LWLies sat down for a chat with director Drake Doremus, two-time Sundance champion, initially with his long-distance romance Like Crazy, and now with his Bergmanesque tale of illicit love, Breathe In. We talked about New York, film school and the director's desire to grapple with a sci-fi movie…
LWLies: You’re actually based in LA but the film is actually one set in New York. What made you decide to decamp to the East Coast?
Drake Doremus: It’s basically because we’ve done LA in the previous movie, Like Crazy, and I really wanted to try a different world, a different tone and to really change it up. We very much wanted a different texture and a different sort of climate – emotionally and visually – to play with.
Had you had any experience of New York before shooting the film?
To be honest with you, not much at all. But my co-writer, Ben York Jones, spent a lot of time there growing up and really got to understand the elements of the city which he brought to the script.
How did Ben York Jones describe upstate New York?
A lot of birds. And the constant change in weather, which is a key element to the movie. It’s just so interesting how one minute it can be so beautiful and summery and the next minute it’s just so damp that you can smell the mildew and the moss.
What was it about the house and the area that made you think this was the best place to shoot the movie?
There was something really ominous about it, the idea that it feels and looks one way but in reality it’s something else. Finding that house and shooting in it was actually quite creepy and scary in itself.
There’s a press still from the film which shows you holding a camera. Do you film your own stuff?
That was probably the only time I’ve ever held a camera in my life. I know exactly what still you’re talking about because I wanted to operate a shot and I did one take with the camera and it was so heavy that I was like, “I don’t want to do that anymore.” I work with an amazing cinematographer, by the name of John Guleserian, who recently just shot Richard Curtis’ new movie. He is absolutely incredible and I trust him to do it. I prefer being behind the monitor.
Have you ever had any kind of formal training in that area of cinematography?
Not really. I definitely understand a lot, but I’m still learning. It’s not something that really interests me in the sense of actually doing it, but I’m very close to John on set. Sometimes, we change things up as the take is going so, in a way, I’m still directing him but just not holding the camera
You studied film at the American Film Institute. What kind of programs do they have there?
They have a conservatory two-year program similar to a graduate program. It’s very difficult, political and immersive, but I did learn a lot. It was started by the government in 1965 and has slowly become more of a private institution. It’s very small, there’s only 26 guys in each discipline. There’s five disciplines – Cinematography, Editing, Directing, that sort of thing. So there’s only like 120 students in each class.
When you say political, do you mean what you learn there is political?
The program really forces you to be collaborative, you have to team up with a member from each discipline and it’s very political. Navigating that sort of landscape each time because you have to work out who’s worked with who and how it feels. In a sense, it’s a miniature Hollywood as it teaches you to really navigate those bridges… It’s a bit like a soap opera too.
Almost sounds a bit Hunger Games-y…
Yeah it is! I would definitely say it is very Hunger Games-y. Survival of the fittest, no question.
When you were at AFI, what discipline were you in?
I was in directing.
At AFI, what type of tutors were there?
There were working directors, some retired but some really talented, knowledgeable teachers for sure.
Was there anyone there who was particularly inspiring for you?
Yeah there was this one teacher who went to AFI and he was just… the idea of directing performances was what I gathered the most from him. It changed my life and made me think about things differently. It was really, really inspiring.
Were his ideas similar to yours?
His philosophy, which I guess mine is too, is that the art of performance really stands apart from subtext and what’s not being said and what’s really going on in the scene as opposed to what’s going on in the text. Finding the hate and the love, the love and the hate and then finding the yes and the no, and the no and the yes and really trying to juxtapose what’s going on in the scene with an inner dynamic.
Have there ever been cases where you’ve come back and looked over one of your movies and seen things being said in the film that weren’t intentional?
Yeah, of course. I mean, I usually try to plot out what’s going on, subextually, within the scene at the same time. But collaborating with great actors, what they bring to it is monumental and you can’t put a price tag on that.
There’s a pivotal early scene where Felicity Jones is picked up from the airport by Guy Pearce and they first set eyes upon one another. Were you writing out the hidden meanings of the scene and what it would mean to the audience?
Both the characters are in totally different places at that point in the scene and I think the description of that scene on a page was pretty simple. We went through each take, developing it each time, trying to get things shorter and shorter. By the last take, it’s the shortest version of the scene because we’ve distilled down what’s going on and made it as simple as possible.
You give off the impression that you’re not someone who’s overly precious about your dialogue and you allow your actors to bring their own mannerism to the table.
Absolutely. For me, it’s so much less about what people say but how they say it and if an actor believes what they’re saying as opposed to being told what to say, it’s a very different prospect and you can feel it and see it on screen. When an actor loses themselves in a scene, amazing things can happen.
Are there any examples of improvisation in Breathe In that you were especially pleased with?
There was a very important scene where Guy and Felicity spend an afternoon at a reservoir together and we just let them spend a sprawling three hours there and have them lose themselves in this afternoon. So much of what is said there is just happening.
Is the film drawn from any personal experiences with your own family?
Not necessarily, to be honest. It actually stemmed from getting away from doing something extremely personal because the last movie was so personal. At the same time, the aspect of bouncing two relationships at once, the greatness of being in love with one person and being devoted to another is something that’s difficult and something that I’ve dealt with in the past.
When researching the film, how did you know you were at the point where you thought that ‘this is the story I need to tell?’
God, I mean, really for me, it was just listening to Dustin O'Halloran's music because it was such a big part of the movie and letting that speak to me, the setting, the tone, the world, the story, the plot, the characters, really just came from putting on headphones and listening to his incredible orchestrations and pieces.
And are you a connoisseur of classical music?
You know, not as much as I’d like to be. I think more of Dustin and his music, I’m just obsessed with him. We’ve done four projects together now, and every time out, I just can’t wait to see what he does next.
Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve had to hurt someone else to move through a stage in your life?
Many, many times. I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs in love and it sucks when you hurt somebody you love and care about deeply but that’s, inevitably, part of relationships. That’s just a part of the game, unfortunately.
It’s rumoured that you’re looking to move away from the intimate romantic movies to do something a bit different for your next movies. The gossip columns are saying a sci-fi movie…
I definitely want to maintain the elements of the intimacy while doing something bigger and different. My next movie is going to be a sci-fi, love story written by Nathan Parker, writer of Moon. An incredible collaborator, we’ve been working together for almost a year now and hopefully we’ll be making the movie sooner than later
Will the new sci-fi movie be a huge, Prometheus-epic type film?
Not bigger than that. It’s not going to be out of hand, but I think it’s a logical next step, if that makes any sense without giving too much away of the budget realm.
Will there be some type of special effects element involved?
Are you excited to be working on the new film?
Very much so. If it’s not scary or if it’s different, you should do it. I’m really excited to explore a whole new thing while bringing my own passions to it and that’s what’s exciting about collaborating with someone who’s doing something totally different to you as together you can create something very original and unique by bringing different elements to the table.
Are there any genres off limits to you?
Absolutely not! I’m just getting started…