“Sh*t gets really messy when it gets real.” That statement can be applied to pretty much anything in the world … but in this context, actress, writer and director Lake Bell is talking about marriage. “When it does, you have a choice to do the work and stick with it, and I think that’s a very brave path,” Bell told Paste when we spoke with her about her new film, I Do … Until I Don’t.
That’s pretty much the story of this flick in a nutshell: finding the strength to work through the tough times of a marriage when all these outside forces—including a documentary filmmaker—are encouraging you to bail.
“If you’re in a vortex and were married and focused solely on that person, then marriage wouldn’t be as hard,” Bell, who wrote, starred in and directed the movie, told Paste. “But nowadays there are so many distractions from apps and advertisements and media peppered all over the place that it becomes really hard to stay focused. So you have to work even harder.”
Bell has been happily married for four years, but when she started writing this movie she was single and cynical. Which is made obvious within the first five minutes of this movie about three couples (Bell’s husband is played by Ed Helms, and the other couples are played by Amber Heard and Wyatt Cenac, and Paul Reiser and Mary Steenburgen) in different stages of disarray exposing their relationships for a documentary filmmaker named Vivian who thinks the tradition of marriage is outdated. In fact, Vivian (played by Dolly Wells) is proposing a “seven-year contract with an option to renew” instead of “till death do us part.”
“Any time I write something, it’s deeply personal,” Bell admits. “This [script] is particularly sensitive and intimate given that it’s about relationships and commitment. When I first started writing this, I came from a pretty jaded and cynical place. I was investigating out of need in a therapeutic way; I was really curious to unpack what it means to be with someone in a committed relationship.” Bell’s curiosity can be credited to the divorce she was surrounded by as a child. “I’d seen so much divorce—I’d been part of divorce as a kid. And my friends and family. It seemed so normal that you would be either separated or divorced. And that we were all doomed.”
The end product is a surprisingly witty and heartwarming tale about coming and working together. You can thank Scott Campbell for that smile spreading across your face as the final credits roll. “Really I was very lucky that while I was writing this, I met Scott, my husband; he has taught me so much about relationships and commitment and the bravery it takes to not bail when things get rough. That is at the end of the day how we effectively evolve,” Bell says. She’s learned, through making this movie and her relationship, that your world expands when you get married—contrary to what many, including the film’s driving force Vivian, believe. “People often say, when you get married, everything ends, that your world gets so small, you can’t do anything or go anywhere,” she says. “Tig Notaro recently said to me, ‘I think my world expanded when I got married, because it’s like, now you found your partner in the world. And you get to go and live now. So now you get to do all the stuff.’” Bell agrees with her. “I think your world gets bigger and the best advice when it comes to marriage, is that it’s really important not to lose yourself. It’s a privilege to be able to continue to take care of yourself. You take care of your brain and your body, just as much as your partner will do the same.” If that means therapy, that’s more than okay—Bell calls it “respectful maintenance.” “And that’s where you can meet eye to eye and you can walk through life together. You don’t become one … that’s totally unsustainable, and that’s not why you fell in love with each other, Bell continues. “You fell in love with each other because of who you are, that’s what he loves or she loves, and vice versa.”
It’s safe to say you’ll learn a little something about the How to Make it in America actress from watching these relatable scenes unfold. “I feel like the movie at large, the overarching feeling of the movie, is my own personal path,” she says, referencing her journey to learning that marriage can have a happy ending. “The feeling that you have in the movie, where you start in that jaded place and then you are convinced and massaged into this feeling of, ‘wait a minute, all of a sudden I’m super happy and I want to kiss my husband!’ It starts from a place of, ‘oh, we’re doomed,’ and that’s where I started this investigation.”
One thing about Bell that’s made clear in the movie is that she knows a “healthy” marriage is not all about rainbows and unicorns, and that’s something she’s going to instill in her children. “I think the only way to teach something is by example, and it’s just really important that as parents, we be in a healthy relationship to show our children what a healthy relationship is.” To the couple, this means, “being good communicators, trying to continue to nurture ourselves as artists and people, and evolving, and showing that, yes you can argue, and that’s okay, as long as you treat each other with respect and you move forward.” Their two children, Ozzy and Nova, never have to worry about overhearing hushed arguments through the walls—“we don’t try to hide altercations from them or anything,” Bell shares. “Obviously in a marriage, you’re going to have moments and things that are beautiful and amazing, and then there are testier moments when you have to work things out. That’s all part of it.”
The filmmaker thinks of her second movie—the first movie she wrote, directed and starred in being In A World—as “Chapter 1.” “I have a lot to say on it,” she says. “I learn something every day from my relationship and now with kids. It’s a long haul to be married to someone, so I’m excited to take on all the chapters it provides.”
Of course, now we’re all wondering what Chapter 2 will be about. The obvious choice would be parenting, since she had both her children while writing I Do … Until I Don’t. But, don’t bet on Bell to go the easy route. “The next movies that I have cued up in my brain, they don’t span the kid stuff yet. I feel like I need to put in some years before I come at the kid stuff. But obviously I think one day that will be naturally a place I go,” she says. “I have a couple of projects that I’m nurturing before I delve into that.”
And she’s not only subtly making statements on—and behind—the camera. Bell’s an active board member of Women in Film, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote advocacy and special programs to support the success of female peers in the entertainment industry. The way women are treated in Hollywood is a hot topic these days, but Bell thinks it’s getting better. “I feel like we are on a good path, but there’s still a lot of work to do,” she says. Bell makes a point of giving props to one particular summer blockbuster. “It needs to be said, and it has been said, that Wonder Woman was a massive beautiful big stride in the right direction. I’m hoping that, and I believe and trust that every year we’ll get a little bit better. We’re just slow moving.”
But she believes the solution is much simpler, and even plays into the sexist hand many think Hollywood offers.
“In this town and industry, money talks. So I’ve always been confused that there aren’t more projects skewed for the female demographic, because it’s just good money. It’s good business,” she argues. “Women in the household are making the majority of the decisions in planning things for the family, planning the weekend. That’s maybe stereotypical, but I think women enjoy doing that. So why don’t we just market movies to the people who are planning most of the activities?”
During such a turbulent time, sexism in the entertainment industry is one of the many concerns facing Americans. And while I Do … Until I Don’t has no obvious political agenda, there’s a purpose to the movie built into that. “I feel that in this day and age, we are surrounded by so much anxiety and angst and tension in the air and in the world and in this country,” Bell begins. “I feel so proud of this movie that I can finally share it with people in a time when it can probably offer some respite to the darkness,” she continues.
“I’ve always set out to put things in the world that have a little hope or a kind spirit. And that couldn’t be more important to me right now. The movie has the intention to unabashedly make you feel good at the end of the day, and to make you laugh. It’s really just quite purely that.”
I Do … Until I Don’t opens in select theaters Sept. 1.