Director Charlie McDowell certainly can’t be accused of taking the easy path for his first feature, The One I Love. It’s a small, intimate film in which two actors take up virtually all of the screen time. It was shot on a tiny budget. And, most challenging of all, the plot revolves around some elements that really shouldn’t be discussed with anyone who hasn’t seen the film.
Of course, he also had two big things going for him—Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss.
“In terms of kind of piecing together these characters, we were really fortunate,” McDowell remembers. He and Justin Lader, his writing partner, had already gotten in contact with Mark Duplass about the possibility of shooting a low-budget indie, something that Mark and his brother Jay have become legends at doing, from The Puffy Chair forward. “We were really excited to have that opportunity,” McDowell says. “We developed it with him, and we knew that he was going to be our lead male character so we could write it specifically for him.”
As for Moss, she came to the project through a film that’s turning out to be a sort of Kevin-Bacon-game of sorts in the indie film world. Collin Trevorrow’s speculative, thoughtful, funny 2012 film Safety Not Guaranteed starred Duplass and Aubrey Plaza. It was during its festival run that Trevorrow introduced his friends Megan Griffiths and Emily Wachtel, who would go on to make this year’s Lucky Them together. Saftey Not Guaranteed turned out to play a big role in the development of The One I Love, too—it was after seeing Safety that Elisabeth Moss texted Duplass to tell him she’d love to do that kind of film with him one day.
“Yeah, we were friends,” Moss remembers, “and we had worked a couple of years ago on a movie, but we didn’t have any scenes together. Then I saw his movie Safety Not Guaranteed and I basically stalked him and took advantage of the fact that I had his phone number. I texted him and was like, ‘Can we work together?’ That usually never pans out. Usually you don’t actually make a movie from that text. But a few months after that he was like, ‘I have something,’ and he sent me this treatment. And I fell in love with it and said yes immediately. I met Charlie and loved him. Six months later we made a movie.”
“It’s funny,” Duplass quips, “I text Steven Soderbergh all the time, and he just never texts me back.”
Duplass brought Moss’ name to McDowell, who was enthusiastic from the beginning. “He had just sent me a screener of Top of the Lake, which was about to come out,” McDowell remembers. “I just freaked out over it. And I had loved all of her previous work too.”
“Yeah, I had a little meeting with Charlie,” says Duplass, “who was having some frustrations about getting a larger movie he wanted to make off the ground. As we all know, film financing is tough when you’re trying to get more than $25 to make your movie. So he expressed a desire to come with me and make one of my little rom-com movies. So I brought him just the tiniest germ of an idea, that being the kind of core mystery of this film. With that he and the writer Justin fleshed out sort of a 10-page outline. We started talking about who could play Sophie in this movie. Who could do the rom-com thing by being sort of funny and charming but could also be dark and mysterious and strange? And I immediately thought of Lizzie and they loved the idea. So we sent it to her and she said yes immediately, to our surprise.”
For a movie like The One I Love, where it’s important that the viewer not know too much about the story going in, it was especially important to have just that right fit for the two leads. “Besides the fact that I love both of their work and they’re both really talented and great actors,” says McDowell, “it was also just looking at who these characters were and ultimately what I wanted people to take away from the movie, which is a real character relationship piece that should feel like real life. You should make the connections from your own life and your own relationships, and kind of apply that to the movie. I wanted it to be people we felt like we could know and understand, and I think that both of those actors have that quality to them.”
“They don’t feel like they want to be famous or to be actors,” he continues. “They feel like they are real people, and they feel like they are a real couple. That was really important to me, that we got that across. It sorta naturally fell into my lap in terms of having the ability to have Elisabeth Moss text message Mark Duplass like, ‘Hey, I want to do something big,’ and she was in it. They both read our script, and they both saw the challenges in the characters. Both were like, ‘We want to do this. We want to play something we haven’t played before, and we really want to push the envelope.’”
It must be nice to be in a position where people like Elisabeth Moss text you out of the blue and propose projects. “I know,” McDowell says, “can you imagine? I hope that happens to me some day too. It’s such a funny little world that the Duplass brothers are in, but it actually exists. I know that multiple other people do that with them, and it’s cool because it’s such a testament to what they’re doing. They really are these mavericks in independent filmmaking. They have created a business model. They have created a way to make movies, and it’s not just their own—it’s the fact that they put trust into up-and-coming voices. People see that, and they want to do it. Ultimately, with how movies are made now, you can do your Marvel movie, but then you’ve got to go and do a character piece. You’ve got to do something for the love of characters and of movies. I think we’re starting to see a lot of actors shift in that way. They’ll go get their paycheck from making a big studio movie, and then it’s like, ‘Okay, we’ll give you two weeks, and then we’ll do it for nothing.’ I think it’s starting to happen more and more, which makes it exciting for us up-and-coming filmmakers, because you can potentially get really smart and interesting actors to play in your movie, as long as they’re connecting to these characters and stories.”
Doing a film as unusual as this one for a first-time director can be daunting, and having Duplass, a seasoned vet, on set is a smart move. But McDowell says he never really had to call on him for directorial advice while shooting. “You know, it was nice because he was like a safety net that I didn’t have to use,” he says with a laugh. “I think that he felt that way too. He believed in me and felt like it was going to work and that, if it didn’t, he would step in and make sure the movie worked. He saw that I did the work, and that I somewhat knew what I was talking about. I gave semi-good direction. Whatever it was, both actors trusted me from the beginning even though it was my first movie. There never was a moment when he stepped in like, ‘I know best, so you have to do it like this.’ He was more like, ‘This is your movie. I’m also a producer, so I will help by putting that hat on, but I’m your actor, so let’s play. Let’s go for it.’”
Because of the film’s subject matter, a visual vocabulary was also going to be crucial to creating the world the characters inhabit. “For me, on the visual side, it was about bringing my own style,” McDowell says. “I wanted the film to be cinematic and look visually pleasing and tasteful even though we were playing in a small-budget arena. I didn’t want it to feel sloppy in any way, so I pitched my visual ideas to Mark and gave him references I thought the movie could play to. The references were in the sorta Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze world, and he was like, ‘Yeah, let’s take this model that I have sort of mastered and take it as far as we can go.’ That was really exciting for me because I didn’t want to do something that was safe. I didn’t want to do something that we feel like we’ve seen a million times before in the independent world because of the restrictions to budget and all of these things. It was like, ‘Let’s go for it. If we fail, we went down swinging.’ That was exciting. For me, I had to do my homework. I had to make sure that I had everything figured out as far as production because we only had two weeks to shoot it. Once we got on set, we were like, ‘Alright, we’re ready. Let’s shoot this thing.’”
Acting in a movie with a few fantastical twists can present some unique challenges as well. It begins with a decision—do I play this character differently given the subject matter, or do I play it straight? The job was very similar in trying to keep the relationship grounded,” says Duplass. “There are a lot of elements in this movie that are just flying around in the air like crazy. So most of my job was just to keep my feet on the ground and stay very connected to Lizzie. As people will see, when they see the film, there are enough challenges in playing these roles we took on without having to think about all the other crazy shit going on in the movie.”
“I think it was definitely both,” agrees Moss. “It’s definitely a combination of the two. You know, I wanted whatever was magical or unusual, I didn’t think anyone would believe it or go with it if it wasn’t real, if you couldn’t believe this was happening to a real person. So it was very important for me to make the character as real as possible. But then again, we all had a huge say in the scenes; it was a very collaborative effort. I had more say than I am used to in that way as well. You wore your acting hat mainly. That was your main job. But if someone needed a new line, you helped work on that. And if someone wanted to know where you wanted to stand then you had to think of where you wanted to stand. And if you needed to move a c-stand, then you moved a c-stand. It was a very collaborative effort in that way.”
“And in that way,” adds Duplass, “we did turn Lizzie Moss into a grip.” Moss laughs: “Let me tell you, I can really break down a lighting setup, my friend.”
Another challenge in making the film was that, for all its fantastical premise, it’s a film whose drama basically hinges on the audience buying into a relationship and whether that relationship should continue. “We really developed the DNA of the relationships between those people,” McDowell says, “through all of the creative people involved. Me, Justin, Mark, Lizzy, we had these discussions before every scene. We had multiple discussions before we even started making the movie about who these people were and where they were at in their relationship, what the stakes were, and what all of that meant. What came out of it is, we wanted people to root for the couple, but we also propose the question of whether or not they’re supposed to be together. Maybe they shouldn’t be together. Maybe it’s run its course. I don’t like when movies feel so black and white, and they are basically saying, ‘Okay, you need to have this neatly packaged in a box because that’s what cinema tells you you have to do.’ For us, we wanted to make a movie that felt like real life, which is like, sometimes you connect one minute, then the next moment you don’t, then you go right back to connecting, then you might disconnect again. It’s messy. It’s completely messy. We really wanted to hit on that and explore that. I don’t know if we had answers to all the questions, but we wanted to propose the questions.”
“When we started talking,” agrees Moss, “and started having our meetings and discussions about our characters, we weren’t talking about the magical realism or the unusual elements of the film that we’re trying not to spoil. We were talking about relationships, we talked about couples, we talked about each other. We talked about men and women and partners. We talked about very real and everyday things. And that was what we had to focus on developing because I think earlier I certainly felt that if you didn’t believe this was a real couple, if you didn’t want to follow them, if you didn’t want to see what happened to them, then nobody’s going to give a shit about what happens 15 minutes into the movie. So I think for us it was very much about working on these people and making them real.”
“And I think part of what was interesting to us,” Duplass adds, “was designing a couple that not only did they feel the relationship could go one way or the other, but that we felt that Ethan and Sophie are 50/50 whether they should stay together or whether they should break up. And that was interesting because I find that most of the conversations I have with couples I know are about, plus or minus, they go like this, ‘I don’t know, it used to be so good, and maybe we can get that back, but maybe that’s just who we were back then. Maybe I should just find somebody else. Am I not working hard enough? Should I have to work this hard in the first place?’ That is the consistent thing I hear about relationships, and it is everything I felt up until Katie [Aselton] and I got married. The core of it was approaching the couple, not knowing whether they should be together and allowing that to be a bit of a point of discovery in the filming process.”
Speaking of relationships, there was one that must have been at least a bit loaded on set. Charlie McDowell is, of course, the son of Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen. Which makes him the stepson of Ted Danson…who happens to play the marriage counselor that Duplass and Moss’ characters seek help from. Surely there must have been a little bit of revenge McDowell exacted for some half-forgotten slight from growing up?
“You know what?” McDowell says with a chuckle. “My step-dad is the nicest human being on the face of the planet, so I have zero pent-up anger or whatever. I’m sorry, but he’s just so damn nice. There’s no way around it. No, it was fun. It was really fun. For me, it was our last day of shooting, and we did it in one day with him. We held this sort of real therapy session. I was dialed in, and we had been shooting for a while. I came on set, and my parents hadn’t visited the set before, so they came into a situation where we all knew each other, and we all had a shorthand. I think Ted was a little terrified because he was like, ‘Wait, what am I supposed to be doing? I have no idea.’ It was fun. We just kind of played.”
Not that Danson didn’t bring a little bit of different energy to the set with him. “I can remember that he did something,” McDowell says, “not in the movie, it was behind the scenes, but he said something to Mark that made our camera op laugh so hard that he had to put down the camera and say ‘Cut’ himself. He was like, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do it. I just can’t do it.’ It was amazing. Ted just has that quality. He is so charming and hilarious. It was fun. It definitely is one of those experiences where you feel like you’re growing up, and all of the sudden you’re playing in the same business as your parents are. Being able to direct one of them was really cool.”
It was a baptism by fire into the world of directing, to be sure, but grizzled veterans Moss and Duplass see a lot of potential in young rookie McDowell. “For me,” says Moss, “one of the biggest strengths a director can bring to the table is the ability to understand that you maybe don’t know everything and you don’t have all the answers. And I think it takes, in life, a confident person to admit they don’t know everything. And I think as a director, you know I’ve worked with people that have done it for 30 years and still haven’t managed to admit that they don’t know all the answers. I learned that from Jane Campion, who was amazing at being like, ‘You know what let’s work it out, let’s try it, let’s do this. We’ll figure it out together.’ That’s the mark for me of a really confident director, and Charlie had that from the beginning. I was very pleasantly surprised by that. I knew that he was a smart person, I knew that he had good taste, but that element of his directing skills I was really pleasantly surprised by.”
“I agree 100 percent,” says Duplass. “That makes all the difference in the world for me in a first-timer. If they put up bold confidence and try and give quick answers—because that’s what people want, they want quick answers. And if they resent that in order to take the time to find the truth and admit they don’t know, then usually you’re in good hands.”