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How Lake Bell’s Indie Filmmaking Career Turned Her Into a Leading Lady

With the filmmaker's second feature finally hitting theaters four years after her charming debut, Bell reflects on how an obsession with filmmaking has led to an unexpected career.

Lake BellStella McCartney 2016 Fall Presentation, Los Angeles, America - 12 Jan 2016

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Sometimes, obsession is a good thing. Filmmaker and actress Lake Bell turned her inside knowledge (and affection) for her chosen industry into a pair of comedic features that lovingly unpack some of the weirder elements of filmmaking. Bell’s first trip behind the camera, the whipsmart voiceover comedy “In a World…,” was a hit when it bowed in competition at Sundance in January 2013, earning her the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for “its laugh-out-loud comedic moments, its memorably drawn characters, and its shrewd social commentary.”

Roadside Attractions opened the film in late summer to a nearly $3 million domestic take and strong reviews (the film still holds an enviable 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). Bell was nominated for an Indie Spirit for her screenplay, and the film made the National Board of Review’s top 10 list of the year’s best indie films.

Her next feature, “I Do… Until I Don’t,” also takes on the weirder side of filmmaking with wit and style. It’s been four years since her debut, and she’s quick to admit that second-time jitters were definitely part of the equation. “I think that’s just natural to the creative process,” she said. “If you have one success, then do you become sort of paralyzed that you can’t do it again?”

The Next Step

She’s not alone in her concern. Female filmmakers consistently struggle with the gap between first and second films – a recent study by USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative found that 80% of the female directors in the study made just one movie over the analyzed decade, contributing to a sense that they were “one and done.” However, the circumstances that kept Bell from making a swift jump to a second feature were all happy ones. She fell in love, got married, and had a baby.

She also saw her career changing in some unexpected ways.

After the success of “In a World…,” Bell found herself in a unique position: She was suddenly in demand as an actress, and a leading lady to boot. In the months after “In a World…” debuted, she snagged starring roles in films like the Disney sports drama “Million Dollar Arm,” the indie rom-com “Man Up,” and the animated crowdpleaser “The Secret Life of Pets.”

“I had never really starred in any movie before, and then I was offered some projects that I really wanted to take advantage of, because I had never been considered that way,” Bell said. “I felt like, ‘Oh gosh, good for you. You put yourself in that level by making your own project.'”

Bell also recognized that working for other directors could benefit her own still-burgeoning filmmaking career. It’s her own film school, and one she doesn’t see leaving behind anytime soon.

“I learned how to direct from other directors, from being in the trenches of an actor and observing, being a respectful and quiet observer of how the mechanics of production work,” she said. “It’s really important to me to continue to act, to be an actor for hire, because that is how I get to have a profound, one-on-one kind of learning curve.”

Lake Bell in “In a World…”

The four-year break from directing also proved to be serendipitous to the story she wanted to tell. The film follows a trio of very different couples (Bell, Ed Helms, Amber Heard, Wyatt Cenac, Mary Steenburgen, and Paul Reiser), all of whom are struggling with the concept and constraints of marital commitment. When a filmmaker (played by Dolly Wells) arrives in their community, ostensibly to lens a documentary about the ups and downs of marriage, it upends each pair, while offering some amusing emotional insights into marriage itself.

“Something magical”

Bell first hit upon the ideas that propel her new film when she became, in her own words, “therapeutically invested in the concept of a committed relationship.” “I was like, ‘What’s the deal with this concept? The institution of marriage and forever-ness? Why are we all subjecting ourselves to this?,'” she remembered. (This was years before her own marriage.)

Bell ultimately realized that she was hoping for a happy outcome, and one that could inspire not just her film, but her own life. “As I started to investigate, I had to admit to myself that, deep down, I was hoping to be proved wrong, that my cynicism would be trumped by some sort of magical power or something,” Bell said.

Something magical did happen: Bell met her husband, Scott Campbell. “He takes on life and takes on relationships and he has faith,” Bell said. “He sort of starts without doubts. He’s very optimistic. That was very inspiring for me.”

That optimism is on full display in “I Do… Until I Don’t,” which introduces plenty of cynical ideas — i.e., marriage should be a seven-year contract with an option to renew — and then finds charming, hard-won ways to answer or refute them.

Read More: Every Studio Film Directed By Female Filmmakers Coming Out Over the Next Two Years

“The tapestry of what our world is right now is messy and full of tension and anxiety and angst, and I just feel really proud to be putting something out there that can hopefully provide just a respite to the darkness,” she said. “I feel like this movie sort of makes it okay to have faith and commitment and believing in someone and being a witness in life with someone.”

A Bigger Audience

Audience is top of mind for Bell, as “I Do… Until I Don’t” will roll out via a late-summer theatrical release from indie label The Film Arcade, eschewing the festival rounds that helped hype “In a World…” The filmmaker believes that a commercial release that foregoes the festival circuit is what’s best for the her second feature. “This movie, it has its own path in life and I’m so excited to get it into theaters and just share it with people in that way,” she said.

Bell is looking forward to reaching people who might not even know about her first film. “It’s a little more universal, it’s a little more commercial, it’s not the exact same audience as “In a World…,'” Bell said. “It is a broader audience that spans to multiple demographics. I have stars that are all different ages in it, and the story appeals to a wider demographic.”

The Film Arcade’s Andy Bohn, who executive  produced and financed the film, is also optimistic about the release strategy. “The film has received incredible support from exhibitors and we’re opening on nearly 200 screens across the country,” Bohn said. The film will bow at both smaller specialty theaters and larger multiplexes, including the Landmark and Arclight in Los Angeles and the Angelika, Lincoln Square, and Empire in New York.

There was another reason why Bell didn’t hit the festival circuit she loves. As is so often the case, life got in the way.

“There was a logistical issue that I was very, very pregnant during some of the festivals I wanted to attend,” she said. “I wasn’t allowed to fly.” (Bohn confirmed that they “considered hitting the spring/summer festival circuit, but Lake was pregnant and unable to travel.”) Bell’s second child was born in early June, just after Tribeca and before the Los Angeles Film Festival, two fests that likely would have made smart homes for the film. Bell doesn’t mind, but she’s not eager to repeat the process.

“I Do…Until I Don’t”

“I’ve just been doing a lot of laboring and birthing,” Bell said with a laugh. “But I will say this, I will make another movie, but I probably will not make another baby. It does not mean that every time I make a movie, I make a baby.”

The “Wonder Woman” Effect

Bell has a number of projects in the works for the rest of 2017 and well into next year. There’s a feature she’s rewritten a number of times and will direct; this time, she may not star. She’s excited to create in a post-“Wonder Woman” world, where the year’s number-two earner was directed by and is about a woman. It’s proof she’s on the right track.

“It’s no secret that the ‘Wonder Woman’ success is a massive, massive gamechanger,” Bell said. “I’ve always felt that to make movies for women with female filmmakers and female creators is just good business. The fact that there’s all this tremendous success with ‘Wonder Woman’ just makes me go, ‘Finally, yeah, duh, like no shit.'”

For now, Bell’s plan is to mix her own projects with for-hire gigs, cross genres and mediums, and generally never repeat herself. She ticked off her current slate, which sounds like a year of work but is simply her next two months.

“There’s ‘Shot Caller,’ which is hardcore prison drama that I did where I’m the only girl in this very testosterone-heavy movie, and then there’s ‘Home Again,’ where I play a raving bitch just for fun to Reese Witherspoon,” she said. Add to that a starring role in the latest “Wet Hot American Summer” series on Netflix and, of course, “I Do… Until I Don’t,” and Bell is one busy woman.

“I think that’s what allows me to continue to write in different ways and to expose myself and keep making sure that none of the muscles of this story telling process every atrophy,” Bell said. “As a creator and as a generator of my own projects, I think it’s important to have multiple irons, multiple fires. I think I’m just stoking them as I go and seeing which one hits first. It’s part of the process and part of what I find really exciting.”

She added, “People are like, ‘Where do you see yourself in 10 years? In five years?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, the great news is, I have no answer to that question.'”

“I Do… Until I Don’t” hits theaters Friday, September 1.

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