Drake Doremus, the easygoing guy behind “Like Crazy” (on DVD and Blu-ray today) recently told Indiewire that he’s “living the dream.” No wonder. Doremus came to last year’s Sundance Film Festival as a man known to few for his low-budget comedy “Douchebag.” He left Park City as an indie powerhouse, after his follow-up, “Like Crazy” netted two awards (Grand Jury Prize and Best Actress), along with the hottest deal of the festival (Paramount Vantage bought U.S. rights for a hefty $4 million).
His semi-autobiographical and fully improvised love story — starring Felicity Jones (“The Tempest”) and Anton Yelchin (“The Beaver”) as a young couple coping with the challenges of a long distance relationship — has since gone on to charm moviegoers and critics since opening theatrically last summer. That’s resulted in “Like Crazy” picking up more accolades along the way, including a Gotham Breakthrough Award for Jones’ heartbreaking performance.
In light of his film’s release on disc, Indiewire caught up with Doremus to talk about his whirlwind breakout year and his improvisational approach to filmmaking.
2011 was quite the whirlwind for you. How would you characterize your ride on your own terms?
It’s sort of a blur; a crazy 2011. During all that was happening with “Like Crazy,” I went into production on my next movie during the summer.
I just feel so fortunate and lucky for the opportunities I’ve had. The whole thing is magical, it’s a dream come true. I’m living the dream, man.
Those familiar with the snark of “Douchebag” were no doubt a bit surprised by the mainstream accessibility of “Like Crazy.” Was “Like Crazy” a conscious attempt on your part to reach a broader audience?
I think so. I also think it’s just me maturing and growing more than anything. In my previous films, there’s a younger person, I feel like. With “Like Crazy,” I was thinking of more mature subject matter and what it felt like to grow up. The movie reflects that. I think that surprised people.
You’ve been very open about the fact that the film’s based on a similar experience you went through. How close is “Like Crazy” to you?
The emotional things that I was going through and the feelings that I had about long distance relationships are really there in the film. That was something I really wanted to get right. As far the characters are concerned, it’s their story. Hopefully what the audience takes away from watching the film is something that I was feeling as well.
Given the emotional subject matter, was it tough one to pen?
Absolutely. I knew I was doing something right because I was crying every day over the course of writing, shooting and editing. If I didn’t feel emotional, I’d think I’d know if I was on the wrong track. Thankfully, I was extremely emotional. But it was difficult and really hard to go through that year in my life.
What was it like revisiting it with the cast?
It was really magical. Everyone really breathed life into it again and took it to a special place, beyond what I wanted. It was incredible to have that happen.
Did the film take a toll on you?
It really just made me grateful to have had love in my life. Before, I was maybe frustrated or sad about things. Over the course of making this film, I came to realize how grateful I am to have had that experience.
Nothing like a good catharsis.
You work in a way most writers/directors don’t, by having your cast improvise all of their lines on the spot with just a framework of a story to work with. What inspired you to use this process in your work?
It really came from growing up in the improv world. My mother was a founding member of the Groundlings here in LA. I grew up performing, writing and directing from very little. Then I started plays and then I started making movies. I did this hybrid thing, because improv is in my blood. I’d get these amazing really genuine performances by not caring about hitting mark or getting lines, but just focusing on the objective of the scene. I experimented at that for a while.
“Douchebag” was really educational for me. I really fell in love with the style and “Like Crazy” kind of solidified that.
When people associate improv and film, comedies likely spring to mind before dramas. Do you feel like you’re spearheading a new movement?
Sure. I know Mark and Jay do it a little here and there. I’m not really trying to spearhead anything. I’m just trying to be myself and do my own thing. But yeah, it’s cool to be a part of something that’s different and unique.
What do you think this technique brings to a film?
Our goal is to bring truth. I think the form does that for the most part. It gets rid of anything that feels false. Audiences are so smart. I just want the audience to feel like they’re watching something true and genuine. Hopefully it affects people on a different level, on a more human level.
How do you gage that truthfulness on set with your actors?
Well, it’s definitely not a science, I’ll tell you that. You just have to rely on instincts more than anything. If I don’t feel it, then we do it again. The most important thing is to create an environment where the actors feel they can fail. If they don’t feel comfortable, they’re going to be worried about failing. It’s OK to fail and it’s OK for us to experiment and explore till it feels right.
I like to thing of it as a playground where we explore characters and their relationships.
To get that going, do you hold rehearsals prior to getting on set?
We do a tremendous amount of rehearsals. The rehearsals are usually based in conversations. We talk about the scenes, the characters. We don’t run the scenes too much to the point where we feel like we’ve figured it out. It’s got to remain free and open.
What do your scripts actually look like?
Well it actually doesn’t look that different from a normal script with the exception that there’s no dialogue, there’s just action. Within those action brackets, there’s a lot of subtext, a lot of back-story. So it kind of reads like a short story.
They run about 50 to 80 pages. They’re getting longer and more detailed as I go along.
Is this a creative process you see yourself constantly revisiting in future work?
You know, I don’t know. I hate to say that, because I don’t want to limit myself. I’d love to try to make a film that’s more scripted. The writing process for me is the most frustrating; it’s definitely not my strong suit. But I’m up for anything. If the right studio project came along, I’d be interested in doing it. The problem is it’s hard to find the right one.
As long as I’m hungry, I’ll keep doing it.
On that note, you made the untitled project you just wrapped the same way according to reports. What can you tell me about it?
It’s sort of like “Like Crazy” in many ways. Felicity plays a British student who comes to stay with a family in Upstate New York and it’s this sort of friendship/love story that develops between Guy Pearce and Felicity Jones, over the course of a semester. It’s all about how these characters deal with their feelings. It’s an emotional film as well.
How did this cast deal with your process? I’m guessing they’re not accustomed to working like this.
They were just so great. Everyone was so gentle and so open, which is surprising. They just really embraced it. They loved “Like Crazy” and understood how it went from an outline to a finished product. They really believed in the process and gave themselves over to me. I’m really proud of their performances.
Is it fair to say Felicity is your Leonardo DiCaprio, your Robert De Niro?
It’s like she’s born to be in my movies. She is the quintessential piece of this style of filmmaking. She is this style of filmmaking.
I would love for her to work with some other directors. I feel like I’m hogging too much of her time.