And it allowed us to really think about it and figure out how we wanted the story, the characters to arc through the visuals.”
Such meticulousness might suggest a rigidity of vision on the part of McDowell the filmmaker, but this proves to be far from the case. “For me, the film was just about, not me having an answer for anything, but me just wanting to explore things and issues that I find fascinating. So ultimately, I don’t know if the film ends with an idea of ‘This is what we’re trying to say.’ It’s more just ‘This is what interests us.’”
He laughs when asked if his experiences with a certain pair of loud, twenty-something female neighbors influenced his understanding of relationships as explored in his film. McDowell is the creator of the popular “Dear Girls Above Me” Twitterfeed, which showcases his pithy responses to the inanities that come caterwauling down from the apartment atop his own. (A sample tweet: “‘I’m so jittery from this 5-hour energy drink. How long is it supposed to last!?’ 500 minutes.”) A year ago this past June, McDowell published a DGAM book, his first. Among other celebrity endorsements, including one from Duplass, the Amazon page for Dear Girls Above Me: A True Story features a blurb from writer-actress Lena Dunham, who was also one of several industry players to provide feedback on Love.
“Lena is a friend, someone who I really respect, her voice and her humor and her drama, so she gave us some notes that were really helpful,” McDowell says. Writer-director Scott Frank (The Wolverine, Out of Sight) was another influential early viewer: “He gave really amazing notes and we really shaped the story in post based on a lot of what he said.” Then there was Soderbergh, the trailblazing director whose 1989 Sex, Lies, and Videotape ushered in the independent filmmaking era of the ’90s. When McDowell sought his advice on procuring cheap equipment, Soderbergh offered his own. “He was like, ‘Well, I’m retired, so you can use my cameras.’ And I was like, ‘OK, great!’ He leant us his cameras, which was the coolest thing. They said Soderbergh RED on them, and everyone in the crew was geeking out over it.
“I feel like I’ve learned a lot from the people around me,” McDowell acknowledges. They’re lessons the director will surely continue to reference as he tackles his next and more complex film. “Justin and I just finished our new script. It’s something that again plays in different genres, sort of comedy, drama, slightly sci-fi.” This time around, McDowell must contend with more than one location and “a couple more actors” than Love’s trio. Yet even as each successive project individualizes him from his famous connections, the filmmaker remains associated with strong personal ties. Says McDowell of his upcoming movie, “It’s more of a family kind of story."