According to the book of Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun. This sentiment seems especially accurate when one considers the typical Hollywood romantic drama. Two people fall in love, but seem destined to fall apart. Many filmmakers accept that this formula works, but few aspire to complicate the form, to create something at least with a tinge of newness under the sun. Drake Doremus is one of those few. He works from outlines rather than scripts, thus inspiring bold and unbelievably natural performances from the actors in his films. Like Crazy moved audiences everywhere and was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011. Two years later, Doremus has re-teamed with Felicity Jones for another inspired love story, though Breathe In (also starring Guy Pearce) plays more like a thriller than a romantic drama at times. Pearce plays a talented but unstimulated high school music teacher who falls for the British exchange student and musician living with his family. Paste caught up with Doremus to talk about themes of culture, class and villainy in Breathe In, as well as his upcoming project with Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult.
Paste: Is it true that you taught high school for a little while?
Doremus: Yeah, I taught film for one semester at the Orange County performing arts high school.This was before Like Crazy, before everything. It was an awesome experience, so I do know a little bit about being a teacher.
Paste: Even though it was just for one semester, were you able to draw on any of those experiences for your character Keith?
Doremus: Yes, a little bit. I can definitely relate to the feeling of using your passion and your trade to teach others. You’re indirectly doing what you want to do, but you’re not fully doing it, so I can relate to Keith’s character in that way.
Paste: Watching Breathe In, I couldn’t help but compare the two young women—Sophie and Lauren—in a similar manner to how I did with Anna and Sam in Like Crazy. There were a few scenes that felt like a critique of American culture, maybe even American women. I didn’t take offense at all—I loved it! But Sophie is this interesting, talented girl with a complicated, somewhat tragic upbringing. And Lauren is this blonde, somewhat spoiled, all-American type. And then there are the older American women, the wives—Megan and her friend. I love that moment when the family goes to visit the friend; she’s got this gorgeous home, and we see her explaining how she changed the color in her living room to a marine blue. Can you talk a little about the women of the film and how culture and social class might work into their representation?
Doremus: No one’s ever brought that up before but yes, we definitely wanted to examine that world and those women, to draw the conclusion that Sophie is sort of the exact opposite of them in a way. And we wanted to see what happens when you throw all of those pieces together, to see what that creates and what kind of volcano would essentially erupt.
Ben York Jones, my wonderful co-writer, spent so much time in upstate New York surrounded by a lot of people who were having pool parties like that, so it’s an interesting examination of a world.
Paste: I wanted to talk a bit about the part of the movie where Keith and Sophie go to the clearing in the woods. It reminded me of one of my favorite scenes from Terrence Malick’s The New World, where Captain Smith was in the woods with Pocahontas. They’re sort of communicating, but language is a barrier so it’s very quiet, and intense, and really beautiful. How much of the scene was written for your outline and how much was improvised?
Doremus: Wow, that is an amazing comparison!
Paste: Well, that’s how I saw it.
Doremus: That means the world to me. Specifically, there was a bit of information we needed to get out of that scene, but for the most part, we just really wanted to explore it organically and let them sort of play and find the moment. A thing like that, you start hitting it on the head and it can get too intense or even cheesy. So we really wanted to try to combat that instinct and just let it unravel in a natural sense. We just spent the entire day there in the bushes trying to hide to make it seem like they were on their own.
Paste: In terms of the dynamic between Guy Pearce and Felicity Jones, was there anything about the two of them together that surprised you?
Doremus: They were both constantly professional, and they each approached it from a very different way. Guy had never improvised before, so this was a completely foreign thing to him, but I’d worked with Felicity before so she knew the process very well. Those two elements really created a very interesting chemistry between the two of them because there was this push/pull struggle that was going on between them in the film, and some of that is going on underneath the surface. It was exciting to watch Guy feel liberated over the course of shooting, and find the freedom to immerse himself in the character of Keith.
Paste: He’s so great to watch. I think the first thing I ever saw him in was Memento, and that movie had a huge impact on me when I was a teenager.
Doremus: Yeah, me too. I’ve been such a big fan of his. You almost don’t recognize him in everything that he does because he’s such an incredibly diverse actor.
Paste: Yes. Speaking of Memento, Breathe In almost feels like a thriller at times. And I also noticed that everyone is a villain at some point, and then there are no villains. I first found myself siding with Keith as an artist, and then I was siding with his wife, and I didn’t want the affair to happen, and by the end of it I was siding with Felicity Jones’s character.
Doremus: That is exactly the intention. Everybody’s a villain, and there are no villains. Really, at the end of the day, it’s just like with real-life relationships. Everything is gray or shades of gray, nothing is black and white. It goes back and forth, and there really are no bad guys. Or, the bad guy is love.
Paste: By the end of it, when we see the opening scene again, but with a new understanding of what we’re really seeing, I found myself wondering if this structure of the nuclear family was the villain. Do you see the film as a critique on our understanding of traditional, suburban family life?
Doremus: Absolutely. I definitely struggle with the concept of it and the idea of relationships. It’s tough! You fall in love with somebody and you spend years together, and then all of a sudden you lose track of it. But it’s not bad; it’s just gray. And it’s difficult, where you find yourself sometimes. But I think it’s tricky to say there is a right or wrong way to live your life. Or there is a right or wrong way to love or have relationships. So I think I am questioning that.
Paste: Your next movie will be Equals, with Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult. And from what I understand, there is a more traditional script with actual dialogue for this, as it’s based on Orwell’s 1984. Can you talk a little bit about how this will be different from your other projects?
Doremus: I came up with this idea about a year and a half ago, and I was lucky enough to meet Nathan Parker, this incredible writer who wrote Moon. We hit it off, and he started writing the project for me, and we’ve been developing it since. It was exciting doing the last two movies, but I thought it was time to challenge myself to do a totally different kind of hybrid. So I’m working with a traditional script, and from that I’m going to weave my way in and out of spontaneity at times. But for the most part, it will be a traditional thing. So I’m excited to do something different this time.
Paste: Are you still in the writing process?
Doremus: We’re in prep and we’re going to start shooting later this year.
Paste: Well, if it didn’t show, I loved the film. Thanks for speaking with us.
Doremus: Thank you so much.
Shannon M. Houston is a New York-based freelance writer, regular contributor to Paste, and occasional contributor to the human race via little squishy babies. You can follow her on Twitter.