The Like Crazy writer/director reveals why he's sick of Hollywood's love game.
Director Drake Doremus’ semi-autobiographical love story, Like Crazy, was a surprise hit at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, receiving plaudits for Best Actress and The Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film. He sat down with LWLies at the recently to discuss the film’s surprise success and his rejection of the Hollywood tendency to dumb down romance.
LWLies: Did people's overwhelmingly positive response to the film come as a big surprise?
Doremus: Yes, I mean we made the film in a bubble and it was so personal. So to share that with audiences, I had no idea what to expect. So to have the experience that we had at Sundance was overwhelming and unexpected.
You based the film largely on your own experiences. Were you consciously aware that they were likely to resonate with other people?
Well what’s strange about it is so many people have said they’ve been through a long distance relationship and they’d been through visa issues. That’s what’s really shocking for me because I thought when I was making the film that it was this really unique circumstance that no one was going to relate to. So then to hear so many other people’s stories and have them tell me that they’d been through that or that they were seeing someone in a different country and they couldn’t get to each other. I was like ‘Woah.’ This was a universal story and it struck me that this was bigger than I thought it was and more important to people than I thought it would be.
Was writing about what you’d been through quite a cathartic experience?
In a way. I find it more cathartic to experience it with audiences now actually, because I don’t feel so alone in going through that emotional experience. I feel more like, as human beings, we’ve all shared more common experiences and that to me is more of a relief than anything.
And it surprises you when people come up to you and tell you that it resonates with them?
Well it’s something that a lot of people have been through and that, to me, is shocking. How fundamentally universal it is to people.
Did you not think that would be the case when you were making it?
No, not at all, and that was so weird to me. When I was making the film I was like, 'Oh, this is such a unique thing. Maybe people will get it. Maybe someone will understand it, but probably not.' And then I was shocked, but so many people have been through it and that’s why I think the film has even been released because it is universal.
Well people are always going to be in long distance relationships.
Yeah it’ll never end. Until we have teleporting and beaming… That’s what we need. That’s the only fix for long distance relationships – teleporting and beaming. Other than that, there’s no way around it. The distance will always be there. But, hey, you can’t choose who you love.
Tonally, it feels like a reaction to a lot of contemporary romantic dramas. Were you consciously looking to reject notions of comedy? Obviously there are comic moments but for the most part it feels very sombre.
Yeah. I was trying to create a tone and a world that was unique and felt right for the story more than anything else. I was influenced by filmmakers like Lars Von Trier and Alfonso Cuarón and their work. That was sort of the basis of where I was coming from. Breaking the Waves was a big influence for us in terms of visuals and performances, and Y Tu Mamá También. Those are the two films that, more than anything, influenced me and had a profound effect on me.
Was there anything else?
Some great classic love stories – A Place in the Sun with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. The idea of shaping unique love stories that are tailored to what someone has to say about love, for me, that’s really exciting. Everything from A Place in the Sun to Eternal Sunshine. Any love story that resonates, I feel, is really exciting and exhilarating. I’m influenced by any love story that’s unique.
Do you feel that there’s a tendency to dumb down love in Hollywood at the moment?
Yeah I do actually. There’s a lot of style and not a lot of substance and that frustrates me and that inspires me to try to create substance in a love story.
It almost feels like there are a lot of emotional cheap shots nowadays and it kind of felt as though Like Crazy was a bit of a reaction against that.
Wow. Dude. That’s an amazing observation. Yes, there was one movie in particular, which will go unnamed, that really inspired me to make this movie because it felt like it was trying to capture something but really didn’t. The last thing I want to do is publicly trash films or filmmakers but it was made in the last couple of years and I really felt like it was a lot of style and not a lot of substance. I wanted to make my love story and that really inspired me, so in a way I’m really grateful to the film and the filmmaker.
In terms of the way Like Crazy is shot, it has a very fly-on-the-wall feel to it. Was that always in the back of your mind when you were writing it?
Oh yeah, I wanted the audience to feel like they were watching something that maybe they shouldn’t be watching and I think that maybe heightens the intimacy of what’s going on between the characters. But to me they function together. How the story’s told essentially becomes what the story is, so in that sense I was thinking about all that stuff while we were writing the project.
Did you have anyone particular in mind for the roles?
Not necessarily. Anton [Yelchin] was always in the back of my head because I was familiar with his work and as far as actors in their early twenties working in Hollywood go, he’s one of the best I feel. So I met with him and we were totally on the same page about our sensibilities and what we were going to make and that was immediate. I’d seen Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone at Sundance in 2010 and I thought she was terrific, so I spoke to her in the spring and she came on board to experiment and try something new. That’s why she did this project. And Felicity [Jones] sent me a tape. She taped herself in her flat and I didn’t see her and Anton together, so I sort of took a chance that they would have chemistry and in my head I saw them together.
And why a British girl in particular? Was that based on your own experience?
It wasn’t a British girl that I was with but she did live in London for a good portion of our long distance relationship, so I’m very familiar with the city and making trips and seeing a loved one here. So for me that was a no brainer setting it here in London. I love the city and shooting here was incredible. It was so not what I expected. I expected it to be much more difficult than it was. People were so cool about it. There’s a sense when you’re shooting in LA that people are a bit jaded and here people are excited to have a shoot. We only shot here for a week. We were in LA for three weeks and we were here for a week, but that was a really special week.
One of the things that really comes across is the sense of realism. You gave Anton and Felicity a lot of freedom to improvise. Do you feel that’s quite liberating?
Yeah, especially for the actors because they can lose themselves in the character and let things sort of happen and come to them as opposed to forcing a line or hitting a mark. But it’s liberating for me as well too because you open yourself to discovery and the surprises and spontaneity can really resonate and it just feels like it’s happening. It’s really liberating and exciting to have one idea and have that change and form in to something else. That, to me, is exciting and challenging.
And how does that process work? Do you write a basic outline for a scene with some key dialogue and take it from there?
Yeah, for this it was about 50 pages long and it has things in it that aren’t in a normal script like back stories, scene objectives, subtext, plot points, emotional beats. And then from that we find the dialogue because the dialogue comes when you know all those things. This is sort of a function as opposed to having to say a certain line. What’s important to me is that the actors are listening to one another and reacting and responding genuinely to the last thing that’s said. The rest of the process becomes a training period, essentially, of getting them in to that mode.
How do you go about preparing the actors for the more emotionally challenging sequences? Do those require more rigorous planning?
It’s kind of a moot relation almost, getting them in to that mind space and getting them prepared. But having gone through experiences and having gone through a relationship is the most important thing so the rehearsal process was almost about building a relationship so that by the time we got to shooting they’d already broken up and gotten back together and they’d gone through years of spending time together so it was easy to just jump in.
And how did the actors respond to the freedom that that approach gave them? A lot of actors tend to be fairly set in their way about having a fixed script placed in front of them.
I think any actor that’s not open to that probably wouldn’t want to do my movies. It’s funny, I just did a movie with Guy Pearce this past summer, which will be done in the spring, and he’s never done anything like this before. He’s usually got everything scripted and knows what he’s doing, so it was a really exciting process to watch him grow to trust himself to do and say the right thing at the right time. But to me it’s a challenge. Every actor’s different and some actors are more comfortable with the process than others but at the end of the day, if you know your character well enough you’ll be able to live in their shoes. So, to me, the most important thing in my process is getting the actor prepared.
And do you view that as a kind of draw?
I think so. I mean, I think for actors it’s really exciting and they get to do something they don’t normally get to do. They get a little bit more responsibility and I think that’s a really exciting thing for actors.
What’s the new project about?
It’s another love story, in a way it’s sort of like a darker cousin to Like Crazy. It’s very stylistically similar, but also very different. It’s a love story between an older man, Guy Pearce, and a younger woman, Felicity, who sort of find feelings for each other at a very strange time in their lives and the film is about how they deal with those feelings and go through that. Guy plays a married man and Felicity a younger woman. The scenario itself is not the unique thing but how we attack it, I think is really special and the chemistry between Guy and Felicity was really special. It’s got some romantic thriller elements to it, but it’s kind of a different genre in a way.
It’s interesting that you’re working with Felicity again. Coming on to a project, do you find that that established relationship improves the work process?
Yeah, it was interesting, the difference working with her this summer and last summer. If anything it’s just a case of knowing each other’s buttons and how to push them and really just trying to pull greatness out of each other. We just push each other and sometimes it gets tense, sometimes it’s calm but at the end of the day she’s magnificent to work with because she’s always exhausting every alternative. It’s never good enough, we never settle and we have that sort of mantra together where it’s like, 'Okay, let’s push things as far as we can and if it’s too far let’s pull it back, but let’s be bold and go to the depths of what’s happening.' But it’s interesting because the more you get to know someone, especially professionally in this environment, the more you really can push them. There are certain tactics you learn when you know someone who well that you end up using, but she’s so professional and she comes in to work every day so prepared and so knowledgeable about what we’re doing that it was a no-brainer. There was just more to explore with her after Like Crazy. I just didn’t feel like we were done. And the character she plays in the new movie is very different to Anna, so in that sense it was exciting to attack something together that was very different.
Have you got any plans beyond that yet?
Not yet, we’re gonna do that first then I haven’t decided. Because at the end of the day every film I make is an expression of how I feel about love or my love life in a way. The new movie explores the idea of monogamy and being with two people at the same time and loving two people at the same time and that’s something that I’m interested in and fascinated with and Like Crazy was the same too. So it’s like a marker of what I’m thinking about and how I’m feeling and it’ll be interesting to see how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking about next year.
But you haven’t got any genre aspirations in mind yet?
I just think the pain of love and the difficulty that comes with not being able to control it. That’s what these films are sort of exploring in a way and what it’s like to go through something that you can’t control. Because if you were able to control the situation logically of course you wouldn’t be flying around the world and of course you wouldn’t be making long distance phone calls and these illogical choices for love, but you do and that’s the way it goes and I think that exploring human beings doing things for love that they wouldn’t normally do is fascinating for me and it never gets old. Never.