At the ripe old age of (almost) 31, writer/director Drake Doremus already has an enviable filmography, including festival favorites “Douchebag” and “Like Crazy,” the latter of which introduced American audiences to the charms of one Felicity Jones. If that’s not enough to give aspiring filmmakers apoplexy, his latest film, “Breathe In”—which premiered at Sundance in 2013—opens this week, and his next feature, “Equals,” is already brewing, starring Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult in a futuristic setting (though Doremus is not quite ready to talk about it yet).
“Breathe In” once again stars Jones, this time as a British foreign exchange student named Sophie, who disrupts the lives of her host family in upstate New York. Keith (a simmering Guy Pearce) and Megan (the always-rock-solid Amy Ryan) have become complacent—and sometimes bitter—in their marriage, and they don’t quite know how to handle their teenage daughter Lauren (relative newcomer Mackenzie Davis, seen recently in “Smashed” and “That Awkward Moment”). The trio’s domestic détente is rocked when Sophie and Keith spark an unexpectedly intimate connection—her musical talent and affinity awaken something in him that he just can’t quell. Though they try to resist their attraction, their chemistry is undeniable.
Doremus has learned to have faith in a talented cast. Based on the outline, characters and world he and co-writer Ben York Jones created—and inspired by original music and a score from composer Dustin O’Halloran—the film’s dialogue was completely improvised once the actors started rehearsing together. The result is a dramatic, simmering, slow boil, with tension building to an inevitable climax.
We caught up with Doremus last week in New York City, where he opened up about his need to keep things fresh, the inspiration for the story, and why he’d be happy never to write again.
The film is really about the undercurrents of a marriage that has gotten a little too complacent, perhaps. I imagine this is pretty far from your own life experience—so what inspired this story?
You know, I feel like everyone can relate to the idea of when you’re in love at the beginning, and then it transforms into something else. I think you have to examine it and understand, “Okay, why am I in this relationship?” And it’s difficult, and I think that it’s interesting to examine something that’s gray—something that’s not horrible, but that’s not like it was in the beginning—and that’s where Amy and Guy are in their lives.
Felicity basically comes along and reinvigorates something in Guy that’s been dormant. And he sort of falls in lust with this version of himself that’s been reawakened. So in a sense, I could relate to that, very much so.
And they connect over music, so there’s an artistic expression piece there. Do you relate to that too? Is that why people have affairs on movie sets?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I mean, there’s certainly a bond there that’s unspoken. And I think that’s really a lot of what goes on in the film—just what’s unspoken, and unsaid. The plot and the synopsis of the film are by no means that original, but what we wanted to do is take something really simple, and take the plot and kind of throw it away—and just do a mood piece, or a tone poem, in a way, where you could just sit back and let your senses experience a world, and a tone, and a feeling.
The phrase that’s stuck with me since I first saw the film is that it’s a “slow simmer…” It just builds, and you feel the tension. Were the actors part of creating that? How did you make that happen?
Well, I think mapping out the emotional suspense and understanding how it develops, or how it comes about, was something really important to us. And shooting out of order, we really did spend a lot of time in the rehearsal process understanding that emotional suspense, and how that develops.
But a lot of it really is created in the edit room, with the music and all that good stuff, because the music really is such a character in the film.
Speaking of music, I understand Guy took cello lessons, and Felicity could play enough piano to fake some of the scenes?
Yeah, she had a coach that really worked with her on posture, and sitting, and hands—different things like that. But Guy’s a musician—he plays guitar—so he really understands a lot about fingering and stuff. We had doubles for them, but for the most part, they really are doing a lot of that stuff, and they wanted to make it look and feel as organic and real as possible—because the hands in the film, and how they touch instruments and each other, was such an important component. I really wanted to make that feel real.
Tell us about your music supervisor and composer, Dustin O’Halloran.
He’s amazing. He wrote a lot of the pieces before the film, so we custom tailored a lot of the scenes to his music, which is kind of working backwards. But the music really did drive so much of the emotion, and the context, and the feeling, the tone, the world… so he was involved very much from the beginning.
I know that you and Ben York Jones worked together on the outline, or script, or whatever you call it. Did you share drafts back and forth, or how did that work?
A little bit. I started with the basic idea, started sketching ideas out, and then I basically gave it to him and he goes off and fleshes it out and works on it, and makes it what it is. He has the patience to do that—he adds the world and all that good stuff. Then we come back together and start working again. And then on set, I’d take it, and come up with lines and dialogue… So really, I start with it, and then it goes to him, and then it kind of comes back to me. It’s a really good way of working.
So the dialogue doesn’t come in until you’re with the actors?
Exactly. There’s some dialogue in the outline, but for the most part, it’s just subtext, plot points, emotional beats, back story, a lot of character—different things like that.
What makes you want to work that way? Does it just seem the most natural?
Good question. I mean, now I want to try something totally different, because it’s been fun to experience it that way, but it’s fun to do something different—to let a story organically become what it wants to become, as opposed to force something.
Do the actors like it?
Yeah, because they really do get to become a part of the process, which I think makes them feel like they have such an ownership over the character.
Did Guy have any trouble with the American accent?
Guy had never improvised before in anything he’d ever done, let alone in a foreign dialect. So for him to immerse himself into this was pretty incredible to watch. Also, he left in the middle of the shoot to go promote “Mildred Pierce,” which was premiering at the Venice Film Festival. His first scene back was this really big important reservoir scene, but he’s such a pro—he just slid right back into it. He wasn’t jetlagged, and he was amazing.
When I talked to you at Sundance last year, you mentioned that “Like Crazy” was about the past, “Breathe In” was about the present, and your next project—which I assume you are way farther along on by now—would be about the future, a sci-fI piece.
It’s more futuristic; it’s not really sci-fi. Maybe it was at the time, but it’s sort of changed a little bit. As I said, it’s fun to try something totally different. And for me, this is an exciting and kind of scary departure. So I’m excited to be working from a script, written by Nathan Parker—I kind of had a loose idea for it, and I brought it to him, and we started collaborating on it, and he wrote the movie.
So you’re not a writer on this one?
No… I’d like to never write again. I mean, I think it’s a necessity of directing—you need to be involved in the process, I think, of shaping the story and making it, but at the end of the day, it’s not something that I necessarily have the patience for.
Did this film have to be scripted more because there are effects and things you need to work out technically?
A little bit, but it’s more that I wanted to work out something totally different. I did a web series for Toshiba last year, called “The Beauty Inside,” that was really fun to do. And it was from a script—it was more of a hybrid; I improvised a good amount, so it was a little bit of both—and I really kind of fell in love with that. So I want to change the process a little bit, and work from a script, work from a blueprint that actually works, and that I love, and then kind of organically find the scenes as we go. But it’s nice to have something on paper.
I’m working with a whole different crew, a whole different cast—it’s fun to explore and see what comes out of it.
Were you itching to make a bigger scale movie?
So what will it be like? Can you tell us about the new movie?
Yeah, I mean, it’s just a bigger movie. It’s kind of hard to explain. It’s still very intimate, and still very performance-based, but at the same time, it’s a broader concept, and it’s a much bigger idea.
Can you tell us what the story is?
I haven’t really talked about it yet. I’m not really as articulate yet on it; I’m not there yet. Sorry!
Hey, that’s okay. What can you tell us about your cast?
It’s Kristen Stewart and Nick Hoult, and they are fantastic. I think people are going to see a very different side of them than they’ve seen before. We’re just going to get in and try to make something really unique and really special. We’re shooting later this year.
“Breathe In” opens Friday, March 28. We also spoke to Felicity and Drake at a recent Apple store talk which you can listen below or here on Soundcloud.