The digital revolution hasn’t just empowered people outside the film community to begin making their own films; it’s empowered actors as well, may of whom were shut out of the process for years. One of the latest actors to make a foray into the world of feature directing is Clea DuVall, probably best known for roles in HBO’s short-lived but much-beloved series Carnivàle and in the Oscar-winning film Argo (among many others). Her directorial debut, The Intervention, premiered at Sundance this year and boasts a long list of indie favorites in the cast, including Melanie Lynskey (who won a Sundance acting award for the film), Jason Ritter, Natasha Lyonne, Cobie Smulders, Alia Shawkat, and others. After a successful theatrical run, the DVD is out this month from Paramount Home Video. Duvall joined us recently to discuss the film.
Paste Magazine: So, it’s been quite a path for you from Sundance to this point. I’m sure it’s been an emotional rollercoaster going from making the film, to premiering the film, to finally releasing it. So why not start from the end instead of the beginning and tell me how it feels to get to this point?
Clea DuVall: It feels very surreal—almost like it didn’t happen. I mean, I got a package in the mail the other day, and it was of five DVDs of the movie. I had a DVD in my hand, and I was looking at it, and I just couldn’t believe that on that disc was a movie that I’d made, just based on this idea that I had, sitting alone in my apartment. It was just so bizarre. But I feel so grateful that I got to have that experience, and now I really want to do it again.
Paste: When I first got mine, the first thing I wanted was to send one to my parents. To say, “Look! This is the thing!” (Both laugh) Yeah. So, now let’s go all the way back to the beginning. Let’s talk about sitting in that room and having an idea, and especially for someone who is a veteran actor. Tell me about the idea of getting around on the other side of the camera.
DuVall: Well, directing was something that I wanted to do when I was in, you know, in my 20s. I said that I wanted to make a movie before I turned 30 and then—it’s the craziest thing, if you don’t do anything to make that happen, it won’t happen. (they laugh) There was no magical package that arrived with a movie for me to direct. I think I was really intimidated by that idea. And then I got to a place where I was looking around and I was seeing so many people who I knew and loved who were just doing it. Who were writing their own scripts and producing their own movies, directing their own movies, and I felt so inspired by that, and it made me want to give it a try. So I wrote this script. I thought, “Okay, what story can I tell that we could make for no money?” I just had this idea and started writing it, and wrote myself a part—I thought that I didn’t want to direct it and then got to the place where I realized that I was just being scared, and I should just go for it. Sx months later, we got financing and three months later we were shooting.
Paste: Any specific people that you want to call out for being especially inspirational to you as far as writing and making their own movies?
DuVall: Well, I love Lake Bell’s movie and think she’s so fun and talented, she’s so focused and so strong. She was someone who I really looked at and felt extremely inspired by, and I’m still inspired by.
Paste: Yeah, she’s pretty amazing. Tell me about assembling this fantastic cast. I know you and Mel have been friends for a long time, right?
DuVall: Yes, yes, yes. I wrote it for Melanie. She was my muse, and then Alia Shawkat came on, and Natasha and Jason, they’re all friends of mine. And then Cobie, Vincent and the rest came on through other connections with the representatives of the actors that we already had.
Paste: Tell me about the experience of writing a character with an actor in mind. I’ve had some writers tell me that they try to avoid that, but just personally for me it’s always helped me. Even if I don’t know the actor, I tend to kind of have an actor in mind when I’m writing a part because it helps me put flesh on that character a little bit. How did you find that process?
DuVall: It helped me with Melanie just because she’s so funny and I really like imagining her—we have all these bits we do and we’re best friends so we have all these silly, waste of time bits where we’ll just talk about something that’s not even real, joking around for fake conversations for 20 minutes. So, sitting and creating this character who was bizarre and kind of annoying, well-intentioned but manic—having her in mind really was helpful for me. She was the only one that I was really thinking of. Obviously, I was writing a part for myself so I knew me pretty well, but all I wanted to do was write a character to support her character, you know?
DuVall: The things that I’m writing now, I don’t have anyone in mind and they are just their own people. That actually has been helpful for me and the process—not getting so specific.
Paste: I love to talk to people the very elementary logistics—do you write on a word processor, do you write using pen and paper, do you write in your own room, in a studio? Do you have to go to a Starbucks? Do you have a retreat that you go to? What sets the scene for what it looks like when you’re writing?
DuVall: It depends. If I’m home alone, I’m on the couch with my computer. If I’m not home alone then I’ll go into my bedroom. If I’m away, I like to hole up the hotel and just close all the windows and be weird. But, yeah, I write an outline and that’s like bashing my head against the wall. I hate it and I do so many other things to avoid it. And then finally I get it done, and then I start writing the script. Then, usually around act two I hit a wall, bash my head against it for a while and get really upset. Then I figure it out and I move on.
Paste: Start doubting all your career choices.
DuVall: Exactly! “Oh, I’m a loser, I’m so stupid and what a dumb idea, and all these characters are stupid,” but making the movie actually made me so much more conscious as a writer in a way that I think is good news and bad news. The mistakes that I made, things I didn’t realize were mistakes when I was writing the script, then getting to the place of like, shooting them and then editing. And I’m like, “Oh, that’s a waste of time. Why are you doing that? You’re basically having the same scene two times in a row.” I have more knowledge now, but it makes it harder, almost. Because I used to just write and not think about it, because I knew I was going to rewrite it. It’s made me more careful.
Paste: Why don’t we talk about what you’ve got next. Talk about anything you can about what you’re writing, or as an actor for that matter. What’s on the horizon?
DuVall: I’m working on something now as an actor. There are two things that I’m writing now that are very different from each other and different from the movie that I made. I’m really interested in telling timely stories and representing the underrepresented and moving forward—pushing the envelope and going deeper in the stories that I wanna tell. But I don’t know, it’s hard. I haven’t perfected my loglines on the two scripts that I’m writing yet. The loglines are very bad. As you can tell by my answers, I’m not very good at abbreviating things.
Paste: (Laughs) Well, great. Thanks for spending some time with us.
Duvall: Thank you so much.