Filmmaker Drake Doremus is the last guy you’d expect to build an entire movie around the concept of a world without love and emotion — after all, Doremus is a self-professed love obsessive, and his last two films (“Like Crazy” and “Breathe In”) have been consumed by the power of love in its many forms — but that’s exactly what he sought to explore in his newest feature, “Equals.” Set in a future-ish world where emotion and love have been forcibly stamped out in order to provide a stable environment for a very productive society, “Equals” is just as preoccupied with love as Doremus’ earlier films, though it’s certainly a departure for the filmmaker.
The film stars Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart as co-workers who discover that they’re both suffering from S.O.S. — “Switched On Syndrome,” an unlocking of emotions that is essentially the kiss of death in their rigid society — who risk everything to be together. A mix of “Romeo and Juliet” and “Brave New World,” the film (which was written by Nathan Parker, who previously penned “Moon”) may look different than the lo-fi charms of his other work, but it’s pure Doremus, through and through.
Doremus sat down with Indiewire to discuss his first foray into the world of sci-fi cinema, his obsession with love and why working with former child actors Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult is so special.
This film is very different than your previous films, how long had you been wanting to branch out into something so stylistically new?
I tried to do something different, really try to grow and expand and do something scary. It seems scary to me to a movie with 600 visual effects shots. It seems scary to me to do a movie that had a grand scale to me. So going in, it seemed difficult to pull off, but at the time it was still very me and very attainable. It was the right balance of trying to grow and do something different, but also not stray from what I’m interested in. What I’m interested in is so specific that it’s hard to find material that I don’t generate or develop. It just doesn’t exist. I’ve tried so hard to find something that’s already like the movie because then I could save a year and a half of my life developing it. I just haven’t found it yet, but I’m dying to do that. I loved working with Nathan on this, because I work more from an outline, so to work more from a script is really different and cool.
You typically work from an outline, and this was much more scripted. How did that process work for you?
I kind of had a loose idea about a world in which love didn’t exist anymore and the emotions stuff came later. It was really about, what if we devolve away from needing to love one another? Where the thing that keeps us going and the thing that matters the most is gone and it’s not necessary for the progress and harmony of humanity. Would it always find a way? Would it always just get through? That was the kernel, it was a grand, epic Sydney Pollack, Anthony Minghella idea to me, my version of that. With that said, I needed someone who could bring an intellectual side to it. Nathan and I are totally different, which is great, Nathan’s all up here [gestures to head] and I’m here [gestures to heart], it’s an interesting combination.
There’s not a lot of exposition in the film about how the world has come to be without love and emotion, yet you get the rules of it very quickly. Was there ever an earlier version of the script that had more backstory?
No, there wasn’t. We talked a lot about it, and we didn’t want to focus on that because it would seem like a political statement or a statement about religion or all the things that create chaos in our world. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to focus on a very ethereal, dream-like relationship that felt like falling in love. It was that simple. All the other intricacies were put in, but all the backstory was always very light.
While the community in the film has abandoned emotion, they’re also compelled to explore the universe through space travel. It seems like they’re going out because they’re rejecting the internal so much.
Exactly. The idea of trying to understand where we came from and why we’re here in the cosmos. Nick says in the film “it’s all right here.” It’s so simple and there’s something very zen and natural in living your life so simply and understanding that. I love space and I’m super interested in astronomy. It’s so magical to me. Just that visual component was cool to work with, but at the end of the day, it was just asking the question, “why are we here?” and “what’s our purpose in life?” The statement is to love as much as you can.
While this film is a departure for you, it is still preoccupied with love, much like “Like Crazy” and “Breathe In.”
“Like Crazy” was about reflecting on your past and not being able to let go of your past. “Breathe In” is about confronting the present and not being able to escape the present. This is about reflecting on “what if?” and the future. For me, it’s easy to bracket it that way. Obviously, it’s [love] an obsession and it’s what I want to watch. It’s what makes me feel. It’s what’s inside of me. It’s not on purpose, but I guess I’m just destined to make movies for women. [Laughs] Maybe there’s a 19 year old girl inside me desperate to get out.
There’s nothing wrong with that!
I’m just obsessed with all things romantic, and I think love is the great drug in life. To me, watching great love stories is like doing drugs. Sitting in a movie theater and crying for 20 minutes and not getting out of my seat till the lights come up, trying to pretend I’m flying — I live for that and that’s what I’m trying to do. Yesterday, I walked in and sat in the thirtieth row and this trio of young girls was sitting behind me and they couldn’t breathe and they were heaving and crying. I’m getting emotional now just thinking about it! It just hit me like the last three years of my life led up to that moment and it happened. It really hit home and it was really special.
There are a lot of sci-fi and apocalyptic fiction references in the film, how many of those were on purpose and studied?
To be honest, I’m not that well-versed in the genre. Anyone who sees it as derivative in any sense — maybe from Nathan’s perspective there are elements of that — but for me, I’m not very well-versed in the genre. Obviously there are influences in the film, but I’m not a sci-fi guy or a futuristic guy. Maybe that’s why I don’t see the movie as a futuristic or sci-fi film.
To me, I see it as a current relationship piece, framed inside of this very specific world and tone. For me, Truffaut’s “Fahrenheit-451” is an absolute influence. But Ridley [Scott]’s movies, and getting a chance to work with Ridley and his guys, was awesome. To me, “Blade Runner” was an influence in a magical, ethereal way. I just let that movie wash over me. I don’t think, I feel it. That’s what I wanted to do. With Truffaut’s film, there’s the order and the photography and the cinematography and all those filmmaking elements are so amazing. You watch that movie today and it feels current. It feels like the 60s a little bit, but it feels like it could have been made at any point in time. I wanted to make a film that 20 years from now, you could watch it and there would be no reference to 2015. It just existed.
The film has a good sense of humor about itself, there are lots of laughs when S.O.S. is being talked about as some horrible medical condition. Where did that come from?
Nathan is really funny, and I’m very goofy. I’m not very serious, but my movies are because that’s what’s in me. Any chance to put that in [I take], since I got started in the comedy world, like the joke in the bathroom where [David Selby] sees Silas and says, “have you thought about killing yourself?” With a movie this emotional and this serious, you have to have moments of levity to keep it buoyant. Bel Powley is so funny in the movie, I love her.
That’s funny that you mention Bel, because she really does stand out. You obviously have two fantastic leads, but you also have Kate Lyn Sheil and Bel. How did you decide to cast them?
We had such a great supporting cast. I got tapes of reads from all over the world. Tom Stokes, who plays Dominic, he’s from Australia. In the script, Nathan describes him as “an Equal equivalent to a blowhard.” See, there were lots of funny things in the script. I was fortunate to get all kinds of tapes from all over the world and pick the people that moved me. As soon as I saw Bel, I had no idea who she was, I thought, “this girl has to be in the movie! She’s amazing!” I had seen Kate in “House of Cards” and she’d done a lot of cool indies. She’s also amazing.
She has such a unique presence and grace, you just can’t teach that.
It’s unique and she’s effortless. There’s no trying going on there. It’s important to have the suspenseful aspects in there as well as the comedic aspects. Guy [Pearce], I had worked with before. Jacki [Weaver] is a dream come true.
When it comes to Kristen, there’s a certain level of baggage when you cast her in a movie, based on how some people perceive her in the media. I think critically, people are coming around, though.
I’m so impressed by her choices of work in the last year and a half and so proud of her. She’s doing Woody’s movie right now and she’s so smart.
She’s always doing different projects and films, and you can tell she does them because she cares about them.
There’s a reason why Ang Lee and Woody Allen want to work with her and why she charms them. What’s great about Kristen to me is she’s a perfect mix of valuable to the business people but also the perfect collaborator to work with. Oftentimes you get someone who is great financially, but they’re a pain in the ass, or they’re amazing, but you can’t use them. There are very few, select people in their twenties who are both, and she’s number one in my book. There’s nobody better or more relevant.
When she gets older, going into her thirties, having gone under the hood and looked at the machinery and seen all the different gears and aspects to her dimension as an artist, I’m just really impressed. There wasn’t anywhere she wouldn’t go. She constantly wanted to be pushed. It was always honest. No boundaries. No barriers. I’m really impressed by her performance in the movie. I’m super proud of her, I think she’s fantastic.
It’s funny that she and Nick are both former child actors. They’ve both made such interesting choices lately.
I met Nick a while ago, generally. We had some mutual friends and I was always a fan of his. He’s an even more incredible human being than an actor, because he’s so talented. I had always wanted to work with him, and two years later I was coming up with the idea and I thought, “Nick Hoult is this guy! He’s the guy!” From the beginning he was the only one I had in mind. I met a few different actresses to see who I could pair with Nick and, as soon as I met Kristen, it was a no-brainer. We got together and had dinner and drinks and hung out for three hours and talked about life and love and relationships and became fast friends and collaborators. It just felt right.
Their chemistry really grounds the film. Their first love scene takes place in a bathroom stall at work, which sounds horribly unsexy, but it really pops, especially with the way it was edited and with the soundtrack. What was shooting that scene like?
Well, we were playing that music on set, which was a key component. I’m doing 30 minute takes, there’s no one in there except for John [Guleserian, cinematographer] and me. It’s super intimate. That moment was a two-hour exploration and we documented it, we captured and explored it and let it live. I purposefully tried to keep them away from each other, physically, up until that scene when I tried to structure the shoot, so that was the first time we had done it. We done all these building, subtextual scenes where the tension was there and rising, and then the floodgates opened.
What was going on in the movie was what was going on in the process of our filming. They mirrored each other and it feels that way, it feels like the first time and feels utterly real. For the most part, I would just jump in and whisper things, but it was about Nick letting go and exploring and Kristen holding on as tight as she can until she can’t anymore and lets go. It was about trying to calibrate that and, in the editing room, we probably cut that scene more than anything. We cut that scene more significantly than any other scene in the movie. We just kept working and working till it felt right, but we had so much material in there and it was an amazing two-and-a-half hours in the bathroom.
The idea of exploration within that scene is so profound — these two people don’t even understand what is possible when it comes to human intimacy, but they pick it up very quickly.
The instincts of a human being to know where lips go and hands go is really interesting to think about. There’s something clumsy about it, but there’s also something really intrinsic about it. For me, it was about trying to balance those two.
And that comes back to your question if love can find a way — it does.
Yeah! Especially when you have two young, beautiful people.
“Equals” had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this week. The film will be released sometime in 2016.
READ MORE: The 2015 Indiewire Toronto Bible